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leinster flagsPeople who have no interest in rugby probably wonder about all the ink and hot air expended over the future of the European Rugby Cup – aka the Heineken Cup.
Well, for me, the row over the competition is a classic conflict between social democracy and unfettered capitalism.
I know it might seem strange to describe a sporting event in political – or even ideological – terms. Let me explain.
The Heineken Cup is run by a company set up by the rugby unions of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy. Its core mission is to run a pan-European competition and to disburse its profits to the member unions to go towards the running of rugby in the various countries.
The English club owners don’t want that any more. They want a competition that has only one aim: to make money.
So, on the one hand we have the unions, who are concerned about the development of rugby in places such as Scotland and Italy, where playing numbers are low and professional teams struggle.
And on the other, we have the English club owners, who want survival of the fittest, the rule of the market and let the weakest go to the wall.
In pursuit of that goal, the English club owners sold TV rights to games to which they did not own rights. They also made various demands about revenue splits and qualification processes and the number of teams in the competition.
When the unions acceded to their demands on revenue, qualification and team numbers, they still resisted. It was then they were exposed for what they were: money men who don’t care about the game itself.
There are a couple of aspects to this row that trouble me. One is that, for all the talk about “stakeholders”, the club owners are treating with contempt two very important sets of stakeholders: the fans and the players.
The other is that the UK media have bought into the English club owners’ narrative completely. Even The Guardian, which might have been expected to recognise this as a classic Left v Right struggle, has become a cheerleader for the rich men who own the English clubs.
Right now, there is a lull in Heineken Cup action as we prepare for the Six Nations Championship. The quarter-finals take place after the 6N is over. Is it too much to hope that the club owners might use these weeks to reflect that they are in danger of killing the game they profess to love?