English, French Clubs Commit to Breakaway Rugby Champions Cup

England and France’s top clubs proposed a breakaway European tournament called the Rugby Champions Cup to replace the Heineken Cup from next season.

England’s Premiership Rugby and France’s Ligue Nationale de Rugby released a joint statement yesterday saying that the new tournament would be open to clubs from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, as well as those from other European nations.

“The competition will be based on the principles of qualification on merit, a strong competition format, equality between the leagues, higher commercial values for the teams and expansion into new European markets,” the clubs said.

English and French clubs, who have said they will quit the Heineken Cup at the end of this season because of revenue distribution and what they say is an unfair qualification process, have been formulating plans for the new competition since first announcing the proposal Sept. 10.

As well as settling on a name, a joint working group was created “to prepare all necessary elements in good time for the 2014-15 season.” Further details about the competition’s format and commercial details will be made public next month, the clubs added in the statement.

The International Rugby Board said last week any new pan-European club tournament would require the approval of national governing bodies. IRB Chief Executive Officer Brett Gosper said in a Sept. 18 interview in London that the Dublin-based global body backs a full European competition that doesn’t include just two countries.

French Framework

The French Rugby Federation said in a statement that yesterday’s announcement was “irrelevant and inappropriate” because no international match or competition involving French clubs can be organized outside the FFR’s framework without its prior agreement.

The English and French first served notice to quit the Heineken Cup in June 2012 after years of dissatisfaction with their split of tournament revenue and a qualification process that they say favors teams from the other nations, most of whom are guaranteed entry.

Talks between the clubs and Heineken Cup organizer European Rugby Cup have so far failed to produce a new accord for the structure of European club rugby for the 2014/15 season and beyond. ERC last week invited all stakeholders for mediation talks on Oct. 23 in Dublin.

The Heineken Cup, Europe’s elite club rugby competition, started in 1995 and comprises 24 teams from England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

Revenue Split

England and France, which operate their own independent domestic leagues, each receive 24 percent of competition revenues. Clubs from the other four nations participate in a combined league called the Pro12 and split the remaining 52 percent. English Premiership clubs and teams in France’s Top 14 say this is unfair and that the money should be split equally between the three leagues.

Under current arrangements, six clubs apiece from the English and French leagues qualify for the Heineken Cup, while 10 of the Pro12 teams advance. Scotland and Italy are each guaranteed two berths in the competition, which effectively means automatic qualification since there are currently only two clubs from each of those nations in the Pro12.

English and French clubs say this is unfair as their clubs’ participation is determined by their league position. They say that makes it easier for Pro12 teams to rest players without compromising their participation the following season.

Heineken NV spokesman John Clarke said that the Dutch brewer, while focused on its sponsorship of the 2013-14 competition, was paying close attention to the situation.

“We will be following with interest the ongoing developments between the ERC, the clubs and the respective governing bodies,” Clarke said in a telephone interview.