News Vincent Hogan

Thursday 28 August 2014

The power of money

With Europe at a crossroads, Vincent Hogan poses the question as to who exactly owns rugby in the northern hemisphere

Published 11/10/2013 | 06:38

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Jonny Sexton

If this is to be the final Heineken Cup, will it be a good, belligerent send-off, salted with all the sour self-interests so embedded in Europe's hopelessly dysfunctional rugby family?

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Or will the corpse just reach out of the casket again, re-assuring those assembled that any rumour of a funeral was just the scabrous work of media loons bearing crayons?

The tournament has always been a fidgety alliance and its 19th episode should, whatever next season might unwrap, prove no exception to that rule. As an explanatory snapshot of the philosophical differences currently threatening to sunder European rugby, just take yourself back to the '05 final at Murrayfield.

You might struggle to remember Toulouse beating Stade Francais that day in a profoundly unromantic collision, but you are far more likely to recall the post-game image of Toulouse coach, Guy Noves, being arm-wrestled from the pitch by members of the local constabulary.

Noves had tried to push a security guard aside so that he could accede to a Toulouse sponsor's request to be allowed join the victory celebrations on the field. In France, such a request would have been granted as a formality. Those who put money into French rugby clubs expect unlimited access to the product. The relationship isn't bound up in any of the stuffy hierarchical protocol favoured by those beholden to a union.

A club president like Jacky Lorenzetti will, if the mood takes him, feel free to insinuate himself into any business bearing the Racing Metro logo. That might be a private chat with Jonny Sexton, should the Irishman endure an off-day with his kicking. Or it could be a gentle contretemps with Jamie Roberts over some perceived kink in his running game.

The men who sign the rugby cheques in France and England don't defer to management or coaching staff when something happens to displease them. Neither do they defer to any union.

Hence the image of Noves, perhaps the most revered of all French coaches, becoming entangled in an embarrassing breach of stadium protocol within minutes of steering Toulouse to their third European crown, a breach for which he later apologised.

Money has always spoken with more candour in France and England than it has in any of the Celtic nations. Yet, the Heineken Cup arithmetic has long represented an odd contradiction of that trend. The 13-team Anglo-French coalition shares out 48pc of the pot. Which means 52pc remaining for what might be no more than a 11-team co-operative of the Irish, Welsh, Scots and Italians.

This has never made sense to those bankrolling club rugby in France and England, for whom the Heineken Cup has thus long been as much an irritant as an aspiration.

Make no mistake, their war now is, essentially, with Ireland. The Welsh, Scots and Italians have long been bit-players in Europe, not managing a single final appearance between them since Toulouse beat Cardiff in the first edition in January '96. For any Anglo-French alliance, the skewed financial balance of the tournament might be just about palatable were it not for the recurring sight of one element of the Celtic underclass plundering glory.

Irish clubs have won five of the last eight Heineken Cups, facilitated in Anglo-French eyes by the benign demands of a Pro12 competition left largely inert by the absence of a relegation trapdoor.

When Leinster came from 22-6 down at half-time in the 2011 final against Northampton to score an unanswered 27 points in the second half, English eyes viewed the turnaround as proof of a glaring inequity in the structure of European rugby.

The Premiership season had worn Northampton's squad down to the barest bones. Leinster were, essentially, stepping over men reduced to training cones.

Put it this way: Sexton will go into Sunday's European opener against Clermont having already played nine Top 14 games for Racing Metro this season. Had he still been with Leinster, the Irish pivot would have just five Pro12 games in his legs.

So if there has been a French representative in 12 of the 18 Heineken Cup finals played (and indeed four all-French finals), there has also been a regular suspicion of their heavyweight clubs prioritising domestic ambition above Europe.

A couple of Heineken Cup defeats this side of Christmas may well persuade the likes of Racing Metro, Castres, Montpellier or Perpignan to field shadow teams for remaining away fixtures, given their financial lifeblood flows from Top 14.

That would be unthinkable to an Irish province. Leinster and Munster's greatest days have all been delivered by this tournament, while Ulster's march to the 2012 final has re-whetted their appetite to repeat the victory of '99.

Connacht's Heineken Cup presence, delivered on the back of Leinster's Amlin Cup triumph last season, represents just another of the Anglo-French bugbears about conflicting qualification standards.

Pat Lam's reign at the Showgrounds brought a fourth successive defeat last weekend and not a shred of evidence that they can be anything but fodder in Pool 3 against the likes of Premiership pace-setters Saracens and Noves' perennial European bluebloods Toulouse.

But the other three provinces are all considered top-eight candidates in the betting for those most likely to lift the cup at the Millennium Stadium next May.

Three-time winners Leinster join Toulouse as third favourites behind last year's champions Toulon and beaten finalists Clermont. Yet they face an extremely difficult immediate challenge trying to escape Pool 1 against Northampton, Castres and Ospreys in what many consider the obligatory 'Group of Death'.

Much will depend on how they deal with the loss of Sexton, not to mention Isa Nacewa. Matt O'Connor put his faith in Ian Madigan at 10 against Munster last weekend and the hope right across Irish rugby will surely be that the former Kilmacud Crokes Gaelic footballer holds that shirt for the long haul, thus providing Joe Schmidt with a live challenger to Sexton within the Ireland squad (albeit Ulster would argue he already has that in the shape of Paddy Jackson).

The big question about Madigan is his ability to control a game. He doesn't have anything like the calibre of Sexton's tactical kicking and he can be a little head-strong around the fringes, as evidenced by his silly sin-binning at Thomond Park last Saturday evening.

But Madigan has the potential to be the best attacking out-half in Europe, carrying a remarkable threat to the try-line that can preoccupy opposing back-rows, thereby creating space and opportunity for those outside. The outcome of his battle with Jimmy Gopperth will tell a great deal about O'Connor's preferred philosophy at Leinster.

Gopperth is a fine No 10 but, typical of the New Zealand genre, given to broad efficiency rather than individual brilliance. Leinster need to get off to a flier against Ospreys this weekend. How O'Connor sets about that challenge may set the tone for Leinster's season.

Munster have been dealt a rather kinder deck of cards in Pool 6, where they and Perpignan will be favoured to reach the knockout stages. That said, the French will undoubtedly prioritise Top 14, so it isn't beyond the bounds that Gloucester's form at Kingsholm could propel them into contention too.

What we do know is that the greatest single question surrounding Munster is how they will deal with the absence of Ronan O'Gara. Ian Keatley had a fine evening against Leinster last Saturday but, in the whitest of heat, can he summon the game-composure that became O'Gara's signature on big European nights?

The team that won in '08 has been largely dismantled now, but expectation does not dim. Since '98, Munster have failed only once to get out of their Heineken Cup pool and, despite not even making the Pro12 play-offs last season, they did manage to terrorise a clearly superior Clermont in their Heineken semi-final.

This tournament tends to bring something out of Munster then and if Keatley can build on last weekend's performance, Rob Penney might just pull something special from the hat here.

Ulster find themselves in dangerous waters with Leicester, Montpellier and Benetton-Treviso for Pool 5 company. Fabien Galthie will have the ambitious French club primed for a quick start but they might choose to re-assess if that start doesn't materialise.

Ulster are now accustomed to making the knockout stages and have shown themselves to be the match of just about anyone at Ravenhill. But doubts remain about their capacity to win big games away from Belfast and they will be under pressure to erase those doubts in Europe this season.

With massive talent behind the scrum and that human wrecking-ball Nick Williams still punching gaping holes, nothing less than qualification for the knockout stages will satisfy Mark Anscombe. Rightly so too, but this is far from a given.

Then again, nothing really is today as the Heineken Cup edges towards some kind of decisive tumult. What we do know is that the millionaire club owners of England and France do not now (and truth be told never did previously) share the romantic view of this tournament that has made it such a treasured event in Ireland.

Just thinking of a jet-heeled Leinster in Toulouse or, say, the 'Miracle Match' at Thomond, the memories instantly summoned now seem part of the very fabric of the game here. But who exactly owns rugby in the northern hemisphere? More pertinently, who has the mandate to decide?

The professional game has, maybe, always been heading for this point of intersection, but never before have the interested parties seemed so philosophically divided. Just now, there is a lot of speechifying but precious little dialogue. It has the feel of a volatile family funeral, the liquor about to flow. Take it the Celts will be desperate to have the final word.

So an Irish province to close the deal? The hunch here is less romantic than that.

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