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.


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


Same old (Heineken?) Story

For the third season in a row, Toulon, Clermont and Saracens are into the semi-finals if the European Cup. Leinster join them this year where Munster had joined them the two years previously, a total of five teams over three years.
During the three years previous to that, however, Ulster, Edinburgh, Clermont, Leinster, Saints, Perpignan, Toulouse, Biarritz and Munster had all appeared in the final four of the now defunct Heineken Cup.
So while the competition may have been streamlined and given a new name this season, it seems little has changed in terms of where the power lies on the pitch.

And looking back at the quarter-finals, one thing we learnt above all else – from three of the four results at least-is that when it comes to knockout rugby, it pays better to be powerful and clinical than daring and inaccurate. Leinster, Saracens and Toulon all came out on the right side of the result despite playing much less attacking rugby than their opponents. They won their games through the power and precision of their packs, and the boots of messrs Madigan, Bosch and Michalak respectively.

And this provides the answer to the main question that emerged from the helter-skelter final day of the Six Nations-namely, “why don’t teams play like this more often?”In the cold, hard world of knockout rugby, when winning is all that matters, it is more often than not the side that has the greater power-and therefore doesn’t need to chance its arm by flinging the ball around and making more errors-that will come out on top.
If teams don’t need to throw caution to the wind because they know they can win by battering the opposition and kicking the resulting penalties, they will do so.
Mike Miles


The Irish still love the Heineken (!) Cup

Hurray for the return of the Heinek- oops, sorry we can’t call it that any more, even if they are the only named sponsor to date. Well, hurray for the return of European rugby, which certainly needs a name that is less of a mouthful.

Brian O’Driscoll was recently asked that, given the hostility to the European Champions Cup in the Irish media, who describe it as a vehicle for French and English clubs to claw back ground they had lost in the Heineken Cup, was it the way to go?

“I am not sure that it favours France or England” he diplomatically replied. “It provides more of a level playing field. The Heineken Cup was good for Irish rugby and Ireland was good for the Heineken Cup, but I think it is hard to argue against the change.”

It is early days yet but there have been seven European Champions Cup fixtures pitting Premiership against Pro 12 sides. And the score in this little game within a game? Five to the Pro 12, two to the Premiership, with Munster leading the charge thanks to two wins out of two against English opposition.

The structure of the competition may have changed, but the desire of the Irish to beat the English has not gone out of fashion.

On the whole, the more concentrated nature of the tournament compared to the old Heineken Cup seems to have improved the quality of the rugby, but only slightly. Many of the games were tight affairs with plenty of good rugby on show. Whether it is significantly better, or more competitive, than the Heineken Cup was, will take a little longer to establish.

Mike Miles


Too Quiet on the European Front

It has all gone very quiet on the European rugby front. Granted the major rugby focus is on the World Cup starting exactly a year hence, but lets not forget the post-Heineken Cup  kicks off in little over a month’s time, but would you know it?

We do have a fixture list-eventually, but launch details , sponsorship updates and hard media information have been worryingly sparse – the anticipatory drum roll reaches barely a whimper.

Look at the official website, and just one news item has appeared in the last month. This is a time of year when rugby fans should be getting ready for the new European kick-off under a hail of anticipatory information.

Fingers crossed that every thing turns out all right on the night.

Mike Miles


Long Live the Heineken Cup……..

European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) , the organizers of the new European Rugby Champions Cup, have finally announced the fixtures for the coming season,albeit only for the first two rounds, and much later than their condemned predecessor,ERC, managed in previous seasons.

EPCR have also announced that the first final under their auspices will be at ….Twickenham.Now that control of the event has passed from the Unions to the clubs after a two-year power struggle the new organizers have picked up where the old ones left off.

Whatever happened to the wonderful idea of spreading the gospel by exposing the Final to new audiences in new cities. The San Siro in Milan would have done infinitely more for the event as a genuine pan-European competition than Twickenham, or the Millennium Stadium,or Murrayfield for that matter.

The English-speaking Rugby Champions Cup with France would be a more accurate description.

Now that we’re singing the Blues

Saturday October 19 2013

Cardiff Blues (19) v Toulon (15) @ Cardiff Arms Park

Heineken Cup:Round 2

Watching this torrid,penalty-dominated affair, my thoughts wandered off to the West Ham team of the late sixties. They had three world cup winners in their line-up, but never remotely looked capable of being league champions.

Now here I was watching a Cardiff Blues side who,in their last match, had suffered a chastening 44 – 29 defeat at Exeter Chiefs,after being 41-3 down at one stage. Coach Phil Davies had apparently snapped at a reporter who had asked the not unreasonable question as to how a team with 13 internationals,including five Lions, could be so abject.

Hence,my sense of deja vu.

But Cardiff’s problems run far deeper. In Welsh regional rugby the bitter reality is that all four of the country’s professional teams have seen some of their star turns leave home in pursuit of a brighter,wealthier future – a hemorrhaging of talent that becomes more difficult to stem with every failed attempt  to rescue the Heineken Cup or find an alternative acceptable to all.

The papers are full of stories of current Blues stars Leigh Halfpenny and Sam Warburton being courted by big-spending French clubs such as today’s visitors Toulon.

So no-one seriously expected the Blues to prevail over the reigning Heineken Cup holders. But they did – just.The heirs to Gareth Edwards and Gerald Davies were playing in a shocking pink strip , and on an artificial surface to boot. At least the latter could allow a pitch invasion, and on they came at the final whistle as if the cup itself had just been won.

The die-hard manner of  the victory, with the crowd singing unbidden at the end,must have helped restore pride at one of the game’s most historic grounds. This was a day when many things were put to the test in a rugby country where a debate about the future of the regional game stretches far beyond the capital.

One final thought….There is regular condemnation of the “divers” that disfigure the round-ball game,but there was an incident in this match that showed how the egg-chasers have a similar problem.

Toulon’s Fijian winger, Josua Tuisova, was closing in on the try-line but over-cooked his chip ahead. So he went looking for a penalty. Leigh Halfpenny tried to back out of the way but Tuisova nevertheless crashed dramatically to the ground-before giving his colleagues a thumbs up when he thought nobody was watching. Johnny Wilkinson kicked the resulting penalty to put his side 15-12 ahead. But then back came Cardiff with the game’s only try, so arguably justice was done.