An agreement for a new tournament to replace the existing European Cup structure has been signed, European Rugby and the Rugby Football Union announced last night.
The 20-team Champions Cup will be the showpiece event of European Professional Club Rugby, the newly-established Switzerland-based organisers. 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.
RFU chief Ritchie managed to convince all parties to see sense and share the 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 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.
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.”