Domestic leagues going from strength to strength as European rugby wanes
It might just be me but the European competitions, the Challenge Cup and the now termed Champions Cup don’t seem to have the same aura and excitement surrounding them this season as years gone by.
All it used to take was a Sky Sports promo package containing clips for the approaching round of weekend matches with a fast paced tune in the background to boost the anticipation levels. Now the competition doesn’t quite reach those dizzying heights. It has lost a part of its old identity; something is missing from European rugby this season with coverage now split down the middle and games covered equally by BT Sports and Sky Sports. The current set up feels like a part of the soul of the European Cup has been torn out as a result of the bitter row that stained European rugby for the last eighteen months and saw the old format abandoned. Backward steps have been taken this season after years of blood, sweat and tears to get the Heineken Cup to the pinnacle of the game. Let us therefore be thankful that the three domestic leagues have gone up a notch in quality to fill the void left by the below par European season.
The description from the hay days of the European Cup as the best cup competition in the world of rugby is no longer accurate. I include the World Cup in that statement. As we saw with the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand it can leave much to the imagination at times. The level of pressure on each team is so enormous we can hardly blame them for falling victim to the occasion and underperforming. The Heineken Cup was better bang for your buck than the World Cup. It captivated audiences and was the focal point for which all European clubs strove to be a part of. The success of a club side’s season hinged on their European journey. Sky did something special with the Heineken Cup. They turned it into a wonderfully enjoyable competition for all fans. In my opinion the Champions Cup is now a shell of its former self that will require much investment to restore it to its former glory.
A huge plus from this season so far is a clear realization that the domestic leagues are getting better and better for sheer excitement. The Pro12, Premiership and Top 14 have grown in stature since the Heineken Cup tumbled off its perch. You only have to look at the league tables to see just how competitive each competition has become. Fans are now enjoying upsets in each round as so-called favorites fall to defeats on a regular basis.
Taking a look at this weekend’s action, for example, we saw five of the top six teams in the Premiership lose. Bath, the only side to win, and Northampton, have stretched out a reasonably comfortable but by no means insurmountable lead of ten points at the top of the table. Remarkably only five points separate third from eighth place. Gloucester showed on Saturday that any team could win on a given weekend. Thanks to last minute heroics by James Hook, they downed Saracens at Kingsholm Stadium. Endings like this are becoming a regular occurrence. Look at Shane Geraghty who sank a sweet drop-goal for London Irish to snatch the win from the Exeter Chiefs on Sunday. What a truly invigorating spectacle for fans and neutrals alike.
The Pro12 has also been a source of huge enjoyment and intrigue. Five points separate the top five sides and thanks to the entry requirements into the Champions Cup, a real battle is unfolding to make the fifth and sixth place in the table. The Italians are slogging it out at the bottom to see which of them can make the Cup but based on this season’s showing, both would benefit more from a place in the Challenge Cup and a chance to actually win a game. The Pro12 is now accessible to a far wider audience thanks to Sky’s broadcasting of the competition this season. Clearly reeling from the loss of the Premiership and half the European Cup coverage to BT, Sky have put their eggs in the Pro12 basket and it has paid dividends with a hugely competitive first half of the season. Whether viewing figures will stack up in the long run to make it a long term viable project remains to be seen.
The Top 14 has for years been the pinnacle for the majority of French sides. A competition that stretches back over one hundred years, the French hold the Bouclier de Brennus in high regard. As outsiders it is difficult to understand when we see a completely different team selected for an away game than that of a home fixture in Europe. The reason lies with the French sides’ prioritizing of the Top 14 ahead any European competition. Only when they feel like it do they take Europe seriously. Toulouse was for so long the driving force behind a French challenge to win the Heineken cup. Now RC Toulonnais and ASM Clermont Auvergne lead the way. On the domestic front Stade Français have made huge progress under Head Coach Gonzalo Quesada this season and are now challenging the previously mentioned juggernauts of European rugby at the top of the table. To underline just how competitive this league is, only ten points separate fourth from twelfth in the table. Quite a staggering statistic with over half of the season played. Sky’s signing of a five-year agreement to broadcast the Top14 has meant a wider audience, in particular those of us who wouldn’t follow it closely, have access to watch a wonderful competition that seems to be getting better all the time.
Taking a look at the Pools as they stand before Round 5 in the Champions Cup, all the favorites to progress to the next stage sit at the top of their group or at least a close second. The gulf in class is widening. Toulon and Clermont are the best sides in Europe with the strength in depth to field two world-class sides. Obviously money is talking in this respect. The larger salary caps in France are allowing French clubs build super squads and recruit what can only be termed as hired mercenaries from the Southern hemisphere. These players are swapping super rugby and national selection for less game time and a top up to their pension in France.
The competition is no better for it. Upsets are becoming a rare occurrence. They do of course happen but a level of predictability is present this year, more so than any other. The standard is still very high and we are still witnessing quality matches, but we do not measure this Champions Cup by just any yardstick. It is measured against what was the jewel in the Northern hemisphere rugby crown, the Heineken Cup. Against what was such a colossus of the world game it does not yet hold a candle to it on current showing.
Maybe I am too harsh. Maybe I haven’t given the competition enough of a chance. All I know is the debacle we saw for the last twelve to eighteen months hasn’t endeared me towards the new competition. Had it not occurred would the excitement surrounding the Heineken Cup still be as high as ever? I believe so, although signs of French domination had started to show. That squabbling left a sour taste in the mouth for me and many others. The bad blood seems to have spilled over and tainted this newly formed competition. I am just so very grateful that the domestic leagues have picked up the slack and I remain hopeful that the future of European rugby can only get brighter from here.