• All parties will meet again in Rome for further discussions
The meeting of European Rugby Cup Ltd's stakeholders in a plush Dublin hotel on Tuesday passed off without the feared stamping of feet and slamming of doors after an acrimonious build-up. Seventeen representatives from the six nations that make up the Heineken Cup stayed in the same room for five hours as they discussed a new participation agreement – three months after the French and English clubs served notice that they intend to pull out of the competition at the end of next season unless changes are made. The outcome was that all agreed to gather again in Rome in October for further talks.
If the mood could not quite be described as amicable, both France and England, who between them supplied seven of the delegates in Dublin, stressed that their first option is to remain in the Heineken Cup, not launch a rival tournament.
"The meeting included productive discussions regarding the future of the club game in Europe with a general resolve among all stakeholders to reach agreement towards a new accord," said ERC in a statement. "It was decided that all parties would continue the consultative process at a meeting in Rome on October 8. With the objective of creating an opportunity for a positive outcome for European club competitions, it was agreed that there would be limited comment from stakeholders at this time."
The discussions were more general than detailed, with each of the countries setting forward its priority for a new accord. Specifics, such as who should be awarded the television rights for the Heineken Cup, were left for another day. The ERC board last June agreed a four-year contract extension with Sky worth £70m to run from 2014-15 but the English and French clubs regard that as invalid because they had already given notice they would not then be in the tournament.
Premiership Rugby has since concluded a television deal with BT Vision and included in the package are the rights to screen matches involving English clubs in a European competition. BT wants to become the main television rights holder for European club rugby and, with the Top 14 sides looking to negotiate their own deal, the clubs maintain the overall package could be worth £100m.
The detail will be discussed in Rome, with the French clubs wanting the issue to be resolved before the end of the year. They served notice to pull out with Premiership Rugby, but not for all the same reasons. They want the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup to take up less of the season, with the finals brought forward by a month to April, but they do share the concerns of their English counterparts about the number of teams in the Heineken Cup, the qualification process and the division of money.
Premiership Rugby envisages a 20-team tournament, down from 24, with the top six teams in the three respective feeder leagues qualifying, along with the winners of the two cups. It wants the money to be split equally three ways between the leagues, which would mean an increase in percentage terms for the English and French and a drop for the other four nations, but it says everyone will gain more because of the extra money generated by the BT deal. ERC's annual income has almost doubled since the 2007 accord was agreed.
While the meeting broke up after five hours and some representatives left to catch flights home, the English contingent stayed on to continue informal talks with those who remained.
Premiership Rugby, which sent three representatives to Dublin, including the chief executive, Mark McCafferty, declined to comment on the talks, anxious not to threaten the equilibrium that had been established.
Some big-hitters were not there, including the chief executives of the English and Welsh rugby unions, Ian Ritchie and Roger Lewis respectively. One delegate described the overriding mood as one of relief because there had been no acrimony but the time for hard talking is still to come and the future of the Heineken Cup is far from settled.