Saints set for Champions Cup after European club rugby row is resolved

ALL CHANGE - this year's Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff will be the last
ALL CHANGE - this year's Heineken Cup Final in Cardiff will be the last

Saints will be playing in the new Champions Cup next season after the two-year disagreement over the future of European club rugby was resolved.

An agreement for a new tournament to replace the existing European Cup structure has been signed, European Rugby and the Rugby Football Union announced on Thursday night.

The 20-team Champions Cup will be the showpiece event of European Professional Club Rugby, the newly-established Switzerland-based organisers.

The RFU said in a statement: “A new deal on European club rugby has been signed. 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.”

The RFU statement added: “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 would be broadcast jointly by BT Sport and Sky Sports.”

A heads of agreement on an eight-year deal was finally signed, after months of wrangling and politicking on fine print.

Heineken Cup governing body European Rugby Cup will now be disbanded at the end of the season as expected.

RFU boss Ian Ritchie played a pivotal role in starting dialogue between Sky and BT Sport, which eventually led to a compromise between the warring broadcasters.

The Champions Cup will be screened on both satellite services, the companies have confirmed.

The English and French clubs gave notice on the previous agreement with ERC and the Heineken Cup two years ago, saying they would quit the competition in the summer of 2014.

Grievances over qualification and distribution of revenue were deemed irreconcilable, and that incited a rift that deepened over time.

Premiership Rugby then signed an exclusive broadcast agreement with BT Sport, to screen a new European competition to replace the Heineken Cup.

Sky claimed they already held rights to the Heineken Cup, and a protracted legal battle threatened to leave European rugby in ruins.

Then RFU chief Ritchie stepped in, and managed to convince all parties to see sense, and share out the clear benefits.

BT Sport and Sky have agreed a four-year rights-sharing deal, with both parties admitting compromise was in all interests.

Allied to a second-tier Challenge Cup, there will also be a new, third-tier qualifying competition, expected to be held in September to feed teams into the Challenge Cup.

The top six Premiership, which will include Saints, and Top 14 finishers this season will qualify automatically for next term’s Champions Cup, along with the top seven in the PRO 12.

The final qualification berth will be taken by the winner of a play-off between the seventh-placed English and French league clubs, with exact details yet to be finalised.

BT Sport director Simon Green was pleased with Thursday’s news.

“It is fantastic news for rugby fans that we have reached a deal with Sky Sports. The game of rugby had to come first and both companies have recognised that by showing a high degree of maturity and flexibility.

“We are delighted with the deal that has been struck and are hugely excited about bringing live action from both tournaments to our TV customers.”

European Rugby chief executive Derek McGrath will stand down from his role in October, having agreed to stay on to manage the transition from the current organisation to the new structure.

He said: “I have relished the challenge of developing the European competitions and have witnessed many great occasions over the 14 years that I have held the role.

“It has been a very great pleasure to lead ERC during this period of tremendous development of the events, which have sculpted an indelible mark on the rugby and sporting landscape.

“I take particular pride in the public interest the tournaments now receive in all participating countries and beyond and I am sure the growth and interest will continue.

“The journey could not have been a success without the tremendous support of ERC’s broadcasting and commercial partners who have, through their support, been the bedrock on which the tournaments have been built.

“I have been privileged to lead a remarkable and talented group of staff at ERC, who should be very proud of how they have each contributed to the success of the competitions.”