Heineken Cup replacement ready to launch
The 20th and final place will go to the winner of an Anglo-French play-off this May
The puffs of white smoke are not expected to appear for another three or four days – nine different stakeholders, communicating in three languages, rarely do anything quickly, especially when relationships are so strained – but to all intents and purposes, the bitter turf war over the European club rugby is at an end.
A new elite tournament, looking uncannily like the Rugby Champions Cup competition proposed by the leading English and French teams several months ago, will be in place for next season, with the initial blast of action scheduled for this coming May.
Nineteen teams – the top six from the English and French domestic tournaments, together with seven sides from the Pro 12 – will qualify through league positions, although the situation in the latter case is complicated by the guarantee of one place for each of its participating nations: the three Celtic countries and Italy.
The 20th and final place will go to the winner of an Anglo-French play-off between the club finishing seventh in the Aviva Premiership and their opposite number across the Channel. That match has been inked in for the weekend of 17 May, although it has yet to be decided whether it will be a one-off fixture or the first leg of a home-and-away tie.
As things stand, the blue-collar London side Wasps will take on the super-wealthy Parisians of Racing Métro for the right to play in what until now has been known as the Heineken Cup – a much-loved tournament heading for dissolution, having been used as a political football for longer than anyone cares to remember.
There again, the play-off could just as easily be between Exeter (whose home ground at Sandy Park will be closed for redevelopment on the relevant date) and Toulouse, the most successful European campaigners of all.
Indeed, it is perfectly possible that Toulouse could win this season's Heineken Cup – they have made the quarter-finals in pursuit of a fifth title, which would be two more than anyone else has won – and not have a seat at next season's top table.
With the English clubs, in particular, arguing passionately for a meritocratic system of qualification based on domestic league performance, there will be no automatic entry for the reigning champions. Nor will there be a guaranteed place for the winners of the second-tier competition, which currently goes under the name of the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Contractual fine detail was the name of the game, with many and varied documents relating to governance and administration, commercial control, participation regulations and, most crucially, broadcasting rights being given the once-over by the six national unions and three stakeholding bodies representing the clubs – Premiership Rugby, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby and Regional Rugby Wales. The new competitions (three in all, including a bottom-tier event for teams from developing nations from Portugal in the west to Russia in the east) will be run by a new company based in "tax-efficient" Switzerland, following the dismantling of the existing European Rugby Cup Ltd organisation, based in "tax-efficient" Ireland.
Such is the close-fought nature of the three major European leagues, qualification is likely to go down to the wire. But if things stay as they are, the showpiece tournament will feature the following teams: Northampton, Saracens, Bath, Leicester, Harlequins and Sale from England; Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Montpellier, Stade Francais, Toulouse and Castres from France; Leinster, Munster and Ulster from Ireland; Ospreys and Scarlets from Wales; Glasgow from Scotland; Treviso from Italy; and the winner of the Wasps-Racing Métro tie.
Meanwhile, the long-serving London Irish flanker Declan Danaher has announced his retirement at 34. He will remain with the club as academy forwards coach.
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