The future of the Heineken Cup has been exercising us of late, as you know, and recent developments are pretty worrying from an Irish (and Celtic) perspective. Basically the English and French clubs are taking the ball away unless you play by their rules i.e. let them have more money. While we have some sympathy for the view that the qualification rules need reform, it seems obvious that is a smokescreen – and an ugly one at that.
The ERC i.e. those who stand to be cut out altogether, have resorted to putting out hand-wringing press releases begging the English and French to stop putting out press releases – it’s pathetic, and the state of affairs has been wrought by the flash cash of BT Sport turning the heads of Premier Rugby and their odious mouthpiece, McCafferty. In addition to threatening one of the best competitions in rugby to make a few extra quid, it’s given rise to the usual amount of hot air (from both camps). In a bid to find public sympathy with their grandstanding, both sides (although particularly the PRL) have been happy to put a number of myths out into the public domain, dressed up as facts.
Myth: Lack of relegation in the Pro12 gives the Celts an unfair advantage in Europe
Reality: The idea that Leicester and Toulon are busy scratching around to avoid relegation and, as a result, can’t give their all to Europe, is laughable. The English are French teams that compete in the HEC are largely the same every year, and this is down to them being the richest and having the biggest squads – every year the biggest teams aim to win domestically and go far in Europe. The two aren’t mutually exlusive, quite the opposite infact.
It’s worth acknowledging that the European success of Embra two years ago came at the cost of them lying down getting their bellies tickled week in week out at home. It was rather unedifying, and brought the automatic qualificaion of both Scottish franchises to the forefront – let’s hope it didn’t tip any balance.
Yes, the Irish provinces’ players enjoy a lighter workload and play fewer league games, but on the other hand, they are forbidden from padding out their squads with unlimited numbers of foreign players. What’s given with one hand is taken away with the other.
Myth: The HEC will be improved as a product by having fewer teams
Reality: Dean Ryan said last week that the HEC lags miles behind the LV Cup in terms of match-day income for the teams. We find that impossible to believe – one is watched by over a hundred thousand fans* every week with every twist and turn, and the other by three men and a dog watching Gavin Henson’s latest comeback.
Like or loath Miles Harrison, Barnesy, Paul Wallace et al, there is no denying the quality of the Sky broadcast, and the colour of their money. Sky have pushed the HEC right to the top of their schedule, and invested their expertise in it – it’s great to watch and be involved in. Sure, less teams would mean less (not none – recall the fearful hammerings Toulon handed out to Sale last year) turkey shoots, but does that make it a better product? Maybe, maybe not.
Now let’s say the clubs get their way, and we end up with a 20 team contest with just two guaranteed Irish (one possible solution) – based on last season’s Pro12, Munster would be in the Amlin this year, or whatever it would become. Would that improve the HEC? Munster are an integral part of the HEC and have given a huge amount of drama to it over the years. The idea that the tournament would somehow be more elite without their presence is so far the wrong side of ridiculous as to be comedic. The English routinely fall over each other to praise the atmosphere in “Tomond” Park, and Saturday night games there, complete with mist, baying hordes, drooling Irish Times correspondents and away kicker nerves, are the epitome of mid-winter must-win pool games.
Myth: The Premiership clubs are all skint, and will sell their bodies to the highest bidder
Reality: The Premiership as a whole about breaks even – the clubs that make money are those that own their own stadia, and those that don’t, don’t. The likes of Leicester, Northampton, Gloucester and Exeter reap the benefits of non-match day incomes (and no rent) and can continually invest on the rugby side of the business. On the other hand, the likes of Bath and London Irish are permanently scratching out a perilous existence.
The Premiership clubs without stadia will use any extra cash from BT Sport for investment, benefitting the rugby community at large. Its a damn sight better than some Glazer-esque cowboy bleeding Sky’s millions into fees and offshore shell companies.
Myth: The French and English European qualification structures encourage conservative play, whereas the Celtalians can throw the ball around like confetti as it doesn’t really matter
Reality: This line of argument usually does along the lines of “Oh, that bosh-tastic 12-9 drop goal contest between Racing Metro and Biarritz was all down to fear of losing because they really, REALLY want to be in next years HEC and need to finish in the- top 6 to get there”. No, that was down to the monstrous packs and centres trying to run through each other all day.
Plus, it doesn’t hold for the Premiership – we’ve said it before, but we don’t buy the Celtic myth that the English league is a scrum-filled bosh fest. It’s actually quite good to watch, (and has bags more tries than the Pro12) and Leicester are among the most inventive teams in Europe these days. Sure, when Worcester and Newcastle grind out a 6-6 draw in February, you feel like tearing your eyes out, but is it any different for Dragons-Embra?
Myth: The English and French are happy to go it alone
Reality: For all the macho posturing of the PRL, it would seem to be a total non-runner – ditch the HEC for a slightly better version of the Anglo-Welsh Cup? Cancel my ticket. Do they really think the French clubs would buy into that wholeheartedly? Will Toulon play their firsts for that highly-anticipated Pool C clash in Exeter (other teams in pool: Bath and Perpignan – Ooooooooooh!!) or will they save them for a nice Mediterranean slug with Montpellier in the Top Quatorze the following week? Think we know the answer. And what would the BT money-men make of it? The IRFU may not appear to be in the strongest of bargaining positions, but they do have something to barter with: any future tournament needs the Irish provinces for the quality they provide.
Myth: It’s not about the money
Reality: It is
* not Saracens