Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 1 November 2014

European competition set for change

English and French clubs have announced plans to quit the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup

English and French clubs have announced plans to form their own equivalent of the Heineken Cup from next season.

The top-flight sides from both countries served notice to quit the current European competition structure, which includes the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup, in June last year.

They want changes to the structure of both continental competitions, principally over the number of teams involved, the qualifying process and how funds are distributed.

Negotiations with European Rugby Cup - organisers of the two competitions - have been deadlocked for some time.

Now Premiership Rugby, representing the English clubs, and its French counterpart Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), have decided it is time to make alternative arrangements.

A statement from Premiership Rugby read: "The 2013-14 Aviva Premiership Rugby season kicked off this weekend with our clubs having no clear view of new European competitions from next season onwards.

"The current European Rugby Cup (ERC) competitions terminate at the end of this season after notice was served by the English and French clubs in June 2012.

"Despite numerous meetings between the stakeholders over the last year, the last of which was in May, discussions have been unsuccessful and the clubs can only conclude that negotiations on any new European agreement have now ended."

The English and French say clubs from other countries will be welcome to participate in their new competitions.

They propose that two new competitions of 20 clubs be formed with qualification based on league placings in England, France and the RaboDirect Pro12.

At present they feel the format gives an unfair advantage to teams from the Pro12, which features teams from Europe's four other main nations. For instance two Scottish and two Italian teams are guaranteed Heineken Cup entry.

The English and French clubs have not ruled out staying with ERC but are clear that the time for procrastination is over.

Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty told Press Association Sport: "We have had 15 months of discussions which haven't produced an outcome.

"There hasn't been a meeting since May and there has been no urgency over the summer.

"We have had proposals on the table but there has been nothing tangible or visible from ERC.

"If there were more proposals to consider, of course we have to leave that door open, but not if it is going to detract from getting on and organising what we need to with the French clubs.

"Our clubs have been very strong in saying they need clarity.

"If we can't reach an outcome involving all the European clubs, we at least have to set up a competition involving the English and French clubs.

"If others want to come into that competition then we can look at that but we have to get on and prepare."

The Heineken Cup has been highly successful since it was introduced in 1995-96 and its demise would be unpopular.

But McCafferty said: "Our proposals are to make that competition stronger.

"Our view is that the competition is not a truly elite one as you don't have the 24 best clubs in there.

"There are a whole series of issues we have been through for several years with them that we feel need to be changed to make the competition stronger for everyone.

"That may not be popular but if the competitions were structured around two competitions of 20, with qualification on merit from the three leagues, there is no doubt they would be stronger."

Any new cross-border competitions would need the approval of the relevant national unions.

ERC has said the matter will be discussed at Wednesday's scheduled board meeting, which is due to be attended by Peter Wheeler of Premiership Rugby and Rene Bouscatel of LNR.

A statement from ERC read: "All parties involved in the ongoing consultation process aimed at formulating a new accord which will provide for the structure and format of European club rugby tournaments for the 2014-15 season and beyond will be represented at a scheduled meeting of the ERC board in Dublin tomorrow.

"While there is a shared sense of frustration among ERC's stakeholders at the lack of progress towards a new accord, the meeting will provide an opportunity for the parties to review the consultation process to date."

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