Wednesday 21 February 2018

Neil Francis: Even Dan Carter can't draw in Champions Cup crowds

Without the enthusiasm of Celtic nations, Europe's main competition is on the wane just two years after being hijacked

Dan Carter in action for Racing Metro during their victory over Leicester. Photo: Reuters
Dan Carter in action for Racing Metro during their victory over Leicester. Photo: Reuters
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

Tomorrow night Munster fight for their lives in Cork. Edinburgh, canny side that they are, may have the skill-set but not the gumption to deprive Munster of what they crave - European qualification.

Normally the next couple of words go along the lines of "The Heineken Cup is special. . ." Certainly there is a sense of emptiness about the way that there is no Celtic representation - is it only special when we are in it? For me, it died a little bit more this weekend - the two semi-finals were half-decent matches, but you felt that both encounters were hooked up to a dialysis machine. Even the hype was apathetic. Two seasons after its hijacking, this competition is on the wane.

The attendances last weekend were pathetic and the venues were ill-chosen soccer grounds far from the heartlands. Sometimes 30 miles is too far for people to travel. The City Ground had 22,148 in a ground that can hold 30,500 and the Madejski had 16,820 when it can hold 24,500. A shameful underselling of such a premium resource.

Mark McCafferty, who couldn't stay away from a microphone or a camera when the hijack was taking place, is now nowhere to be seen. Lousy attendance figures, TV numbers that have fallen off a cliff and a multi-sponsor programme that hasn't and isn't going to happen.

Runaway

Three or four years ago when the competition was a runaway train of a success, you simply could not get tickets for the big matches. Let's take Leinster for an example in 2011 and 2012. Leinster played Leicester in Dublin in 2011 at the quarter-final stage. It was a full house (50,000). A few weeks later they played Toulouse in the semi-finals - again a full house and for the final another full house that year against Northampton in the Millennium.

In the quarter-finals that year Perpignan hosted Toulon in the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona - a full house of 55,000. An innovative and exciting choice of venue! They were kidnapping people to get the tickets from them.

In 2012, Leinster played Cardiff in the quarter-finals in the Aviva to a 50,000 full house and then played Clermont in the Stade Chaban Delmas, which was another 32,500 sell-out. Ulster, their opponents in the final, played a sell-out Thomond Park (25,600) in the quarters and got 45,000 down to Dublin on the way to dispatching Edinburgh. 81,774 watched the final in Twickenham.

The semi-final in Croke Park had 82,208 in 2009. I don't think I have ever witnessed an occasion like it in my life. The Heineken back then was a monster they couldn't control. A soccer stadium in Reading with 16,000 huddled together - McCafferty you are a f**king disgrace!

What the Celtic teams brought was vibrancy, pageantry, noise, and a sense of occasion, authentic followers, tribal passions, and an atmosphere where there was real bite and we filled stadiums and travelled in numbers all across Europe.

Did the Sheriff of Nottingham steal your crowds Mark?

Revenue generation from selling out stadiums is good for your bottom line but a big crowd watching a good game needs no further promotion or marketing. Television pictures of vast swathes of empty seats in Nottingham and Reading - you wince at the emptiness of it all.

Dan Carter is a genius and he was the difference between Racing and Leicester last Sunday. Even from the mouths of legends doth piffle emanate - "a big part of the reason I wanted to come and play in France was the European Champions Cup", and winning the final would be "a dream come true".

Carter as a Crusader won the Super Rugby Championship in 2002, '05, '06 and '08, playing in finals where the standard of rugby was just awesome. The Americans are to blame for the diluting the real sense of that word, but with Carter in charge the Crusaders were truly awesome.

Leicester are a gritty bunch and they went at Racing but they couldn't hold a pass and quite often the ball would go to the floor well before the skill pass required from the outside men.

In the second half Carter was content to kick the ball and he did so with a polished competence which made him look like the best out-half in Europe - he would look like the best out-half in Europe in a straitjacket - but if we are honest he was bored mentally, and for a player of the highest rank he could have been utilised to a far greater and more profitable degree! A dream?

He was snoozing. Tina Turner's Private Dancer springs to mind. "I'm your private dancer, a dancer for money, I'll do what you want me to do. I'm your private dancer, a dancer for money and any old music will do."

Carter did have to make 16 tackles in the game. Again the quality of his tackles said enough about his star quality - great technique and a sure wrap around the ankles.

The 16 tackles stat tells you that he is the complete performer and that there is integrity in his effort before he collects his pay cheque. It is, though, like asking the maestro to play Cotton Eye Joe on a Stradivarius. Carter may reassess when he gets home - playing in Nottingham on a chilly Sunday in a grubby half-filled ground is not a dream.

The match was only remarkable for one thing: the best referee in the world Nigel Owens, well he could have cost Racing the game.

Buried

Johan Goosen scored a fabulous try midway through the second half - this would have effectively buried Leicester but it was called back to the start of the action at a scrum where Chris Masoe and Maxime Machenaud got ahead of each other on a simple 8, 9 working to the blind. Everyone saw the pass as forward but play went on until Goosen scored. The try was disallowed by the TMO and everyone went back for the scrum.

In the final 10 minutes Leicester went chasing the game and attacked going down the right; as was the case throughout the match, once Racing brought their press to bear and played in the faces of Leicester's outfield players they were unable to handle the pressure.

Juan Imhoff - one of our tormentors in the Cardiff quarter-final in 2015 RWC - tried to cut out a pass by reaching out to intercept. The ball went to ground and the electric Imhoff picked it up and there was no one within 10 metres of him as he had a clear run to the line for the coup de grace.

Nigel whistled him early, erroneously thinking that he had knocked on. I would surmise that the Masoe-Machenaud forward pass was spotted by all the refereeing team and let go to its final conclusion, whereas nobody really saw what happened with any degree of certainty on the Imhoff 'knock-on' and the crowd made the decision for Owens when he did not see a definite knock-on.

Imhoff had not in fact touched the ball and amazingly did not remonstrate with Owens about the early and wrong call. To compound his error, Owens awarded the re-start scrum to Leicester as they were the 'last team in possession'.

You would have forgiven the Parisians for walking off in disgust. Owens gave his 'sincere apologies' but a mistake like that could have been costly all round.

I did fancy Saracens all the way but I think Machenaud and Carter might just give Racing the edge in the final - thought I'd throw that in just in case you're bothered. The final is on in two weeks' time. . . You are not bothered, you say.

Irish Independent

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