French clubs commit to Heineken Cup as Anglo-French deal collapses
An Anglo-French plan for a breakaway European rugby club competition looked in tatters today after the French clubs announced they would stick with the existing Heineken Cup following talks with the French federation (FFR).
Last week the FFR, along with the unions of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy, but notably not England, said they backed the existing tournament, controlled by European Rugby Cup (ERC).
The FFR have persuaded their clubs to stay under that umbrella rather than joining the English clubs and Welsh regions in their planned "Rugby Champions Cup", which was due to swing into action next season following the English and French clubs' decision to have nothing further to do with ERC.
"The principle of a transition period of one year, which will allow as of next season the implementation of the new formats of competitions regrouping the best teams of the six countries, has been validated," the French league (LNR) said in a statement.
Last month, the four Welsh regional teams announced they were backing the Anglo-French breakaway competition, which involved a new format for both tiers of competition.
Disagreements about the Heineken Cup's qualification criteria, voting structure, income distribution and future television rights - with newcomers BT coming into conflict with long-standing Heineken partner Sky - were behind the breakaway.
The Celtic unions and ERC continued to meet and an independent mediator was brought in to try to break the logjam.
The English Premiership said it had given notice that it would leave the ERC's competition but the Celtic unions continued to talk and, even after the Welsh regions jumped ship, remained confident that the competition would continue into its 20th season next year, albeit with several changes to format.
Marcel Martin, the president of the Union of Professional Clubs (UCPR), told Reuters the new format involved a switch from 24 to 20 clubs and that distribution of revenues would be amended as per a mediators' statement in October.
International Rugby Board (IRB) CEO Brett Gosper said on Wednesday that the sport's governing body was also still confident that a compromise would be reached and was monitoring progress.
"We're optimistic," Gosper told reporters at the Twickenham announcement of 2015 World Cup ticketing policy. "There is still a process in place and we're hopeful it will end with all the top teams in one competition."
English and Scottish clubs did not take part in the first Heineken Cup in 1994/95, English clubs boycotted the 1998/99 season and there was talk of an Anglo-French boycott in 2007/08, which did not come to fruition.