Entertainment: Irish unhappy as Wales help force through controversial ruling that guarantees Welsh place in Heineken Champions Cup

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The controversial Welsh-backed European qualifying system from the new United Rugby Championship has been strongly criticised in Ireland, who voted against the change.

With the launch of the 16-team tournament - which will see the introduction of South Africa’s top four franchises - there will be a significant change to how sides qualify for the Heineken Champions Cup. You can read all the details on the new competition here.

For a number of years now, a meritocratic system has operated, based on where teams have finished in the PRO12/14, regardless of which country they are from.

But, from next season, there will be a return to a geography-based formula, with the creation of four regional pools.

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That will ensure Wales will have at least one team out of the Scarlets, Ospreys, Cardiff and Dragons in Europe’s top event.

The same will apply to South Africa - who are eligible for the first time - and Ireland.

There will also be one guaranteed spot for either Scotland or Italy, whose sides are grouped together.

The top team in each of the regional sections - based on results in all 18 regular season matches, not just derbies - will qualify for the 24-club Champions Cup.

They will then be joined by the four highest-ranked teams from the overall league table who have not already booked a spot through the regional pools, making a total of eight representatives from the URC.

This is a change which has been pushed for by the Welsh Rugby Union and their Scottish counterparts, while it’s understood Italy also wanted it in place.

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The reason for this is concern that the arrival of the four South African former Super Rugby sides - the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions - could make qualification for the Champions Cup very difficult if the purely merit-based system was retained.

Is it right that a Welsh team is guaranteed qualification no matter what? Have your say in the comments

There was a fear that all eight spots could be hoovered up by Irish and South African sides.

WRU chief executive Steve Phillips first revealed last month that the Union were fighting to prevent a Welsh wipe-out.

“The ambition is, for a trial period, while we adjust to the South African teams coming on board, for there to be a short-term ‘geography’ type qualification,” he said.

“We need to bed in and get ready for this. This is the conversation I have taken away to PRO14.

“People are right to flag the issue and we share the concerns. But I think we have dealt with it for the next two years.”

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In the end, the WRU got their way, with the support of Scotland and presumably Italy.

The Irish provinces were against the change, but they were outvoted.

It’s a decision that has not gone down particularly well over in Ireland, as it will make it much harder for them to secure spots in the Champions Cup for all four of their teams.

They are also faced with a third of their league matches being testing derbies with the reduction in overall fixtures from 21 to 18.

Plus there is the fact that a team which finishes say seventh or eighth in the overall table could miss out to one that finishes as low as 13th, under the new Euro qualifying process.


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Leinster chief executive Mick Dawson said: “The Irish provinces and the IRFU would not have been in favour of the geographical thing for Europe, that’s the only disappointment I have with the competition.

“We were outvoted. The Welsh and the Scottish didn’t want four Irish and four South African teams (qualifying for Europe).

“I don’t think it’s good business to have the geographical thing.

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“There’s no point in having teams in the competition who aren’t good enough to be there just because they’re from a certain locality.

“It’s up for review in two years’ time with meritocracy being the favoured method and everyone agrees that that’s the way forward. It’s a compromise all round.

“It’s only two years and hopefully meritocracy will be reintroduced then. I think the competition will be better for it.”

For the geography-based system to be retained from the 2023-24 season, the Irish, Italian, Welsh and Scottish Unions would have to all vote for it.

That seems unlikely to be the case with Ireland.

Meanwhile, it’s been reported that the creation of the URC will see a significant increase in income.

According to the Financial Times, annual revenues for the competition will rise from £25m to £55m, with new broadcast deals playing a big part in that.

The first of those deals have just been announced.

In Ireland, the URC will be available on free-to-air television for the next four years, with RTE and TG4 agreeing to share rights to 52 of the 60 Irish fixtures each season.

The tournament organisers will also team up with RTÉ to offer a domestic and international OTT (Over The Top) internet service called URC TV, details of which will be announced later in the summer.

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As for the TV deals for the UK, those will be announced in the next week.

BBC Wales are set to come on board to show some 15 matches live, while S4C may also increase their coverage.

For the past three years, Premier Sports have broadcast every single PRO14 game live.

With their contract for the UK TV rights coming to an end, it remains to be seen whether they will stay involved.

The rights to games involving Welsh teams playing in Ireland can still be bought by a UK broadcaster, regardless of the RTE/TG4 deal.

In addition to increased TV revenue, it's understood the doubling of South Africa's contingent in the league - from two sides to four - will see their participation fee go up from £6m to around £10m.

Meanwhile, the eight qualifiers for next season’s Champions Cup from the PRO14 have been confirmed, with three Welsh sides on board.

In ranking order, they are Leinster, Munster, Ulster, Connacht, Scarlets, Ospreys, Cardiff and Glasgow.

The Dragons will compete in the second-tier Challenge Cup.

The dates for next season's European cup fixtures have also been announced.

There will be nine weekends in all, with four rounds of pool matches in December and January followed by two-legged last 16 matches, quarter-finals, semis and final in April/May.

The finals of both competitions will be in Marseille on the weekend of May 27-28.

European dates (2021-22 season)

Round 1 – 10/11/12 December

Round 2 – 17/18/19 December

Round 3 – 14/15/16 January 2022

Round 4 – 21/22/23 January 2022

Round of 16 (1st leg) – 8/9/10 April 2022

Round of 16 (2nd leg) – 15/16/17 April 2022

Quarter-finals – 6/7/8 May 2022

Semi-finals – 13/14/15 May 2022

Challenge Cup final – Friday 27 May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

Heineken Champions Cup final – Saturday 28 May 2022; Stade Vélodrome, Marseille

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