Mick Galwey: The people who hijacked the Heineken Cup should be ashamed of themselves
SO HERE we are. Years after the English and French clubs promised us the world, huge sponsorship, huge TV income to rival soccer’s Champions League, rugby’s second biggest competition on this side of the world is again called the Heineken Cup.
And all that has happened is that fewer Irish, Welsh and Italian clubs are playing in it and that the competition is administered not from Dublin, but from the rugby hotbed of Switzerland.
Truly, the people in charge of running this should be ashamed of themselves. Especially when it was the Irish clubs, Ulster first, then Munster, then Leinster who really gave this competition its fire.
It’s easy to go to home matches.
Do thousands upon thousands of fans from Bath or Wasps, Racing or Toulon travel across Europe to see their teams? No they don’t.
It was the Irish who raided their piggybanks, and their Credit Union accounts,to follow their teams and give the competition the colour and glamour that make it so huge.
There are times when I wish the IRFU would put the boot in on those people who wrecked this competition as it was. I understand why they don’t, the current structure of Ireland, our player welfare system for international-calibre players, and the provinces is working so well that they do not want to rock the boat.
But there is still a part of me that is furious about the way a competition that was working so well was hijacked – not for the good reason
of improving rugby, but because people saw nothing other than euro and pounds sterling coming their way.
But it’s still a massive season for Irish rugby, as we try to build on the great successes of 2017/18 and get ready for the World Cup in Japan this time next year.
If everyone is fit and well, I’d say Irish coach Joe Schmidt now knows the names of 27 of the 31 players he will take to the Orient in 11 months time.
It’s the carrot of those last few places that will drive players from the provinces over the course of this season’s Heineken Cup.
If you are not in Joe’s plans now, you are not going to get the chance to show what you can do in Ireland’s November matches or the Six Nations next year.
So you take this chance to show that you are a better centre/hooker/flanker – pick the position yourself – than the opponent you face in
these games. And if the opponent happens to be a Southern Hemisphere import at one of the French or English clubs, well all the better.
Joe will see it, be sure of that. He’ll also be watching for a guy who plays for himself or plays for the team.
Because, human nature being what it is, players will wan tto show that they are on form and can get the better of their rival on the pitch.
That’s a temptation, but the Irish coach will want to see team players, lads who will do what is best for the team in Japan.
It’s a quandary for a small number of Irish players in these big games, do they go for show, or do they carry on doing the basics and trust Joe to see it. If I were them I’d go with the latter strategy -the coach isn’t big on freelancing.
It all starts on Friday night when we’re back onto the pitch where all the proper talking is done. And itis fitting that Leinster kick off the action with a home tie against Wasps.
The English club are a decent outfit, but Leinster are the best around. They have the skill, they have the playing numbers and the hunger to retain their title in Newcastle next May.
They have a long road to travel but last weekend’s Interprovincial against Munster will have set Leo Cullen’s side up nicely for the Friday night showdown.
And, to go back to my earlier point, wasn’t it fantastic to see almost 50,000 people there. Proof again that Irish rugby does draw the crowds and bring in the money.
Likewise Munster will come out of the match ready to go in Europe.
Unfortunately they have got a purler to start, Exeter, one of the best teams in England, and away at that.
With scrum-half Conor Murray and centre Chris Farrell injured, Munster do lack a bit of attacking firepower that they would like to have for this tough tie.
Having reached the semi-final last season, the men in Red will feel they have unfinished business with this competition.
Getting anything out of this one, by a distance the toughest of the six group matches they have to play, would be a huge bonus.
Ulster are at home to Leicester. They are always, always, hard beaten at Ravenhill. But after a great start to their Pro 14 campaign, they hit the wall in a huge way when Munster blitzed them.
It will have been a sobering loss for the Ulster lads who are trying to regroup after an awful season last time around.
But I expect them to bite back next weekend and send a message that Ulster are a team not to be taken lightly in Europe.
So it is Leinster and Ulster to win, and hope that Munster can glean something in their usual way from a tough away one. As I always say, even a losing bonus point from a really tricky away game in European action can often come in very handy when the final group tallies are done next January.