A distinct hint of déjà vu swirled around last weekend’s European semi-finals. A decade ago three of the four last eight ties in the then Heineken Cup were hosted by French clubs. Of those French sides, all reached the semi-finals and two of them – Toulouse and Stade Francais – contested the final.
Now dig a little deeper into the Euro pyramid. Ten years ago there were five Top 14 sides in the European Challenge Cup last eight; this year there were none. As far as the French are concerned, European club rugby’s second-tier competition is no longer worth the hassle.
They are not alone. What should be the UEFA Cup or Europa League of rugby feels more akin to the League Cup. For all sorts of reasons the Challenge Cup is presently in danger of losing its raison d’être. The winner is not even guaranteed to qualify for the Champions Cup next season (something football’s equivalent will offer this season’s winners), having to make do instead with a play-off spot.
The principle of three second-placed pool sides dropping down from the elite competition for the knockout phase has also been quietly dropped since the main tournament was reduced from 24 teams to 20.
Next season will be a different story – but only because it is a World Cup year. The Challenge Cup winners will qualify for the following season’s Champions Cup but in 2017/18 there will be a permanent switch back to the play-off system.
If say Gloucester win this year’s Challenge Cup to outflank the seventh-placed Premiership finisher, they will only play in the elite event should they beat the seventh-placed Pro 12 side , followed by the seventh-placed Top 14 side on May 30.
By then everyone involved will be on their knees…..
It all threatens to spawn a competition that is a waste of everyone’s time and effort. The whole driving force behind the new European set-up was to reward merit. Surely it says more about a team’s qualities if they battle their way through a series of sudden-death matches to win a worthwhile trophy, rather than simply rewarding them for mid-table mediocrity.
If there has to be a play-off for 20th place, perhaps it should be between the seventh-placed Pro12 team and the top-ranked Italian club, if the latter has finished outside the top six. That would retain the principle of Italian involvement in the Champions Cup – but only absolutely guarantee a place if they earn it on the field.
Automatic Champions Cup qualification would similarly reinvigorate the meandering Challenge Cup and make it worth cherishing again. A seriously competitive Challenge Cup – incorporating a worthwhile prize for the Champions – should not be beyond the wit of European rugby’s administrators.
These should be boom times for European club rugby – and that is before any “knock-on” effects from the World Cup. There were 84,068 at Wembley a few weeks ago, and, despite London Welsh’s struggles, there is reportedly a 5% rise in Premiership attendances this season. This all suggests spectator interest in the sport is growing – yet directors of mid-table squads across Europe are all being forced to prioritise the domestic front.