With the advent of professional rugby in 1995, the game changed all over the world. In the Southern Hemisphere, SANZAR was formed and the Super 14 and Tri-Nations competitions were started.
In Europe, the ERC (European Rugby Cup) was set up. This was based in Dublin and it runs 2 professional competitions, the Heineken Cup and the European Challenge Cup. They run these in collaboration with the premier competitions in each country so that there is not a clash between games from the various competitions.
The ERC has an ambition: ‘to lead club rugby to unparalleled levels of popularity and profile… making a distinctive and significant contribution to the development and progression of rugby union.’ Their motto is ‘ERC – Driving European Club Rugby Competition’
So it can be seen that the ERC was set up with lofty ideals and visions. The fact that the two competitions are still running (as of 2013) shows that they are doing something right although it could be debated as to whether they are reaching their ambition as stated. These two rugby competitions continue under the ERC even as there are rumblings and discontent within member nations about the format and who qualifies for each competition, usually for reasons to do with self-interest by the countries involved.
What are these two competitions that the ERC run in European rugby?
The Heineken Cup is the premier club rugby competition in Europe. It is played for by teams from the 6 IRB nations that contest the 6 Nations Championship: England, France, Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy. Each country may use a different way of deciding which teams play in the Heineken Cup but there are 24 teams in total. The number from each country may vary depending on results in various other competitions. They currently play in 6 pools of 4 teams. The pool winners and the next best 2 runners-up qualify for the play-offs.
The format has changed over the years, both with the number of teams and number of pools. For example, in the 1st year there were only 12 teams.
There is talk of further changes after the 2013/14 season.
The other competition is the European Challenge Cup. It has been known, for sponsorship reasons, as the Parker pen Shield, the Parker Pen Challenge Cup and is currently (2013) known as the Amlin Cup. It is the 2nd tier rugby competition in Europe and teams that do not qualify for the Heineken Cup play in it. There are also teams from Romania, Spain and Portugal participating.
Over the years it also has had various formats and numbers of teams. Currently (2013) it has 20 teams playing in 5 pools of 4 teams. The pool winners and the next best 3 runners-up qualify for the play-offs, where they are joined by 3 teams ‘parachuting’ in from the Heineken Cup competition. These are the next best 3 teams that did not qualify for the Heineken Cup play-offs.
The ERC runs these 2 competitions in Europe and they are quite complicated to run due to the number of teams and countries involved. It could be said that politics within the sport have a major bearing on the way things are done. Having said that it does mean that there is a lot of quality professional club rugby being played in Europe.