Last week a deal was finally agreed between the major stakeholders of European Rugby to create a new competition for Europe’s clubs. The new cross border competitions, provisionally named the European Rugby Champions Cup and the European Rugby Challenge Cup, will eliminate the threat of a divided Europe that has loomed large over the club game this season.
The new elite competition, The Champions Cup will now consist of 20 teams instead of the current 24, and new qualification rules will be set out.
Previously the big three leagues which make up the Six Nations, the Aviva Premiership (England) the Top 14 (France) and the Rabo Direct Pro 12 (Ireland, Italy, Scotland & Wales). However the English and French were unhappy about the fact that each of the Pro 12 countries got an allocation of teams into the competition, Ireland and Wales qualifying 3 of their 4 regions and Italy and Scotland both qualifying both of their teams. This allowed teams to rest players before key Heineken Cup games, with a safe knowledge of qualification for the following year’s competition while the English and French were in fierce competition to qualify through their league position.
The new competition will see more parity with the top seven in the Pro 12 qualifying with only one guaranteed team per nation, the top six in each of the English and French Leagues will qualify and the 7th place teams in those leagues will compete in a qualification playoff. The Challenge Cup will take 18 teams qualifying from the three main leagues with the final two spots being decided by a qualification tournament.
A big part of the disagreement between the English Clubs and ERC (the former governing body for Club Rugby, which will be replaced by a new body EPCR run from Switzerland), was over the TV rights. Sky Sports owned the rights to the Heineken Cup, whereas the English Clubs had sold the rights to a proposed new tournament to BT Sport, the current rights holder of the Aviva Premiership. The £38 million pound a year deal would have seen BT hold rights over English clubs domestic and cross border games. However in the formation on the new competitions a compromise has been agreed with Sky and BT sharing rights to these competitions, with BT’s coverage of the English domestic game unaffected.
At first glance, the launch of a new Rugby Champions Cup tournament might on the face of it not seem to change a lot, save a reduction of teams. However this may be a huge lift off point for the sport in Europe. In 1992 the European football governing body UEFA reformatted and rebranded the European Cup into the UEFA Champions League and since then the competition has grown in both size and stature and is now arguably the pinnacle of world football. Now rugby does not have the same global appeal as football at this time, but this has the potential to be a launching off point for Europe’s clubs in the same way that the Champions League has been for football.
This potential of the new tournament does have a potential issue further down the line as a clash with the international game could result. Currently the international game is the pinnacle of World Rugby with the Six Nations & Rugby Championships being the annual highlight for each hemisphere and the World Cup the peak of the game. However English teams have already once engaged in battle with the RFU over the amount of time the players spend with the national team. Now with a potentially more prosperous competition in which to achieve success and bigger financial gains on and off the field, this could bring unions and clubs to loggerheads once again. Unions who have centrally contracted players should be spared too much drama, but unions who have had strained relationships with their clubs could find those relationships strained even further.
The biggest winners of all in the long run have been the English clubs who dug their heels in and got almost everything they wanted, a new tournament, a new governing body and a new TV deal, albeit a slightly different one to the one they agreed. Faced with a year outside of European rugby the fact that the other unions have capitulated and brokered this deal has proven just how important the English teams are to a cross border tournament. And now they know it. What happens if further down the line the English clubs decided they are not happy with the state of this new tournament and threaten to withdraw if changes are not made?
This new tournament may indeed herald a new golden age for European rugby much like the Champions League has for European football, however it has also highlighted a more sinister growing trend that the clubs are becoming more powerful than the Unions and that the new governing body needs to keep them under control lest we see more civil wars break out over the future of the European game.
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