The organisers of rugby union’s two major European competitions, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), have announced that the next two finals of the European Champions Cup and European Challenge Cup will be played at venues situated in regions outside of the sport’s traditional heartlands.
The announcement is the fulfilment of a promise made by the organisation, which represents European clubs, when they took over the running of European club rugby two years ago. Prior to their takeover, the showpiece final events were shared between the various competing unions, with the aim being to maximise profits and hold the finals at the grounds with the largest capacities, but that policy has now been changed by the EPCR.
The 2018 and 2019 finals will be held in Athletic Bilbao’s San Mamés and Newcastle’s St James’ Park respectively. Although both stadiums hold fewer than 54,000 spectators, the organisers hope that by staging such major games in these areas, they will be helping to expand the reach of the sport into new geographical areas.
This is the continuation of a policy that has been pursued by both the French and English Rugby Football Unions in recent years. The final of France’s domestic competition, the Top 14, was held in Barcelona last year, and at the 2015 World Cup, St James’ Park staged three international matches, attracting crowds of over 50,000 on every occasion.
The director general of EPCR, Vincent Gaillard, announced the names of the venues for the next two editions and revealed that the organisation had received a number of high-quality bids to host the 2018 events. He said that this showed the strength of the two competitions and that it was a good sign for the growth and health of European professional club rugby.
Bilbao, which won the right to host the 2018 finals, is the major city of the Basque region that straddles the French border and includes two French clubs, Biarritz and Bayonne. According to Simon Halliday, the EPCR chairman, the decision to award the 2018 finals to Bilbao was a major step in the expansion of rugby union across the continent. He also commended Newcastle for their bid and cited the city’s experience of hosting World Cup games in 2015 as a major factor in their being awarded the 2019 European finals.
Speaking to the press after the announcement, the managing director of Newcastle Falcons, Mick Hogan, said that staging the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals in the city in 2019 would be a significant boost to the sport in the area, and expressed the hope that it would help the sport to continue to grow in that part of England.
Last year’s finals were held at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon. Although located in a traditional rugby union area, the stadium has a capacity of just under 60,000 and was the first venue outside of Paris, London, Cardiff, Dublin or Edinburgh to host the finals.