Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Ulster Rugby welcome Champions Cup

Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast
Heineken Cup quarter-final: Ulster v Saracens at Ravenhill, Belfast

Rugby's brand new 'European Rugby Champions Cup' – which finally got the go-ahead last night after months of pained negotiations – is expected to curry favour with Ulster when it kicks off next season.

Ulster had hoped to be the winners of the last-ever Heineken Cup, the final of which will be played at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on May 24, but defeat to Saracens at Ravenhill last weekend put paid to that dream.

Tonight Ulster are back in action at their all-new east Belfast home, where Connacht provide the opposition in a match Mark Anscombe's side must win if they are to keep their RaboDirect PRO12 bid on track (7.05pm kick-off).

And as they prepared for that, they will have been delighted by the news that the future of European Cup rugby has been secured for the next eight seasons.

There is no turning back now; Irish Rugby Football Union has joined its eight fellow-stakeholders – Federation Francaise de Rugby (FFR), Federazione Italiana Rugby (FIR), Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), Premiership Rugby Ltd (PRL), Regional Rugby Wales Ltd (RRW), the Rugby Football Union (RFU), Scottish Rugby Union PLC (SRU) and the Welsh Rugby Union Ltd (WRU) – in signing up, thereby ending speculation as to the future of cross-borders European competitions.

The format of new competitions has been accepted and signed. So too has a four-year deal regarding broadcasting rights.

In Britain and Ireland, those rights will be shared by BT Sport and Sky Sport, subject to contract.

In years to come, few will remember the argument that began in 2012 when the increasingly ambitious English and French clubs said they would quit the existing European tournaments at the end of this season.

But their withdrawal, driven by the twin frustrations of what they saw as an unmeritocratic Heineken Cup format and a failure of the union-controlled administrative body to market the tournament, sparked a full-blown crisis. But for an agreement between broadcasters BT Sport and Sky Sports, the lawyers would have had a field day.

Starting next season, the new elite tournament will be a 20-team affair, four fewer than the Heineken Cup.

Qualification will be decided by finishing positions in the three major domestic competitions, with the top six from the English and French leagues being joined by seven sides from the Pro 12, made up of professional outfits from the three Celtic nations and Italy. As each of those countries is guaranteed one place, Pro 12 meritocracy will be just a little different from the Premiership and Top 14 versions.

As expected, the final place will be decided by a play-off. This year, it will be contested by the seventh-placed teams in England and France: Wasps and Bordeaux-Bègles as things stand. From the end of the next season, the format will be expanded to include the two best non-qualifying sides from the Pro 12.

There will be no direct entry into the elite tournament for the winners of the second-tier European Rugby Challenge Cup competition, as there has been from Amlin to Heineken, but the victors will get a play-off place if they have not made the cut through the league route.

Perhaps the most welcome development is lower down the food chain: a third-tier tournament. Under the unattractive name of the "Qualifying Competition", it will provide cross-border matches for between eight and a dozen clubs from such enthusiastic and deserving nations as Romania, Georgia, Russia, Spain and Portugal, as well Italy.

With the current Dublin-based management body being wound up, the new tournaments will be run from a neutral (not to say tax-efficient) base in Switzerland.

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