Disputes at the top of the game may change the face of European rugby’s elite trophy as we know it.
The Heineken Cup is a tournament that has always thrilled and delighted fans in its relatively short history, but its very existence hangs in the balance. The English and French clubs have handed in their notice, and plan to leave the prestigious competition at the end of the season to start their own tournament, the Rugby Champions Cup. It’s a much more literal definition of picking up the ball, wandering off and not letting anyone play with it.
Now, why exactly have the Anglo-French teams walked off in a huff? Mainly because they are displeased with the qualification process for the Heineken Cup. At the moment, teams from England, France, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and Italy are allowed to compete in the cup, with the former two qualifying through their own leagues, and the latter four competing in one league together, the Pro12. While only around half the clubs from the English and French competitions qualify for the cup, almost all clubs from the Pro12 qualify, and the Scottish and Italian clubs qualify automatically. The Anglo-French clubs have also taken issue with how proceeds from the competition are distributed. On one end, it is quite clear to see the reasoning for the break-off.
Unlike the Anglo-French competitions, the Pro12 has no relegation, and so teams can rest their top players for league matches, and play them for the big Heineken Cup games, since they are almost guaranteed European qualification anyway. But at the same time, it still seems a little extreme to do the literal equivalent of taking your ball away and not letting anyone else play with it. The Anglo-French teams have said they are done with negotiations, but it still feels a little rash. The Anglo-French clubs haven’t really divulged much information on how their new tournament would work, other than that Pro12 clubs are perfectly free to join (and given the financial implications of not doing so, they are almost bound to say yes).
However, the Pro12 clubs have said that they will only participate if the IRB (International Rugby Board) approves the tournament, and they will only do that if the respective countries’ unions approve the tournament. Imagine a Dante’s Inferno of bureaucracy.
Will there be a European club rugby tournament next year? Probably, but it will most likely exist in the form of the new Champions Cup. I can’t help but feel a little sad for the demise of the Heineken Cup. It has delivered some of the greatest moments and, for me, the fondest memories of rugby (my favourite team, Northampton, won it in 2000). It seems such a shame to see it die simply because a few clubs just can’t agree.