Let's play! Time for TV war to take a back seat as the Heineken Cup returns
21:34 GMT, 11 October 2012
21:37 GMT, 11 October 2012
Against a backdrop of division and doubts about its existence, the Heineken Cup returns, not a moment too soon.
For now, the European TV rights war which has erupted this season can be put to one side. Let the men in suits step back in to the shadows. Let the players and their clubs emerge into the light.
On Monday, ERC stakeholders met in Rome in an attempt to find a resolution to the power struggle stemming from attempts by English and French clubs to overhaul the accord governing participation in the tournament, and the shock English tactic of getting into bed with BT Vision.
There were no puffs of white smoke after the latest meeting, which was no surprise as this is a tangled mess.
Welcome return: Leinster celebrate winning the Heineken Cup last May
The quest to establish common ground will drag on for months, so at this juncture it is simply appropriate to state that anything which threatens this event is bad news.
The Heineken Cup is adored by spectators, relished by players and coaches and envied by the southern hemisphere.
A major aspect of its appeal is the sheer variety it delivers, on and off the field, but the Anglo-French gripe about qualification is justified. The argument that this should be a merit-based showcase of the continent’s best teams is enticing, yet the multi-national element must be protected.
Once again, the English challenge will be hamstrung by circumstance. Aviva Premiership clubs have to deal with the triple-whammy inconvenience of a salary cap, a fight for qualification places and the spectre of relegation in their league.
Europe cannot be the over-riding priority, as it is in Ireland, where central contracts and union control of leading players has been a recipe for success.
Jonny be good Toulon will take on the Cardiff Blues
France have relegation and qualification to contend with, but their clubs are awash with money and talent.
The Welsh regions do not have the same issue of league position to contend with, but they now have a salary cap, falling attendance and a growing player exodus.
For them, as for the English, the only way to compete is with an emphasis on quality coaching, production of homegrown talent and development of first-rate support structures.
It is not a level playing field, so they have to be smarter and more efficient than their French and Irish rivals.
Enough of the hardships. The start of the campaign is a time to celebrate what lies ahead.
Much of the rugby in the key pool games and throughout the knock-out phases is of Test intensity.
Ulster play Castres at Ravenhill. The Irish province will aim to deliver another tribute to the memory of young centre Nevin Spence, who died in an accident on the family farm last month, by extending their unbeaten start to the season.
On Sunday, a clash of the titans sees Toulouse host Leicester. The beat of the drums and the giant flags are the mark of such an occasion in France, from Perpignan to Biarritz to Clermont. Next weekend, the Cardiff Blues confront Jonny Wilkinson and the rest of Toulon’s galacticos at the old Arms Park. On the same day, Leicester and the Ospreys renew a fierce rivalry.
What would really galvanise the Heineken Cup would be a Welsh triumph to show that the regional model can prosper. Another feat for the greater good would be an Italian side reaching the knock-out stages, although that is unlikely.
But the health of the event can be measured in how competitive this pool phase has become.
Unlike its football counterparts, there are very few predictable outcomes. The ‘shocks’ are less shocking with every passing year, as the power-base expands.
European rugby has a formula which works. So a message to the suits — enjoy the show, then find a compromise. Do not destroy this.
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McCaw caught offside
What a shame that, days after Richie McCaw became the world’s first player to participate in 100 Test victories, the release of his autobiography should resurrect the Kiwi obsession with lambasting Wayne Barnes.
The All Black captain reflects on his side’s 2007 World Cup quarter-final defeat to France by castigating the IRB for putting the English referee in charge. ‘I don’t blame Barnes, I blame the people who appointed the most inexperienced referee,’ says McCaw, in The Open Side.
‘On the big stage, an inexperienced referee is likely to become so afraid of making a mistake that he stops making decisions. /10/11/article-0-1568CBF1000005DC-972_634x424.jpg” width=”634″ height=”424″ alt=”Missing the cut: Welford Road” class=”blkBorder” />
Missing the cut: Welford Road
The last word
When England Rugby 2015 released their ‘long list’ of possible World Cup venues this week — which did not contain Welford Road, home of the country’s biggest club, Leicester, the backlash was staggering.
Officially, the problem is that the pitch is deemed too small. In reality it is about money.
The IRB awarded the 2011 World Cup to New Zealand, knowing it would make a loss, which it did. So England are charged with balancing the books, hence the acceptance of an 80million ‘guarantee’ to the world governing body.
Asked recently if ER2015 expected to cover the guarantee, chairman Andy Cosslett said: ‘I think we can do better than that.’
Well, that requires selling 2.9million tickets, potentially in such hot-beds of the elite game as Sunderland, Derby and Southampton.
While that hard sell goes on, Welford Road will continue to stage big games and draw big crowds, but when the festival comes it will be excluded. It’s a travesty.
Conor O’Shea (Director of rugby at Harlequins, ex-Ireland full-back)
Munster’s first European Cup success in 2006, beating Biarritz 23-19 in the Millennium Stadium
‘I’m a Limerick-born lad and that first Cup success was very special after so many disappointments and near misses. It was the end of a journey and I became very partisan in watching Munster finally get to that ‘Holy Grail’ of winning a European Cup final.’
Steve Borthwick (Saracens lock and ex-England captain)
Going to Bath’s semi-final against Pau in 1998 as a schoolboy player
‘I was only 17 or 18 and had been invited to see the set up and sample the atmosphere on a big-match day. Bath won, beating Pau, 20-14, and the decision was almost made. There’s just nothing to beat the atmosphere in the city on a big-match day in such a beautiful setting.’
Chris Robshaw (captain of Harlequins & England)
Nick Evans kicking the winning drop goal against Stade Francais in a pool game at the Stoop, Dec 2008
‘It was in the wet and mud of the Stoop and it was one of our first big wins in Europe. To get to the drop goal for Nick we went through some 29 phases in an effort to get a bit closer all the time. Somehow Nick managed to keep his cool and to slot it over.’
Simon Easterby (head coach at Llanelli Scarlets, ex-Ireland back row)
Losing 13-12 to Leicester in 2003 semi-final at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground
‘I’m a Nottingham Forest fan so it was a great buzz playing at the City Ground, but it did not bring us any luck and came in a period when the Scarlets had a number of really close defeats. Leicester nicked it right at the end thanks to Tim Stimpson’s penalty from over halfway which hit the upright and crossbar before going over.’
Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys and Wales lock)
Shane Williams’ last-gasp try when Ospreys beat Sale 17-16 in Oct 2006 at Swansea
‘Sale had their title-winning team out including players like Sebastian Chabal and Charlie Hodgson. I came off the bench towards the end and was immediately dumped on my backside by Chabal. But I got my own back by winning a line-out and then helping to put Shane over in the corner for one of his special tries.’
Gregor Townsend (Glasgow head coach and ex-Scotland fly half)
Playing for Castres in France when they had to play Munster three times in one season
‘The last match was in the semi-final in Beziers where we just lost, 25-17, but by then a great rivalry had built up between the teams and the games became very special. For Scotsman playing for a French team against Munster left a great impression. Pity we lost.’
Michael Bradley (Edinburgh head coach and ex-Ireland scrum-half)
Edinburgh’s run to the semi-final last season – the best by a Scottish team
‘It must be the win over Racing Metro in last season’s pool games. Greig Laidlaw kicked the winning conversion in a match where we came back to win 48-47 after losing by 24 points. As an Irishman it must be Leinster’s stunning win over Northampton in the 2011 final.’
Alastair Kellock (Glasgow captain and Scotland lock)
Glasgow’s trip to Toulouse in 2011where the game was delayed for five days due to the weather
‘The circumstances surrounding the delay brought the whole squad together and helped us finish the season very strongly. We had arrived without our kit because of flight delays and then refused to play in Toulouse’s away kit. That upset them and made for a very hostile atmosphere once the match was played.’
Interviews by Rob Wildman