The Heineken Cup seedings for the 2013/14 season have been released, with seven French sides, six English, four Irish, three Welsh and two each from Scotland and Italy, making 24 teams which are split into four seeding groups. It could be the last time that the tournament retains this format.
Last June the French and English clubs served notice that they would not be signing to extend their involvement in the Heineken Cup beyond the 2013/14 season, citing an unfair allocation of places in the Heineken Cup and an unfair distribution of revenue as their reasons.
In essence, they thought it was unfair that certain Pro 12 clubs were guaranteed a Heineken Cup place regardless of their quality or league position and that Celtic nations were getting a disproportionately high return of cash. If ERC do not change this then the English and French clubs will leave (or indeed technically already have left) the tournament.
European Rugby Cup Limited (ERC) pretty much carried on as usual and signed a contract extension for the TV rights with Sky, however the situation then became even more fraught when the Premiership Clubs signed a Â£150m deal with BT Vision for domestic games, which included a provision for a European tournament.
Since then several meetings between the interested parties have taken place, the most recent of which was an emergency meeting in Dublin ahead of the Heineken Cup final, which is rumoured to have made some progress.
However, it seems that any hope of saving the Heineken Cup still rests on all parties agreeing on a new TV contract.
The proposal is that the Heineken Cup would consist of 20 teams, rather than the current 24, composed of the top six finishers in the Aviva Premiership, RaboDirect Pro 12, and the Top 14, and rather than the holders of the Heineken and Amlin Cups getting the final two spots, they would go to the winners of a play-off between the sides finishing seventh and eighth.
The Amlin Cup would then be boosted by the extra four teams not involved in the Heineken Cup that would have been in the past, whilst there is also a proposal to form a third competition for teams for the tier-two nations.
It seems that there is broad agreement over these proposals, though the Celtic nations and Italy are obviously not particularly happy as they are the ones who will lose out, however the sticking point remains the TV deal.
It may well be that in order for the â€˜Heineken Cupâ€™ to exist beyond 2013/14 that a new tournament may have to be created, without the involvement of ERC, who were interestingly not invited to the Dublin meeting.
With ERC having agreed a contract with Sky for the Heineken Cup and Premiership Rugby a deal for a â€˜European competitionâ€™ with BT Vision, it looks as though the only way for everyone to avoid breaching contract is for a new tournament to be created. This will worry the Pro 12 clubs though because they are currently guaranteed a disproportionately large share of the revenue from TV money, something they would not get under the BT Vision deal.
Premiership Rugby has explained that its position is that they will not be playing under a European competition with Sky as they have an obligation to BT Vision, therefore if Sky remain the broadcasters then they will no longer take part in the Heineken Cup.
They also believe that the ERC deal with Sky is invalid anyway because the notice given by clubs in England and France means that ERC has no tournament to sell. The Pro 12 clubs might argue otherwise though, saying that there is a tournament to sell, just with different teams.
Another meeting is scheduled to be held on the 5th June, where it will be hoped that further progress will be made, however in order for the Heineken Cup â€“ in any form â€“ to continue to exist, concessions will have to be made.
In the meantime though, the seeding for the 2013/14 tournament reflect the strength of Irish and French club rugby at the moment. All six of the number 1 seeds are from France and Ireland; Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont.
Pot 2 consists of the Aviva Premiershipâ€™s top four as well as Perpignan and Cardiff, whilst Pot 3 includes both Scottish clubs, the remaining Irish province, Connacht, French side Montpellier and the Ospreys and Scarlets from Wales.
Pot 4 contains further French inlovement in the form of Racing Metro 92 and Castres, while Gloucester and Exeter claim the remaining Premiership places. Italians Zebre and Treviso complete the seeds.
Heineken Cup Seeds 2013/14:
- Ulster, Munster, Leinster, Toulouse, Toulon, Clermont Auvergne
- Leicester, Harlequins, Northampton, Saracens, Perpignan, Cardiff
- Edinburgh, Glasgow, Ospreys, Montpellier, Scarlets, Connacht
- Zebre, Treviso, Gloucester, Exeter, Castres, Racing Metro 92