18 May, 11:09
IRFU Chief Executive Philip Browne has issued a statement following confirmation of Ronan O'Gara's decision to retire from playing professional rugby.
The CLA board comprises delegates from the three competing Unions, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, as well as representatives from the clubs in those countries.
The board also decided to re-model the current format of the Celtic Cup and has introduced an enhanced, play-off structure to the knock out Tournament to be played at the end of the Celtic League Season.
The Celtic Cup will be played for on a sudden death basis between the top eight finishers in the Celtic League at the end of the 22 game League season - providing the best teams in the three nations with the chance to bid for a second major title.
The 2004/2005 Celtic League campaign will start on either the last weekend in August or the first weekend in September 2004 and will be completed by the end of April 2005.
The Celtic Cup competition will take place in May, with the quarter-finals and semi-finals being completed before the Heineken Cup final on 21/22 May. The Celtic Cup final will be played on 28/29 May.
Once again, the 2005 Celtic Cup final will be played at an international venue in one of the three Celtic countries. Having examined many options, and taken into account the differing rugby and business needs in all three countries, the board has endorsed the 22 game Celtic League programme for at least the next two seasons, said Celtic Rugby's Tournament Director Keith Grainger.
We have been delighted with the progress made during this first season of the home and away league campaign. The World Cup made life difficult for a number of clubs, but the level of rugby has steadily improved and the crowds, which have grown during the season, have enjoyed some top class entertainment with over half a million supporters enjoying the atmosphere at the top grounds.
Because of the difficulties experienced by some of the professional teams in trying to field fully competitive Celtic match squads during the Six Nations, when they also have to contribute perhaps 10 or more players to the National set up and perhaps five or six players to the under 21 National squads, we have decided to change the format of the Celtic Cup.
However, we are mindful that supporters, commercial partners and broadcasters all still want to maintain both an element of knock-out or sudden death rugby and maintain a big day out finale to the season.
Hence we have re-modelled the structure to the season removing the need for clubs to play on Six Nations match weekends and have introduced the end of season, play-off formula.
The top eight teams will play against each other in one off' quarter-finals and semi-finals before a final to determine the overall Celtic Cup Champions for the season. We will give home advantage to the top four placed teams in the current season's Celtic League Tournament on a seeded basis (1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6, 4 v 5) and then we will have a draw for the semi-finals.
Even though we are yet to see the climax to the current Celtic League season it is safe to say that the rugby personnel in the Celtic Nations are confident that they have already seen an advance in playing standards in the professional game across the three countries.
Ireland won the Triple Crown, Munster reached the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup and the Llanelli Scarlets and Edinburgh Rugby both reached the quarter-finals in Europe, while Connacht were semi-finalists in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup.
The Celtic League teams took some notable scalps during the Pool stages of the Heineken Cup, with Edinburgh Rugby beating the reigning European Champions Toulouse, Celtic Warriors winning at the home of English Zurich Premiership Champions London Wasps, the Llanelli Scarlets doing the double over Northampton Saints and Ulster taming the Leicester Tigers at Ravenhill.
The new format for the Celtic League and the Celtic Cup will allow the coaches to manage the use of their international player assets during the 22 league matches, to ensure that rugby as a product, and individuals as players, continue to offer the paying public an improved standard.
The new formats, coupled with continued Celtic League based Heineken Cup qualification in Wales and Scotland, will ensure that every game will be a must win match endorsed by the fact that every coach and player will know that a top eight finish will be necessary to deliver to their supporters the kind of season they all crave for - a chance to win some additional silverware by capturing the Celtic Cup at the Grand Final.