Ulster's place in European Cup must be won
Ulster are going to have to earn their place in any future European club rugby tournament.
The days of three Irish provinces being guaranteed inclusion – with the fourth being drawn along in the slipstream of one of the others' success – are coming to an end.
And with sums regarding the new 18,100-capacity Ravenhill stadium's viability having been based on Ulster having a seat at European club rugby's top table each season, the pressure to ensure ongoing inclusion is set to rise on players, coaching staff and administrators alike.
Following two days of intensive talks in Dublin where representatives of the English, French, Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh unions were joined by Jean-Pierre Lux and Derek McGrath – chairman and chief executive respectively of European Cup Rugby, the current owners and administrators – it has been agreed to reconvene within the next 10 days.
Neither Ulster nor the IRFU, which is negotiating on behalf of the four Irish provinces, was able to comment at the end of a second day of talking overseen independent mediators Graeme Mew and Stephen Drymer.
A statement by those facilitators confirmed "progress has been made on a number of issues relating to the future of European club rugby competition".
There is consensus on two key principles of competition format and distribution of money, and that there should continue to be two professional European club rugby tournaments, each consisting of 20 clubs. A third-tier European tournament may also be considered.
The primary competition – the Heineken Cup replacement –would be made up of 20 clubs, with six each from England's Premiership and France's Top 14, plus seven from the PRO12 – a total of 19.
This season there are 11 PRO12 representatives – only Newport Gwent Dragons missed out – so while the new proposal is a blow for the three Celtic Nations and the Italians, this development was not unexpected. In fact, most agreed it is not unreasonable.
Ulster finished ninth, eighth and eighth in 2008, 2009 and 2010, so had this format existed at the time they would not have featured in the Heineken Cup.
The new undertaking to the PRO12 clubs is that one from each country will be guaranteed inclusion. Up until now, three from Ireland, three from Wales and two from both Scotland and Italy have been assured of a place in the competition.
In year one, the 20th place would be allocated through a play-off between the seventh-placed English and French clubs.
The secondary competition – the Amlin Challenge equivalent – would consist of up to 20 clubs made up of the remaining 18 English, French and PRO 12 clubs, with two places going to clubs qualifying from a third competition.
One of the major bones of contention for the big clubs in England and France has been the distribution of money.
After two days of tough talking in Dublin there was consensus "that distributable revenues generated through the competitions would be divided one third, one third, one third per league, with the stipulation that monies to be received by the PRO12 countries would not be less than the current levels".
The safeguard that money paid to the PRO12 countries "would not be less than the current levels" will be of huge comfort and relief to the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian unions.
Joint-mediators Graeme New and Stephen Drymer confirmed: "All parties agreed to meet with us again within the next 10 days to discuss the implementation of these principles together with important operational and management issues."