Clock ticking for provinces to join breakaway cup, warns English chief
European rugby's new club competition is a "train that has left the station" but there is still just time to pick up the Heineken Cup 'refuseniks', English Premiership chief Mark McCafferty has warned.
However, there are still a number of issues to be finalised, notably about the governance.
The English and French leagues and the Welsh regions are all committed to the new two-tier 'Rugby Champions Cup' which will swing into action next season.
Meanwhile, Ireland, Scotland and Italy are still holding out hope that negotiations can save the existing competition, currently in its 19th season, but McCafferty said there was no going back.
"It's sorted. It's just a question of which teams want to join. Everyone has to make their own decision," he said. "For Ireland, Scotland and Italy it can be in or out, but we're running out of time. We're in implementation mode now – we've had two years of discussions.
"Of course we will still try to find ways to accommodate everyone's needs – we've already made concessions – but we don't really have any time left."
The breakaway competition initially came about in the wake of dissatisfaction among the England and French leagues over a qualification criteria they claimed favoured the Celtic nations and over the distribution of income.
They gave notice of their intention to leave the Heineken Cup 18 months ago and, after talks that made little headway, confirmed they would, if necessary, forge ahead with an Anglo-French competition.
Last month the Welsh regions came on board, despite the opposition of the Welsh Rugby Union, all but sealing the fate of the Heineken Cup.
Of the 38 clubs who would effectively qualify for the Heineken Cup and its secondary competition, the Amlin Challenge Cup, 30 are ready to proceed with the breakaway, along with another two proposed from Europe's 'emerging' rugby nations.
"The clubs are telling us they want things in place quickly," McCafferty said. "They need to organise season tickets, fixtures, broadcast arrangements etc, and those things need to start happening soon."
COURT LEAVING ULSTER TO JOIN LONDON IRISH
Ulster have confirmed that loosehead prop Tom Court will leave the club at the end of this season after agreeing a long-term contract with London Irish.
Australian-born Court joined Ulster in 2006 and has won 32 Ireland caps – he also stood in for the Lions this summer.
The 33-year-old said: "It is going to be very sad when the time comes to actually leave and finish up, but there is a lot of rugby left for me with the province."