Friday 23 February 2018

Neil Francis: An irreversible slow death is on the cards for the Champions Cup

Saracens' Alex Goode is tackled by Worcester Warriors' Sam Betty during the Aviva Premiership match at Sixways Stadium. Photo: PA
Saracens' Alex Goode is tackled by Worcester Warriors' Sam Betty during the Aviva Premiership match at Sixways Stadium. Photo: PA
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

It is part of the human condition that you can see something from a different perspective than your neighbour. How often do eyewitness accounts of a motor accident from two different people tally? How diverse would a synopsis of a national budget be between a socialist and a capitalist? How can an assistant referee/touch judge with 20/20 vision miss something that 20,000 people behind him can see.

Our friends across the water will tell you that the EPCR Champions Cup is the best club competition in the world. Us lot? Well we think the competition is diminished and a lot of us, me especially, are daring to say so openly. We don't think it is the same anymore and not because we are not in it this year. It has lost its soul and an irreversible slow death is on the cards.

History is littered with events that took a change in course; time is not the sole arbiter of whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. Imagine if, instead of crucifixion, Jesus got 15 years, out in 10 for good behaviour? Christianity would have a major problem; we couldn't say that Jesus, by doing a stretch in the clink, had saved our souls. Instead of the symbol of Jesus on the cross we would have Jesus in an orange jump suit. Small arbitrary or random changes can alter history irrevocably.

Two years ago the course of the Heineken Cup changed and it has had a detrimental effect on the competition. It just seems to have lost a lot of its appeal and vigour. I spoke last week about the fall off in attendance, the drop in television audiences and the failure to attract sponsorship. We forget that Mark McCafferty was in charge of the marketing and sponsorship department in the ERC. He did not do a great job and left after a brief period to go elsewhere. Why did anyone think that he could improve things like attracting sponsorship on the second go?

I am just wondering could we unravel the whole thing before it's too late, you know, move the EPCR offices out of the bumbling irrelevancy of Neuchatel. We know why it is based in Switzerland but you would never move GAA HQ to Reykjavik for tax reasons. Even take the P out of the EPCR - call it the Heineken Cup again. I have never stopped calling it the Heineken Cup.

Remove meritocracy from the Pro 12. Connacht have a good season and gain European Cup status for the first time on their own endeavours and suddenly we are all jumping around the place like southern Evangelists, "It's a murkle, it's a murkle." With the exception of Connacht the same teams have qualified for next season. The joke is that the charges levelled at the Pro 12 is that the top sides put their best players in cotton wool and only bring them out for the big European games, so that they are fresh.

But Johnny Sexton has played two games for Leinster since the turn of the year and Jamie Heaslip, before last Saturday's embarrassment in Belfast, had played six Pro 12 games all season. Whether it is relevant or not our better players play in less than half of the Pro 12 regular season games. A team like Leinster can still rest most of its stars, play shite rugby for most of the season, end up comfortably in the play-offs and still garner a less difficult pool draw.

Take a team like Saracens who have a pretty strong roster. They seem to be able to rotate their squad pretty much as and when they like. Put out a weaker side against Newcastle, London Irish, and Worcester and still win with plenty to spare. They still get to the play-offs in their sleep and not a chance of relegation. For a team that is fighting a war on two fronts they look pretty fresh to me.

In terms of attendance figures we are told that the Grand Stade de Lyon is heading for a 59,000 sell-out. That's lotto language, the lotto jackpot is always 'heading for' but never quite gets there. I went online to see if I could buy some tickets and was amazed to find I could buy from Category 7 tickets at €25 to Category 1 tickets at a very pricy €125. I would bet €125 to anyone that the stadium will not be full. One of the reasons why it will be fuller than you might normally expect it to be is that the organisers have decided in recent years to play the Challenge Cup final in the same city the night before. More than ever they will be praying for a spill over from the Harlequins and Montpelier fans from the previous night. There is an expected crowd of 25,000 for the Challenge Cup - the hope is that they get a least half of those for the main event. Fill the gaps lads . . .

In terms of the complexion of both finalists the trend is going only one way. Racing's starting XV had eight non-Europeans in the semi-final at the hotbed of European rugby, Nottingham. Saracens have a very strong South African lilt in their squad and yet again had quite a number of foreigners, or foreigners who had qualified by residency, in their ranks. Where does that point to? If you want to get to the finals you have got to buy more foreign imports, nearly all from the southern hemisphere. I don't care what happens in football's Champions League but the growing disconnect between a rugby fan base who identify with homegrown talent, not fly by night imports who jump at the highest bid after their two-year contract is up. Soon that disconnect turns to discontent and then, "I'm not going to watch dis."

Do you know what one of the best leagues in the world is? It is the Pro Division 2 in France. It is packed full of really skilful French players who can't get into the Top 14 but are good enough to play there.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I prefer to see Europeans play in European competitions, maybe with just a smattering of southern hemisphere blood, but only a smattering. When I watch Super rugby, the vast majority of the players are from the southern hemisphere.

As for the match itself, the O'Gara - McCall match-up will have a crucial bearing. We will talk about the two in a greater context later on. I think O'Gara's influence can't be underestimated. The BT Sport commentators almost sniggered when they commented on Racing's superior defensive performance. There was a ripple of mendacity in their musings. How could Racing defend so well? You know, tee hee, because O'Gara, ho ho, wasn't exactly known as the greatest tackler in the world.

What they missed in all of this is O'Gara's rugby mind. He is a deep thinker on the game and his ability to imagine and engineer a defensive system is what is at issue here, not whether he was or was not the best tackler in the world. It is without question why Racing are in the final and I believe their defence will win them the game. I also think Maxime Machenaud and Dan Carter will exert superior intellect and skill base which will out-play Richard Wigglesworth and the truculent Owen Farrell who now needs to rein himself back in as his disciplinary record is heading to Hartley-esque levels.

Racing to win so, simply because I could not bear the thought of Nigel Wray getting his hands on the trophy. Wray and Jackie Lorenzetti have bought their way to the final. Lorenzetti is just the lesser of two evils.

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