Friday 23 March 2018

Year of the French might help stave off boardroom revolution

The ERC has got to stick to its guns and retain the current format and scheduling for the Heineken Cup, writes Neil Francis

Toulouse have the right age profile and unlike Clermont have as usual recruited and replaced well
Toulouse have the right age profile and unlike Clermont have as usual recruited and replaced well
Neil Francis

Neil Francis

I play in two separate poker schools -- both are glaringly diverse in their interpretation of how to play the game. The bluff in one is treated in a way that is diametrically opposed to the other group's thinking.

One group scuttle under the floorboards like cockroaches caught in the kitchen when the light is turned on. The other group, like a death wish, have a pathological want to see what the bluffer has -- irrespective of the mathematical possibilities. You can't bluff. Everything is seen.

We wait for Mark McCafferty, the CEO of PRC, to join us at the table and go home in his underpants. When the cards lay upturned there is no sympathy, even for a play of great cunning. When you have nothing, when you are called after pumping the pot and you have bilge, there is no mercy.

Never moon a werewolf, they say -- McCafferty now stands with his pants around his ankles with his bluff called. He has no television deal, he has no authority to act on anybody else's behalf, he has no allies in the French camp, he has no friends in the Celtic bloc, and he has some people in the ERC who should string him up. The RFU should consider doing the same after he acted ultra vires his mandate. The poor fool was looking to get some South African teams involved in a bastardised pan-European/African hotchpotch.

McCafferty has nothing in his hand. Shame and embarrassment require the bearer to have at least a sense of these two feelings -- he doesn't because he has won. Or at least, he has won something.

In the first instance, this was always about the money -- they will now get a bigger divvy from Sky's improved offer -- which was real and implementable. If the devil is in the detail, I couldn't see one cloven hoof or spiked tail about BT Vision's 'offer'. It was a spoof which makes BT look, for a corporate behemoth, like a 20c company.

So victory on the money side is assured. What will happen to the format? I'm sure they will double-cross that bridge when they get there in two years' time. I would firmly urge the ERC to hold tough on the format and the scheduling. I have already said that Scottish and Italian rugby will die on the vine if they only have one representative. You can't sustain a professional game in those countries if they don't have sub-international competitive games. The Six Nations is declining in terms of appeal -- I have maintained over the last three or four years that the Heineken Cup has superseded the Six Nations for allure in terms of quality of game. The international game has become monotonous and hard to watch.

Who amongst us didn't think after the Six Nations was over last year that at least there was the compensation in April of some high quality Heino rugby -- particularly with three Irish provinces involved?

Running off a 20-team programme which finishes in January will seriously demean the appeal of the Cup. The French, who are leading the call, want an uninterrupted run-in for their Top 14 from April onwards. No Heineken matches in April or May.

Because of the narrowness of appeal in rugby union, when a major cog in the wheel calls for change, sometimes you have no option. In football, if Man United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal said that they want to change the format and structure of the competition, the rest of the European countries would tell them to sod off. Their self-interest would not be tolerated. That is the beauty of the Champions League -- the broad appeal and range of the competition really is dictated by the sum of the parts.

The ERC should stick to its guns and avoid even a compromise just to gain harmony. Looking at this year's competition, there is, it has to be said, a sameness about it. The pot will be won by an Irish, English or French franchise -- most likely a French one. It is important for the competition that a French team wins it this year. The key to it will most probably be the age profile of the starting XV of the real contenders. Clermont should have won the cup last season -- they really did blow up in the semi against Leinster -- not quite the Yanks in Medinah but not too far off. Too many of that side don't have the gears or the mental aptitude or youthful vigour to go away from home and win this year. They could conceivably finish ahead of Leinster in Pool 5 -- but either way the attrition rate in that pool or the head to head might mean a poor points aggregate on the final day which means an away quarter-final -- Llanelli could even surpass everyone. Leinster's age profile this year will go against them also and the quality of their frontliners is highly dependent on a run clear of injuries. They have a dreadful weakness at No 5 and Seán O'Brien's influence might only come to bear in January -- the key games are in December -- and Leinster could already be out at that stage.

Coming up to the start of pool matches rarely could you use a substandard performance against Connacht as a barometer of how Leinster are performing. They will unquestionably improve and could conceivably have nine points coming into the Clermont double-header. Either way, I don't see either getting further than the quarters.

Toulouse have the right age profile and unlike Clermont have as usual recruited and replaced well. The Antipodean Lukes -- Burgess and McAlister -- should control games for them and they have phenomenal strength and strength in depth. Thierry Dusautoir was rested in the summer and their second and back rows are just too seasoned and too physical to contend with for most teams in the competition.

They have a tough group but the fixtures fall nicely for them with Leicester at home first and a win in Treviso before they start their Christmas double-header at home to Ospreys. They should have qualified by the time they need to travel to Welford Road for the final round of matches.

The only team that I see that can match them is Toulon. They couldn't live with Toulouse in Paris in the Bouclier last June -- but they too have bought well and have an arsenal of seasoned professionals.

Sebastien Tillous-Borde and Frederic Michalak at scrumhalf and Matt Giteau at outhalf. If they can resist the temptation to play Jonny Wilkinson, they too can control games with the pack that they have. Maxime Mermoz and Gethin Jenkins were good buys too.

However, they have, and I'm being kind here, a lot of passengers playing for them -- the Armitage (Shanks) brothers, Mathieu Bastareaud, Bakkies Botha and Nick Kennedy. It is hard to control loose cannons.

They also have to put up with mad Bernie Laporte but he might just have enough gumption to ask his squad the right questions. I suspect that their priority is the Top 14. Their meek capitulation in the Amlin final last year to a completely out-of-sync Biarritz side in one of the worst European games that I have seen means that they are possibly a year away from really challenging -- thank God for that.

It is no coincidence that France has been awarded the final for 2014 -- a nice thank you for leaving the English isolated and sucking their thumbs when the first board meeting came about. I suspect that things will come about which will make this year's competition easier to win for a French side. Another Irish winner? Nah -- bad for business.

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