Monday, September 17, 2012

The end of the European Cup? I don’t think so.

One of BT’s taglines is “bringing it all together” – journalist Brendan Grehan doubts this will apply to rugby.


THIS WEEK'S news that BT Vision has secured a deal with Premiership Rugby which includes the right to screen European matches with Aviva Premiership Clubs for three years from 2014 is a classic case of sabre-rattling from our neighbours across the pond. We have been here before when the English clubs boycotted the competition in the late 90's but Europe soldiered on.

DO BT Vision have a broadcast centre? Do they have presenters lined up? Cameramen? Researchers? Studio staff? Outside broadcast personnel?

I think any Irish rugby supporter can sip his or her mug of tea or low fat latté (If you're a Leinster fan!) this Monday morning safe in the knowledge that the Heineken Cup will be continuing for the near future.

It is an amazing competition and it has spearheaded the revival of rugby football in our Island. I missed the first season of the competition as I was living in Boston at the time but I have been to 99% of the Leinster Heineken home cup games ever since.

The first game I remember was in Lansdowne Road against Leicester in the 1996/97 season. We lost but Leinster put in a great performance. Back then that was good enough. The professional/provincial model was at a hybrid stage with English-based players like Niall Woods and Paul Wallace allowed to come home to represent their province. After the game, I was lucky enough to meet the legendary Leicester ABC front row of Rowntree, Cockerill and Garforth. Eric Miller was playing for Leicester too then.

There was a smallish crowd but you got the sense that something special was happening. The next season Leinster beat a Leicester side chock full of returning Lions and one Waisale Serevi and it felt like we had won the Rugby World Cup. A slight overreaction similar to when the Irish rugby public went wild when nobbled the Wallabies in the pool stages of RWC 2011.

The beauty of the idea of the Heineken Cup and its sister competition, the Amlin Challenge Cup, is that it is truly continent-wide.

Next month, rugby will be played by clubs/provinces from the plain of Castille to the snow-capped peaks of the Carpathians.

If one of my passions is rugby, then another has to be Europe and the idea of Europe, a dream that was first forged in Aachen by the Frankish potentate Charlemagne.

The game of rugby owes a lot to Europe too given that its development as a game out of the different varieties of football played on green spaces across the continent was allied to the rise of nation states.

Last May when Leinster beat Ulster to win the Heineken Cup, both Gerry Thornley and Neil Francis commented with hilarity that there had been rugby fans from Hannover at the games.

Why would there be any German rugby fans, they remarked. Believe it or not, Hannover is one of the centres of German rugby and its first Rugby club was set up in 1878 (DSV 78/08 Rickingen). The first proper game of Rugby was not played until 1883 when an England selection played Germany in the Lower Saxon City. Further south Heidelberg, The owner of Capri-Sonne, Hans Peter Wild, is a rugby enthusiast, and has set up a rugby academy and supports a rugby club in the University town.

The development of the game in Ireland is mirrored across Europe with students first playing it schools and then continuing on in university or returning home to work and set up clubs with other individuals.

A great catalyst has been the universities across the continent with up to the professional era nearly all of the best players were coming from various third-level institutions. Now in Spain especially, rugby is a university game save for the traditional rugby heartlands of Euskadi (The Basque Country), the City of Valladolid, Madrid and Villajoyosa in Valencia.

In Italy the game is developing all the time and it is only a matter of time before the Azzurri are a team as gnarly, savvy but individual like their team of the mid to late 90's who beat Ireland three times.

Europe needs European Rugby and it needs Europe. Its too good a thing to drop like a girlfriend with a tycoon for a daddy. We have had too many amazing nights in Donnybrook, The RDS, Toulouse, The Stoop, Thomond Park, The Stadio De Monigo, Franklins Gardens, Ravenhill, The Parc Des Princes, Wembley, The Millennium Stadium and Murrayfield for the party to end.

This hissy-fit from Premiership Rugby should be seen as just that.

Time is a healer and hopefully Derek McGrath and his team at the ERC can turn this ship around and Europe will be united with its love of the oval ball for some time yet.

PS It is with great sadness that I learned on Saturday night of the tragic death of Nevin Spence, his father and brother. I would like to express my condolences to the Spence family and to the rugby community in Ireland.

Brendan Grehan is a journalist

© BrendanGrehan2012

twitter: @brendanxavier

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