Heineken Cup rebel clubs extend olive branch
Anglo-French clubs propose new play-off system to settle bitter Heineken row
English and French clubs have responded to demands by the Celtic and Italian unions for eight clubs from the Pro12 to remain in the top competition of European club rugby by proposing a new play-off system.
The move is likely to be viewed as a significant olive branch in the bitter row over the future of European club rugby. It comes as negotiations intensify this week to hammer out a deal that will ensure that clubs from all six nations continue to compete in the same tournament next season.
It is understood that the proposal is for clubs from the Aviva Premiership, Top 14 and Pro12 to take part in end-of-season play-offs that might produce two qualifiers for the following season's Rugby Champions' Cup, the new European tournament being set up by the English and French to replace the Heineken Cup.
The weekend of May 17-18 next year has been earmarked for the inaugural European play-offs. The plan might, for instance, see two matches being staged, with the prize for the winners of each being qualification for the Rugby Champions' Cup.
The new play-off system is understood to be supported by both the English and French clubs and its details are being considered by the English RFU, which is playing a central role in attempting to thrash out a deal that its Celtic and Italian counterparts can support.
Supporters of the play-off system are understood to see two major benefits.
First, it is seen as a potentially acceptable compromise between the two sides. One of the key demands behind the decision by the English and French clubs in June last year to serve the necessary two years' notice to leave the current European Rugby Cup accord was for the Heineken Cup to be reduced from 24 to 20 clubs, in order to strengthen the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup.
Coupled with this was the demand that only the top six from the Pro12 would qualify, in order to remove guaranteed places in the European Cup and make it a truly meritocratic tournament.
The Celtic and Italian unions have stuck by their desire for the status quo to be retained, given their view that the European tournament is key for developing and nourishing professional rugby on as broad a basis as possible.
Premiership Rugby and their French counterparts have already given ground from their original demand by agreeing that each nation should have one guaranteed representative in the new Champions' Cup, and the play-offs system would be in addition to that pledge.
It would allow the English and French to retain their 20-club model – with six sides from each league qualifying automatically. But, depending how the play-off participants are decided, it could potentially see two more Pro12 clubs given a chance to qualify, which would broaden the entry to the tournament, but in a merit-based fashion.
The second benefit of the play-off idea is that it is hoped it will bring an extra element of excitement to the end of season for those clubs who are outside the domestic semi-finals in the three leagues but not under threat of relegation.
Much of the detail has yet to be thrashed out, but both the English and French clubs also see it as a priority to boost the second-tier competition of European club rugby, currently the Amlin Challenge Cup.
They see the second competition as crucial to the health of club rugby in Europe. Average attendances in the first round of the Amlin Challenge Cup were 5,600, even with a 15,000 crowd to see Bath's victory in Bordeaux.
It is not yet clear whether the play-off proposal will prove acceptable to the Celtic and Italian unions, and there remains considerable ground to be made up in terms of the distribution of revenues, governance of the new competitions and the separate commitments made by each side to rival broadcasters. Nonetheless, if nothing else, it suggests that, while time is now on no one's side, a deal can yet be struck. (© Daily Telegraph, London)