Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Rugby Champions Cup - more tweaked than revamped


This entity we now call the Rugby Champions Cup is what it is now after all the wrangling.  So in a way, I can see the attraction of pretending any negatives are not there, since to make any more alterations could be seen as farcical.

But as we move forward, I hope we never forget exactly what the competition is in its current form; for despite the shiny coat of paint, what lies underneath has a vast amount of the flaws that were there before.

For one thing, it shouldn’t be surprising that an Irish fan has qualms, given how the whole public kerfuffle over the format transpired, plus the PR disaster after PR disaster that has befallen the EPCR since its inception. (Heineken only sponsor, demonizing ERC yet retaining its staff, and now the “buy a ticket to watch the best 2 teams in England and get to see the best 2 teams in Europe free” offer)

Still - if we are to really look at the supposed improvements to the competition, we need to be honest about what exactly happened (or effectively didn’t) with the change.

The top argument put forward by PRL with the French & Welsh clubs standing squarely behind them was that it was unfair how the Pro12 clubs found it so easy to qualify while Premiership & Top 14 ones had the dreaded sword of relegation hanging over them.

I never saw a problem with that per se, and I have to say the race for 6th in this season’s Pro12 has been a boost to the league and taken away a lot of “dead rubbers” in the final weeks of the regular season.

However...let us examine this perceived “unfairness” for a moment.  The assumption behind these cries of injustice would seem to be that whatever way the rules affect clubs from one country should also be applied to another, right?

OK - then why are countries allowed to set their own salary caps, for example?

Because the French and the English have their own domestic league and the caps are set for those competitions - yes, I know.  But - this pan-European competition is meant to be more prestigious than any other, right?  So was “easy qualification” really the biggest inequality that needed fixing?

Then we have the calendar.  In previous years, the HCup final was played a week before the domestic ones (never ideal, especially when Leinster were involved in so many of them!).  Now we have an almost perfectly ironic scenario whereby the inaugural ERCC decider, moved to the beginning of May (agreed by PRL to placate the Top 14), will involve two French clubs in what is threatening to be a half-empty English stadium.

For me, there is only one weekend on the European calendar which is ideal for a European final - the last one.

But the staging of the final isn’t the only problem with timing IMO.  While so many in rugby circles love to remind folks “This Is Not Soccer” to use Nigel Owens’ immortal words, the structure of our pan-European competition was always built on a foundation close to that of UEFA’s Champions League, with the premise that you have to qualify for next year’s competition from this year’s domestic one.

If I had to explain the system to a fan of American sports, I’d compare it to staging the Super Bowl playoffs in the middle of the following regular season.  Sounds crazy from an NFL perspective, but it is the expected norm in European sport.

Now...before anyone scoffs at the notion that we copy what the Americans do, that’s not what I’m suggesting at all; in fact, there’s a lot to be said for the status quo because it gives more weight to the domestic league as opposed to making it seem more like a preliminary round for Europe.

However, a major flaw in the current Euro format cannot be ignored...when you sprinkle the RCC/HCup matches throughout the season, you force coaches and players to choose between competitions.  

There is so much money involved in merely qualifying for Europe that some clubs may be forced to prioritize domestic fixtures so they can be sure of a slice of the telly pie the following season.  And for me, this is wrong.  In an ideal world the schedule should be such that the hierarchy of importance is Test > Europe > Domestic, with no exceptions.

But like I say, it is merely an ideal.  It is a feature of world rugby that national unions are given a huge amount of scope to do things their own way (as we saw with the ARU’s new “Giteau rule”) so it’s safe to say a level playing field when those unions face each other isn’t exactly a top priority in the game.  

And as for my reservations on the Euro format, not to mention my disappointment at my beloved Leinster falling just short in our semifinal, I should make it clear that I am still very much looking forward to this weekend’s finals.  

Once there's top flight rugby on, I'll be watching when I can.  I just hope the current model is sustainable with a view to growing the game across the continent over the years.

No surprises that my support will be with Clérmont and their amazing fans for the big clash at Twickenham; as for the Challenge Cup final, since Brendan Macken didn’t make Gloucester’s matchday 23, Come On You Embra!!!!  JLP
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