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Ulster Rugby can still be Euro force

By Niall Crozier

Now that the future of European club rugby competitions has been sorted out, examination of the minutiae has begun. So let's cut to the chase: how does all of this affect Ulster, both now and then further down the line?

At the moment, Ulster are in a good place for which reason making the cut for the 2014-15 European Champions Cup is not an issue.

But do not let that blind you to the fact that it may not always be so. In sport, things go in cycles with certain clubs dominant for lengthy spells during which they look like remaining forever in the big boys' camp.

Do not be deceived; there is no divine right to a place at the top table. That has to be earned, year upon year. And when it isn't, there are repercussions.

Switching codes momentarily, this season has seen that reality come as a rude awakening to a generation of Manchester United supporters accustomed to success and silverware throughout the 1990s and noughties to the point whereby they had grown to expect such rewards as a right of passage.

Similarly, based on what had been their experience during the 1970s and 80s, previous generations of Liverpool fans had believed exactly the same falsehood. Arsenal followers, too, had no shortage of days and prizes to savour.

And of late, money-stuffed, Johnny-come-lately, no-previous-pedigree outfits like Chelsea and Manchester City have gate-crashed the party.

But as in life, wheels in sport go full circle. And when they do, someone else gets a turn in the sun.

It has never been any different, nor shall it be. Empires, however invincible they appear, invariably crumble and tumble.

Think Egyptian, think Medo-Persian, Babylonian, Macedonian, Greek, Roman, Spanish, Austro-Hungarian, British, whatever and always the story is the same – every dog has its day e'er fade and decay.

Currently Ulster are doing very nicely, thank you.

But it's not so very long ago that they were also-rans in the league.

In 2007-08 they finished ninth of the 10 runners. In 2008-09 and again in 2009-10 they were eighth.

Now, as per the new European Champions Cup format in which inclusion is dependent on a long-overdue system of meritocracy rather than free passes based on nothing more than geographical location, finishing positions like those would not gain Ulster an invitation to the big European rugby party.

And exclusion would be costly, for as with football's Champions League tournament, this new format will see the already-strong becoming even stronger in terms of hard cash as well as status.

Make no mistake: anyone missing out for two or three seasons will be left to make up a lot of lost ground. And money.

The squeeze really is going to be on the PRO12 clubs, for with 20 rather than 24 participants in the new European Champions Cup, competition for the reduced number of vacancies will be intense.

This season saw 11 of the dozen PRO12 clubs participate in the Heineken Cup, the exceptions being Newport Gwent Dragons who instead lined out in the Amlin Challenge.

But those days are about to end, for four of the PRO12 representatives who competed in the top tournament in 2013-14 will not be there in 2014-15.

Next season's representation will be seven PRO12 clubs, to include at least one from each country participating in the league.

Effectively, that leaves three Irish provinces, three Welsh regions, one Scottish district and one Italian franchise to fight it out for the remaining three spots in order to compete alongside the top six from France's Top 14 and from England's Aviva Premiership.

The redistribution of European Rugby Champions Cup wealth will see one-third going to the Top 14, Premiership Rugby and PRO 12 teams alike, with a guaranteed minimum for the clubs from the PRO 12 in years one to five.

It strikes me as highly improbable that those clubs in England and France who pushed so hard to bring this about would have done that had it not been to their advantage.

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