Clubs the victors over deal for new European trophies

Starting next season, the new elite tournament will be a 20-team affair, four fewer than the Heineken Cup

rugby union correspondent

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.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
News
A poster by Durham Constabulary
news
Sport
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine