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.

 

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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

 

 

Will Europe suffer World Cup hangover?

Amongst all the coverage of the forthcoming World Cup it would have been easy to miss the announcement last week of the fixtures for next season’s Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.
Because of the World Cup the competition doesn’t start until mid-November, but there are some exciting matches in prospect. There is the inevitable “Group of Death”, Pool 5, involving a previous Heineken Cup winning quartet of Leinster, Wasps, Toulon and Bath.

But there must be a question mark over how big the World Cup hangover will be, and which of the European Champions Cup contenders will be hit hardest. The answer to this will play a huge part in determining which of Toulon’s rivals will stand the best chance of prising their hands off the trophy.
Saracens are easily the Premiership’s leading lights after reaching a final and two semi-finals in the last three years. They start their hoped-for route to Lyon with a tie against fading French giants Toulouse at Allianz Park.

Their rugby director Mark McCall reflected on the competition. “ The different slant to this season is that the World Cup final will be played two weeks before the first game, and we don’t know who will be in the final – but if England were to get into the final we don’t know how our players will be coming back into the club with Toulouse just two weeks away.”

The reality is that if England, France, Ireland, Wales or Scotland reach the World Cup last four, or even the quarter finals, the sizeable international contingents of clubs like Saracens, Bath, Toulouse and Leinster could be severely compromised. Injuries, fatigue, as well as factors like loss of form all come into the post-World Cup equation.

It suggests that clubs with strong squads which are not heavily hit by international calls could thrive in the coming campaign, because, ironically, the revised format introduced a year ago, means any side that does not hit the ground running puts its quarter-final prospects in danger.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Pool of Death…..no,not again

As sporting clichés go, “pool of death” has to be right up there among the worst, and it would have been a minor miracle if we hadn’t heard it again when the Champions and Challenge Cup draws took place. It seems to be an immutable law that there will be a pool of death in every competition, and, with the Champions Cup now down to just 20 teams, there might just be more than one of them.

But it is not only “Pool of Death” rivals Bath, Leinster, Toulon and Wasps who have reason to feel let down following the European Rugby Champions Cup draw.
The confirmation of next season’s battle lines overshadowed the announcement that the Grand Stade de Lyon will host the final, with that honour passing to Murrayfield in 2017.

It will be the fourth time that France have staged club rugby’s showpiece event and the third time that it has been played in Scotland while Italy are yet to play host to the final.
It is understood that the FIR (Italian Rugby Federation) did not bid to stage the latest final –with officials perhaps too busy fighting fires on the home front, what with a threatened strike by their leading players or appeasing their PRO12 partners when it comes to their participation fees.

But their continued absence from the list of hosts remains a problem for European rugby chiefs that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Italian sides may have struggled to make a significant impression on the competition but that does not excuse their marginalization when it comes to the final.

The Six Nations has shown that they are more than capable of hosting major rugby events and Italy’s sell-out clash against the All Blacks in 2009 illustrated that they are able to successfully market one-off games. Those facts should ease any commercial concerns and fears that the game may not sell out or catch the imagination of the wider sporting public.
Italian supporters and rugby fans in general would relish the opportunity to experience a final at somewhere like the Stadio Olimpico or the San Siro and it would boost the competition’s profile significantly.
If the FIR need a little help to get to that point it is time for their European partners to front up.

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Bring back the 57 Old Farts

2015 being a year of anniversaries, someone mentioned the other day that it is 20 years since Will Carling’s pithy verdict on the RFU committee as “57 old farts” entered the sporting lexicon. The phrase nowadays would probably only qualify as a wry compliment by social media standards, but, can we honestly say, hand on heavily-sponsored heart, that the amateur era’s buffers, blimps and blazers were worse than the game’s current administrators who replaced them?

Because a quick count of the issues stacking up within the game do not reflect terribly well on the current guardians of the union code.

It is not merely the rising stench from beneath the carpets at Premiership Rugby, where the serious matter of alleged salary cap breaches have seemingly been swept. Perhaps we should simply resign ourselves to the air-brushing of anything which conceivably threatens the commercial bottom line, particularly the latest huge broadcasting deal with BT Sport. Is it not too much to ask those who know the truth to have the guts to step forward to share the details with us, the paying fans?

The same sense of disquiet applies to the proposed moratorium on promotion and relegation to and from the Premiership from 2016/17. This is not an argument which can be had in isolation. Either the RFU, its leading clubs and English rugby in general want a vibrant, healthy second tier beneath the Premiership or they do not. Simply pulling up the relegation drawbridge , imposing a low ceiling on the funding available to those outside the magic circle and insisting everything will be rosy for the disenfranchised majority is, at best, wishful thinking.
Where is the rugby equivalent of Bournemouth, just promoted to football’s billionaire playground, going to come from?

With the World Cup only months away, where is the breadth of vision at a time when rugby union has a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to spread its gospel. A recent letter to “Rugby World” put it succinctly: “Have you noticed the air of excitement in Britain about the World Cup? No, neither have I. With less than five months to go, the silence in anything but the rugby press is deafening.”The ousting of Debbie Jevans as the figurehead of England Rugby 2015 less than six months before the start of the tournament was accompanied by a deafening radio silence from Twickenham. The RFU used to be more open in the days when its phone number was ex-directory.

To finish off on Europe…Toulon have just won the inaugural European Champions Cup, the successor to the Heineken Cup. But the supposed new broom in Europe still has work to do on the perception front. Four of the five main sponsorship slots for this new completion remain unfilled. The only blue chip sponsor on board is……Heineken. And let’s not forget that a blizzard of free tickets was required to boost the attendance at European rugby’s flagship Twickenham final between two French sides…

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Do Sky have an Irish love-in?

The European finals last weekend gave us a great opportunity to compare BT Sports’ coverage of rugby with that of Sky with both broadcasters covering the two finals. It’s a matter of personal preference of course , but I just find BT’s coverage more to my taste, and a bit less pompous.
Premiership fans have long been irritated by Sky’s Irish love-in, and that was evident again in their coverage of the Toulon v Leinster semi-final. There seemed to be no pretense of anything close to impartiality, and if we’d cut to Myles Harrison and Stuart Barnes in Leinster shirts I wouldn’t have been surprised! I have a lot of time for Stuart Barnes as a writer but as a broadcaster I wish he would take a leaf out of the late Ritchie Benaud playbook – less is more!
It’s hard to get numbers for Sky Sports subscribers in the UK and Ireland, but it seems likely that it’s roughly 20:1. However, having lost the rights to broadcast the premiership, it looks like there a distinctly pro-Irish flavour to their rugby output, and the rest of us will simply have to lump it – or press the mute button!

We have just had an all-French and all-British European final. Of course we need neutral referees when clubs from different countries are competing ,but when it’s a one-country clash ,might it not make for a better spectacle to have a home ref? Let’s face it, Pro 12,Top14 and Premiership matches are all ref’d in slightly differently ways, and the players are used to that.
I would have thought that a native French speaker would have been a better choice for the Champions final in particular. Nigel Owens is a superb referee, but how many of the players at Twickenham understood his English comments in a broad Welsh accent?

Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk

Is the Challenge Cup worth the hassle?

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.
Mike Miles

http://www.scrumdown.org.uk