The Heineken Cup was universally recognised for years as the great success story of the professional era. It is exactly the same age, the first match played on Halloween in 1995, a Tuesday night, on the shores of the Black Sea, when Toulouse beat Farul Constanta of Romania 54-10 in front of two men and a dog.
Within a decade it was being heralded by no less an authority than the Observer as the greatest rugby tournament on Earth. More colourful than regular domestic competitions; more competitive than the World Cup; more teams than the Six Nations or (as was then) the Tri Nations. On the eve of the 10th season, in 2004, our late correspondent Eddie Butler described the competition as a “new cultural experience” to rival the Six Nations.
The northern hemisphere had just produced its first (and to date only) world champions, and, get this, the cumulative deficit of the nine Premiership clubs who filed accounts that season was a little over £1m. Four of them were in profit. The salary cap was £2m.
How times change. As we sit on the eve of the 28th edition, which kicks off on Friday on the shores of the Thames, when London Irish host Montpellier, does anyone feel the same way about the competition that in its heyday not even the most curmudgeonly would flinch at calling by its sponsor’s name?
Do we even know what its name is now? Heineken are still sponsors, or at least they returned as such in 2018, after four years away. At some point, presumably to try to jazz things up (and/or copy football), someone introduced the word “Champions” into the nomenclature. This season they have introduced South African teams into the playing roster, which will undoubtedly bring a new dimension, but somewhat makes a mockery of the initialism EPCR, where E stands for European. Then again, maybe Brexit had done that already.
In keeping with the times, something feels out of joint with professional rugby’s beloved child, which, to save the reader looking it up, is now officially known as the Heineken Champions Cup. Covid has hit all competitions hard (see the Premiership), but this is the only one to have had a weekend squeezed out of its calendar by the others.
In order to accommodate the chaos of the 2020-21 calendar, the classical six-pool format was abandoned in favour of the unwieldy two pools of 12 that now pertain, to be contested over four weekends. There can be no pools of death in this setup.
The format was positioned as a temporary arrangement while the world got back to normal, but here we are on the brink of its third season. Having lost two weekends in October in exchange for an extra weekend (a knockout round of 16) in April, a reversion to the previous structure would be a mathematical impossibility as it stands.
Last week, the launch of this season’s iteration took place in a shiny hotel in a woodland on the shores of the M25. In keeping with the mandatory hype of these events, EPCR’s chairman, Dominic McKay, performed admirably, but he acknowledged that it is not within his gift to reclaim the lost weekend. Bad news, Dom. That means it is never coming back.
Worse still, the rumours persist about a world club championship. Given the South Africans now play up here, and more and more of the best players from New Zealand and Australia are taking up contracts here too, that very idea is becoming correspondingly redundant. All the same, talks are now sufficiently advanced that McKay was able to speculate on its likely format.
Answer: every four years the Heineken Champions Cup will forgo anything so trivial as its very knockout stages, in order to see how a handful of New Zealand teams might compare against the best of Europe. And South Africa. It is true that football has a Club World Cup, but it is difficult to imagine the Champions League accommodating it in such a way.
The truth is, the Heineken/Champions Cup has become as vulnerable as any other institution in rugby’s adopted model of free-market economics. Originally, it was an aberration, a competition run by the unions for the clubs, revenues split six ways, which meant, in effect, the richer leagues (French and English) subsidised the rest.
The shift from Heineken to Champions took place in 2014, when the clubs pulled rank. Now they run the show, with the unions little more than sitting at the table.
The South African union is not even that. Until it becomes a partner, we can consider South African participation a sort of trial. South Africa is desperate for meaningful competition for its best teams, but then EPCR is desperate for a fillip for its flagship competition. This might be seen as a perfect match.
Then again, everyone is desperate in a free-market model, bar the wealthiest. With the recent tribulations of the Premiership, that pretty much equates to the French these days, with honourable mention for the Irish, although this competition is far more important to the latter. The whispers at the launch were that the success or otherwise of the South African experiment will boil down to how the French clubs take to the travel and logistics.
The French are in the ascendancy, which is more about the size of their economy and rugby’s place within it than about the comings and goings of great players. They boast the last two Champions Cup winners and six of the last eight semi-finalists. Increasingly, the rugby world is gravitating around them. That includes the competition that for a while was the best in the world.
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