The Euro­pean Rugby Cham­pi­ons Cup is here and de­spite ev­ery­thing at least we’re on board the ship

Bray People - - SPORT - SI­MON NOR­TON

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.

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