European rugby finals to be staged in Bilbao in 2018 and Newcastle in 2019
The next two European Champions Cup finals will be played in rugby’s hinterlands, fulfilling a pledge made by the clubs when they took over the running of the tournament two years ago. Until then, the showpiece had tended to be shared by the competing unions with Cardiff and Twickenham staging 12 of the first 19 finals.
The aim then was to maximize profit by mainly going for grounds with the biggest capacities, but since the change in administration the emphasis has changed. The stadiums chosen for the 2018 and 2019 finals, Athletic Bilbao’s San Mamés and St James’ Park in Newcastle, hold fewer than 54,000 spectators, but the organisers European Professional Club Rugby see the occasion as a chance to expand the game rather than keep it in strongholds.
France held their Top 14 final last year in Barcelona and Spain has twice held European Cup finals in rugby, in 2006 and 2010 when Biarritz used Real Sociedad’s Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastián as their ‘home’ venue. The Rugby Football Union has ruled out taking internationals away from Twickenham to the north or the north-east, but St James’ Park hosted three matches in the 2015 World Cup with the attendance topping 50,000 each time.
This season’s final is being held in Edinburgh, which has only hosted the event once before, and it was played in Lyon last year. “We had exceptional bids for 2018 which is testament to the transparent and detailed process that we have implemented,” said Vincent Gaillard, EPCR’s director general. “To successfully engage with an unprecedented number of bidding cities over the last months shows the attractive proposition that our finals present and we see this as a really positive sign for the future of European professional club rugby.”
Bilbao is the largest city in the Basque country which takes in two French clubs, Biarritz and Bayonne, although both are currently struggling. The former are in the second division where they are trying to secure a place in the play-offs while the latter are bottom of the Top 14.
“We are taking the best club rugby in the world to fans in what is largely a new market,” said the EPCR chairman, Simon Halliday. “Bilbao is an excellent destination which breaks new ground for our tournaments and we see this as a big step in the expansion of our sport across the continent. Newcastle’s commitment to the bid also made it an easy decision to award them the finals in 2019, building on their significant experience of staging major sporting occasions including Rugby World Cup 2015 matches.”
The Newcastle Falcons managing director, Mick Hogan, said the 2019 Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals would leave a lasting imprint for rugby union in the area. “We intend to use the lead-up to the finals as a real catalyst to the legacy of the sport in the area,” he said. “The event will play a huge part in the continued growth of rugby in the north-east of England.”
Gloucester, one of this month’s Challenge Cup semi-finalists, have appointed Johan Ackermann as head coach to replace Laurie Fisher. Since 2013 the South African, who won 13 Test caps, has been in charge of the Lions, guiding them to last year’s Super Rugby final. “He is one of the top coaching talents in the world and it is a significant coup for us to recruit someone of his calibre,” said Gloucester’s director of rugby, David Humphreys.