Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Sugar Daddies, Mad-Dog & Englishmen

As the Six Nations goes through the media launch motions, some thoughts on the first pool phase of HCup 2.0…


Maybe BT Sport’s coverage of the “We Can’t Call It The Heineken Cup Even Though They’re The Only Sponsors” competition so far has been frightfully over-biased towards the English clubs, but to be fair to the network, it’s not as though they have ever hidden where their allegiances lie.

I mean let’s face it...the whole reason we saw changes to the competition in the first place is that they muscled their way into the TV market and it was only ever with a view to focusing on the PRL members.  

So now that the dust has settled on the first pool phase of the revamped tournament, just how much has it been revolutionised?

First, a very simple look at the numbers.  In the 2013/14 Heineken Cup, England had 6 teams in the overall total of 24 competitors, ie 25%.  This time around, they have one extra team while each of the other five unions has lost one (France 7>6, Ireland 4>3, Wales 3>2, Scotland & Italy 2>1), giving England 7 out of 20, ie 35%.

Given the improved situation, it is hardly surprising that they have also increased their presence in the quarterfinals from the previous season - in fact, they have doubled it.  But does that represent a good thing?

One thing BT Sport’s over-hype-a-thon denies us is a chance to be realistic over how their clubs are doing.  And I don’t know about you, but on what was meant to be a critical weekend of decisive European action, none of the four Premiership clubs which actually got out of their pools (Northampton, Saracens, Bath & Wasps) impressed me at all on the pitch.  And as a result, while all qualified, none of them got home quarterfinals.

Another thing we have to ignore in the hype is that everything that was previously wrong with the competition was fixed.  As Irish fans we must never let it be forgotten that the changes came amid a barrage of negative press about the crooked playing field on which the former Heineken Cup was played.

Now it’s true, that playing field was crooked.  But that was always going to be the case when each individual union was allowed to put forward their teams in a manner of their own choosing.  And the way I see it, while restricting qualifiers from the Pro12 may go a long way to making THAT more competitive, it does little to fix the ills of the European tournament.

The dogs in the street knew that the changes were all about tilting the playing field at a different angle so that the money would flow in a different direction.  So while you’ll hear the Craig Doyles and the Austin Healys try to spin the whole “lose your first two matches and you can still qualify” as a good thing, though there were of course some cracking ties in the pool phase, despite some window dressing the tournament itself is more or less stuck with the same problems.

I’m really not sure how any competition can be considered fair when blocks of teams are allowed to set (and often ignore) their own salary caps.  Yes, this is a bit of a pop at Toulon.  And yes, I know all about how it’s not a simple case of mercenaries coming together and not caring about the locals...I have both heard and understood all the stories about how much they give back to their community and how much the people of the town loved Jonny Wilkinson.

That’s all well and good, and more power to Mourad Boudjellal if he can use seemingly unlimited resources to assemble rugby’s answer to The Avengers at the Stade Mayol.

But while all this goes on, we as fans need to make it clear that we can clearly see through all the smoke and mirrors, and that the makeup of this year’s quarterfinals, with Top 14 sides seeded 1-3, Premiership clubs 5-8 and stuck right between them, thankfully this season, Leinster Rugby with Ian “Mad-Dog” Madigan as the pool phase’s leading scorer, is merely a taste of what is to come.  

Meanwhile for those clubs who dare not even wish to come by those kind of resources to compete for the big prize, simply qualifying for the pool phase in the first place would seem to be enough, which in turn means they would probably have to prioritize their domestic league over Europe.

And as the stream of players out of the Pro12 and into the Premiership gets closer to being a flood (JJ - Munster > Northampton, Priestland - Scarlets > Bath, Maitland - Glasgow > London Irish...who could be next?) that playing field is going to keep on tilting.

We'll just have to see if the fans are going to keep on watching.  Because don't forget...not only has the Premiership's quarterfinal representation doubled, so has the cost of watching all the action unfold on TV.  JLP
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