The Welsh representation in the competition was discussed followingtheswitch from five to four regions at the end of last season. Thismeant ERCwere faced with either losing Welsh representation in the Parker PenChallenge Cup or finding another team to make up the balance of 24teams inthe Heineken Cup.
After considering a number of options, the Board agreed to grant Wales four places by right in next season's 10th anniversary Heineken Cuptournament.
However, from 2005/2006 Wales will have only three guaranteedplaces inthe competition available to them.
"The changes that have taken place in the professional game inWales overthe past 18 months have impacted on our tournaments and forced us,onceagain, to reassess the means of qualifying for the HeinekenCup," said ERCChairman Jean-Pierre Lux.
"The Heineken Cup is the flagship of the professional club gamein thenorthern hemisphere and we want it to remain as competitive in thefutureas it has been in the previous nine years. We feel the system forqualification we have devised for the future is fair to every nationandalso gives an extra incentive to teams in the Celtic League and theItalianChampionship."
The make-up of the 24 teams for the 2004/2005 competition will be asfollows:Heineken Cup 2004/2005.England - 7 teams (London Wasps, Bath Rugby, Northampton Saints, NECHarlequins, Newcastle Falcons, Gloucester, Leicester Tigers)France - 6 teams (Perpignan, Stade Frangais Paris, Castres Olympique,Toulouse, Bourgoin, Biarritz Olympique)Wales - 4 teams (Llanelli Scarlets, Newport Gwent Dragons,Neath-SwanseaOspreys, Cardiff Blues)Ireland - 3 teams (Munster, Leinster, Ulster)
England picked up a seventh place in next season's tournament as aresultof London Wasps winning the Heineken Cup, taking up the vacancy leftbyWales' initial reduction in regional teams.
ERC have devised the following system for allocation of the final twoplaces in the 24 for the 2005/2006 tournament. The 23rd place will go to the most successful nation in next season'scompetition from England, France and Italy. Ireland, Scotland andWales donot come into the reckoning for the 23rd place, but they are incontentionfor the 24th spot via the Celtic League.
The 24th place will go to the winners of a play-off between thehighestplaced non-Heineken Cup qualifying team from Scotland, Ireland orWales inthe 2004/2005 Celtic League and the third-placed side in the 2004/2005Italian Championship. This game will be played the weekend after the2005Heineken Cup final at a venue in Italy.
"The WRU is very grateful for the on-going support it hasreceived from itsERC partners. This is a very important decision for our regions andwe aredelighted with the outcome for not only next season, but also for theformat put in place for future qualification," said WRU ChiefExecutiveDavid Moffett.
"We recognise that once again the ERC Board has made aconcession to Wales.In doing so, they have also given the Celtic League a major boost bygivingthe sides involved an extra route to claim a Heineken Cup place."
The Pools and fixtures for the 2004/2005 Heineken Cup will beannouncedon Tuesday, 29th June, and the time and date of matches in the earlyroundsof matches will be confirmed in August following meetings withbroadcastpartners across Europe.