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Stakeholders agree terms on future of European rugby

European rugby union’s stakeholders have agreed terms on three new cross-border competitions that will replace the existing Heineken Cup and Challenge Cup tournaments from the 2014-15 season.

Bringing an end to a near two-year saga concerning the future of the European game the nine organisations – French Rugby Federation (FFR), Italian Rugby Federation (FIR), Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), Ligue Nationale de Rugby (LNR), Premiership Rugby, Regional Rugby Wales (RRW), Rugby Football Union (RFU), Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) – said the new system will produce a “truly meritocratic tournament, with appropriate division of finances, underpinned by a long-term agreement and strong governance.”

The three cross-border club competitions will be called the European Rugby Champions Cup, the European Rugby Challenge Cup and the Qualifying Competition. An association will be established in Switzerland called European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR). This body will be responsible for organising and managing the competitions.

EPCR will be managed through a board of directors representing all parties and an executive committee in charge of commercial matters and assisting with preparations of board meetings. The EPCR board shall have an independent chairman. The competitions have been formed under a minimum eight-year agreement.

Twenty clubs will qualify for the elite Champions Cup through the finishing positions in their leagues from the preceding season. This includes the top six from France’s Top 14, the top six from the English Premiership and the top seven from the Pro 12, which includes Irish, Welsh and Italian clubs. In the first season, the 20th place will be taken by the winner of a play off between the seventh-highest finishing club from the Top 14 and the seventh-highest finishing club from the Premiership.

RFU chairman Bill Beaumont said: “The benefits will be seen far and wide, from the clubs to the supporters, sponsors and everyone who has followed the fabulous mix of high class rugby and good natured rivalry – all played out in many spectacular towns and cities in Europe. The RFU, and in particular (chief executive) Ian Ritchie, has invested significant time over the last few months in helping to find a solution to a problem that at one stage looked difficult to solve. We are very pleased that the challenges off the pitch are concluded so we can enjoy the joys of the game on it, creating more unforgettable memories for players and fans alike.”

Stakeholders have been locked in talks since English and French clubs gave notice in June 2012 that they would not sign a new agreement with Heineken Cup organiser European Rugby Cup (ERC) to run beyond the end of the current 2013-14 season. At stake was the clubs’ desire to gain more commercial power than they currently enjoy under the Heineken Cup system.

Matters were further confused through a dispute over television rights to European rugby. In September 2012, rival UK pay-television broadcasters BT Sport and BSkyB announced exclusive UK rights deals for competing versions of Europe’s top club rugby union tournament.

BT announced it had bought the rights for English Premiership teams’ matches in a “dazzling new European tournament” which would succeed the Heineken Cup in 2014-15 to 2016-17. The deal was agreed with the English Premiership. Sky later announced it had extended its rights for the Heineken Cup for four years, from 2014-15 to 2017-18. The deal was agreed with the ERC.

Stakeholders said that BT and Sky have reached an “agreement in principle” concerning arrangements for the European Rugby Champions Cup and the European Rugby Challenge Cup competitions, both of which will be broadcast jointly by BT Sport and Sky Sports. The pool matches will be shared equally, both will show two quarter-finals each, one semi-final each and the final will be broadcast by both live. The four-year agreement is subject to contract.