Sport Rugby

Tuesday 21 November 2017

Tony Ward: New dawn after darkest days

'Bad guys' took game to the brink but end result is a 'win, win situation' with fairer competition

Connacht - who were heavily beaten by Ulster in the Pro12 last week - will be the most immediate losers in the revamped European competition
Connacht - who were heavily beaten by Ulster in the Pro12 last week - will be the most immediate losers in the revamped European competition
ERC CEO Derek McGrath takes part in a press conference
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Whether the end justifies the means, I'm not so sure, but rugby folk everywhere – not least those employed directly in the industry – breathed a collective sigh of relief after the announcement of an eight-year deal that will take the game forward with security.

It's disappointing for Derek McGrath and those involved at the ERC in Huguenot House as the English (Premiership Rugby) and French (Ligue Nationale de Rugby) have got their way.

The ERC was slow to react and take the threat to the Heineken Cup as seriously as the initial Anglo-French outburst demanded; the English and French clubs gave notice on the previous agreement (to ERC and the Heineken Cup in 2012) of their intention to pull out in the summer of 2014.

The recriminations have been many, leading to a period of full-on uncertainty. At last there seems to be common ground which will enable some fine-tuning to take place.

Crucially the key players (a sad reality) in all of this, Sky and BT, have agreed to share broadcasting rights.

Once that key piece was in place, the rest was easy, making the original Premiership Rugby/LNR demands a mere formality.

And, to be frank, the new format was always set to be a straight-forward revamp of a system that even the most blinkered Pro12 supporter would admit lacked balance or meritocracy.The new tournament will see the European Cup being named the European Rugby Champions Cup. It is a difficult one to get the tongue around given its Heineken predecessor, but as with the Champions League and the Champions Cup, it will establish a life and a personality of its own – and that's the most important thing and why victory for the so-called 'bad guys' is in effect 'win, win' all round.The new competition will be reduced from 24 teams to 20 with six from the Premiership, six from the Top 14 and seven from the Pro12 including the top team from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales and the other three based on finishing place.

It's an immeasurably fairer system and it means that in a really good year, Ireland or Wales could actually get all four provinces/regions qualified on merit.

The incentive is certainly there now to achieve that. It is unquestionably a fairer system of qualification than the fool-proof guarantee for most of the Celtic and Italian teams under the old system.

The final (20th) place for the inaugural tournament will be decided by a play-off between the seventh-placed teams in England and France (but from next year will also involve two Pro12 teams), with the tournament winner no longer guaranteed the right to defend the trophy.

Here, Connacht will prove the most immediate loser (unless they finish in the top Pro12 places next to the four qualifiers), after the excitement engendered through involvement on the back of Leinster's European triumphs in recent seasons. That route is now closed.

{HTML_BULLET} A new Challenge Cup will also be made up of 20 teams (as opposed to 24). Two of those teams (compared to the current six) can come from outside the three core leagues – Premiership, Top 14 and Pro12 – for example the Lusitanos (Portugal) or Bucharest Wolves (Romania).

A third-tier tournament for developing rugby countries will also come into being, with the format still to be decided including promotion and relegation between the Challenge and this soon-to-be-unveiled competition.

{HTML_BULLET} The profits from the tournament will be divided equally between the three leagues, with a significant merit element from the last eight on.

{HTML_BULLET} The tournament will be run by a Geneva-based Six Nations Committee with the day-to-day commercial business handled by an executive board strongly influenced by clubs, districts, provinces and regions, by common consensus the most important stakeholders in all of this.

On the back of the new and intricate TV deals, this was the biggest single issue for Premiership Rugby and LNR.

But while the English and French leagues now carry an in-built majority over the Pro12, in a two-one split, an independent or neutral chairman will be recruited in the search for unanimity.

Despite this new European Accord, it's not certain if Heineken will come on board as sponsor. The Champions Cup could now follow the Champions League in having a variety of lesser, but still very significant, sponsors.

But for now, it's all good news with former Channel 5 chief executive Ian Ritchie (now RFU CEO) accredited with getting the two most important players – Marc Watson of BT and Barney Francis of Sky Sports – back to the negotiating table.

Ritchie convinced the warring broadcasters to break the near two-year deadlock and forego the law courts in favour of a rights sharing deal.

As my former Lions captain, now RFU chairman Billy Beaumont, has been at pains to emphasise "take a bow Mr Ritchie, the pro game owes you one".

Cunningham heading home in search of glory

It has been an incredible fortnight for former Garryowen and Munster hooker Paul Cunningham.

Just when it seemed the Ulster Bank All-Ireland League Division 1A title was Castle Avenue bound, Old Belvedere finds themselves on the brink of glory – due in the main to UCD and Lansdowne giving this great competition the respect it deserves by way of full-on performances against Clontarf.

And coach Cunningham takes Belvo back to his former club in the final round of fixtures seeking the win that would secure an unlikely second championship for the south Dublin side.

On Saturday, in Dooradoyle and in Clontarf, the destination of the title will be determined when relegated Garryowen and Ballynahinch (looking to avoid the dreaded trapdoor play-off) try to turn the formbook on its head.

Then on Sunday, Ashbourne (seeking a first ever win), and Kilkenny go head-to-head in Tullow in the final of the Provincial Towns Cup.

Two still great club competitions and club occasions to which I will return later in the week.

Irish Independent

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