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Alastair Hignell: Premier Rugby deal refreshes the parts other unions cannot reach

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: September 21, 2012

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For more than a hundred years of unbending amateurism, money was a dirty word in rugby union. After less than two decades of stumbling professionalism, it seems to be the only word.

Loyalty, tradition, common sense, integrity – values by which rugby folk were proud to define themselves – appear to have been jettisoned in the dash for cash. £152 million – the sum Premier Rugby triumphantly claim to have brought into the game as a result of their broadcasting rights deal with BT Vision – is a lot of dosh and headline-writers might well have been tempted to work in the 'talking telephone numbers" analogy even if the new sponsor had less obvious connections.

But, given the uncertainty surrounding the present deal and the acrimony that accompanied – and in the end diluted – similar deals in the past, there is just a chance that they will soon be reaching for references to "Monopoly money".

Almost in the same breath as Premier Rugby point with pride at the way they have "grown" the game – latest figures suggest increased average attendances cannot solely be attributed to double-headers at Twickenham and one-offs at Wembley – they appear entirely happy to compromise a television audience that, thanks to Sky's expertise, loyalty and commitment over more than a decade, has started to boast numbers that are no longer inconsiderable.

Instead, the "product" of which they are so proud is to be entrusted to a channel that does not yet exist and to a broadcaster that will have to start from scratch. There is a chance that whoever gets to broadcast Premier Rugby from the season after next will show the sure-footedness, application, appreciation and insight that Sky have fine-tuned over the years – but not a massive one, and not right away.

There is a chance that rugby fans – after taking some time to discover where they can get their weekly rugby fix, and even longer to overcome their reservations about paying for something they once could get free – will be happy to adjust their viewing packages yet again – but not a strong one, and not if it costs them significantly more.

Then there's the thorny matter of Europe. Premier Rugby had already indicated their desire to withdraw from the Heineken Cup even though that competition has ever since its inception been a beacon of playing excellence, a magnet for media interest and a relentless driver of crowd figures. That, they argue, means that from 2014 , the end of the current agreement, there will be no official European competition and they will be free to negotiate their own broadcasting deal.

In the meantime, however, they claim to have sold those rights – to a competition which they insist does not exist – to BT Vision.

To confuse matters further, Sky have announced a four-year extension to the Heineken Cup and the RFU – supreme governing body of the game in England – have confirmed that the rights are not Premier Rugby's to sell. If anyone should know, it is the suits at Twickenham.

Back in the late nineties – just as the game turned professional – the RFU twice tried to sign unilateral broadcast deals regarding their participation in the then Five Nations' Championship. On both occasions the Celtic nations cut up rough, pointing out with some justification that although most of the revenue came from England, there would be no revenue at all if England had no one to play.

Famously the 1999 fall-out was repaired in a fashion that seemed entirely appropriate both to the image and values of rugby. Allan Hosie, of Scotland and the Six Nations, went down to the pub with Bill Baister and Bill Beaumont of the RFU and sorted everything out over a pint.

Now the clubs from Wales, Ireland and Scotland have been presented with another done deal and, although there are signs that they are prepared to concede some ground over the allocation of places in any new European competition, they have every right to feel resentment at Premier Rugby's high-handed unilateralism.

Initial reports from France also suggest that, despite standing shoulder to shoulder with their English counterparts over the Heineken Cup, La Ligue is also unhappy at being presented with a fait accompli.

There's no doubt the numbers are impressive – but there's every chance that, when all the interested parties have had their say and ground their axes, the lawyers will have the last laugh and strong men will be driven to drink. But not, sadly, to a certain brand of lager.

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