Rugby Club: The panel discuss the new European Rugby Champions Cup
Stuart Barnes hails the new European Champions Cup competition as great news for elite rugby.
Last Updated: 16/04/14 2:48pm
A new European Cup structure was on Thursday night unveiled as the successor to the Heineken Cup from the 2014/15 season.
The European Rugby Champions Cup will feature 20 clubs with the top six from the Aviva Premiership, the top six from the Top 14 in France and the top seven clubs from the RaboDirect PRO12, which must include at least one club from each of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy.
The final place will go to the winner of a play-off, initially between the seventh placed teams in the Premiership and the Top 14 but subsequently involving the winner of the previous year's Challenge Cup competition.
The Rugby Club panel, which included former Munster and Ireland back-rower Alan Quinlan and referee Nigel Owens alongside former England fly-half Barnes, reacted with relief and excitement to the announcement.
"Obviously it is good news for everybody in Europe. It is great news for everybody who wants the Champions Cup, or whatever it will be called, to be an elite tournament," he said.
"It is even better news for the RaboDirect PRO12 because the fact that we now do not have 11 teams going through makes that a more competitive league - may be it is something the Celtic and Italian leagues should have looked at earlier - and that improves the tournament.
"What is not so good at the moment is that the Challenge Cup winners do not automatically go through. I gather a week ago we did not think that they would have anything other than the trophy to show for winning it.
"Now I gather that they will be involved, if they are not in their top six or seven in their league, in a play-off for the Champions Cup and that is good news. Overall it is fantastic."
He added: "It was not that long ago when we seemed to be in the darkest days but the dawn has arrived. I agree with Alan [Quinlan] that not everything is perfect but how imperfect would it have been if we had not had a European tournament next season."
Quinlan was "hugely relived" at the compromise and, despite a note of caution about the reduction in teams from 24 to 20, believes it will improve the standard and competition in the PRO12 as teams battle to qualify for Europe.
"The uncertainty over the last few months was very worrying for the players, the fans and the stakeholders in the game - for northern hemisphere rugby," he said.
"So it is a great day now that a compromise has been reached."
He added: "It will definitely make the Rabo a lot stronger. With the games towards the end of the season, there were mismatches before but they now will be fighting hard to get into that new competition."
Owens, who refereed Heineken Cup finals in 2008, 2009 and 2012, noted that the standard in the PRO12 had increased in recent weeks and celebrated the return of European Cup rugby next season.
"It is a step up in intensity and in occasion from the domestic leagues," he said. "Some of the Heineken Cup matches I have been lucky enough to be involved in over the years have been of Test match intensity.
"Thankfully the politics are now done and dusted and we can all get on with what we all love and that's the rugby."