The champion of European rugby will be decided by a mouth-watering clash between Saracens and Toulon at the magnificent Millennium Stadium.

However until a deal was struck for a new European rugby format last month, cross-border clashes between  Europe’s elite clubs looked set to become a thing of the past.

Since turning professional in 1995, rugby union’s elite clubs have struggled with the transition from amateur institutions playing for the love of the game to profit-making businesses looking to generate global fan-bases.

We all want to maximise the appeal and revenue of the game and not individual clubs, which will in turn make the game stronger and help it grow.

Edward Griffiths, CEO of Saracens

It is no secret that many professional rugby clubs are still loss-making businesses, but are kept afloat by their affluent owners’ deep and generous pockets.

With inconsistent live attendances and only a select few pockets of popularity across Europe, television broadcasting deals have been the life-blood to elite professional clubs and, unsurprisingly, form the basis of most of the sport’s recent disputes.

For the best part of two years there has been squabbling between the English and French clubs with their Welsh, Irish, Scottish and Italian counterparts over the format of the Heineken Cup, which has cast a shadow over the European game.

Under the old format of the Heineken Cup, there were 22 sides. This included six teams from England, six from France, three from Ireland and Wales, two from Scotland and two from Italy.

With far fewer professional teams in the smaller unions, most of the Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Italian sides were guaranteed a place in the tournament irrespective of their finishing position in their RaboDirect Pro12 league (for example, only two sides exist in Scotland who subsequently receive automatic qualification to the Heineken Cup).

The French and English unions – with 14 and 12 teams in their top leagues respectively – understandably felt that this was an unfair qualification process into European competition.

Proposed breakaway tournament

In September 2012, Premiership Rugby announced a new four-year TV deal worth £152m with BT Sport including rights for English clubs’ European games.

ERC (the governing body of European rugby) responded with claims that Premier Rugby did not have the rights to a European tournament and announced a four-year deal with Sky Sports.

Subsequently, in September 2013, the English and French clubs announced their intention to organise their own tournament, to be named the Rugby Champions Cup, from 2014–15 season onwards, and invited other European clubs, provinces and regions to join them.

The European clubs would have had no option but to join as the income from European broadcasting deals maintains their status as functioning rugby clubs.

European Rugby Champions Cup breakdown
  • 20 teams will participate
  • Six teams from France, six teams from England and seven teams from the Rabo Pro12 (clubs from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy)
  • Final place goes to a seventh-place playoff between French and English leagues
  • There will be five pools of four teams
  • The best placed team in each pool, and the three best second placed teams will qualify for the knockout stage
  • The four group winners will play at home in the quarter-finals

Fortunately reason and sense have shone through and an agreement has been reached that will see all countries participate in a new European rugby tournament. 

The new structure will be put in place from the start of the 2014/15 season and will be called the European Rugby Champions Cup.

The new cup will involve 20 teams rather than 24, with six qualifying from the Aviva Premiership, six from the French Top 14, seven from the Pro12 and a playoff between seventh position in the English and French sides.

Edward Griffiths, CEO of one of this year's Heineken Cup finalists Saracens, was instrumental in the talks that resulted in the new tournament and believes that the European rugby as a whole has much to gain from the changes.

A fairer tournament 

“We wanted a tournament that is fairer,” Griffiths told Al Jazeera. “The new format is more a result of common sense than anything else. There is a fairer financial distribution that is now based on the three leagues who contribute to the tournament and not six parent unions.”

Similarly to football’s Champions League, the clubs will now have more power than before with reduced influence for their parent unions.

This power struggle has often led to disputes in football ove the release of players but Griffiths was quick to point out the changes are intended to grow the game globally, and not to increase the power of the clubs.

“We all want to maximise the appeal and revenue of the game and not individual clubs, which will in turn make the game stronger and help it grow,” he said.

“The parent unions and clubs share a mutual ambition for the game and this format will help us achieve growth from both an international and domestic perspective. Hopefully the antagonism of the past will remain there."

With a new, ‘fairer’ structure in place we can now sit back and enjoy European club rugby at its finest with an Anglo-French clash in the Heineken Cup final.

The increasing commercial value of these matches and tournaments is vital for the game to grow and increase its global popularity, but it is equally vital that we learn from the mistakes of football’s governing powers and ensure that club and country continue to work together.

Source: Al Jazeera