Saturday 16 December 2017

Money talks as Euro rugby elite look to fill their boots

Lucrative 'Champions Cup' will keep superpowers' coffers overflowing

The new deal for a revamped European Cup should mean that days like last weekend in Thomond Park for Munster’s win over Toulouse can be repeated in the future. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE
The new deal for a revamped European Cup should mean that days like last weekend in Thomond Park for Munster’s win over Toulouse can be repeated in the future. Picture: Diarmuid Greene/SPORTSFILE
David Kelly

David Kelly

Two years of bitter infighting and then, a wait more interminable than killing time awaiting Godot, but finally a peace treaty signed by all warring parties and the birth of a new European order.

The details have been widely publicised for some time now since Anglo-French clubs began angling for a new European landscape last year – the bitter barracking behind closed doors has been, only occasionally, more discreet.

In essence, for the ordinary punter, little has changed – the competition will look pretty much the same as it did this season, save its name and administration and the addition of a third tier.

This was always in essence a battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of European rugby. There appear to be no losers, with a financial windfall promised for competing clubs and countries.

TV coverage will remain of the blanket variety, albeit those without a BT Sport subscription may miss out, even if they have pledged to steer most of their coverage towards English competitors.

The bitter dispute was primarily that between the traditional forces governing rugby union, ie the national Unions, and the privately backed clubs, predominantly from England and France, who were angling for more control over administration and seeking to engineer more financial rewards.

Many will argue that the ceding of control to the whims of mainly private interests represents the loss of moral control over the sport, but money talks and the new organisers are confident that the new edition can accelerate the trill of cash registers throughout Europe.

Whether Unions, like Ireland, were guilty of sitting on their hands in preference for the status quo, or English and French clubs were guilty of aggressive, ambush tactics, is all now rendered irrelevant. The future is now.

And, for all the angst caused by the two-year civil war between clubs and countries, sparked by an ancillary battle between TV giants Sky and BT – now also resolved – a sporting and commercial truism rings loud and clear.

The bottom line is the bottom line.

Who qualifies for the Rugby Champions Cup?

Twenty clubs qualify through the finishing positions in their leagues from the preceding season. This includes the top six from France's Top 14, the top six from the English League, the top seven from Pro 12, with at least one club from each country participating in the league.

The current Pro12 qualifiers would be Leinster, Glasgow, Ospreys and Treviso, plus Munster, Ulster and the Scarlets.

In the first season, the 20th place will be taken by the winner of a play-off between the seventh-highest finishing club from Top 14 and the seventh-highest finishing club from England.

This play-off will be played in May, either as one match (in which case, there will be a draw for home advantage) or home and away over two legs.

For subsequent seasons this will be between the seventh-highest finishing club from Top 14, the seventh-highest club from England and the eighth and ninth-highest finishing clubs from Pro 12 (or the two highest-finishing which have not qualified automatically).

From the 2015 season, if the previous season's European Rugby Challenge Cup winner has not already qualified through its finishing position in its league, it will participate in the play-off by taking a place given to its league.

The play-off will take place over two dates, firstly seeing the seventh-placed club in the Top 14 versus eighth or ninth from Pro12 and the seventh club of Premiership Rugby versus eighth or ninth from Pro12.

The matches will be played at the home venues of the Top 14 and Premiership clubs. The second date sees the two winners from the first matches play each other; the venue will be selected by a draw.

What does it mean for Irish clubs?

The IRFU can expect to bank at least 50pc more revenue from the competition if prospective guarantees are upheld.

Initially, they will receive a guaranteed minimum share of €5m from the pot to be divided between the four Pro12 Unions, but the share will rise to over €7m in subsequent years.

If competition targets are achieved, the IRFU would hope to see this figure rise still further.

Thee three leading provinces should be guaranteed qualification though the Pro12, given their pre-eminence in that competition; however, Connacht may not get a chance to repeat their three-year stint at the top table.

That's because reigning European title holders no longer get the opportunity to qualify an extra club from their country, as was previously the case when Leinster's hat-trick of titles secured the Westerners qualification.

When will it be played?

The competition will take place over nine weekends on the same dates currently reserved. The pool phase will be through five pools of four teams which play each other home and away.

The five pool winners and the three best runners-up will qualify for the quarter-finals. The quarter-finals will be played at the home venues of the four best pool winners.

The pool phase will be played in three blocks of two weekends and will be completed by the end of January. The final will take place latest the first weekend of May.

Who will televise it?

BT and Sky, whose competing contracts served as a catalyst to the long-running dispute, have reached an agreement in principle concerning arrangements for the two main competitions, both of which would be broadcast jointly by BT Sport and Sky Sports.

The pool matches would be shared equally, both will show two quarter-finals each and one semi; the final would be broadcast by both. The four-year agreement is subject to contract.

Irish supporters may have to take out double satellite subscriptions, however, as with three Irish teams likely to face English opposition at some point, there is likely to be some crossover, with BT Sport and Sky Sports forced to divide their coverage of Irish teams.

What happens the Challenge Cup?

Twenty clubs qualify, including 18 clubs from Top 14, Premiership Rugby and Pro 12. The two other clubs will come from the qualifying competition organised with FIRA-AER (Fédération Internationale de Rugby Amateur-Association Européenne de Rugby).

What about the third tier?

Will comprise between eight and 12 teams from Tier 2 countries and Italian clubs as agreed by EPCR & FIRA-AER.

Who runs the new competition?

EPCR (European Professional Club Rugby) will be managed through a board of directors representing all parties and an executive committee in charge of commercial matters and assisting with preparations of board meetings. The EPCR board shall have an independent chairman.

The EPCR executive will comprise the independent chairman, director-general, and three voting representatives, one from each of the leagues.

These are believed to be Bath owner Bruce Craig, former chairman of Clermont Auvergne René Fontès and former Ireland centre and team manager Paul McNaughton.

The director-general shall manage the day to day operations of EPCR.

Competitions will be under the aegis of the IRB and run according to the IRB laws.

The parties have also agreed to form a working party to discuss an integration of European competitions within an all-encompassing European rugby framework.

There is a minimum eight-year agreement. Given what rugby has witnessed in the past two years, it would be a brave man who would predict that an uncertain peace can last that long.

Only the promise of regular windfalls can ensure the factions don't go for each other's throats once more.

l Former Ireland flanker Derek McGrath, chief executive of ERC which will now hand over governance of the competition to the new organisers, last night announced he would not remain involved once his role ceases to be at the end of this season.

Irish Independent

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