At long last, after an increasingly acrimonious battle for control of the European game by the rugby's administrators, rugby can look forward to a bright future
After nigh on two-years of an increasingly rancorous power-struggle between the clubs, Unions and broadcasters, the new make-up of European rugby has been agreed.
With the Heads of Agreement now signed by the nine signatories – with the Italians reportedly the last to come on board – the 18-year-old Heineken Cup will be replaced by the European Rugby Champions Cup. The second-tier competition, replacing the Amlin Challenge Cup, will be the named the European Rugby Challenge Cup and a third-tier competition called the Qualifying Competition.
The deal thrashed out and finalised in Heathrow on Thursday, guarantees European rugby for the next eight years, including a two-year notice period. The European Rugby Champions Cup will comprise twenty teams; six teams from the Top 14, six from the Aviva Premiership, and seven from the Pro12. The 20th and final place will be filled by the seventh placed teams in the Aviva or Top 14 after a play-off.
The Rugby Challenge Cup will be played between the remaining 18 sides in the three domestic leagues with the final two places filled by two sides in the Qualifying Competition, made up of Italian sides and sides from emerging countries.
The governing body will be called the European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) and be formed of a four-man executive with representatives from the Aviva, Pro12 and the the Top 14 and be headed by an independent director-general. It will be run from Switzerland where they will replace the current organisers European Rugby Cup (ERC). ERC chief executive Derek McGrath has announced that he will relinquish his position in October 2014. The EPCR will be responsible for brokering sponsorship and commercial deals while the unions are expected to manage administrative aspects such as refereeing, anti-doping and discipline.
Unsurprisingly the announcement was roundly lauded by the game’s administrators. Bill Beaumont, chairman of English governing body the Rugby Football Union, said: “We are very pleased that the challenges off the pitch are concluded so we can enjoy the joys of the game on it, creating more unforgettable memories for players and fans alike.”
Mark McCafferty, the Premiership Rugby chief executive, was equally effusive. “This is a historic day for European club rugby. These new club competitions will create top quality sporting drama for our supporters and commercial partners across Europe.”
IRB chairman Bernard Lapasset said the new tournament would allow both players and fans to “look forward to a strong competition structure that promotes and celebrates the best of the European game”.
The biggest potential sticking point had been broadcasting rights but Sky and BT Sport came to a compromise that games would be shared. Both broadcasters will therefore be screening 35 fixtures each, with both sides showing two quarter-finals, a semi-final each and both will show the final. BT Sport won the right to have their pick of the English fixtures in the ERCC with Sky having the Challenge Cup.
The format of both competitions will be five pools of four, with the five Pool winners reaching the quarter-finals and joined by the next best three runners-up. Home advantage will go to the top-four ranked winners.
Much like the current competition, the Pool phases will be played in three blocks of two weekends before the Six Nations and a final at the end of May.
One man who can raise a toast to a successful outcome is RFU Chief Executive, Ian Ritchie whose quiet diplomacy behind the scenes and ability to broker a deal between Sky and BT Sport have proved key. “This is an excellent outcome for all concerned, most importantly the players and supporters who have made European rugby what it is today.”
For rugby fans, who had grown increasingly disillusioned with the constant bickering, they can now look forward to plenty more European drama, thankfully on the pitch.
To read our initial article on the future of European rugby and plenty more besides – including exclusive interviews with Mike Brown, Jamie Roberts, Cian Healy and Jamie Heaslip – read the May edition of Rugby World!