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Live European rugby will return to free-to-air in 2018

TG4, RTÉ and TV3 all expected to engage in tender process for new rights package

BT Sport presenter Craig Doyle and pundit Brian O’Driscoll. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images

After a 12 year hiatus, live European rugby will return to free-to-air television in 2018.

TG4, RTÉ and TV3 are all expected to engage in the upcoming tender process that guarantees one live match every weekend of the pool stages being made available to Irish viewers.

BT Sports outbid Sky Sports to become exclusive rights holders from 2018/19. They had previously shared the coverage, a scenario that admittedly confused European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) sponsors along with subscribers, in a deal worth €40 million.

The new four-year agreement with BT is believed to be over €50 million.

“Having one premium pay television broadcaster in BT Sport will simplify the viewing experience for those fans and coverage on free-to-air television will give greater exposure to our outstanding rugby experiences,” said EPCR chief executive Vincent Galliard.

BT will be involved in the negotiation process to distribute matches to terrestrial television. Irish viewers could have access to a second live match on a UK channel.

“There is a system for selecting pool and knockout stage matches agreed with BT Sport,” said a EPCR spokesman. “The details of this will be further developed when speaking to free to air broadcasters when those rights go to market.”

It remains unclear if BT are willing to relinquish exclusive rights to broadcasting the final. They are also expected to simultaneously televise the game released to free-to-air.

TG4 are currently renegotiating the highlights package, which they took off RTÉ, with the national broadcaster’s last live match being the 2006 final between Munster and Biarritz.

A UK free-to-air channel will also have rights to one free pool match while France Televisions will show two live Champions Cup games. 

The major losers here are Sky Sports as they only retain rugby rights for the Lions tour, the Pro 12 – not exclusive – and England internationals in November and June.

“BT Sport is now the home of elite European rugby, as well as the home of Premiership Rugby,” said Andy Haworth, BT’s managing director of content and strategy. “We’re proud to have won the live rights for these fantastic competitions.”