Thursday 14 November 2019

European success beyond Welsh and Scottish teams' budgets

"If you are a car business and you are spending twice as much on making cars than everyone else, then you are going to make a better product," says former Cardiff Blues flanker Martyn Williams (p)

Ben Coles

Since the European club competition began in 1995-1996, only one side from Wales or Scotland has reached the final - and that was Cardiff in the very first. Scarlets last season were the first Welsh or Scottish team since 2012 to even make a semi-final.

The estimated budgets for the four teams from Wales and Scotland this year in the Champions Cup are all in the vicinity of £5m per season. The Top 14 salary cap is £10m, with the Gallagher Premiership set at £7m, allowing for two marquee players, with the Irish provinces operating off a similar mark.

"If you are a car business and you are spending twice as much on making cars than everyone else, then you are going to make a better product," says former Cardiff Blues flanker Martyn Williams. "What the Scarlets did last year to get to the semi-finals was incredible, considering the teams they defeated and the differences in squad size and salary caps."

Nine years ago, it was Williams and the Blues who came agonisingly close to breaking that Scottish-Welsh finalist drought, losing on penalties to Leicester Tigers. While Williams' miss is the one everyone remembers, what has been forgotten about that campaign is that the Blues finished as the top seeds before defeating European giants Toulouse 9-6 in the quarter-finals. The Pro14, then the Magners League, was an afterthought.

"Our whole focus was on Europe," said Williams. "We put very little emphasis on the league [they finished sixth] because the Pro14 did not have the kudos it has now.

"Our team spirit was fantastic. We had a really good group of players and everything sort of clicked for us. We felt we had the squad to win it. Even though we didn't get there, it was really good fun. It was a huge thing for our overseas players: Xavier Rush, Ben Blair, Paul Tito. You could just tell that the Heineken Cup was what got their juices flowing, and myself as well. It was a massive ambition to win it.

"The Pro14 now is a really strong trophy to win, but it definitely wasn't back then. Our top players that season would only have played about five or six games in the league, including myself and Gethin Jenkins. We had a good squad but not a really deep one, so the decision was to go for Europe, and it nearly paid off. We were probably not strong enough in the pack to go that extra yard."

Edinburgh went through a similar process in 2011-'12, prioritising Europe over the domestic league, in which they finished 11th. Yet in the Heineken Cup they proved to be a revelation, topping a group containing Racing 92, London Irish and Cardiff Blues before defeating Toulouse in the quarter-finals in front of a record Scottish club crowd of 38,000.

Two factors were crucial, according to Mike Blair, then Edinburgh's scrum-half: momentum throughout the pool stages, and good fortune. "Little things went for us at key times: a big comeback against Racing at home and then Phil Godman's late dropped goal to win it in France, getting the bonus point against London Irish in the 78th minute," he said.

"I was part of the 2004 Edinburgh side who made the quarter-finals when we lost away at Toulouse. I remember Frank Hadden saying afterwards that making that stage would not happen to another Scottish team without better financial backing, and he was right for a long time about that."

Williams said: "If any of the Welsh and Scottish sides get out of the pool stages, for me that is a success. They are punching well above their weight."


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