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'Rugby needs good news': EPCR boss delivers update on whether South African clubs like the Bulls can play Champions Cup

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Christiaan Kotze/AFP via Getty Images)

EPCR chairman Simon Halliday expects South African clubs such as the Bulls, who will soon be participating in an expanded Guinness PRO16, to be allowed to qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup tournaments once the three main European leagues and the six unions finally sign off on a new participation agreement in 2022.     

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The current tournament participation agreement came into existence in 2014 when EPCR was set-up to replace the old ERC administrative body that ran the two European tournaments. That deal, which Halliday told RugbyPass in 2019 was commercially a disappointment, is set to expire and negotiations on its replacement have been ongoing. 

Central to this is whether South Africans teams like the Duane Vermeulen-captained Bulls, who will be taking part in a PRO16 league governed by Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales, could qualify for the Champions Cup. That wasn’t permitted when the Cheetahs and Southern Kings were part of the old PRO14. 

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Jim Hamilton takes a trek through South African rugby in Rugby Explorer

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Jim Hamilton takes a trek through South African rugby in Rugby Explorer

However, with the powerhouse franchises of the Bulls, who have been recruiting players such as Munster’s Arno Botha, the Stormers, Lions and Sharks having left Super Rugby and agreed to join an expanded PRO16 for the 2021/22 season, ex-England international Halliday believes these South African clubs will become a fabric of the revised Champions Cup and Challenge Cup competitions.    

Outlining the current state of play regarding the South African franchises and Champions Cup qualification, EPCR boss Halliday told The Rugby Pod: “The agreement was set-up in 2014 which was the year before I became chairman. 

“It expires effectively in 2022 so we were always going to be debating what the future looked like from two years out and we have been doing that. We have had an independent review. They have come up with a load of recommendations which the board have unanimously backed and we’re now working out how that feeds into a new agreement and it’s very exciting. 

“We are right at the end of that process. We’re not done yet because six unions, three leagues, you know there is always going to be some questions and ticking of boxes, alterations etc. That’s fine but the great news is that all three leagues are unanimous about the way forward, that the European Cups are embedded in their future and that is a really powerful statement. 

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“Obviously, we [EPCR] only take from the leagues the teams that they present so that is the answer on South Africa. We know South Africa have an intention to become part of the PRO16 and we’re fully expecting if that happens for that to come our way. We’d be pretty naive if we didn’t think that. 

“When you think about that sort of development, plus frankly the growing strength of all the clubs around all the leagues, it’s only going to get bigger and better. We are duty-bound to drive an agreement that fully realises that. 

“At the same time, you respect the fact that these are the top players in the world we are talking about so you need to create a tournament that will fit within the whole calendar and that is where the three leagues have also done a lot of work. 

“So I am pretty confident that we are only a short time away from being able to deliver some really good news. Rugby needs some good news so I’m hopeful for that – but it’s never done until it is signed so we’re still working very hard on it.”

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Shaylen 39 minutes ago
Jack Willis' Champions Cup masterclass proves English eligibility rules need a rethink

If France, Wales, England, Scotland and Ireland got together and all changed their eligibility laws in the same way SA has it would be absolutely bonkers. All players from all nations involved in Europe would be fair game as would their coaches. The investment in rugby would be supercharged as teams would rush to create dream teams. Transfer markets would be super charged, salary caps may change, private investment would grow as rich backers first buy clubs and then put money into their clubs in an effort to land the best players. The richest clubs and franchises would benefit most but money and players would move across borders at a steady flow. Suddenly countries like Wales and Scotland would have a much larger pool of players to select from who would be developed and improved in systems belonging to their rivals within superstar squads while their clubs receive large sums in the transfer market. The Six Nations would experience a big boost as the best players become available all the time. The Champions cup would become even more fiercely contested as the dream teams clash. Fan engagement would grow as fans would follow their favourite players creating interest in the game across the continent. Transfer markets and windows would become interesting events in themselves, speculation would drive it and rumours of big transfers and interest in players would spread. All of this is speculation and much of it would not eventuate straight away but just like in football the spread of players and talent would create these conditions over time. The transfer markets in European football is proof of this. Football had the same club vs country debate eons ago and favoured an open system. This has made it the largest game in the world with global interest and big money. Rugby needs to embrace this approach in the long run as well

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Jon 6 hours ago
Waratahs 'counter-culture' limits Wallaby options for Joe Schmidt

This is a bit dramatic for me, I think the Rebels and Force cultures would be very strong, and if a player is chosen from either, you can be confident they are in a good head space and ready. Whether they quite have the technical or tactical foundations of the other two states is where one would way their risk of selection. I see no need for Schmidt to worry about that risk in this squad. The main reason I could see a predominance of players from Brumbies and Reds, is simple cohesion. What might the coaching group make of what’s lacking in the Tahs, and to a lesser extent Rebels and Force’s, franchise? Certainly sides (players) that are running irish plays like we saw from that lovely McDermott long ball with have a head start. I hope the players can continue it at International level. Really liked what I saw of Wright (don’t know player focus and just hadn’t seen a lot of him anyway) in that game, can see him being a glue in a Wallaby side too. A with the similar worry of selecting players like Ryan, I think it unfounded to worry so much about forward balance at the moment. Including both Wright and Skelton in the same lineout is not going to lose you games gainst Wales. Nor will any unknown weakenss Wales might find in Ryan be exploited to any great extent. It is the perfect time to introduce such a young player. What other shortcuts might Schmidt want to make now, just a year out from hosting BIL? When Gamble came on the scene I thought he had a Pocock ability to break game apart along with performing the role of a openside well. I would be very keen to drop Leota/Hooper for Gamble, and in your squad make up, include Uru as a lock. Did you forget to remove Vunivalu from your team? Would you have Meafou in your squad if you could?

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