tThe Heineken Cup has been recognized globally for years as the great success story of the professional era. It is the same age, the first match played on Halloween in 1995, on Tuesday night, on the shores of the Black Sea, when Toulouse beat Romania’s Farul Constanta 54-10 in front of two men and a dog.
Within a decade, it was heralded by authority no less than the Observer as rugby’s greatest tournament. more lively than the regular domestic competitions; More competitive than the World Cup. Most of the teams of the Six Nations or (as it was then) the Tri Nations. On the eve of Season X, in 2004, our late Eddie Butler correspondent described the competition as a “new cultural experiment” for the Six Nations competition.
The Northern Hemisphere had just produced its first (and so far only) champions, and finding this, the cumulative deficit of the nine Premier League clubs that filed accounts that season was just over £1m. Four of them were in profit. The maximum salary was £2m.
How have times changed. As we sit on the eve of the twenty-eighth, which kicks off on Friday on the shores of the Thames, when Irish London hosts Montpelier, does anyone feel the same about a competition which, at its height, will not flinch even the most obscure call out the name of the patron?
Do we even know what his name is now? Heineken is still a sponsor, or at least they’re back that way in 2018, after four years. At some point, presumably to try to stir up jazz (and/or copy football), someone inserted the word “champions” into the naming. This season they have introduced South African teams into their playing roster, which will undoubtedly bring a new dimension, but they are somewhat a mockery of the initial EPCR nomenclature, where the E stands for European. Then again, Brexit may have already done that.
In keeping with the times, there is something not in common with the love child of professional rugby, which, to the rescue of the searching reader, is now officially known as the Heineken Champions Cup. Covid has hit all competitions hard (see Premier League), but this is the only one that has taken a weekend out of their schedule.
In order to accommodate the chaos of the 2020-21 season, the classic six-group format has been abandoned in favor of the now-relevant two unwieldy groups of 12, to be contested over four weekends. There can be no clusters of death in this setting.
The format is set as a temporary arrangement while the world returns to normal, but here we are getting ready for its third season. Having lost two weekends in October to an additional weekend (knockout round 16) in April, returning to the previous structure would be a sporting impossibility as it is.
This season’s remake was launched last week at a gleaming hotel in a forest near the M25 motorway. In keeping with the obligatory fanfare of these events, EPCR Chairman Dominic Mackay gave an impressive performance, but conceded that it was not in his knack to win back a lost weekend. Bad news, Dom. This means that he will never return.
Even worse, rumors persisted about the Club World Championship. With South Africans now playing here, and more and more of the best players from New Zealand and Australia also contracting here, this very idea is becoming redundant. However, the talks are now advanced enough that Mackay has been able to speculate on their possible formula.
The answer: Every four years, the Heineken Champions Cup will forgo anything as trivial as the knockout stages, in order to see how a handful of New Zealand teams compare with the best in Europe. and South Africa. It is true that football has its Club World Cup, but it is hard to imagine the Champions League absorbing it in this way.
The Heineken Cup/Champions has become as vulnerable as any other institution in the rugby model adopted for free market economics. Originally, it was an aberration, a competition run by club guilds, in which the revenue was divided into six directions, meaning, in effect, that the richer guilds (French and English) subsidized the rest.
The switch from Heineken to Champions occurred in 2014, when clubs dropped down the standings. Now they run the show, with the unions little more than sitting at the table.
The South African Union is not. Until you become a partner, we can consider their participation as a kind of experiment. South Africa is desperate for meaningful competition for its best teams, but beyond that, EPCR is desperate for a major competition stimulus. This might be seen as a perfect match.
Then again, everyone is desperate in the free market model, except for the rich. With the recent misfortunes of the Premier League, this largely equals the French these days, with the honorable mention being given to the Irish, although for the latter this competition is far more important. Whispers at the launch were that the success or lack thereof of the South African experiment would boil down to how French clubs handle travel and logistics.
The French are on the rise, which has more to do with the size of their economy and the place of rugby within it than the comings and goings of top players. They boast past Champions Cup winners and six out of eight semi-finalists. Increasingly, the world of rugby tugs around them. This includes competition that for a while was the best in the world.
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