The Heineken Cup is the leading club rugby competition in Europe. It involves the leading club and regional teams from the 6 IRB nations that play in the 6 Nations Championship. These countries are:
Teams that do not make it into the Heineken Cup play in the European Challenge Cup. (known in 2013 as the Amlin Challenge Cup)
There are 24 teams playing in 6 pools of 4 teams. Teams play each other within their pool on a home and away basis. The 6 pool winners and the 2 best placed runners up qualify for the quarter-finals, with the top 4 teams having home advantage.
Semi-finals are played at nominally neutral grounds, based on the country of the 1st team pulled out of the hat when the draw was made.
The final is played at a predetermined location.
The 2013/14 season turned out to be the last time the Heineken Cup was played. With unease among English and French clubs about the perceived inequities in the qualification process and the distribution of funds, they gave notice of withdrawing from the competition. A replacement competition, the European Rugby Champions Cup Cup was started for the 2014/15 season.
History of the Heineken Cup
The Heineken Cup started in 1995 due to the desire of the then 5 Nations committee to set up a new level of professional competition.
In 1995/96 12 teams from Ireland, Wales, Italy, Romania and France played in 4 pools of 3 teams. The pool winners went through to semi-finals and a final. England and Scotland did not take part.
In 1996/97 England and Scotland joined the competition. There were 20 teams playing in 4 pools of 5 teams. The top two teams from each pool went through to quarter-finals and then semi-finals and a final.
In 1997/98 the format was changed to include home and away games. There were 5 pools of 4 teams in each. The winners of each pool went through to the quarter-finals. The runners-up from each pool and the best 3rd placed team went into quarter-final play-offs. This was followed by the semi-finals and the final. At the conclusion of the championship English clubs withdrew from the Heineken Cup over a disagreement about the way it was run.
In 1998/99 there were 16 teams playing. There were 4 pools of 4 teams in each. The top 2 teams from each pool went through to quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final.
In 1999/2000 the English clubs returned to the competition and there were 6 pools of 4 teams. The pool winners were joined by the 2 best runners-up to play quarter-finals, semi-finals and the final.
This format remained the same until 2003/04 when the bonus point system was added. This was: 1 bonus point for scoring 4 tries or more and 1 bonus point for losing by 7 points or less. There was another change in the make-up of the Welsh teams. Regional teams were formed to replace the clubs that had played up to then.
This format has continued this way since then with the only variable being the number of teams from each country. This changed as the qualification criteria allowed, but always 24 teams in 6 pools of 4 teams.
In 2004/05, with the demise of the Celtic Warriors team (Wales), England had 7 teams in the competition.
In 2005/06, with a French team having won the previous year, France had 7 teams in the competition.
In 2006/07 Italy gained a 3rd team, with Wales having 3 teams in the competition.
In 2007/08, with the change in the qualification criteria, England had 7 teams and Wales 4 teams.
In 2008/09 France had 7 teams.
In 2009/10 England had 7 teams.
In 2010/11 France had 7 teams.
In 2011/12 England had 7 teams and Ireland 4 teams, with Wales having 3 teams.
In 2012/13 and 2013/14 France had 7 teams, England 6, Ireland 4 and Wales 3 teams.
2013/14 was the last time the Heineken Cup competition took placed. It was replaced with a new European Rugby Champions Cup in 2014.
Qualification Criteria for the Heineken Cup
In 1999/2000, when the English teams returned to the competition, France and England had 6 teams, Wales had 5 teams, Ireland had 3 teams and Scotland and Italy had 2 teams.
The actual teams from each country was up to the country concerned to sort out.
From the 2007/08 season 22 of the 24 places in the competition were awarded by country. France and England had 6 teams, Wales and Ireland had 3 teams and Scotland and Italy had 2 teams.
One of the other places was filled by a team from England, France or Italy; this place was given to the country whose team had progressed further in the previous year's competition.
The other place was given to the winner of a play-off match between the best placed Celtic League team (not already qualified) and the best placed semifinalist from the Italian Super 10 league.
In 2010/11 the format changed to award the 2 last places to the winners of the Heineken Cup and the European Challenge Cup (Amlin Challenge Cup). If the winners of these Cups had already qualified, due to their league position within their own country, then their country received an extra place to fill. This is provided they have an eligible team. (NB. Scotland and Italy only have 2 teams eligible) England and France are capped at 7 places each. Should one of them win both Cups then the highest ranked team from the other nations would qualify. This would also happen if a Scots team won a Cup. (i.e. they do not have a 3rd team to take up the extra place).
The current criteria used within each country is as follows: