Monday 27 March 2017

Alan Quinlan: Champions Cup has a choice - reform or die

Hijacked Heineken Cup has become a predictable Anglo-French carve-up - and everyone will suffer

(left to right) Saracens' Duncan Taylor, Michael Rhodes, Jamie George, Chris Wyles and Jackson Wray celebrate winning the European Champions Cup. Photo: PA
(left to right) Saracens' Duncan Taylor, Michael Rhodes, Jamie George, Chris Wyles and Jackson Wray celebrate winning the European Champions Cup. Photo: PA

Alan Quinlan

You wonder if the irony is lost on them, the Anglo-French clubs who campaigned so forcefully for change and passionately argued that if you reduce the numbers then you will increase the quality.

That was their theory. And Saturday was the reality.

Two years after the Heineken Cup became the Champions Cup, after 24 teams became 20, after England and France got their way, we got this - the drabbest final in the history of the competition.

Yet my fear is that there will be more of this, more grunt between the richest clubs in France and England to determine the strongest team in 'Europe'.

In fact my fear goes beyond Anglo-French domination. My fear is that money will talk, the teams with money will dominate and that eventually the tournament will become so utterly predictable that we'll all lose interest and the competition will wither and die.

Excitable

If that seems too excitable a statement then bear in mind what has happened in the last month: Canal Plus announcing a television deal worth €97m a year for a four-year period between 2019 and 2023, following on from the increase in TV rights for the Aviva Premiership from £38m per annum to a yearly return of £50m.

Owen Farrell lifts the Champions Cup trophy aloft. Photo: Getty
Owen Farrell lifts the Champions Cup trophy aloft. Photo: Getty

In contrast, the four Irish provinces - along with the other eight clubs in the Pro12 - have to divvy up €14m per year between them.

So do you really need me to spell out where this is going? After watching Saturday's final, from a rugby point of view, are we capable of sending out a side to physically compete with Saracens or Racing 92? The answer is yes.

Are we capable of one-off wins? Again the response is positive.

Where we run into problems, however, is when you read the terms and conditions of professional rugby. Good teams don't win major competitions any more; great squads do.

So cast your mind back to Leinster's game against Toulon at the Aviva just before Christmas. Leinster were ahead in that game, remember. Then Toulon replaced Juan Smith, a World Cup winner, with Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe, the Argentinian who has played two World Cup semi-finals.

You look around the rest of the Toulon team, the South Africans and Australians who have won 427 international caps, the addition of Ma'a Nonu, the World Cup winning All Black, and you see where the money is being spent: on quality that the Irish provinces cannot afford.

Ronan O’Gara chats with Dan Carter after Racing 92’s defeat to Saracens Photo: Getty
Ronan O’Gara chats with Dan Carter after Racing 92’s defeat to Saracens Photo: Getty

No-one doubts there are talented players in this country. Nor does anyone doubt that there will be more days like this season - when, in spite of everything going wrong - Ulster still managed to beat Toulouse home and away, Munster exacted revenge on Stade Francais in Thomond Park, Leinster defeated Bath.

We will always get some great days and big wins. But tournament wins? Unless the monetary situation changes, they may become a thing of the past.

English and French clubs provided all eight participants in the quarter-finals and worse again from a Pro12 perspective, only Ospreys and Ulster came close to gatecrashing the party.

So expect more of the same over the next number of seasons.

LYON, FRANCE - MAY 14: Mako Vunipola (L) and Billy Vunipola (R) of Saracens celebrate with the trophy after the European Rugby Champions Cup Final match between Racing 92 and Saracens at the Stade de Lyon on May 14, 2016 in Lyon, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)
LYON, FRANCE - MAY 14: Mako Vunipola (L) and Billy Vunipola (R) of Saracens celebrate with the trophy after the European Rugby Champions Cup Final match between Racing 92 and Saracens at the Stade de Lyon on May 14, 2016 in Lyon, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

If it is isn't Saracens or Racing appearing in the final, then it'll be Toulon, Wasps, Leicester, Clermont or whichever English or French team gets the most money from the richest benefactor in that particular year.

As for Ulster, Munster, Connacht and Leinster, a serious reality check is needed. Once, winning the tournament was the goal. Now it may be to just reach the knock-out stages, because Irish clubs don't have the depth in the squads that the Top 14 and Aviva Premiership clubs have.

We don't have private owners. Nor access to €97m worth of TV money. Therefore when a Dan Carter becomes available, we can't dig deep into our pockets because there is a Frenchman or an Englishman who can double our money without the blink of an eye.

And this isn't just something that should worry us. Whether they know it or not, England and France need a healthy the Pro12, because if they think that fans will continue to be enthralled by an annual Anglo-French march to the title, then they'd be as well looking at the attendances at this year's semi-finals: just 16,820 travelled to Reading to watch Wasps lose to Saracens; and just over 22,000 turned up for Racing's victory over Leicester.

Remember 2009 and a sold-out Croke Park when Leinster beat Munster? That is what the Pro12 teams can offer. Passion, colour, support.

Whether we see those days again is something I hope for rather than expect. Of course it can happen, because I only have to recall my own playing days and remember the number of times we beat bigger-budgeted French clubs.

What we had then was something the provinces still have now: a passion and identity for the club we played for and the people we represented. The Heineken Cup mattered more to us than it did to them. So that gives me hope.

And then I think about Toulon, and their multi-cultural make-up, winning three successive European Cups and I'm immediately filled with despair again. So like it or lump it, we're at a crossroads here with this competition.

Either the Irish provinces' budgets are increased or we will be left behind. While the IRFU's model has worked in the past, and while it just needs tweaking rather than tearing up, the Champions Cup competition is in the control of the English and French clubs now.

They fought for this - to reduce the numbers and the influence of the Pro12 participants, because, they argued, we were at an unfair advantage.

Well, they've got what they wanted. And what they've got is this: a predictable tournament that once was characterised by its ability to cause shocks, to be a rugby version of the FA Cup, where a Connacht could go to a Toulouse and win, where teams like Brive, Ulster and Munster could win it outright, in spite of all the financial reasons in the world why they shouldn't.

Those days are gone. Is European rugby the better for it? The answer clearly is no. We may be witnesses to the start of a long decline and a slow death of a once great competition.

What we were witnesses to on Saturday was an awful spectacle where the weather played a part and injuries to Racing's key men - Dan Carter, Maxime Machenaud and Alexandre Dumoulin - played a bigger part.

Never able to get a control of the game, they suffered from the relentless intensity of Saracens' game-plan and were never given a chance, largely because of the contributions of Maro Itoje - who is still only 21 - and George Kruis in the second-row. Quite possibly, this pair are the best in the world right now. Itoje can do everything: tackle, carry, win his own lineout ball and steal the opposition's.

His, and Saracens', future could not be brighter. But the long-term future of the Champions Cup could not be bleaker.

Irish Independent

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