Progress made in talks to save Heineken Cup
Progress has been made "on a number of issues" in the ongoing tussle surrounding European club competitions, independent mediators Graeme Mew and Stephen Drymer said on Thursday.
Two days of meetings in Dublin, attended by representatives from the English, Welsh, Irish, Scottish, French and Italian unions, ended with the two men issuing an upbeat statement confirming the support by consensus for a continuing existence of two European tournaments, each made up of 20 teams, and a possibility of a third-tier event.
Crucially, though, top English and French clubs were not involved as they press ahead with plans for a Rugby Champions Cup next season that would replace the existing Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup tournaments.
The Anglo-French plan received backing this week from the four Welsh professional regions - Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons - which further weakened European Rugby Cup's position.
As far as Premiership Rugby (PRL) and Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR) are concerned, they will have no involvement in ERC-run competitions from next summer when a two-year notice period that they are currently serving is completed.
But Mew, a Canadian lawyer, and Drymer said: "Progress has been made on a number of issues relating to the future of European club rugby competition.
"The meeting concluded with consensus among those present on two key principles of competition format and distribution of revenues, and with agreement to meet again very shortly.
"There is consensus that there should continue to be two professional European club rugby tournaments, with each tournament consisting of 20 clubs. A third tier European tournament should also be considered.
"The primary competition would be made up of 20 clubs, with six each from PRL and the LNR, and seven from the (RaboDirect) PRO12 tournament.
"The clubs would come through meritocratic qualification from their respective leagues. In the case of the PRO12, there will be at least one club guaranteed from each country.
"In year one, the 20th place would be allocated through a play-off match between the seventh-placed PRL and LNR clubs.
"For the following years, the 20th club would qualify through a play-off between the seventh-placed PRL and LNR clubs and the two next non-qualified PRO12 clubs. The winner of the secondary competition would qualify to participate in the play-off match, if not already qualified by right.
"The secondary competition would consist of up to 20 clubs, made up of the remaining 18 PRL, LNR and PRO12 clubs. Two places could be allocated to clubs qualifying from a third competition."
Regarding distribution of money to participants, the statement from the mediators added: "There is also consensus that distributable revenues generated through the competitions would be divided one third, one third, one third per league, with the stipulation that monies to be received by the PRO12 countries would not be less than the current levels.
"At our suggestion, all parties agreed to meet with us again on Friday, November 1 to discuss the implementation of these principles, together with important issues related to operations and governance."
All six main European unions - English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, French and Italian - are seemingly behind the plans discussed in Dublin.
Those present included Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie, Welsh Rugby Union chief executive Roger Lewis, Scotland's Mark Dodson and Irish Rugby Union chief executive Philip Browne, plus ERC chiefs Derek McGrath and Jean-Pierre Lux.
In a statement, Lewis said: "Our meeting in Dublin was very positive and constructive, and real progress has been made.
"I remain optimistic that European cup rugby will continue next year."
The WRU, meanwhile, has made an offer to centrally contract top players until the future of European competitions is thrashed out.
A number of Wales stars - like national team captain Sam Warburton, Leigh Halfpenny, Alun-Wyn Jones and Adam Jones - are all out of contract with their regional teams at the end of this season.
Continued uncertainty about top-flight European competition next term has left Wales' regions concerned over their potential lack of financial clout to offer new deals.
The WRU, though, says it is prepared to step in with central contracts and then reassign those deals to the regions - Cardiff Blues, Ospreys, Scarlets and Newport Gwent Dragons - once a European solution is found.
To assist the regions on a short-term basis, the WRU says it is prepared to draw down on £33million it has committed to the regions over the next five years.
The WRU said: "Due to the length of the ongoing European negotiations, the Welsh regions have expressed concerns about their ability to conclude their own negotiations with leading players who are approaching the end of their existing contracts.
"'To help and support the four Welsh regions, the WRU has offered to immediately assist to enable the regions to retain their leading Welsh-qualified players in Wales.
"The WRU has offered to contract all of the regions' leading Welsh-qualified players who are out of contract at the end of this season on appropriate terms to be agreed.
"Once the negotiations regarding the European tournament are successfully concluded, the WRU would permit the regions to revert to the current position with the agreed contracts being reassigned back to them."