The latest round of talks to save the Heineken Cup will take place in Heathrow on Wednesday, but the prospect of take-off or seasonal goodwill looks remote with the English and French clubs remaining steadfast in their determination to achieve a radical reform in the way the tournament is run as time starts to become an issue.
The French and English clubs served notice at the beginning of June that they would not be signing a new participation agreement when the current deal lapses at the end of next season unless changes were agreed. These include the slimming down the Heineken Cup and making qualification meritocratic, beefing up the Amlin Challenge Cup, having an equal financial share-out and making the tournament commercially stronger by changing television broadcasters and ensuring a terrestrial element to coverage.
Six months on and nothing has been agreed. The tournament organisers, European Rugby Cup, last October tried to split the English and French clubs by organising a meeting without inviting the former and proposing a 32-strong Heineken Cup, instead of the 20-team tournament the clubs had wanted, but got nowhere and the stakeholders from all six nations involved will try again at Heathrow.
"We remain optimistic an agreement will be reached but we are reaching the stage when progress needs to be made," said Mark McCafferty, chief executive of Premiership Rugby. "We will not be making an issue about the meeting we were not invited to: it is part of the rough and tumble of negotiation. They know the French and English clubs are united in our desire for change and the changes we have proposed will benefit everyone."
There are two main issues: the format of the two cups and the television deal. Earlier this season Premiership Rugby signed a deal with BT Vision that included the rights to matches involving English clubs in Europe, but ERC has negotiated a contract extension with its long-term broadcaster. "The format has to be agreed before we can get around to the television contract," said McCafferty. "That is why we need to pick up the pace of the talks."
This season's Heineken Cup could be used as evidence in favour of the English and French clubs' case for change in the qualification process. Four of the five teams involved finished in the bottom half of the RaboDirect Pro 12 last season and have yet to win a match: Cardiff Blues, Treviso, Edinburgh and Zebre. Under the clubs' proposals, the Heineken Cup would be a 20-team competition rather than the current 24 with the three leagues involved supplying six sides, supplemented by the holders and the winners of the Amlin Challenge Cup. "We want to put quality before quantity and it is important that the Amlin becomes a strong tournament in its own right," said McCafferty.
Currently only one or two teams in the RaboDirect miss out on the Heineken Cup. Even though Zebre were only formed this summer, they went straight into the Heineken Cup and have struggled. Over the years, 70% of the sides who qualify for the quarter-finals as one of the best two runners-up have emerged from a pool that includes an Italian side.
The English and French clubs have reacted to fears that their proposals would turn the Heineken Cup from a tournament competed for by six nations to one in which Scotland and Italy would struggle to qualify for by modifying their qualification proposal: only the top four in the RaboDirect would qualify automatically with geography having a bearing on the other two places.
If agreement is reached on the format, agreeing a settlement on the television deal will be an even tougher nut to crack. Premiership Rugby says it will not back down on its deal with BT Vision, which wants the rights for the Heineken and Amlin Cups and would allow some matches to be shown on terrestrial TV, but the unions cherish the principle of only governing bodies being involved in the negotiations of television and sponsorship deals.
"I appreciate that there are very difficult issues to resolve but I feel there is a solution there that would benefit everyone," said McCafferty. "It is in the interests of no one that this drags on and on. We have put a lot of effort into this and we have shown flexibility. I hope we can make a breakthrough, but the longer we go without resolving anything, the more we will all have to start planning for alternatives."
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