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Champions Cup rugby to award Irish free-to-air rights by November

One match in every Champions Cup round will be broadcast free-to-air next season

RTÉ, TV3, TG4 and eir Sport (who have the capacity to broadcast on a free-to-air basis) could all be in the frame to host the return of free-to-air games after a 12 year hiatus.

The Irish terrestrial television broadcaster who will win the rights to one free-to-air game in each round of the European Champions Cup from next season onwards should be known by the end of next month. RTÉ, TV3, TG4 and eir Sport (who have the capacity to broadcast on a free-to-air basis) could all be in the frame to host the return of free-to-air games after a 12 year hiatus.

The last European Cup game shown live on Irish terrestrial television was RTE’s broadcasting of Munster’s 2006 final win over Biarritz. A UK free-to-air channel will also have rights to one pool match per round, while under a new deal, France Television will show two live Champions Cup games in each round as opposed to one.

This is in tandem with the four-deal BT agreed with European Professional Club Rugby for exclusive subscription-based rights to the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup from next year onwards, which is believed to be worth over €50 million, as well as beIN Sport in France.

“All of them will be engaged,” said Vincent Gaillard, the EPCR Director General, at yesterday’s 2017-18 tournament launch for the Pro14 clubs in Dublin, in reference to the aforementioned Irish TV broadcasters. “Who is likely, I genuinely don’t know. Will RTE and TV3 be in it? Yes, it’s fair to assume they will.”

All of this is recognition that the split deals with BT Sport and Sky Sports have not worked, and contributed to EPRC falling well short of their stated aim of having five main commercial partners.

Exposure

“We are conscious of what happened in the last three seasons, that we lost a few people along the way as a result of the split TV rights,” said Gaillard. “We’re trying to build a commercial programme of sponsors. We believe we have the right structure, but the competition needed more exposure.”

“So the most important objective of all was to get back to one single premium payable broadcasters, and we now have that. The second was to carve out some free-to-air live games in those key markets.”

RTÉ Sport and Newstalk have also signed new three-year radio rights deals with EPCR but entering the fourth season of their tenure, EPCR still only have two main partners, Heineken and Turkish Airlines. “We’re looking for three other partners,” admitted Gaillard. “It’s slower than we would have liked or hoped, but at the same time we had to get the TV platform fixed.”

Seven clubs from the Pro14 will qualify for the Champions Cup, the three highest-ranked clubs from each conference, and the fourth-ranked club with the most match points from both conferences. Were one of those positions occupied by one of the South African teams, the qualifying place would go to the European team ranked next in that conference.

This season’s Champions Cup winner is guaranteed a place next season if not already qualified through its league position. If they have already qualified, the Challenge Cup winners will take the 20th place. If they have also already qualified, the Challenge Cup losing finalist will qualify, and if they have also already done so, there would be a play-off between the Challenge Cup semi-finalists.

This season’s European finals will take place in the 53,000-capacity San Mamés stadium in Bilbao on the weekend of May 11th and 12th. More than 26,000 tickets have been sold for the Champions Cup final.

The 2019 finals will take place at St James’ Park in Newcastle, while EPCR has received 18 expressions of interest for the 2020 finals from eight different countries, including four who have never hosted the final. Ireland is not one of them, as the Aviva is hosting some of the 2020 UEFA European Championships matches.

Critique

Among those in attendance yesterday were the Munster and Ulster captains Peter O’Mahony and Rory Best, both of whom also captained the Lions in New Zealand.

Each was asked about Sean O’Brien’s recent public critique of the Lions coaches, and gave contrasting responses. “Seanie is a very passionate character,” said Best. “If he thinks something, he’ll get it out there. After the first Test, he felt like he was in the position he said he was, tired and over-trained. It’s hard for me to comment on that. I didn’t play in that game.

Rory Best: “Everyone has an opinion of how to make things better, where it went wrong, where it went well. They’re all going to differ. For me, it was a really enjoyable tour.”

“Everyone has an opinion of how to make things better, where it went wrong, where it went well. They’re all going to differ. For me, it was a really enjoyable tour.”

That key leaders such as Johnny Sexton took over the running of the team toward the week’s end was normal and no sleight on the coaches, said Best. In this, he disagreed with O’Brien naming Rob Howley.

“It’s his feelings but I don’t think he should have singled out one coach. He didn’t single out anyone else one way or the other. From a forward’s point of view, I have a massive amount of respect for Steve Borthwick; what he did, the way he coaches, the way he prepares. He didn’t single him out the other way. Sometimes we just look at the negatives. Sean expressed an opinion. He probably shouldn’t have singled out one guy in particular.”

As for O’Brien’s contention that the Lions should have won the series 3-0, Best said: “I would never disrespect New Zealand and say it should have been 3-0 but you look at the players that we brought and, with maybe more prep or whatever, there was an opportunity. I’m not jumping on the bandwagon, like some players that didn’t even go on the tour, and say it should have been 3-0 but that was an unbelievable squad of players. When you look at what New Zealand have done since, to say it should be 3-0 is a massive statement.”

O’Mahony meanwhile, when asked, said: “I don’t have a comment to make on it.” When asked a second time, he repeated his answer word for word.

Best also confirmed that he is targeting a comeback from his torn hamstring in Ulster’s second European game away to newcomers La Rochelle, thus making the Irish captain available for the first November test against South Africa.

“At the minute, it’s very realistic that I’d play for Ulster before then,” he explained.