Thursday, September 12, 2013

European Rugby : My (2008) Solution

I wrote this on a personal blog in April 2008 the last time the future of the Heineken Cup was in doubt.  I did alter the teams for my proposed Division 1 to reflect the current form of European clubs.
So we’re clear, I’m not suggesting this format would definitely work at this stage as the goalposts have moved somewhat (and the Celtic clubs have gotten stronger), it just goes to show that the debate is far from new and that something needs to be done to the status quo to satisfy everyone or else we’ll be back here again down the line.
euro rugby logo[3]
This weekend should be one of the best in the European rugby calendar, as the Heineken Cup semifinals take place.

This time around, there is an Irish interest in BOTH matches, as Munster square up to Saracens, and the London Irish Exiles meet Toulouse.

But as you may have seen several times on my blog, I believe the current structure of the European rugby season is beyond a joke.

Between them, the Guinness Premiership and the French Top 14 exercise so much control over matters that the Heineken Cup itself, supposedly the continent’s premier tournament, was in jeopardy of not taking place at all for this season.

I have to assume that the reason for this was that the domestic competition guaranteed a regular income for the clubs involved, and with the World Cup taking place in September, the H Cup threatened to add too many games to the schedule.

And so, to avoid anything similar happening in the future, and indeed to avoid my referring to the Irish/Scottish/Welsh tournament the Meaningless League, what can be done?

I recommend merging all the domestic tournaments into something I call Euro-Rugby, and as you can see I’ve even designed a logo for it.

What I’ve done is take a leaf out of the IRFU’s book. If you’ll remember, up to relatively recently Irish club rugby was still run on a provincial basis, until they came up with the concept we now know as the All Ireland League, sponsored by the AIB.

Now there is a 3-division structure (4 in 2013) featuring all four provinces, with promotion and relegation, and with the bottom club in division 3 being replaced by the winner of a playoff featuring one from each province.

If in a bizarre set of circumstances the IRB made me responsible for changing European Rugby, I would look to do something similar. Three tiers or divisions, each with 16 clubs.

Below you see how a Euro-Rugby(Division)1 would look, based on latest standings in the various leagues…
CASTRES
CLERMONT
GLASGOW
GLOUCESTER
HARLEQUINS
LEICESTER
LEINSTER
MONTPELLIER
MUNSTER
NORTHAMPTON
OSPREYS
SARACENS
SCARLETS
TOULON
TOULOUSE
ULSTER
I gave 5 slots each to England and France, 3 to Ireland, 2 to Wales and 1 to Scotland. [2013 edit : for Italy I’d put Treviso in EuroRugby2, scrap Zebre and let one or two existing clubs compete in EuroRugby3 for starters but if they drop out then so be it until they’re ready], plus the remaining Celtic League clubs, with the rest of course to mostly English and French sides.

I would have a league format spanning the ENTIRE rugby season, with everyone playing each other home and away. Surely this will give clubs plenty of revenue with a guaranteed 15 home matches?

By the way, I would suggest competitions like the Anglo-Welsh Cup be played at the BEGINNING of the season, as a kind of warm up – I would even resurrect the Interprovincial tournament for the Irish teams. What better way to kickoff a season than a couple of Leinster v Munster clashes?

Then at the end of the league season, maybe the top 7 in Euro-Rugby1 plus the winners of Euro-Rugby2 can go into an 8-team playoff for the Heineken Cup, as well as, of course, promotion and relegation between the divisions.  So basically as the season starts any of as many as 32 clubs can be champions.

There could also be an 4-team playoff between, say, the bottom team in Euro-Rugby3, one club each from England and France (who of course will have restructured their domestic competitions), and one from the non-Six-Nations, to see who either stays in Euro-Rugby or earns a place in it.

Where could the Celtic League clubs go (eg Connacht) go if they dropped out of the European pyramid? Why not let them play in the English League system? I'm sure something could be worked out in regional leagues down the system.

The only true con I can see weighing against all the pros is the subject of travel, but to that I say, if the Super 14 clubs can overcome the distances between Aus/NZ and South Africa, surely the much smaller distances in Europe can be covered over a season?

And this way, coaches only have the Six Nations to disrupt their plans (though ideally I’d shift this to the end of the season but due to tradition that will probably never happen), and they can play the same squads more regularly throughout the year without having to worry about different competitions around the corner.

This would mean that fans could purchase season tickets and be a lot more confident that their investment would see them watching the best available players in action.

Of course, I’m sure my proposals will fall on blind eyes, but I suppose if I’m going to bitch and moan about the status quo I should really offer an alternative and I think you can say that I have! JLP
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