The European Rugby Champions Cup is here and despite everything at least we’re on board the ship
SO IT looks like the bully boys have got their way and we finally have a new European rugby competition to look forward to next season.
Our beloved Heineken Cup is no more and filling its gargantuan shoes will be the ‘European Rugby Champions Cup’ following a long road filled with board meetings and betrayal.
The new 20 team tournament was agreed upon last week by the nine stakeholders (the six unions and the umbrella club organisations) signing an eight year deal and will be governed from the rugby stronghold of Switzerland.
Their neutrality in this particular war could prove vital.
The term ‘champion’ seems to be bandied about a little too freely for my liking these days.
I’ve always had a bit of difficulty with the fact that football’s premier European competition is called the ‘Champions League’ when you can come fourth in your league and still qualify.
It will now be the same for the rugby with the top six places in the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 qualifying, and the Pro 12 getting seven spots. What’s so champion about coming seventh?
I suppose the ‘European Rugby Cup for those that finish in the top half of their league’ was a little too wordy?
There is of course the proviso that every founding nation is represented by at least one team, which I’m delighted they adhered to so that the competition retains a bit of an inclusive nature.
The final qualification spot will be decided between the eighth and ninth in the Pro 12 and the seventh place teams in the Premiership and Top 14 by way of a series of playoffs.
The rumours are that these playoffs will always be held in either England or France which strikes me as a little odd that they be weighted so heavily in their favour but I suppose this is essentially their baby.
It’s not just the playoffs but also the purse strings that lean towards the side of the big wigs.
Of the 60 million revenue pot for the competition, the English and French will get 20 million each while the remaining 20 will be divided up between Ireland, Wales, Scotland and Italy.
Ireland could invariably have four qualifiers if things go Connacht’s way so may well have two thirds of the amount of teams in the competition as the English and French but with only a quarter of their revenue.
On the greater scheme of things the IRFU are receiving pretty much the same amount but the English and French’s monies have more than doubled along with some lucrative television deals.
This has far reaching consequences for the IRFU and their ever increasing struggle for the provinces to hold onto the Irish players.
The, already minted, French teams have just got richer and the money they can offer will rise exponentially.
The difference between what the IRFU pay their top players as opposed to what a French behemoth like Toulon will offer is currently around a couple of hundred thousand which is off set by the impressive player welfare scheme that exists in this country.
Players can see what Johnny Sexton has to go through and decide that it’s just not worth it to prolong your career sans injury.
Change that figure to a million or so and you’ll quickly see our talent heading off like moths to a flame.
Along with this, the ability of the Provinces to attract big name foreign players to these shores will also be seriously tested. If European rugby history has taught us anything it’s that you need the likes of the Ruan Pienarrs, Rocky Elsoms and Doug Howletts, along with the home grown provincial talent to really compete at top level.
It all comes down to money in the end and if these types of players no longer see the provinces as a worthwhile career move then we’re really in trouble.
If the plan was to loosen the Irish grip on European rugby than it may well have worked, but it’ll make a monster out of the French teams at the same time.
There is of course the option of finding a financial backer but then you lose out on everything that makes the provinces real and they become a millionaire’s play thing.
It’d be a dangerous road to go down but if needs must?
It’s not only the Provinces that’ll feel the pinch in the pocket either. Fans will now have to shell out for both Sky Sports and BT as the matches will be shared 50/50 between the two broadcasters.
This also seems like an unfair move as the Aviva Premiership signed the deal with BT to broadcast the English involvement in the, then non-existent, European competition behind closed doors while there was still time left on the Sky contract.
They’ve been cited as one of the causes of this major split, encouraging an AngloFrench cup that the rest of the countries had to join for fear of being left out in the rugby wilderness.
Out of principle I shouldn’t pay the subscription but then again, I don’t fancy missing half of the matches.
While none of this ideal, the alternative would have been far worse.
We could’ve just as easily been staring at a Welsh/French/English collaboration with only ourselves and the Scots sitting around looking at each other.
Without the regular competition against quality opposition the Provinces would have completely fallen apart, and with it, the national side too.
At the end of the day, we may not like the direction that the ship is heading, but at least we’re on board.