Sunday 26 January 2020

Champions Cup crying out for more variety once again

John Muldoon and Connacht may find it difficult to emerge from their Champions Cup pool. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
John Muldoon and Connacht may find it difficult to emerge from their Champions Cup pool. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Brendan Fanning

Brendan Fanning

First thing we saw coming out of the lift at the EPCR Champions Cup launch last week was a colleague - one of the snapping fraternity - shuffling across the floor with a crate of the sponsors' product in his arms. Clearly it was a struggle, but here was a man of experience. An old dog who looked up rather sheepishly from the hard road and uttered one word: "Priorities!"

His little cargo was appropriate, for Heineken are one of the last vestiges linking the competition that kicks off next weekend with the one that played such a leading role in energising rugby in this country from the mid-'90s onwards.

If Lens woke up the IRFU at international level then the Heineken Cup was the vehicle that carried players to the national side, and legions of new fans to support them. It has always had that ingredient unknown in Super Rugby: tribalism.

When the war for control of European competitions was at its height three years ago, the winners emerged with a message of riches for all. Clearly tv would be filling most of the wedge, but so too, seemingly, would an array of sponsors. Where ERC had been dull and dowdy and commercially slow, its successor would be all sexy and go-ahead. Like football's Champions League, such a heavyweight that it could command a range of brands rather than one anchor tenant, rugby would go down the same road and assemble a whole stable.

It has been a very slow journey, with all manner of excuses thrown up along the way: it was late in the day when peace broke out, and budgets were tied up by then; next, they wanted to concentrate on getting the model right before going to the market. It's a bit rich then to start throwing up arrangements with ball suppliers and official timekeepers as examples of great commercial success, but that's what EPCR director general Vincent Gaillard was doing at the launch last week. Anything else for us there, Vinny?

"It's been a difficult start simply because we were going through a difficult transition and of course there was a lot of uncertainty," he said. "I think that is behind us now. The confidence is back. We will announce both new sponsors and a new sponsorship agency before the end of the calendar year."

It's unclear whether Gaillard's idea of new sponsors means arrangements with more suppliers, or actually suppliers of new cash, but when in 2014 Trumpesque election promises were being made about building a wall of them we weren't told that three years later the brickies still wouldn't have broken sweat.

On the pitch it remains to be seen if there is more movement. Consider that it was Irish domination - its climax was Leinster versus Ulster in Twickenham in 2012 - that energised the revolution by English and French clubs. In the four years since then the tournament has been won by French and English clubs. If this keeps up then, well, it's likely even the English and French clubs might grow weary of such familiarity.

The least they need is some variety in the knockout stages. Which is where the Celts - ie the Irish, and perhaps Glasgow - come in. Last season gave us quarter-finals with five English and three French. Not great for business, that. A couple of weeks ago EPCR chairman Simon Halliday was in Dublin for a meeting with the four provinces on a range of issues relating to Europe.

"No one was more disappointed than they are that they didn't get out of the pool stages last year," he says. "But they're looking to themselves. I think they can see reasons, internal reasons rather than anything else. What we want as tournament organisers is for there to be equal opportunity but you can't do it for individual regions. I mean, Glasgow - I suspect there was a special situation last year because of the World Cup where 20 players were just not around. And they referenced it this morning: it's been great to have a clear run pre-season. That matters."

Well, yes it does, and the bigger your budget the more you can rely on quality players who are not dragged away every time the Test window opens. Or in the case of champions Saracens, whose spending seems unrelated to the amount of money coming in the other direction, your back-up to the Test players is first class.

In any case the Celts - excluding Wales - are in a better place than this time last year. The Ospreys may be serial underachievers in Europe, but the competition won't be quite the same without them. And it's ironic that no sooner do Cardiff finally find form in the Guinness Pro12, an improvement that got under way last season with five wins from the last six, but they lose out on qualification for the Champions Cup just when their mojo might make them competitive.

So with three teams in the Challenge Cup, that leaves Scarlets as the sole representatives in the top flight. They are short odds on being the whipping boys. Glasgow will be much more ambitious, and despite losing some outstanding talent over the last two seasons, have a decent chance of coming out of a pool that has lumped them in with Tigers, Munster and Racing.

The Munster/Racing pairing has the added intrigue of the Ronan O'Gara factor, a man with whom Peter O'Mahony says there is "radio silence" ahead of the teams' meeting in Paris next weekend.

O'Mahony is back on the field after his ACL repair, but his opportunities will be carefully managed. Plenty of time then to think about Munster's chances of having a meaningful campaign. He has a memory of being told to "piss off" out of the Saracens' dressing room by Thierry Lacroix in January 2000 after he had slipped in to see the carnage following Munster's epic win in Thomond Park. "My old fella had to be held back to be honest."

In its time that game represented the local heroes taking on the big money team of assembled stars. The scale of the shift in financial power now however, is a bigger deal. "In a weird way it's more of a reason for us to fight for it," O'Mahony says. "It adds to the reasons why you want to do better and prove to everyone that you can do it. We'd always stand over our academy and our development of young players. I think a couple of times last year we put out XVs that had come entirely from our academy. We'll always stand over that and we'll always want to be competing with the best no matter what. It's a driving force."

For Connacht, they should be going into what is a beast of a group with the swagger of Pro12 champions who won their title playing terrific rugby. Rather they are protesting that the kinks in the system, that saw them wait until round five of the Pro12 to get a win, have been ironed out.

What can't be sorted so easily however is the loss of the gang of three, AJ MacGinty, Robbie Henshaw and Aly Muldowney, from the side who were so good last season. To get out of this pool would be an achievement to set alongside the Pro12 title.

Leinster though, will fancy their chances. The Stuart Lancaster effect has been immediate and positive, though ironically it's in an area where Leinster were happy enough: defence. In all the grumblings that were coming from the camp, Kurt McQuilkin was always spared. In Lancaster's four games coming to this weekend Leinster have conceded 12 tries, which is lumpy enough. At least the trend has been good: 5, 3, 3, 1. And to keep Cardiff to their lowest stat in five games was good going.

The chances of any player straying from the 'one game at a time' line are never better than remote. But Leinster's fans, in the week that the RDS has cleared a planning hurdle, will be dreaming about a weekend in Montpellier in round two as much for the rugby as visiting a lovely city. Trips to France, lubricated by the sponsors' product, are part and parcel of what European competition is about. Load up.

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