Two long years of bitter conflict over the future of club rugby in Europe – years of accusation and counter-accusation, of boardroom boycotts, broadcasting brinksmanship and dire threats of legal action – finally reached a conclusion when the warring factions agreed to replace the existing Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup tournaments with three new competitions designed to maximise the competitive and financial potential of the union game in the northern hemisphere. In theory, there should be no more upheavals until 2022 at the earliest.
The deal was announced after a meeting of the nine "stakeholders" – the governing bodies of the Six Nations countries, along with organisations representing the English Premiership clubs, the French Top 14 sides and the four Welsh regions – and the language was diplomatic in the extreme. But make no mistake: the signing of the Heads of Agreement, covering an eight-year term, signalled a decisive victory for the clubs and a heavy defeat for the Irish and Welsh unions, which sought to defend the status quo. Rugby governance has been dragged into the modern age.
In years to come, few will remember the argument that began in 2012 when the increasingly ambitious English and French clubs said they would quit the existing European tournaments at the end of this season. But their withdrawal, driven by the twin frustrations of what they saw as an unmeritocratic Heineken Cup format and a failure of the union-controlled administrative body to market the tournament, sparked a full-blown crisis. But for an agreement between broadcasters BT Sport and Sky Sports, the lawyers would have had a field day.
Starting next season, the new elite tournament – the European Rugby Champions Cup – will be a 20-team affair, four fewer than the Heineken Cup. Qualification will be decided by finishing positions in the three major domestic competitions, with the top six from the English and French leagues being joined by seven sides from the Pro 12, made up of professional outfits from the three Celtic nations and Italy. As each of those countries is guaranteed one place, Pro 12 meritocracy will be just a little different from the Premiership and Top 14 versions.
As expected, the final place will be decided by a play-off. This year, it will be contested by the seventh-placed teams in England and France: Wasps and Bordeaux-Bègles as things stand. From the end of the next season, the format will be expanded to include the two best non-qualifying sides from the Pro 12. There will be no direct entry into the elite tournament for the winners of the second-tier European Rugby Challenge Cup competition, as there has been from Amlin to Heineken, but the victors will get a play-off place if they have not made the cut through the league route.
Perhaps the most welcome development is lower down the food chain: a third-tier tournament. Under the unattractive name of the "Qualifying Competition", it will provide cross-border matches for between eight and a dozen clubs from such enthusiastic and deserving nations as Romania, Georgia, Russia, Spain and Portugal, as well as from the semi-professional backwater in Italy.
With the current Dublin-based management body being wound up, the new tournaments will be run from a neutral (not to say tax-efficient) base in Switzerland. Senior figures in the English clubs expect to generate millions of pounds in extra revenue from improved sponsorship and broadcasting deals.
The new format
• Three new tournaments: an elite European Rugby Champions Cup; a second-tier European Rugby Challenge Cup; and a Qualifying Competition for teams from developing nations.
* The main tournament will be 20 teams in five groups of four. Qualification will be through league position.
* The tournaments will be run by a four-man executive – one from each major league, plus an independent chairman – based in Switzerland.Reuse content