New European Cup format revealed after lengthy conflict
The sun sets during a European Cup rugby union match in Leicester, on December 8, 2013 - by Andrew Yates
In a joint-statement, the nine stakeholders also revealed that previous competition organisers European Rugby Cup (ERC) will be replaced by a new organisation, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), based in Switzerland.
"A new deal on European club rugby has been signed," read the statement.
"All nine stakeholders have underlined their commitment to an invigorated competition that will start in the 2014/5 season and meets the requirements of all the parties involved.
"It is a truly meritocratic tournament, with appropriate division of finances, underpinned by a long-term agreement and strong governance.
"It features three cross-border club competitions to be called the European Rugby Champions Cup, the European Rugby Challenge Cup and a new competition called the Qualifying Competition."
The 20-team Champions Cup will be the showpiece event of the new format and replaces the 24-team European Cup, which has run since 1995.
The reforms, which have been in the pipeline since June 2012, conform to the wishes of the French and English clubs, who at one point threatened to launch a breakaway competition called the Rugby Champions Cup.
The negotiations initially stalled over the issue of television rights, after the English clubs signed a unilateral contract with British broadcaster BT that contravened an agreement between ERC and Sky.
It was only after Ian Ritchie, president of England's Rugby Football Union (RFU), brokered a compromise between BT and Sky that the new arrangement could be reached.
The two companies have confirmed that they will both broadcast the Champions Cup and the Rugby Challenge Cup.
- 'Stronger playing format' -
The English Premiership gave its backing to the new format, with chief executive Mark McCafferty saying in a statement: "These new club competitions will create top quality sporting drama for our supporters and commercial partners across Europe.
"They deliver a stronger playing format for everyone. We are now entering a new phase of growth in the club game and alongside the three professional leagues, we're confident that the new competitions will go from strength to strength, as well as incorporate new markets over time."
From next season, France and England will each send six or seven clubs to compete in the Champions Cup, depending on the results of a play-off between the teams finishing seventh in their respective championships.
The Celtic League will see its quota of places in the top-level tournament fall from 11 to seven, but each country -- Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy -- will be guaranteed to have at least one representative.
Twenty clubs will participate in the Rugby Challenge Cup, an 18-team second-tier competition featuring teams from the three main leagues (Premiership, Top 14, Celtic League) and two guest sides.
The two guest clubs will qualify via a separate qualifying competition organised by FIRA-AER (Federation Internationale de Rugby Amateur-Association Europeenne de Rugby).
The distribution of funds will also be modified, with one third for each championship, instead of 25 percent for the French clubs, 25 percent for the English sides, and 50 percent for the Celtic and Italian teams.
The agreement, which has a minimum duration of eights seasons, pledges "a guaranteed minimum distribution" for the Celtic League clubs over the first five years.
The three championships are each expected to earn around 25 million euros ($34.7 million) per season, with the intention of ultimately increasing total funding to 100 million euros per year.
ERC reacted to the news with a statement announcing that chief executive Derek McGrath will step down from his role in October.
"After leading the significant growth and development of the European club rugby tournaments for 14 years, Derek has decided to explore new challenges and will not move to the new organisation being established," the statement said.
"At the request of the board of ERC, he has agreed to stay on until October 2014 to manage the transition from the current organisation to the new structures envisaged for the start of the new European season."