Thursday 26 April 2018

Champions Cup or Six Nations? Tony Ward and Ruaidhri O'Connor debate which tournament matters more

17 March 2018; The Ireland team celebrate after the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
17 March 2018; The Ireland team celebrate after the NatWest Six Nations Rugby Championship match between England and Ireland at Twickenham Stadium in London, England. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Tony Ward and Ruaidhri O'Connor

Since the dust has settled on Ireland's Grand Slam victory and with the prospect of an all-Ireland Champions Cup final on the cards, Tony Ward argues that the European club competition has now surpassed its test equivalent.

However, Ruaidhri O'Connor insists that the tradition and prestige of the Six Nations still makes it the one to win.

Tony Ward: The Rugby World Cup will always retain its place at the pinnacle of the professional game but the performances of Irish provinces in the Champions Cup proves it has bypassed the Six Nations

For years we’ve regarded the Six Nations as the jewel in the northern hemisphere crown and with good reason. It is a special tournament with geographical, cultural and tribal factors central to it.

The Six Nations has long had a high standard of rugby and is second only to the World Cup in that regard. The European event has always triumphed over its southern hemisphere equivalent by a distance, since the latter’s inaguration in 1996.

However, as a stand-alone event on a yearly basis, I believe the northern hemisphere’s brightest jewel is now the Champions Cup.

Now is an appropriate time to reassess the rugby landscape in Ireland, given that men’s senior XV have just completed the greatest single achievement in our rugby-playing history.

A Six Nations Grand Slam embracing wins in Paris and London seemed inconceivable, bordering on impossible, before professionalism, or more specifically, pre Joe Schmidt.

I was fortunate to cover all five games this year and, despite the Arctic-like Twickenham conditions, the euphoria leaving Billy Williams’ old cabbage patch that Grand Slam-winning day was beyond anything in the recent past, or indeed distant past, at that level.

So here we are in the aftermath of our greatest achievement and yet, for me, there is one tournament that has not alone moved alongside Six Nations rugby but has, in fact, surpassed it.

The EPCR Champions Cup is – outside of the four-yearly World Cup – the greatest competition of all.

Those of us unashamedly wearing green blinkers have had some extraordinary highs between February 3 in Paris and St Patrick’s Day in London.

From Johnny Sexton’s incredible last-gasp drop goal at the Stade de France to the superb chip-and-chase try of Jacob Stockdale (below)  in London, these are the iconic moments for so many.

And yet. And yet, with hand on heart, I cannot recall a single game in this year’s Six Nations and say ‘wow that was a dinger’. On the other hand, since that magical Grand Slam day of days, we have had four outstanding Champions Cup quarter-finals; two involving Irish sides.

It would make for the most amazing season were Munster and Leinster to make it through to a second  All-Ireland European final. But, even were they both to lose at the penultimate stage next weekend, the excitement engendered by European rugby now has no equal and here’s a number of reasons why.

For starters, unlike the seven-week Six Nations, the Champions Cup is a season-long event. The format of two pool games each in the months of October, December and January – followed by quarter-finals and semi-finals at either end of April before the grand finale in May – could hardly be better.

Secondly, the standard of rugby is now on a par with the international game and so too is the skill level.

It is played with a similar pace and intensity as Test rugby but with an even greater level of skill because of the nature of  daily training when measured against the annual Test windows of November, February/March and June.

Indeed, if ever proof were needed as to what European rugby means to the ‘Grand Slammers’, then the performance of Munster and Leinster’s Test players against Toulon and Saracens (five previous Cup titles between them), with the quarter-finals coming just a fortnight after the highs of Six Nations, provided just that.

Prior to professionalism, the club game – with respect to the inter-pros – had pride of place; not quite the GAA parish-based equivalent but as close as it didn’t matter.

Back then, you played for your country on a Saturday and, irrespective of whether it was Parc des Princes, Twickenham, Murrayfield, the Arms Park or Lansdowne Road, you lined out for your club on the Sunday – taking a sabbatical was not an option.

You wanted to play with your mates, irrespective of the previous day (and night).

For club rugby back then, substitute provincial rugby now because the province is now the club but with a professionalism and commitment that we of the amateur age could only dream about.

The provincial bond and brotherhood that is professional club rugby is unique. You cannot put a value on what it means to achieve success alongside guys you train and earn your daily bread with, week in, week out.

Add to that the quality of overseas imports at the various provinces, allied to the now-tribal support enjoyed by the four teams – whether it is in Dublin, Monaghan, Limerick, Carlow, Sligo, Belfast, Cork or Galway.

There are many pros and cons attached to the game going open but press me for the greatest single positive in overall terms and I will say, quite simply, the European Cup.

I have often got on my high horse in these pages about so-called ‘Ireland fans’ turning up at international matches wearing their provincial jerseys but I can’t recall ever having to address the issue of an Ireland shirt at a European game.

To represent your country is the greatest honour of all and nothing will ever detract from that but, in terms of quality, of entertainment, of atmosphere, of intensity and now in terms of pace and skill, the merit-based European Champions Cup is the greatest tournament outside of the Rugby World Cup.

It is bigger than the Six Nations as well as the Rugby Championship south of the equator.

We are blessed in rugby to have it both ways in that, unlike Gaelic Games, we have that international dimension.

Yet I defy anyone to suggest that what we witness now through all four provinces is not alongside All-Ireland fare mid-summer.

Connacht winning the Pro12 in Edinburgh in 2016 was one of our greatest sporting days.

Tom Kiernan, Syd Millar and Vernon Pugh – the individuals who helped shape the Champions Cup as we know it today – what a rugby legacy they have left us.

Ruaidhri O'Connor: Although the Champions Cup quarter-finals delivered in spades, rugby still has a way to go before the club game matters more than Test success. The Six Nations remains the one to win

IT HAS been an amazing week in the world of football, a reminder of  the pre-eminence of the Champions League in the hierarchy of tournaments.

When it comes to drama and quality, this summer’s World Cup in Russia has a lot to live up to.

The Champions League has redefined greatness in its sport.

There are those who envisage a similar future in rugby, a realm in which the international game knows its place and the club game is the pinnacle. That day has not yet arrived.

Nobody who watched the four excellent Champions Cup quarter-finals earlier this month would argue about the quality that the club game can deliver.

Nor can they dispute the attraction of the clashes in Limerick, Dublin, Clermont and Llanelli, where the venues were packed and awash with colour.

Yet, when it comes to prestige, tradition and interest, nothing beats the Test arena and the Six Nations, while the World Cup and the Lions still occupy a place above Europe in the public’s imagination.

It might not always be that way but, for the time being, the international game still rules the roost in rugby.

The entire structure of Irish rugby is set up to support that hierarchy, with the national team paying the bills and the players managed accordingly.

While the provinces contribute hugely to the overall picture, the success of Ireland under Joe Schmidt (right) cannot be underestimated.

And the tournament in which they play each year has rarely been stronger.

In the aftermath of the 2015 World Cup it was easy to write off Northern Hemisphere rugby after watching the Rugby Championship nations play out the semi-final series between them.

From that low ebb, the Six Nations has grown stronger to a point where only New Zealand are ranked above Ireland and England.

Italy continue to struggle, but the five other teams are more than capable of beating one another over the course of the eight weeks each season.

The quality of rugby is sometimes hampered by the conditions and lack of preparation time teams are afforded, but the intensity levels remain higher than anything on offer in the club game.

During the 2017 edition of the Six Nations, the ball was in play for more than 47 minutes of each game on average (with club games averaging between 30 and 53 minutes) and the players routinely talk of the increase in standard as they enter the international arena.

The recent Champions Cup quarter-finals were as close as it comes to those Test levels and the gap is not a huge one, but it remains in place.

Those running the international game have work to do to preserve that hierarchy however.

Keeping the Six Nations and Rugby World Cup on free-to-air television is crucial given the window it affords the game.

More than 1.3m people watched Ireland’s Grand Slam game on TV3 last month, making it a truly national event. Next weekend’s Champions Cup semi-finals will be watched by far fewer fans because the European competition is only available to watch behind a pay-wall on BT Sport and Sky Sports.

Deeds in green such as Johnny Sexton’s last-gasp drop-goal in Paris live longer in folklore, in part, because they are available to everyone.

Subscription-based television generates plenty of revenue for the clubs involved, but it also removes the public impact the international games can make across a broad spectrum of society.

The club-versus-country battle is a continuous one and while the balance remains largely in favour of the best players playing for their national teams, that is being tested every year.

We have already seen All Blacks such as Charles Piutau, Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga turn their backs on international rugby to earn more money in Ireland, France and England respectively, while even England and Ireland have opted not to select players including Chris Ashton and Donnacha Ryan to suit their own policies.

Each country is reacting differently to the challenge. Scotland’s starting half-backs Greig Laidlaw and Finn Russell will both be based in France next season, but they will continue to select them.

The money men in charge of the English and French clubs have long eyed the international game’s sacred cows. They wish to reduce the time afforded to the Six Nations and the Lions, two of rugby’s shining lights.

If they get their way, then the crown jewels will be no more. The club game will have won out and the IRFU would need to review their hierarchy of needs.

For now, the balance is delicate but it is holding firm. The players want to win both, but know that success at international level remains the ultimate goal.

Financially, it holds the greater reward and from the perspective of their own sporting legacy, they know that delivering in the green of Ireland is paramount.

Not that it will be on their minds next weekend as they look to end a six-year wait for an Irish finalist in Europe’s top competition and keep the flame of an unforgettable season lit.

For the majority of the ‘Grand Slammers’ in the Leinster and Munster squads, European success with the province remains an unchecked box while for those who weren’t involved, this is a chance to be part of the season of celebration.

Keith Earls is the only Munster survivor from their 2008 triumph in Europe’s top club competition – having been an unused substitute in their final win over Toulouse – while Leinster’s young guns are all trying to join Rob Kearney, Sean O’Brien, Cian Healy, Devin Toner, Sean Cronin and Johnny Sexton on the pedestal.

They will give their all and if they win the Champions Cup they will write their names in the history books.

Yet, regardless of what happens in the next month, the Six Nations success will be the main thing people remember this season for.

In terms of prestige and the power to produce moving sporting moments, it remains the top dog for the time being at least.

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