Alan Quinlan: 'Has the shine gone off the Champions Cup?'
A clean sweep in Europe last weekend; Munster, Leinster and Ulster are well in contention to make the knockout stages of the Champions Cup. Everything is hunky-dory, right? Wrong.
While the Irish sides may look a picture of health, there is a malaise seeping into the continental showpiece, a crack spreading through what should be the jewel in the crown.
When the Champions Cup deal was finally agreed in April 2014, ending a gruelling two-year saga, we were told that this new format would capture the imagination like never before, that revenues would soar, that the level of competition would intensify with 20 teams competing for glory rather than 24.
Yet we are just halfway through the pool stages of the fifth edition of the Champions Cup and something is obviously not working.
Four high-profile clubs, including two of the continent's richest sides - Lyon and Wasps - are already all but out while another six clubs, among them three former winners and the reigning Top 14 champions, are on the edge of the precipice.
At the other end it looks like there are only four or five genuine contenders to win this year's competition - Leinster, Munster, Racing, Saracens and, maybe, Toulouse.
Enthusiasm for top-tier European rugby in Ireland remains strong and that is not just down to the fact that our provinces are performing well, it comes from the Holy Grail status that we have attached to the Champions Cup.
Attendances will naturally increase for a competition that is seen as the pinnacle of the club season. However, the attendance figures illustrated in the panel at the bottom of this article clearly illustrate that this new vision for European rugby has not caught on as widely as the EPCR would have hoped.
On top of this, that the organisers would allow Munster and Leinster, two of the competition's strongest and best-supported teams, to play at the same time is nothing short of crazy.
Here you have a product that you are trying to grow, one that relies heavily on its broadcasting deal and is already competing against other sports for a television audience, and you decide to allow two of your star attractions to essentially cancel each other out on what should be one of the biggest weekends of the season. It's utter madness.
Funnily enough, despite the short-sightedness around today's televised times, and the tiers emerging within the competition, they aren't the most pressing concerns.
The biggest issue facing the competition right now is actually the number of lacklustre performances being delivered by some of what should be the Champions Cup's strongest sides.
There have been quite a few examples already this season. Sport's unpredictable nature is one of its biggest draws, but some of the results we have seen during this campaign are not out of the blue - there is, in fact, a trend emerging.
Last season, with only a slim hope of reaching the knockout stages were they to secure a bonus-point win in Thomond Park, Castres were demolished 48-3. When your legs are wobbling in the 11th round and you're already well behind on points, it can be tempting, and sometimes sensible, to throw in the towel.
But last week, the Top 14 champions realistically needed at least a losing bonus point to stay in touch in the pool.
We expected them to be reeling from the embarrassing defeat 11 months previously - they would surely come out swinging.
It was far from the case. They put in a diabolical performance, kicking the ball away time and again, showing zero ambition in possession and not once stepping foot in the Munster 22 during the opening half.
If Munster had simply blown them away with clinical, attacking rugby you would accept it, but Johann van Graan's side were far from their best, playing well only in patches, and Castres still offered so little.
When Wasps shipped 52 points against Leinster in Round 1 the narrative was all about how good the reigning champions had been - some even suggesting they would be good enough to take on the All Blacks. The reality, though, as good as Leinster were, was that their English visitors had been appalling.
Financially, Wasps can match anyone, they have history in the competition as two-time winners, and they have a supremely talented squad that are currently good enough for fourth in the Premiership table. However, they fell off tackles against Leinster with such ease that you couldn't help but question their motivation.
Look at Lyon, too, another side with enviable coffers. They sit fourth in the Top 14 and domestically are unbeaten at home so far this season - including huge victories against Montpellier and Stade Francais - conceding 51 points in five games.
In Europe, however, Lyon have simply genuflected for their visitors thus far: Cardiff and Glasgow, who, with all due respect, are not exactly continental royalty.
Lyon, a team on the rise and now the fifth-richest side in France with a 2018/19 budget of €29.8m, lost both Champions Cup games convincingly, hit for a combined 72 points and failed to even collect a losing bonus point in either outing.
Toulon sit one spot above Lyon on the French rich list, meaning they should also have more than enough resources to compete on multiple fronts, yet they were destroyed by Edinburgh in Round 2, a team who occupy fifth place in Conference B of the PRO14, one spot behind Benetton.
The three-time European champions are struggling domestically this season too, so the difference in form isn't so obvious, but for Toulon to have also lost to Newcastle, the bottom side in the Premiership, certainly rings alarm bells.
The threat of relegation brings a different pressure in England and France too, and not every club has an eye-watering budget to build the necessary depth to compete in multiple competitions. But the way things are going makes you wonder where the priorities of certain owners and coaches truly lie.
Teams will naturally have peaks and troughs, and a competition of 20 teams is not going to always be evenly matched, but the least supporters can expect is an honest effort from every side, and I don't think we have been seeing that.
All is not yet lost for any team on three points or more though - last season's cut-off for the knockout rounds was 18 points - but the hourglass is running out of sand.
It is not all doom and gloom either, this season's competition still has the potential to catch fire, and probably will when we reach the knockout stages.
But it is important to recognise these symptoms of indifference and address them before they really start to take hold. The long-term health of European club rugby is at stake.
For this competition to fulfil its potential for the foreseeable future, and for its legacy from the last 23 years to be preserved, every competing club needs to buy into the project.
If certain French or English teams don't have the desire to actually compete, or until they view it in the same light that we do in Ireland, the Champions Cup will never become the behemoth that the EPCR envisioned in 2014. If anything, it is losing its magical touch.
Many moons ago, before most would have thought it a realistic goal, I remember sitting in meetings with my Munster team-mates, writing down 'Heineken Cup victory' as my target for the season.
The sheer idea gave me goosebumps, and filled me with the kind of wonder that this time of year once did during my childhood.
The sad thing is, I don't know how many of the teams in France and England really believe - or truly care - anymore.
The Attendances Numbers Game
To show the differing levels of enthusiasm for the Champions Cup among supporters in Ireland, England, France, Scotland and Wales, below you can see the attendances from every game in Round 1 of this season’s competition. Next to that is the attendance each home team recorded in their domestic league – at the same stadium – prior to the start of the Champions Cup, and the difference between the two crowds.
These figures show that of the 10 hosts in Round 1, just Ulster, Glasgow, Toulon, Leinster, and Exeter saw an increase in spectators – the latter two being the only ones of any real significance – while Bath, Gloucester, Lyon, Scarlets and Montpellier actually saw their attendances drop for their European openers.
These figures show that of the 10 hosts in Round 1, just Ulster, Glasgow, Toulon, Leinster, and Exeter saw an increase in spectators - the latter two being the only ones of any real significance - while Bath, Gloucester, Lyon, Scarlets and Montpellier actually saw their attendances drop for their European openers.
Team (home ground, capacity) / Attendance in domestic league / Attendance in Round 1 / Difference of Champions Cup
Leinster (RDS, 18,500) 13,476 (PRO14 v Edinburgh) 18,055 (v Wasps)+4,579
Bath (The Rec, 14,500) 14,301 (Premiership v Exeter) 12,284 (v Toulouse)-2,017
Exeter (Sandy Park, 12,800) 9,730 (Premiership v Worcester) 12,749 (v Munster) +3,019
Gloucester (Kingsholm Stadium, 16,115) 13,232 (Premiership v Harlequins) 9,993 (v Castres)-3,239
Lyon (Matmut Stadium de Gerland, 14,875) 14,875 (Top 14 v Grenoble) 12,197 (v Cardiff)-2,678
Glasgow (Scotstoun, 7,351) 7,174 (PRO14 v Zebre) 7,351 (v Saracens)+177
Scarlets (Parc y Scarlets, 14,780) 12,102 (PRO14 v Ospreys) 8,064 (v Racing 92)-4,038
Ulster (Kingspan Stadium, 18,196) 13,109 (PRO14 v Connacht) 13,152 (v Leicester)+43
Montpellier (GGL Stadium, 15,697) 12,537 (Top 14 v Toulon) 10,450 v Edinburgh)-2,087
Toulon (Stade Felix-Mayol, 18,200) 13,395 (Top 14 v Agen) 13,572 (v Newcastle)+177