Wales will have four teams in the Heineken Cup next season.
The ERC Board of Directors met in Dublin today (Wednesday 23 June) to agree the structure of the tournament for next season.
The Welsh representation in the competition was discussed following the switch from five to four regions at the end of last season. This meant ERC were faced with either losing Welsh representation in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup or finding another team to make up the balance of 24 teams in the Heineken Cup.
After considering a number of options, the Board agreed to grant Wales four places by right in next seasons 10th anniversary Heineken Cup tournament. However, from 2005 / 2006 Wales will have only three guaranteed places in the competition available to them.
The changes that have taken place in the professional game in Wales over the past 18 months have impacted on our tournaments and forced us, once again, to reassess the means of qualifying for the Heineken Cup, said ERC Chairman Jean-Pierre Lux.
The Heineken Cup is the flagship of the professional club game in the northern hemisphere and we want it to remain as competitive in the future as it has been in the previous nine years. We feel the system for qualification we have devised for the future is fair to every nation and also gives an extra incentive to teams in the Celtic League and the Italian Championship.
The make-up of the 24 teams for the 2004/2005 competition will be as follows:
HEINEKEN CUP 2004 / 2005
ENGLAND - 7 teams (London Wasps, Bath Rugby, Northampton Saints, NEC Harlequins, Newcastle Falcons, Gloucester, Leicester Tigers)
FRANCE - 6 teams (Perpignan, Stade Français Paris, Castres Olympique, Toulouse, Bourgoin, Biarritz Olympique)
WALES - 4 teams (Llanelli Scarlets, Newport Gwent Dragons, Neath-Swansea Ospreys, Cardiff Blues)
IRELAND - 3 teams (Munster, Leinster, Ulster)
SCOTLAND - 2 teams (Edinburgh Rugby, Glasgow Rugby)
ITALY - 2 teams (Benetton Treviso, Rugby Calvisano)
England picked up a seventh place in next seasons tournament as a result of London Wasps winning the Heineken Cup, taking up the vacancy left by Wales initial reduction in regional teams.
ERC have devised the following system for allocation of the final two places in the 24 for the 2005 / 2006 tournament. The 23rd place will go to the most successful nation in next seasons competition from England, France and Italy. Ireland, Scotland and Wales do not come into the reckoning for the 23rd place, but they are in contention for the 24th spot via the Celtic League.
The 24th place will go to the winners of a play-off between the highest placed non-Heineken Cup qualifying team from Scotland, Ireland or Wales in the 2004 / 2005 Celtic League and the third-placed side in the 2004 / 2005 Italian Championship. This game will be played the weekend after the 2005 Heineken Cup final at a venue in Italy.
The WRU is very grateful for the on-going support it has received from its ERC partners. This is a very important decision for our regions and we are delighted with the outcome for not only next season, but also for the format put in place for future qualification, said WRU Chief Executive David Moffett.
We recognise that once again the ERC Board has made a concession to Wales. In doing so, they have also given the Celtic League a major boost by giving the sides involved an extra route to claim a Heineken Cup place.
The Pools and fixtures for the 2004 / 2005 Heineken Cup will be announced on Tuesday, 29 June, and the time and date of matches in the early rounds of matches will be confirmed in August following meetings with broadcast partners across Europe.