EEERRCCCCC Draw 2014/15

If you were confused by the seeding vagaries of the draw for the EERRRRCCCCCC, you weren’t the only ones – we are Maths nerds by profession and all we could understand was that our brains were frying. Luckily, in stepped Murray Kinsella to explain it all in short, easy-to-understand words for us – thanks Murray!

When the ultra-complex draw happened, it produced tougher pools than the legacy tournament, which, as well as having 4 more teams, wasn’t as “elite”. While we had major issues with the money/power grab from the crowing money men of the Boshiership, the case for cutting teams from the HEC structure was pretty strong – and it has turned out that way, looking at the draw, with Pools 1 and 3 (with Munster and Ulster) utterly mouth-watering and the rest largely hard to call.

One pool contains three of last years semi-finalists and two collectively have six of the quarter-finalists – although this says as much about the difficulty of losing a good ranking under the HEC system than it does about the EEEEEEERCCC one. Here’s the full listing:

  1. Globo Gym, Munster, ASM Mental Stength, Sale Sharks
  2. Leinster, Castres, Quins, Wasps
  3. Toulon, Leicester Tigers, Ulster, Hard-Scrummaging Scarlets
  4. Glasgow, Montpellier, Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohh Bath, Boring Bosh Merchants Toulouse
  5. Northampton, Racing Metro, Ospreys, Treviso

Starting, as ever, with hardy traditionalists Munster, while its a tough draw, their fans are secretly quite pleased – nothing gets the pishun stirring as much as a visit of the arrogant Englishman (© Gerry) or a flaky bunch of Frenchmen. Munster will be confident of 3 home wins, and will target Sale for their away win. Given the fact that 3 out of 5 runners-up will qualify, and looking at how competitive the pools are, 4 wins and 3 bonus points (19 points) might be enough to qualify, and they’ll be aiming for that. Initially anyway.

In pool 2, Leinster have got a bit of a bye – Castres are familiar foes and rarely put 100% effort into Europe. Quins have experience but are a bit short on top quality and Wasps have neither to be frank. Leinster will be thinking of a home quarter-final – for all their attacking struggles this year, their pack and defence retains its excellent rating.

Ulster have paid the price for merely finishing fourth, drawing Toulon and Leicester. While they have made a habit of beating the Tigers in recent times, Leicester surely won’t have as many injuries and Ulster have yet to adequately replace their departing props. Toulon will be really tough, but any team with European pretensions (as Ulster have) should be beating the Scarlets twice. So, then, a simliar target to Munster – 19 points and second place. Third time to edge out the Tigers in four years?

Elsewhere, Northampton and RM92 will be happy with their draw and be confident of reaching the knockouts, and if Glasgae can re-produce their Pro12 form they might be in with a sniff, and that’s a mighty open pool. So much can depend on the timing of the fixtures and how the teams are going at the time, but we feel Leinster will definitely qualify, Munster are slight odds-against, and Ulster third favourites in their pool. Either way, the games look spectacular – worth subscribing to BT Sport though? 🙂

Dead Parrot Sketch

So, its come to this. The French clubs are back in the fold, helped by a shove from the union, their long-term intentions as unclear as ever – they said the RCC fiasco was a way for them to get what they wanted, but we aren’t sure what they actually want.

  • More money? Seems unlikely – French clubs earn more at home. It would be nice, but hardly a reason to join McCafferty’s revolution. Unless its all about permanently de-stabilizing Europe – that would earn them more money – see option 3 below.
  • Less Rabo teams? Well, the structure sans les Rosbifs is apparently the entire Rabo league, 6 Frenchies and 2 composite whipping boys from Spain and Portugal, with the Amlin Vase gone. Pretty unsuccessful way to make qualification more meritocratic (should that be “meritocratic”? Not sure)
  • Top16? This is what we think. Discredit and destabilize Europe enough that a Top16 becomes a safety line for French clubs. Playing the long game

With the pliant UK media going as overboard as ever (the Grauniad didn’t report on the French clubs leaving on Thursday, then headlined it on Friday with “French U-turn jeopardises European rugby” – yeah, its the French who have done the jeopardising…), PR have air cover for their intransigence, with little public questioning of their strategy and long-term ambitions (bar Martyn Thomas calling for McCafferty’s head on a plate). And little detail  on the minutiae of the BT contract either.

The increasingly woeful utterances by PR are an embarrassment to English rugby:

  • Its us and the French!
  • Its us and the Welsh!
  • Its us and the South Africans!
  • Its us and … er … financial oblivion!

Its basically the Dead Parrot Sketch – this RCC is very much alive sir!

McCafferty’s latest is to insist the English aren’t coming back and is being reduced to saying the Premiership will be better as teams can play all their players instead of saving them for Europe (I thought it was only Rabo clubs that could do this?).  The risk now is the unhappy Welsh regions actually try and force their unions hand and try and join an expanded Premiership – its what they want, and it might actually make them financially viable.

The situation is still pretty fluid – a HEC with 12 Rabo teams and some PIGS seems unlikely to work, and PR aren’t going to go away. PR aren’t completely isolated yet, the RFU are reluctantly yoked to them, and the Welsh clubs are enthusiastic about games against English clubs. Bottom line for Ireland – short of the English coming back to the fold unconditionally, nothing is good news.

Its unclear how European club rugby will look in 5 years, but if there is a Top16 and some Welsh clubs in the Premiership, Irish rugby will struggle massively – Eddie wrote a nice piece on the questionable long-term benefits of Irish provinces dominating the Pro12. The HEC has been a stunning success in the last decade, but, paradoxically, that has alerted the English and French to the market for more and higher-quality rugby. If you can’t beat the Irish provinces on the pitch, why not remove their lifeline to top-class rugby and tempt the players to join your clubs?

The parallels with soccer in the 1990s are increasing – the governing bodies never directly conceded to a European super league, but the clubs pushed the envelope so far on Champions League expansion, they got one by proxy. The RFU and WRU can’t ignore the next tier of rugby in England and Wales – the Great Schism of nearly 120 years ago is still hard-wired into rugby union administration (recall professionalism was conceded to avoid loss of control 100 years after the first schism) and splits will be avoided at all costs.

This isn’t really about the HEC, its about power and money – the bell might have been rung on the HEC, and, as Eddie would say, you can’t un-ring it. The prospect of expanded French and Anglo-Welsh competitions might have moved a little closer – lets hope the Irish don’t end up relying on the Scots, Italians and the rest of Europe for games. We’re no closer to a long-term resolution, but the danger signals for Ireland remain at DEFCON 1.