Jhe Heineken Cup has been universally recognized for years as the great achievement of the professional era. It’s exactly the same age, the first match played on Halloween in 1995, on a Tuesday evening, on the shores of the Black Sea, when Toulouse beat the Romanian Farul Constanta 54-10 in front of two men and a dog.
In less than a decade, it was heralded by such a prominent authority as the Observer as the greatest rugby tournament on Earth. More colorful than regular national competitions; more competitive than the World Cup; more teams than the Six Nations or (as it was then) the Tri Nations. On the eve of the 10th season, in 2004, our late correspondent Eddie Butler described the competition as a “new cultural experiment” to rival the Six Nations.
The northern hemisphere had just produced its first (and so far only) world champions, and, get it, the combined deficit of the nine Premiership clubs that filed accounts this season was just over a million pounds. Four of them were for profit. The salary cap was £2m.
How times change. As we sit on the eve of the 28th edition, which kicks off on the banks of the Thames on Friday, when the London Irish host Montpellier, does anyone feel the same about the competition as they did at their climax, even the most curmudgeonly would not flinch at calling by the name of his godfather?
Do we even know his name now? Heineken is still sponsor, or at least returned as such in 2018, after four years of absence. At some point, presumably to try to brighten things up (and/or copy football), someone introduced the word ‘Champions’ into the nomenclature. This season they have introduced South African teams to the roster which will no doubt bring a new dimension but pokes fun at the EPCR acronym where E stands for European. Then again, maybe Brexit had already done that.
In keeping with the times, something seems inconsistent with the beloved child of professional rugby, which, to keep the reader from looking for it, is now officially known as the Heineken Champions Cup. Covid has hit all competitions hard (see the Premiership), but it’s the only one to have had a weekend ousted from its calendar by the others.
In order to adapt to the chaos of the 2020-21 calendar, the classic six pool format has been abandoned in favor of the two unwieldy pools of 12 which now apply, to be played over four weekends. There can be no death pools in this configuration.
The format was positioned as a temporary arrangement while the world returned to normal, but here we are on the brink of its third season. Having lost two weekends in October in exchange for an extra weekend (a knockout round of 16) in April, a return to the previous structure would be a mathematical impossibility as it stands.
Last week, the launch of this season’s iteration took place in a shiny hotel in a wood by the M25. In keeping with the obligatory hype of these events, EPCR Chairman Dominic McKay performed admirably, but admitted he was not in his gift to recoup the lost weekend. Bad news, Dom. It means he will never come back.
Worse still, rumors persist of a Club World Championship. Given that the South Africans are now playing here, and that more and more of the best players from New Zealand and Australia are accepting contracts here as well, this very idea becomes redundant as a result. Still, the talks are now far enough along that McKay could have speculated on its likely format.
Answer: Every four years, the Heineken Champions Cup will forego anything as trivial as its knockout stages, to see how a handful of New Zealand teams could compare to Europe’s top teams. And South Africa. It is true that football has a Club World Cup, but it is hard to imagine the Champions League hosting it in this way.
The truth is that the Heineken/Champions Cup has become as vulnerable as any other institution in the market economy model adopted by rugby. Originally, it was an aberration, a competition organized by the unions for the clubs, with revenue split between six, which meant, in effect, that the wealthier leagues (French and English) subsidized the rest.
Heineken’s move to Champions took place in 2014, when the clubs downgraded. Now they run the show, with unions little more than sitting at the table.
The South African union is not even that. While waiting for it to become a partner, the South African participation can be considered as a kind of trial. South Africa is desperate for meaningful competition for its top teams, but EPCR is desperate for a boost for its flagship competition. It could be considered a perfect match.
Again, everyone is hopeless in a free market model except the wealthy. With the Premiership’s recent tribulations, it’s roughly equal to the French these days, with an honorable mention for the Irish, even though this competition is much more important for the latter. Whispers at launch were that whether or not the South African experiment would succeed would come down to how French clubs approach travel and logistics.
The French have the wind in their sails, which is more due to the size of their economy and the place occupied by rugby than to the comings and goings of the great players. They include the last two Champions Cup winners and six of the last eight semi-finalists. More and more, the world of rugby revolves around them. This includes the competition which was for some time the best in the world.
A bigger picture
What do we want, a dynamic international scene in which 10 or more teams are able to fight? Or our team to win all the time? Because you can’t have both. Wayne Pivac has just lost his job after one of Wales’ poorest calendar years – a year after leading them to the Six Nations title. The WRU relented and returned to Warren Gatland. It’s hard to know who is taking the bigger step back – Wales or Warren?
Eddie Jones is England’s most successful manager, in terms of results, after the second longest career, in by far the most competitive field international rugby has ever known. (By the way, the weakest field – of the professional era at least – was 2003, when England’s fourth most successful manager, by results, clinched the World Cup.) England won the Six Nations last year. They were World Cup runners-up the previous year. They won a series in Australia just a few months ago.
Throw a few boos at Twickers this autumn, after two disappointing Six Nations campaigns (by far the most competitive Six Nations field), and the RFU are about to tear up the most lucrative contract they have ever offered anyone. (or rather to pay a chance to close it), less than a year before the full point of this contract, the next World Cup. It would be funny if it wasn’t such a cowardly capitulation.
Ian Foster, Dave Rennie, Gregor Townsend – all equally clinging to their work. Expose Rassie Erasmus to a few losses and he begins to behave somewhat erratically. Andy Farrell and Fabien Galthié are the two who are doing well at the moment. They should enjoy it while it lasts. Because you can’t have what we all want, which is a World Cup that could be won by any of the many teams operating in the most competitive international arena ever, without your team losing a few. We should all be used to losing to Argentina by now. Get used to losing against Japan; get used to losing against Italy, Georgia, Fiji and, one day soon, the United States. It’s the future.
Amen to that.
Want even more?
Australia’s European tour has been a rollercoaster ride, but it hints at a bright future, writes Angus Fontaine.
Robert Kitson analyzes the international coaching arena as Gatland climbs and Jones prepares to be pushed back.
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