Thursday 23 November 2017

Tony Ward: Time to run Cup semi-finals over two legs

A half-empty Twickenham and half-finished Stade Velodrome not the stages for a tournament built on cauldrons

The empty seats at Twickenham tell their own story. Photo: Harry Engels/Getty Images
The empty seats at Twickenham tell their own story. Photo: Harry Engels/Getty Images
Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Now that the semi-finals of this year's Heineken Cup have been put to bed and the two best teams in those games – Saracens and Toulon – have qualified for the Millennium Stadium finale, it's time to highlight the inadequacies of a system used in the best tournament known to rugby.

In losing to Atletico and Real Madrid over two legs in the last four of soccer's Champions League, Chelsea and Bayern Munich can have no qualms whatsoever – Bayern lost home and away, Chelsea drew away and lost at home.

That is in contrast to the Heineken Cup in which both beaten semi-finalists can have reasonable complaints at not getting a fair crack of the whip. Yes, even Clermont – despite losing by a record margin at this stage of the competition in Twickenham.


From a poor refereeing performance, which can happen anywhere, to a poor attendance in a ghost-like Twickenham to a three-sided stadium still under construction in Marseille, the policy for two of the biggest games in the European club season leaves a lot to be desired.

The new Swiss-based body set up to take the reins next season has a lot to address in terms of re-organisation. And central to it, I hope, will be a fairer play-off system, specifically for the semi-finals.

From October to January we have some of the most competitive jousts imaginable, with the back-to-back games a week apart in December probably the highlight.

It is plain daft that the incredibly competitive regulations governing qualification for the last eight, particularly a merit-based home quarter-final, are then cast aside by way of a couple of names drawn from a hat for a home country semi-final.

Surely a fairer system has to be found, and I don't want to hear it said 'sure the rugby calendar is suffocated as it is'. Well un-suffocate it. Why not have two-legged semi-finals?

Yes it was most unprofessional and uncharacteristic for star-studded Clermont to throw in the towel the way they did in London but, had they been facing into a return second leg in the bastion that is the Stade Marcel Michelin, then I suggest that even Nigel Owens' significant idiosyncrasies on the day would have been put to one side in a much more substantial French performance.

The semi-final system is selling the competition short. How much better could Toulon, Munster, Saracens and Clermont have been, given home and away matches at the Stade Felix Mayol, Thomond Park, Allianz Park and the Stade Marcel Michelin?

And if any club, for its home leg, decides to upgrade to a bigger stadium (for financial reasons or otherwise), then let them have the power to make that call.

That the best two teams have made it through to the Champions League final is assured. The two best Heineken Cup teams? I'm not as certain.


Yes, Sarries and Toulon deserved to win their 'home' matches but, whether they would have emerged over a more evenly-balanced two-legged semi-final, we'll never know.

Just because that is how it has been up to now doesn't make it right. I sincerely hope that the new governing body will address this issue as enthusiastically as they have qualification (according to domestic league finishing position).

Beyond that, we should acknowledge that, having played it by the book, the two best teams will lock horns at the Millennium Stadium on May 24.


Home advantage can give Cork Con the edge in Bateman finale

Today at Temple Hill in Cork, the once-biggest game in Irish rugby outside of the international arena takes place – the Bateman Cup.

Now, however, I doubt there are many beyond the die-hard Cork Constitution and UCD supporters remotely aware that an All-Ireland knockout final is taking place.

The Bateman Cup was the original of the species. An All-Ireland competition fought for between 1922 and 1939. To this day the daring deeds of Charlie St George, Ter Casey, Danaher Sheahan and the Young Munster Bateman winning heroes of '28 are celebrated in song and verse on Shannonside.

But that was then. Since 2011 (although there was an AIB-sponsored All-Ireland knockout cup between 2006 and 2010), the four provincial cup winners have been meeting in the semi-finals, with Munster sides dominating the finals as Bruff, Garryowen and Con have emerged victorious in 2011, '12 and '13 respectively.

Cork's finest (also twice winners of the AIB Cup) will be looking to retain the trophy won in a cracking decider against St Mary's College (24-19) in Templeville Road this time last year. Having beaten Garryowen (9-6) to lift the Munster Senior Cup for the 25th time, Tom Mulcahy's charges comfortably saw off Ulster Cup winners Queen's University (46-14) at Temple Hill in the first of this year's semi-finals.

At around the same time high-flying UCD, under the ageless Bobby Byrne, were getting the better of AIL Division 1B winners Terenure (23-18) to take the Leinster Senior Cup back to Belfield for the ninth time. And in a nail-biting Bateman Cup semi-final, they overcame Connacht Cup winners Galwegians by the slenderest of margins (21-20).

UCD have, in fact, lifted the

All-Ireland trophy once previously – way back in 1938 when beating the boys of the Yellow Road (16-6).

Both Ulster Bank League Division 1A games between the sides were closely contested, with College taking the spoils at Belfield (23-17) and Constitution reversing the result in Temple Hill (14-6) in January.

So, today it's all to play for, with the reigning champions the pre-match favourites to make the most of home advantage.



Plan to segregate Fans at World Cup plain mad

I checked the calendar but April Fool's has been and gone. Nevertheless, I had to be sure.

And why? Well apparently those charged with responsibility for organising next year's World Cup have come up with the mind-boggling idea of separating fans. I jest not.

In a sport that rightly prides itself on friendship and camaraderie, someone, somewhere has, after a brainstorming session, come up with the cuckoo notion of separating fans 'to create a better atmosphere and sense of solidarity'.

Rugby is attractive because of the fare engendered on-field but also because of the security, sense of occasion and indeed respect it has long espoused off-field as well.

The oval code has, since 1987, used 'The World in Union' as its official anthem for a logical and appropriate reason.

The time has arrived, methinks, not for change in the stands but for a P45 through the letterbox of the genius inventing this stuff.

Irish Independent

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