And we’re back. Welcome to European club cup rugby for a 24th time. The 2018/19 Heineken Champions Cup campaign kicks off tonight in Dublin as title-holders Leinster open their Pool 1 account against Wasps at the RDS. For rugby supporters across the continent, the feelings of expectation are akin to a kid’s on Christmas Eve: Hope, excitement, anticipation.
Even the thought of embarking on a road to Newcastle rather than the alluring (and warm) Bilbao, scene of Leinster’s fourth European triumph last spring, cannot quell the desire to make a big weekend of it around the festivities at St James’ Park on Saturday, May 11, 2019.
Yet, with every new season comes concerns. How good was the report card from the last go, what are the ‘could do betters’ from campaigns past, and who are the figures likely to make an impact this time?
Here are four burning questions facing the Champions Cup for 2018/19.
We may be heading into a 24th European campaign but it is just five years since European Rugby ripped up its modus operandi and started all over again.
The old model, under organisers European Rugby Cup, was overhauled as the English and French leagues sought greater influence over the structure, format and distribution of revenues that were being divided by the six controlling national unions. So was born European Professional Club Rugby, promising a brave new dawn but delivering, let’s face it, a hotch-potch of compromise.
Thankfully, the teething problems appear to have been eradicated. The initial sponsorship strategy of a top-tier of select partners, based on UEFA’s Champions League, never got off the ground and we have arrived back at a single-title sponsor, in our old friends Heineken.
The compromise broadcast deals struck with original Heineken Cup rights-holders, Sky Sports and upstarts BT Sport, only served to confuse viewers looking for their chosen matches, unsure, not only of which channel to click, but also which of the myriad kick-off times would be correct, all while having the dubious privilege of paying two subscriptions.
This season we are at least down to a single sub, with BT Sport usurping Sky in the UK and Ireland for the pay-TV rights while EPCR have also opened up one game per round to free-to-air channels with Virgin Media the Irish provider.
Nor will there be so many stupid kick-off times late on weekend nights that suited only the broadcasters and made it difficult for supporters to attend games in the flesh.
And streamlining the competition from 24 to 20 finally makes sense with the PRO12/14 entitlement to a place in the draw for at least one club from each of its constituent nations, now removed. Meritocracy is the only way forward and the required top-six PRO14 finish criteria means all five pools are free of the whipping boys that ensured bonus-point victories nine times out of 10. Not only that but raising the bar has helped to invigorate the league and its lesser lights.
For all the excitement of a fully meritocratic competition, the Champions Cup is never very far away from the danger of an elite cadre of the richest clubs divvying up the latter stages of the tournament between themselves.
There are 21 European titles between the 20 teams this season, 28 if you include Challenge Cup success. Yet those trophies have been shared by just nine teams, and only three since 2011 as Toulon, Saracens, and now Leinster have claimed the Champions Cup.
There is a real fear of the sort of tedium that greets a Champions League campaign unless the have-nots can find a way to contend with the haves. Of course, there is always a chance of a nouveau riche social climber to muscle their way into the picture as Toulon did to win it three years in a row between 2013-15. Racing 92 have been knocking at the door with two finals appearances in the last three seasons while Montpellier are another team backed by an enthusiastic owner with pockets deep enough to indulge his sporting ambitions. And then there’s the rise of England’s Exeter Chiefs, Munster’s first-round pool opponents at Sandy Park. Also backed by a rich benefactor, Tony Rowe, the 2016 English champions are not laden with stars but they have made a fast start to this season’s Premiership and are strongly fancied to make the breakthrough into the European elite. Wherever it comes from, a different name on the trophy next May would give further cheer that the Champions Cup is in rude health.
The possibility that Leinster’s brilliant success of last season, secured with a final victory over Racing 92 in Bilbao, could open the floodgates for fellow PRO14 clubs from Ireland, Scotland and Wales is gaining credence with every season of Champions Cup rugby.
Let’s not forget that the unstated aim of revolutionising the competition in the first place was to end a run of five Heineken Cup victories in seven years by Munster and Leinster.
It was an Anglo-French carve up and it delivered with Toulon winning the first three Champions Cups followed by back-to-back wins for Saracens.
Not even Brexit has dampened English ardour for more success, yet their clubs have continued to underachieve, none more so than last season when the Premiership provided just one quarter-finalist, defending champions Saracens.
That the PRO14 supplied three semi-finalists in Leinster, Scarlets and Munster was a huge source of pride for league boss Martin Anayi and this season sees both Wales and Scotland send two teams apiece into Europe’s premier club competition for the first time since 2013/14.
Reaching the final, of course, had proven beyond the PRO14 members since Leinster beat Ulster in the 2012 Heineken Cup final at Twickenham. Yet, last season’s success had allowed the Celtic nations to dream again.
Fans will always crave individual brilliance over efficient systems when they pay their hard-earned cash to follow their teams around Europe or even settled down into an armchair to watch the drama unfold on their televisions.
True, few will forsake collective success for flair-driven failure but the Champions Cup generally provides creativity and spontaneity under the greatest of pressure. Whether it was the deft step of Scarlets lock Tadhg Beirne around Bath full-back Anthony Watson or that searing Teddy Thomas run through Munster’s defence at the U Arena, fans come alive at the sight of such talent on display and this season has a cast of characters to whet the appetite. Munster may be grieving the loss of Simon Zebo to Racing but the Corkman is delivering in spades at his new club and promises to light up Pool 4 in tandem with Thomas and company. Tonight, alone, Wasps will travel to Dublin with new fly-half Lima Sopoaga, the All Black, and Springbok full-back Willie Le Roux in their back-line to face a Leinster side that will be graced by exciting New Zealander James Lowe, last week’s tormentor-in-chief of Munster, and Ireland centre Garry Ringrose. It promises to be a cracking start while what Munster will miss from Zebo, there is hope that new fly-half Joey Carbery can more than compensate in the creativity stakes.