Euro stand-off is all but resolved, says Ulster chief
Ulster Rugby's Chief Executive, Shane Logan, is totally confident that the province will be competing in an even better European Cup and PRO12 next season.
Throughout the many months of wrangling and, with it, threats to the future of Europe's premier club rugby tournament, Logan has held his counsel, steadfastly refusing to say anything that might add to the poisonous cocktail of grievances and demands.
But in an exclusive interview with the Belfast Telegraph, the man who holds the Ravenhill purse-strings broke his silence to express his conviction that the major obstacles have been scaled, leaving some non-threatening loose ends to be tied up.
The fact that a man not given to making rash comments now is so confident as to the future of the European Cup and PRO12 will come as a massive relief to Ulster supporters, who had been worried about what the future of the tournaments might hold, if indeed they had a future.
The fact that he would never say anything in isolation from Ireland's other provinces is even more significant, for with the IRFU having represented Ulster, Leinster, Munster and Connacht throughout, that implies Irish satisfaction with the outcome.
"I think we're very close and I'd be very surprised if it unravelled at all," he said.
Logan's revelation that the tough negotiations now appear to have borne fruit will come as very welcome news to the thousands who flock to Ravenhill each time Ulster play and travel with them on European sorties.
He told the Belfast Telegraph: "I have heard over the last six months many public pronouncements from English, Welsh, French and now Italian clubs and none of them have come to pass.
"So I would think that sense will prevail amongst all. There are 38 professional clubs in Europe and we're all heavily dependent on each other; I think everybody realises that now.
"I think the new formula for Europe is a good one. I think it will take the tournament forward and will also take our league forward.
"There will be seven clubs from our league qualifying and going through into Europe. All four of the Welsh clubs will be fighting for limited places, as indeed will we.
"If you look at the top of our league table, you see just how competitive things are. That makes for more exciting rugby.
"It raises the standard and improves the game as a spectacle. We don't want to play any dead rubbers, we want to play highly competitive rugby that is attractive to the fans. That's why we play the game and that's why the fans pay."
He admitted that the case made by the French and English clubs – namely, that the PRO12 has been over-represented in the European Cup up until now – was hard to refute. For example, Italian franchise Zebre 'qualified' for the 2013-14 Heineken Cup despite losing all 22 PRO12 matches in 2012-13.
"There was quite a bit of validity in a lot of what they (English and French clubs) were saying so I think we now have a formula that works for everybody," he said.
Pointing to the quality of clubs competing in England's Aviva Premiership, France's Top 14 and the PRO12, Logan added: "I think you can probably say that the top four or five in each of the leagues are pretty much of a standard. Similarly, I'm not sure there's much between the bottom four or five.
"I don't think there is any significant gap in the quality of rugby, though one of the advantages our league perhaps has is that because we're playing in four countries, we're more used to travelling, hotels, different styles of refereeing."
When asked how much the optimism over the future of the European Cup and PRO12 will serve to strengthen Ulster's Director of Rugby David Humphreys' hand in trying to attract replacements for Johann Muller, John Afoa and Tom Court, Logan's telling response was: "I wouldn't be too worried on that front – we're making good progress there."