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

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. 

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“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. 

“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. 

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“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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