Sport Rugby

Thursday 26 April 2018

Brendan Fanning: How a reshaped English Premiership turns out could have a big impact on Euro competitions

 

The Champions Cup trophy on the Thomond Park pitch prior to the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final between Munster and Toulon. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
The Champions Cup trophy on the Thomond Park pitch prior to the European Rugby Champions Cup quarter-final between Munster and Toulon. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

In the wake of Ireland's Grand Slam success at Twickenham three weeks ago it wasn't long before the game of compare and contrast kicked off. Given that England were the vanquished, they were the ones looking at the Irish system and seeing a playing pitch with a slope on it. Viewed from across the water, the men in green were the ones playing both halves downhill.

Inevitably, this morphed into a whinge about the unfairness of how things operate over here, how Joe Schmidt rolls out of bed of a morning and, depending on what his horoscope says, rings up one of the provincial coaches to pick his team for him.

Schmidt's love of control has been well documented, but its coverage of the four proud provinces clearly is not complete. Would Joey Carbery be lined up behind Ross Byrne in Leinster if the Ireland coach was pushing every button from his desk in Lansdowne Road?

Nevertheless, Schmidt has a handle on most of the moving parts. And the effect is a fairly smooth running machine. Relative to our Celtic cousins, Scotland and Wales, there is no comparison.

Ireland head coach Joe Schmid. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Ireland head coach Joe Schmid. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Millennials will look at you like you've just emerged from a time capsule if you try to tell them that the Scots once looked at us as easy beats. Through the 1990s we couldn't buy a win in that fixture. Now if we lose to them it sparks an internal review. Pre-professionalism these two rugby-playing nations were leaving from the same start line.

Wales, too, once considered Ireland as occasionally awkward but always beatable. And while in the Championship it's been tight enough since the turn of the century - 11-7 in Ireland's favour - we split into business class and steerage on the success rate of the provinces versus the regions. In 22 years of European competition, Ireland has six Heineken Cups and a Challenge Cup in the trophy cabinet, plus three runners-up. Wales has one Challenge Cup and two runners-up in the same second-tier competition.

The key point about what Ireland are doing well is to put manners on what they can control. It is made easier by a couple of things: the supply chain of local talent; and the primacy of Test rugby, which helps keep them at home. Their influence over the first criterion clearly is a whole lot more manageable than the latter, for Test rugby is under constant threat to maintain its space on the calendar. Not knowing where that power game is going is what should keep us awake at night.

England will be driving that particular bus. You will be aware of the ongoing debate there about the size and shape of their Premiership. Currently it is all about growing pains. Three years ago Premier Rugby's Mark McCafferty got out front with the idea of extending the competition from 12 to 14 clubs while at the same time closing the door behind them.

"You need time to be a Premiership club and to be competitive on all fronts," he said then. "One of the more attractive ideas that has been mooted in the past is that perhaps there is a period of time during which there is no relegation and we expand the league carefully during that two- or three-year period."

That was 2015, when both the English and French clubs were pretty bullish after their victory over the rugby unions in getting control of the skies over Europe. Here we are in spring 2018 and the turbulence hasn't gone away.

The argument over the rights and wrongs of a league with the ladder pulled up from the division below is not unique to England. Its relevance to this country is less about the suspension of traffic in and out of the top flight and more about the number of protected clubs. For if, as McCafferty outlined three years ago, that number goes up to 13 to include Bristol who virtually secured their place in next season's top flight on Friday night, then the extra weekends to accommodate that number have to come from somewhere. Like Europe. And that impacts everyone.

We had one of those laugh-out-loud moments last week when reading that for some across the water the Champions Cup has "lost some of its aura." The sight of two Irish teams in the last four - England had only one representative in the quarter-finals - would do that sort of thing to you.

Evidently, it was an aura-free zone in 2012 when Leinster and Ulster took over Twickenham for the Heineken Cup final. Next came the turf war between the English/French axis and the unions that comprised the ERC. So we got EPCR instead of ERC, a streamlined competition minus automatic entry for the Italians, and a lot of extravagant promises about a suite of sponsors making for a commercial bonanza. Could it be that we end up again with a headline sponsor, a beer company who have been pulling pints at this gig from the start, and whose modest offer reflects the times we live in?

This was going to be rugby's version of football's Champions League. If ERC had been life behind the Iron Curtain then EPCR would take the wall down, and prosperity would reign. The only identifiable commonality between the Champions Cup and the Champions League is the way the teams walk out together, all dramatic like.

Within a couple of seasons the Paddies were off the premises when it came to the knockouts. In the quarter-finals of Europe in 2015 Ireland had a sole representative - Leinster. A year later they had none. Success for England and France? It didn't feel or look that way when for the semi-finals neither could summon up enough support to take the empty look off the Madejski or the City Ground, which respectively were 32 per cent and 25 per cent short of capacity. A Champion look, that.

But here we are again with the usual suspects back in a familiar haunt, with Leinster and Munster in the last four of the Champions Cup. Casual observers either don't understand or they wilfully ignore that co-ordinating success at provincial and national levels in this country is not a handy gig. They see the rest afforded our Test stars from PRO14 games that their counterparts have to play and infer automatic success at international level. Great. But how do the provinces cope so well when those same players are withdrawn?

By building from within, and shopping wisely overseas. Continuing that success story means being able to adapt to what's happening elsewhere. Which brings us to the future of the Premiership and how it will impact on the rest of us.

Typically the shape of that league is discussed in summer when none of its constituents is overly exercised. Then it kicks off again as the early results roll in during September. By mid-October the writing is on the wall, so those hovering near the bottom plug the status quo as the only show in town.

If the Premiership does forge ahead with expansion then clearly it has to satisfy the RFU, and unless they can squeeze more cash from that source then financially it means more mouths to feed with the same rations. Moreover, by definition a bigger league lessens the quality of the rugby, simply by having to spread the talent further.

Mark McCafferty used the reverse argument in successfully lobbying for the streamlining of the Champions Cup. So he can hardly claim otherwise now.

If anything, a reduction would be better. The grief in getting this over the line however would be untold. The compromise would be to buy out London Irish, who have never been close to the cabal that drives the ambition of that league, and with Bristol promoted the competition can stay at 12. Mick Crossan, the major shareholder at the Exiles, has already been offered more than €3.4m. He'd need a bit more than that.

What concerns us on this side of the water is the understanding that if the Premiership does expand then Europe contracts. There would be a rump of support in France too for, say, four pool games instead of six. Not good for folks in this neck of the woods who rely on that revenue. The comfort blanket is the television deals that are in place, bringing European rugby onto satellite and terrestrial platforms for the next four years.

There will be agitation for change at regular intervals along that journey, but the chief criterion for fundamental change in professional sport is someone to sign the cheque.

In the summer of 1995 rugby didn't bin amateurism for reasons of altruism or fair play or to satisfy public opinion. It happened because two men with trousers full of cash started firing it at players to sign up for a new era. So rugby made a choice: they went with Rupert Murdoch, and retained a good measure of control over their own game.

That road is still taking twists and turns. Its direction will continue to be dictated by whoever ponies up the cash. So if it's to be a British and Irish League, an expanded Pro14 with a greater South African involvement, or some model yet to be wheeled out, nothing will happen without someone thinking it's worth the investment. Given that all bar one club - Exeter - in the Premiership are loss-makers and a handful are up for sale, it's clear this business is not a licence to print money.

Twenty-three years later, Sky, who started it all with Murdoch's millions, have lost much of their appetite for rugby. You wonder does anyone reckon they can make a few bob from this game. Yet through it all Ireland Inc are trading pretty well. Now fancy that.

 

CHAMPIONS CUP SEMI-FINALS

2018: Ireland 2, France 1, Wales 1

2017: Ireland 2, France 1, England 1

2016: England 3, France 1

2015: France 2, England 1, Ireland 1

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