Tuesday 16 January 2018

French save Europe - now let's get on with the show

Tony Ward

Tony Ward

Thankfully, Mark McCafferty's widely publicised solo run, threatening death by a thousand cuts to European club rugby, has fizzled out.

The chief executive of the English Premiership has been put back in his box, so to speak, after a lack of support from the other side of the English Channel.

Had the French Top 14 rowed in with McCafferty -- and one can only deduct he assumed they would -- then European rugby as we know it would be on its last legs. That it is not owes much to ERC CEO Derek McGrath and his board of directors for the manner in which they have held their council in the wake of McCafferty's efforts.

There are still serious issues to be addressed in terms of the make-up and means of qualification for the Heineken Cup, going forward. Here both sides -- the English/French alliance and the Celtic/Italian nations -- must search for a compromise and it's not going to be easy.

However, there seems to be room for manoeuvre on at least one major bone of contention. Whereas in the English and French domestic competitions, teams can only qualify for the Heineken Cup by finishing in the top six or seven of their domestic leagues, all but the Newport Gwent Dragons of the Pro12 sides are competing in the premier tournament for 2012/13.

If the top 10 in the Pro12 had to scramble for qualification, with each competing nation guaranteed at least one representative side, then that might appease the English and French.

How they can argue a case for 13 clubs (or 14 depending the previous season's winner) representing two Unions (the RFU and FFR), as against 10 (possibly 11 as with Connacht this year and last) representing four (FIR, IRFU, SRU and WRU) is beyond comprehension and, I would have thought, beyond fairness.

But when money talks, fairness goes out the window.

The raw excitement of this great event recommenced last night and during the first weekend of European rugby, the background bickering will be forgotten, though it won't go away.

The cynic in me suspects the awarding of next season's Heineken and Amlin Challenge finals to France is a great big thank you from McGrath and company to the Gallic stakeholders. And in the search for diplomacy and political manoeuvring, we can live with that.

On the field it's all systems go, with all four Irish provinces in with a real shout of making an impact in their respective pools. Heineken Cup success is no guarantee that national success will follow. Equally, success at the highest level does not automatically filter down.

The Welsh have captured three Grand Slams in the last eight years yet have still to even threaten a breakthrough in the Heineken Cup. European rugby's premier competition is a different animal and on this side of the Irish Sea, we've embraced it spectacularly

To suggest that Irish success in recent years has been because it's easy for our sides to qualify, or because they can rotate their squads more readily than English and French teams is begrudgery of the highest order.

toughness

When English and French clubs were monopolising the early years of the European Cup, we were told by all and sundry that it was down to the competitiveness and the toughness of their domestic competitions compared to our 'poor' Celtic equivalent. Now it's gone full circle.

Leinster, Ulster and Munster, particularly, will fancy their chances of making the knockout stages.

If the reigning champions can squeeze through this opening fortnight, before December's back-to-back encounters with Clermont, then a diminishing injury list could see them best placed for yet another trophy assault come the new year.

Ulster and Munster are in tough, but winnable pools.

For Munster, this afternoon's showdown with Racing Metro in Paris is key to them establishing some early momentum and making them, once again, the team everyone else fears.

Don't rule out Connacht and Eric Elwood's exciting young backline brewing up a storm in Pool 3. They need to make a good start against Zebre in Parma today, but a win could allow them to build up a head of steam.

The big boys are ready to fire now that this rugby season is well and truly under way. Bring it on.

Irish Independent

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