Time for a Rugby European Super League?

Time for a European Super League?

 

There is never a dull moment with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal, not least his wheeze that his club should leave the Top14 and join the Aviva Premiership. Most commentators appear to have dismissed this notion out of hand, but his suggestion could be the thin end of the wedge.

For there are some who would undoubtedly prefer a European Super League  to the current national league set-ups, and , with the European Champions Cup proving, so far , not to be the pot of gold promised a few years ago, there is bound to be a serious proposal to that effect.

The Irish in their glory days might have gone for it, as might some of the wealthier French clubs, and no doubt one or two Premiership clubs could be tempted by the idea.

But just imagine what that would mean for English fans. Week after week we now have derbies that stir up old enmities that have existed in some cases for more than a century, and then on a few weekends each season the European competitions offer the chance to see how other countries play their rugby.

All of that would change if ever there was a European League, and I suspect anyone who advocates such a move doesn’t care an awful lot about the fans. It would effectively end travelling support, and the character of the game would be irrevocably changed for the worse.

That is already the Super Rugby route, where television money is what really matters, and gate receipts are an ever-decreasing proportion of a team’s total revenue.

There is a natural parallel with football, where the most powerful clubs are steadily trying to wrest power away from the central organising body UEFA. Their obsession is with money and it is dividing the game into the elite clubs and the rest.

The worrying signs are that rugby is going the same way, and that must be a worry.

 

Pro 12 – Stop Whinging

I was interested to hear Former Welsh captain Martyn Williams speak out about the Champions Cup qualification rules. Williams’ gripe was that Cardiff had finished seventh in the Pro12, but lost out to Zebre as these has to be one team from each of the Pro12 countries, irrespective of their final league standing.

I savoured the delicious irony. Williams is on the money when he says the top seven should qualify, irrespective of which nation they’re from. But not many Celts were saying this in the days of the Heineken Cup with its convoluted and loaded qualification rules!

The Celtic nations fought tooth and nail for two years to keep their virtually automatic places, and were only dragged into line when the clubs being discriminated against – the French and the English – finally stood up to their bullying.

The fact is that the Italian clubs weaken the European Champions Cup by their very presence. Every other team must pray that they’ll get the Italians in their pool.

Even after two seasons of the new competition, the Pro12 hasn’t yet embraced the idea that leagues should be genuine meritocracies, where the best teams come out on top, and earn the biggest rewards.

Pro12 organisers should be beating a path to the Swiss door of European Professional Club Rugby, saying that they got it wrong when the Champions Cup was set up, and now want their top seven clubs to qualify by right.

 

 

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Bums on European seats wanted…again

Now that the dust has settled on some exhilarating stuff in last weekend’s Champions Cup the organisers should be asking a searching question: “Where have all the fans gone?”

At the quarter-final stage five years ago heavy support was generated all round – 55,000 in Barcelona, 49,762 in Dublin, 32,052 in San Sebastian and 21,309 in Milton Keynes, adding up to almost 160,000. This season’s total of 68,122 therefore represented a drop of 60 per cent.

I watched both semi-finals on television and the most telling image was the empty spaces at the Madejski Stadium and the City Ground in Nottingham. The aggregate total for the two games was 38,968. These are not figures that speak of a competition in the rudest of health. The aggregate attendance for last season’s semi-finals in St Etienne and Marseille was almost 77,000.

 

After all the only team that had to travel any real distance were Racing, and it is simply not good enough to plead that the likes of Saracens or even Wasps despite their Ricoh upturn in support, do not draw big numbers. Leicester Tigers are not regular visitors to European semi-finals but it seems many of the Welford Road regulars could not be bothered to travel the few miles to Nottingham. The last time Leicester played a semi-final at the city Ground, in 2002, they attracted a crowd of 29,849.

 

The absence of the well-supported Irish sides Munster, Leinster and Ulster is one factor in the decline. But there have been recurrent issues with knockout attendances involving Saracens as the home side. In both 2013 and 2014 their semi-finals at Twickenham were played in a stadium two-thirds empty, in contrast to last season’s vibrant occasion at St Etienne’s Stade Geoffroy Guichard when Clermont Auvergne’s “yellow army” turned up en noisy masse.

But then 80,000 turned up to watch Saracens at Wembley the other week. So how come? Saracens plan over a 12-month period for their Wembley outing, and pricing is a key part of the jigsaw they put together. Surely better to sell at a reduced cost. It is not the rugby product that is the issue; it is the pricing, with a range of £17.50 to £60 coming in at around £40 a ticket for the European semis.

If pricing and marketing is one failure another is timing. In the fractious talks that preceded the forming of the new competition there was pressure from the English and French clubs to free up the  calendar at the end of May so that the climax of the domestic season, particularly in France, would hold centre stage.

The squeeze came in Europe. The final itself was even earlier last season, May 2 at Twickenham, and although it has been pushed into a more appropriate slot this season, May 14 in Lyon, the two-week turnaround between the quarters and the semi has not worked. The most difficult game to sell in the entire competition is a semi-final package at neutral venues. A 14-day window is ridiculously restricted.

The organisers are under pressure to deliver profits back to the clubs who now own and run the competition. They need to sacrifice any short-term gain for long-term commitment from the public to this competition.

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Bums on European seats wanted…

So how did that happen? Three Premiership sides in the last four of the major European rugby club competition  for only the second time in history, with two semi-finals on English soil to come and the distinct possibility of an all-English final in Lyons next month. Be honest. How many predicted any of this last October when England were being unceremoniously dumped out of their own Rugby World Cup at the group stage.

 

This Saturday around 80,000 people are expected to pack Wembley for the Premiership fixture between Saracens and Harlequins. Yet a gate of 8,050 to see Sarries overcome Northampton Saints in their quarter-final at Allianz Park last weekend made it the worst-attended European quarter-final since Stade Francais hosted Pau 15 years ago – and it beats that by a mere 50.

Apparently Saracens had planning permission to supply the necessary 15,000 seats for a quarter-final venue, but as it became clear their normal capacity of 10,000 was not going to be required, EPCR sensibly absolved them of the expense of extending their ground. Northampton were even said to have returned all but 600 of their 3,500 ticket allocation.

It is concerning that two old rivals competing in a major European competition and separated by only 60 miles of M1 could fail to fill a modestly sized stadium for a match as big as this – and a little depressing. There would appear to be some marketing and promotional lessons in there somewhere.

 

Meanwhile, around 5,000 empty seats were on display as Leicester thumped Stade Francais at Welford Road, and the Ricoh Arena was around 9,000 bums short of a sell-out for the epic match between Wasps and Exeter.

 

It may have been one of the busiest sporting weekends of the year and therefore fans’ attentions were somewhat divided. But something seems amiss when top-drawer knock-out European rugby fails to sell out.

 

Mike Miles

 

www.scrumdown.org.uk

 

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

 

 

Bath regain pride;Toulon progress

Saturday January 23,2016
Bath Rugby v Toulon
ERCC Round 6
The Recreation Ground, Bath
Dyson Stand; Block H;Row R;Seat 212;£44.00

Bath……….14
Toulon…….19
Take two of the more nakedly ambitious clubs, two of the more controversial owners/financiers, a liberal sprinkling of some of the most talked about players in European rugby…….If additional spice were needed, throw in Steve Meehan, a former head coach at the Rec but who now runs the Toulon attack. ….
And there’s never a dull moment with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal. His latest wheeze is that his club should leave the Top14 and move to the Aviva Premiership. English club owners were not slow in throwing cold water over that idea.

This game certainly had its attractions. A year ago Bath were on a high, about to qualify for the last eight of the European Champions Cup despite losing their first two group matches. But today they were playing only for third place in their pool, the so-called “group of death” in this year’s competition. Fellow premiership members Wasps were the team expected to struggle but after big wins against Leinster, Toulon and Bath they were the ones most likely to qualify. Toulon had to win today’s game to reach the quarter-finals.
Bath have not suddenly become a bad team but the confidence that bubbled last season has evaporated. That was clear last weekend when they timidly succumbed to a Leinster side that included only a sprinkling of regulars and a number of academy players. Bath supporters have been quick to give their opinions on why they think their side is not clicking. They range from Mike Ford isn’t a head coach, he’s an assistant; Farleigh Castle (Bath’s HQ and training facility) is too nice; George Ford can’t tackle; bringing in Sam Burgess was disruptive (even though he had returned to rugby league by the time this season kicked off); and that old chestnut, the players are paid too much money.
After Bath had lost away to Newcastle (who hadn’t won a league match), Mike Ford said he thought the players needed to look at themselves, obviously hoping to get a reaction. It worked (up to a point – they still lost) for the game in Toulon, but in the following match at Leinster Bath looked flat and lacking energy.

So Toulon knew exactly what they wanted from their final pool match, and with Bath playing for pride, a comfortable win by the current European champions seemed likely. In fact they had to dig hard and deep to subdue a brave and resourceful second-half performance from Bath that almost brought them a famous victory. But in the end, a rather lame start and a clear edge in power, especially up front, proved too much. That edge was epitomised by Steffon Armitage, the man England refuse to select, who once again gave a bull-like performance.
It was somehow typical of Bath’s season that the match was decided by one big mistake. A cross-field kick from right to left by Toulon’s Quade Cooper ran loose; David Denton grabbed it but then attempted a high, looped pass which fell into the grateful arms of Bryan Habana who was over the line in a flash.
In the end Toulon just about deserved the win and a quarter-final place, but at least it was close, and Bath deprived them of the bonus point win that would have seen them top the group. And then came news that Wasps had thrashed Leinster at the Ricoh Arena to put themselves top of the pile.

Despite their side having no chance of progressing Bath fans turned up in their numbers, which probably says a lot about the attraction of a team like Toulon. But there is more than a hint about the French side of a team, if not in decline, at least in the doldrums. They progressed to the quarter finals in much the same way as they have progressed throughout this year’s pool stages – incoherently but with enough muscle and know-how to get by. Perhaps it is little wonder that their owner is wanting to move to the Aviva Premiership….

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

If football is so bad, why is Rygby copying it?

A few weeks ago I asked why, if football is the evil spirit, rugby is aping it. I made a specific example of England’s cheque book in hand pursuit of Eddie Jones as the new England rugby coach.
Now Rugby Players Association boss Damian Hopley has claimed the topping-up of rugby’s Premiership stars is rife, and he even describes the current six-month rule relating to approaches as nonsense.”
Officially at least, Aviva Premiership clubs are unable to approach players from rival clubs until January 1, but the speculation surrounding transfer moves for Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi suggests the rule is routinely ignored. No doubt football is being blamed for that….

Now another row is brewing over the issue of whether foreign stars will make the England rugby team better or not. And of course the parallels with football are unmistakeable. The Three Lions flop at the World Cup, and the clubs are blamed for putting their own interests before the national team. But within weeks fans are flocking in through the gates to watch the latest Premier League soap opera. The English rugby team sets a record for their exit from their own World Cup but the fans still flock to watch their club sides. And with two European rounds gone and only one English defeat, who needs the world cup anyway? The widespread popularity of both sports is sustained by the success of club competitions.

The Aviva Premiership is due to increase its salary cap from next season, and it won’t take a genius to work out that much of this increased money will go into players’ pockets, and more than likely foreign players. A perfect example is Wasps’ Nathan Hughes, born in Lautoka , Fiji, who learned his rugby in Auckland before coming to England. He chose not to represent his home country at the World Cup and is now qualified to play for England.
Hughes isn’t the first player to do this and he certainly won’t be the last and there is a distinct possibility that increases in the wage cap will encourage many more young players to make the journey to England.
And if they do young English players will not be playing for Premiership clubs. And ultimately Eddie Jones and his successors will have less quality Englishmen to choose from. Sounds familiar? It must be football’s fault….
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

mike.miles@scrumdown.org.uk

Who cares about the Challenge Cup – Not the French!

One of the stated goals of the new European rugby tournaments was an increase in how competitive the new competitions would be. If that has been achieved in the Champions Cup the same cannot be said of its baby sister, the Challenge Cup.

While 25,600 were watching a full-blooded Munster v Clermont affair in Round 3, a paltry 4,000 went to see Brive (who average over 12,000 in the Top 14) take on Oyonnax.

To be fair to EPCR, not all blame can be laid at their door. The Amlin Challenge Cup, its previous incarnation, was never particularly loved by supporters. But crucially, there was at least the carrot of a place in the Heineken Cup for the winner. With that carrot taken away in favour of an end-of-season play-off system that merely adds another two weeks of competitive rugby to an already cluttered calendar, what reason does any club really have to prioritise the Challenge Cup over its domestic league?

If there is any hope of the Challenge Cup being a worthwhile tournament, it must hold qualification for its big brother, the Champions Cup. Without it, this season it has become less competitive, not more. Until that happens it will remain a damp squib of a tournament, unloved by fans, media, and to be brutally honest, clubs alike.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk