LONDON, Nov 13 (Reuters) - European rugby’s new club competition is a “train that has left the station” but there is still just time to pick up the Heineken Cup refuseniks, the head of the English Premiership said on Wednesday.
Although there are still a number of issues to be finalised, notably about the governance, the English and French leagues and the Welsh regions are all committed to the new two-tier “Rugby Champions Cup” which will swing into action next season.
Ireland, whose clubs have excelled in the Heineken Cup in recent years, Scotland and Italy are still holding out in the hope that negotiations can save the existing competition, currently in its 19th season, but McCafferty said there was no going back.
“It’s sorted. It’s just a question of which teams want to join. Everyone has to make their own decision,” McCafferty told Reuters after addressing Wednesday’s Rugby Expo at Twickenham.
“For Ireland, Scotland and Italy it can be in or out but we’re running out of time. We’re in implementation mode now - we’ve had two years of discussions.”
Asked if the “train had left the station,” McCafferty said:
”Yes, if you want to use that analogy, but we can still adjust the route a bit.
“Of course we will still try to find ways to accommodate everyone’s needs - we’ve already made concessions - but we don’t really have any time left.”
The breakaway competition initially came about in the wake of dissatisfaction among the England and French leagues over a qualification criteria they claimed favoured the Celtic nations and over the distribution of income.
They gave notice of their intention to leave the Heineken Cup 18 months ago and, after talks that made little headway, confirmed they would, if necessary, forge ahead with an Anglo-French competition, with the backing of TV broadcaster BT.
Last month the Welsh regions came on board, despite the opposition of the Welsh Rugby Union, just about sealing the fate of the Heineken Cup.
Of the 38 clubs who would effectively qualify for the Heineken and its secondary competition, the Amlin Challenge Cup, 30 are ready to proceed with the breakaway, along with another two proposed from Europe’s “emerging” rugby nations.
”The clubs are telling us they want things in place quickly,“ McCafferty said. ”They need to organise season tickets, fixtures, broadcast arrangements etc and those things need to start happening soon.
“At the end of May there will be a playoff for the final qualifying place so we really are just about at the end of the road.”
For all his confident noises, however, McCafferty admitted that there were still some issues to be ironed out between the countries already committed.
The chief sticking point at the moment is the issue of “governance”, with the English Premiership happy to proceed under the umbrella of the Six Nations in terms of discipline, refereeing, doping etc but with the French seeking some adjustments.
“We thought we’d reached agreement on that 10 days ago and we’re putting up a fourth different proposal on governance today - a tweak to accommodate some other views,” he told an audience of around 200 at the Expo.
”It’s probably the last 10 percent of the issues but at this stage they could have 90 percent of importance in the debate.
”We’ve never suggested operating outside the current set-up but the new model allows the clubs and the leagues themselves to drive the competition forwards in the way they want to.
“The Heineken Cup was set up 20 years ago in very different rugby circumstances to now and we’re saying we need to have competitions that touch new heights, both in sporting terms and the amount of revenue they bring in.”
The financial side was certainly a major issue for the Welsh regions, desperate to find a way to prevent the loss of so many leading players to French and English clubs.
“Keeping players in Wales is a big problem at the moment and this is one of the ways we think will help combat that,” Andrew Hore, CEO of the Ospreys told the Expo.
“Financially the new competition has given everyone certainty and in the end we couldn’t see a reason to delay it. From our perspective there’s no going back - it’s going to happen.”
However, there was a note of caution sounded by Steve Martin, a sports sponsorship expert at the M&C Saatchi agency.
“At the moment it is hard to recommend European rugby as a sponsorship opportunity, ” he said. “For rugby, with the 2015 World Cup on the horizon, it’s a great opportunity, but the message is ‘don’t mess it up’.” (Editing by Tony Goodson)