Champions Cup could be downsized in bid to protect player welfare

Stakeholders to begin talks on future of European competition after 2022

 

Crucial talks on the future of European club rugby are about to commence with Heineken Champions Cup organisers seeking assurances that all parties are fully committed to the tournament beyond 2022. A range of related issues will also be discussed, including cutting the length of the tournament to assist player welfare.

Against a backdrop of uncertain economic forecasts, the recent sizeable private equity investment in English club rugby and the assorted different priorities of unions across Europe, all stakeholders will be asked to confirm their desire to remain in the tournament prior to June 2020 when, technically, a participant has the right to give two years’ notice should it wish to leave.

As thing stand European officials say there is no imminent danger of the competition ending but with talks ongoing about easing the congested global fixture list and the Guinness Pro14 now featuring clubs from South Africa the landscape is an increasingly volatile one and the Champions Cup’s existing television and sponsorship deals are due to expire in three years’ time.

European club rugby’s flagship tournament has been among the biggest success stories of the professional era since it was launched in 1995-96 and this season’s final in Newcastle in May is already a sell-out. Amid increasing calls for top players to play fewer matches, however, it is understood that a proposal to cut the number of European weekends from nine to either seven or eight is set to be aired.

One possibility is for the pool stages to be reduced from six to four matches per team, with the semi-finals possibly being played over two home and away legs as happens in football. This might well involve reducing the number of competing teams from 20 to 16, however, which would not go down well among those potentially excluded.

Whatever happens Simon Halliday, chairman of European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), is among those who firmly believe that safeguarding player welfare is crucial to the game’s future. “If we’re only going to pay lip service to player welfare we don’t deserve to have a leadership position in our sport,” said Halliday, uncomfortably aware that next season’s cup is due to start just 12 days after the 2019 Rugby World Cup final.

The former Bath, Harlequins and England centre is equally keen to ensure the tournament retains its lustre. “There is no longer-term as we currently sit here,” he said. “The facts are that everything – the heads of agreement, television and sponsorship revenues – is due to unwind at the same time in 2022. Theoretically at the end of the 2020 season people can declare their wish to continue or not. I think the competition is absolutely safe but you can’t sleepwalk into the next cycle. That’s just irresponsible.”

EPCR are also keeping a close eye on Brexit developments, with the United Kingdom due to leave the European Union on March 29th, the same weekend as the European quarter-finals are scheduled. In the event of widespread travel disruption, there would be numerous potential issues for fans, players and officials to overcome.

“We’ve got a board meeting within the next month and it’ll be on the agenda but I would like to think there will be an outbreak of commonsense,” said Halliday. “I don’t think anyone sees an Armageddon scenario. I think the practicalities will win out eventually because I don’t believe anyone, least of all the EU, are going to want to create chaos.” – Guardian

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