Brewing a new Heineken Cup

Following a provisional discussions between European rugby unions about restructuring the Heineken Cup, Jack McCann assesses who benefits from the proposed changes

European rugby has enjoyed a lot of continuity ever since the beginning of the professional era. Since onset of the Heineken Cup 18 years ago, the format has been the same, until this season when the English Premiership (PRL) teams and the Top 14 (LNR) teams announced that once this rugby calendar year was finished they would set up their own competition.

The reason for announcing a breakaway tournament came from disatisfaction that there was a significant imbalance in the financial distribution of funds and that qualification for the tournament was skewed to favour the teams that enter the cup competition via their ranking in the RaboDirect Pro 12.

The format that has been in place since 1995 was that 24 teams from the different leagues and competitions would be picked. After this, the winners of the previous season’s Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup automatically entered into the competition. The winners could also earn their country an extra spot than they already had earned in the competition. In practice, Leinster and Toulon earned Ireland and France an extra spot in the 2013-14 edition by winning last season’s competitions.

The current format has been heavily criticised by clubs within England and France, with the aformentioned nations feeling they deserve more berths in the tournament. Currently, six teams from each of France and England join three Irish and Welsh teams,  while the other four places are divided in two between Italian and Scottish sides.

The two additional places left for the Heineken Cup are awarded to the winners of both the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup or, if they already have secured qualification, to another team within their country’s union.

English and French teams didn’t like the fact that the Celtic teams were guaranteed an easier entry into the Heineken Cup due to the ratio of places to teams on offer to clubs within the RaboDirect Pro 12 compared to the Top 14 and Aviva Premiership formats. Only six of the fourteen teams in the Top 14 and six of the twelve in the Aviva Premiership are guaranteed entry.

Promising news about the future of the Heineken Cup as an entity emerged last week, as independent mediators Graeme Mew and Stephen Drymer proposed a new format for the competition that would cater towards the requests for reform.

The meeting from which the decision was announced was held in Dublin over two days between the 23rd and 24th of October, with representatives from all parties involved in the dispute having round table discussions in order to address the problem confronting the future of European rugby. At this meeting, a new format was provisionally agreed upon, based loosely upon the English and French leagues’ demands.

The new competition would involve only 20 teams instead of 24. Six would still come from the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14, but only seven teams would be guaranteed entry from the RaboDirect Pro 12. That means the Celtic clubs would lose 25% of their places, whereas the English and French would lose none. The representatives did agree to guarantee at least one entrant from each competition.

For the 20th team allowed into the new competition, in year one it would be allocated through a play-off match between the seventh placed clubs in both the Aviva Premiership and French Top 14. In the following years it would involve a play-off between the seventh place Aviva Premiership and Top 14 teams and also the next two unqualified teams from the RaboDirect Pro 12.

After the first year, the winner of the secondary competition, which is currently referred to as called the Amlin Challenge Cup, would also qualify for the play-off if they hadn’t qualified by right themselves already. While the English and French teams would have home advantage against the RaboDirect Pro 12 teams in the play-off.

This was the only real bone of contention that came out of the new arrangement, as granting this home advantage could certainly be seen to be favouring the English and French teams.

Focusing on the financial element of the negotiations, it was suggested that all revenue be divided in thirds among the three leagues so that the influx of wealth into the RaboDirect Pro 12 remains at the same level.

The English and French teams have ensured that they get the best deal possible, provisionally anyway. The representatives have agreed to meet within the next ten days to discuss the implementation of these principles together, with important operational and management issues.

If these negotiations fail, rugby fans across the world face the possibility of there being three different competitions. The manifestation of three tournaments would not be desirable for any of the teams, as there would not be as much interest in each competition that the Heineken Cup annually garners in its current format.

It is desirable, however, that they can fix their differences before the end of the season, or else sports fans across the world will lose a competition that has provided captivated audiences for the past 18 years.