With all of the conflicting reports and information currently doing the rounds with regards to the probable demise of the European Cup Competition the Heineken Cup as it stands, it is difficult to know just what to believe.
Initially it appeared the main problem was that the English and French clubs were unhappy with how teams from the PRO12 league qualify. Fair enough you might say when clubs such as Zebre are able to qualify despite not winning a single league game, whereas in the English and French leagues you have to qualify on merit. They key issue for this point however is that the PRO12 is made up of four unions and each union has a vested interest in having one or more of its teams represented at European level.
The next problem was that of how the money pot was split between the three leagues. Currently it swings largely in the favour of the PRO12, again because there are four unions and the money is split directly to the unions to distribute as opposed to being handed straight to the teams. The English and French clubs want there to be a more even split of revenue between the three leagues itself and with the injection of cash negotiated by the PRL (the representatives of the English clubs) with BT Sport they would both look to benefit greatly from whatever new competition that can be drawn up. Again you could say fair enough, split the money equally three ways but here we start to hit on one of the main sticking points; the English and French would gain a great deal from this, the PRO12 unions wouldn’t.
Money it then seems is the biggest problem. But then we had the new announcement from the PRL that stated that the English clubs and the French clubs (represented by LNR) are putting in place a new Anglo-French European competition but that it would be open to other countries to enter. So it would be a new competition on their terms, where teams from other countries would have to apply to be able to join. They would have the power over the qualification and the distribution, something that as it stands they have very little of.
Ultimately the demise of one of the greatest European cup competitions in any sport is going to be facilitated almost solely due to the issues of power and money. One side wants more of both and the other side does not want to cede what they currently have. You can argue the point for both sides yet what is clear that in this mission for power and money neither side (nor sides) seem willing or able to negotiate a compromise. And the consequences of all of this if no new agreement contributed to by all parties is reached? A huge rift in Northern Hemisphere rugby which could have knock on negative effects for those countries not included. If the PRO12 clubs are not included in a new European cup competition then watch the player drain from Wales and Scotland escalate even further and watch Ireland join in the miserable party.
From a purely Welsh perspective it is difficult to see just what can be done. From a domestic rugby viewpoint, the PRO12 league is not working for the Welsh regions. Yes it has been won five times by Welsh regions since its inception (four times by the Ospreys, once by the Scarlets) yet its appeal to the wider audience is limited. Kick off times, television deals, marketing etc. all have an impact on crowd numbers for the Welsh regions. There simply is a limited appetite for a competition against Irish, Scottish and Italian sides.
Looking at attendances from the last couple of seasons despite teams like Leinster being such massive European sides, they have historically attracted poor crowds at Welsh regional grounds. If we look at last season’s attendance figures for the Scarlets for their PRO12 league match against Leinster (who are three times European champions) was 6,559. Later on in that season in an LV Cup match (traditionally a development competition for the Welsh regions) the home attendance versus the English club Leicester Tigers was 6,496.
The fact that a development competition against an English side only had a lower attendance by roughly 60 people compared to that of a game against the European champions is hugely telling. Of the other regions only the Ospreys had more attending their home game versus Leinster than they did against English opposition in the LV cup. The Irish sides simply do not appeal largely enough to the Welsh public, and the Scottish and Italian sides even less.
This is why the idea of an Anglo-Welsh league as put forward by Saracens chairman Nigel Wray a few days ago is seen as so appealing to the Welsh rugby public. A chance to play against English opposition week in week out and to re-awaken the traditional old club rivalries is something that would have a mass appeal to Welsh audiences and could just be the boost the Welsh regions need in order to become truly viable. If they continue with the status quo of the PRO12 they will continue to struggle, and if they lose out on participating in a European Cup competition then it could well be curtains for one if not more of them. The Welsh regions need to align themselves with the English if they are to have a chance to survive; it’s whether or not they have the ability to do so.
Looking at things from a WRU perspective things aren’t quite so simple. The PRO12 is working brilliantly for them. It provides them with a good development ground for their Welsh international players and ensures that they are rested enough that by the time the Six Nations rolls around the Welsh team is able to have some of the best preparation for its players possible, and the number of Grand Slams and Six Nations trophies in recent years shows that this is working.
There is also the fact that the WRU appear to be tied in to an agreement with the PRO12 for a further three years, so it could be that even if they wanted to (which it doesn’t appear that they do) they would not be able to currently give their agreement for the regions to align themselves to an Anglo-Welsh league. Added to that the announcement from Edward Griffiths the chief at Saracens that the English clubs what the tournament run by the clubs with the power taken away from the Unions, it makes it an even more remote an option that the WRU will agree to a move that will see a shift in power from the union to the regions.
There is however only a year to run on the participation agreement between the regions and the WRU and it could be that if the worst were to happen and that the European Cup as it stands ceases to exist then the Welsh regions, once the agreement is up, could go rogue. This would however come at a huge financial cost and risk to the regions and if it was to backfire it could again signal their demise.
Added to all this is the issue of whether or not the PRL is able to set up its own, new competition with talks of them being tied into current contracts until 2015. They, along with the LNR would also need the consent of the RFU and the FFR for any new competition to take place. Added to that if both the clubs representatives were able to obtain union consent it would also then need to be approved by the IRB.
The inability for any of the sides to reach some sort of compromise and with conflicting reports coming from the IRB camp with regards to consent, the running of rugby union in the northern hemisphere is fast becoming a laughing stock. The squabbling over money, power and control is threatening to de-rail the domestic rugby structure and the inability for those in charge to negotiate a new deal is staggering. Yet through all of this conflict and confusion one thing is blatantly clear; the Welsh regions need at least one meaningful competition, without one they will not survive.