BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Champions Cup hosts Bilbao a new frontier for rugby country

The San Mamés Stadium, Bilbao will hosts this weekend's Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals. Picture: PA

For rugby in Spain, hosting the Champions Cup final will be a welcome diversion from the World Cup qualifier loss to Belgium in March, says Brendan O’Brien.

It is the glibbest of responses when questions are asked as to why Italy is embraced by the Six Nations and Georgia given the cold shoulder.

Namely, that a hop over to Rome is a sight more appealing for your average punter than a trek to Tbilisi that would span at least seven hours and involve a stopover in the likes of
Istanbul or Munich.

Die-hard fans would probably be of a mind to follow their sides to any outpost regardless of distance or delights. The rest of us tend to be a tad more discerning so there is no denying that the choice of Bilbao in northern Spain as the venue for this year’s Champions Cup final has added a welcome touch of the exotic to the back end of the tournament.

Those of a cultured mind — and others guilted into faking one — will be able to take in the modern magnificence that is Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim museum this weekend. A stroll through the Old Quarter charms of the Casco Viejo will attract far more again and the odd soul may even hire a kayak and paddle down the Nervion river through the city.

It makes a change from pints of limp beer in Richmond or Queen Street anyway.

One of the main criticisms of rugby is the limited reach of the community in relative terms and the regular choice of Twickenham and the Millennium Stadium down the years had been an easy stick with which to beat organisers of the old Heineken Cup. In its 19 years, nine deciders were carved up between the Cardiff and London.

Add in the first two deciders, held at the Arms Park, and that makes almost 60% of the elite European tournament finals held in just two cities. It was only in October of 2013 that tournament organisers ERC expanded its horizons by announcing that the final two years later would be held in Milan’s San Siro stadium.

It was too little, too late.

The sands were already shifting under everyone’s feet by then and, though there have been many justified criticisms of the new world order under the EPCR and Champions Cup guises, there has at least been a commitment since the first staging in Twickenham in 2015 to spreading the gospel when it comes to host cities for the big show.

Lyon got to play host for the first time and Murrayfied followed with its third spin. Bilbao takes on the mantle this week and the circus moves on to Newcastle in 12 months’ time with tents being pitched at St James’s Park. It may lack the off-field appeal of the Basque Country but there are similarly evangelical reasons for taking it to England’s north-east.

The region’s reputation as a footballing hotbed may be mocked every time Newcastle United, Sunderland, or Middlesbrough suffer another relegation but there is no denying the heritage of the global game and the fact that the traditional links between pits and the players continue to serve as a foundation for the modern-day landscape.

Rugby has claimed its own small plot of land. Newcastle Falcons will take on Premiership champions Exeter Chiefs in a league semi-final in eight days’ time: A welcome return to the top table for the club and a timely one on the back of the 2015 Rugby World Cup when St James’ Park played host to three pool games.

With Scotland in town twice and the All Blacks headlining the other, all three fixtures attracted near enough capacity crowds three years ago. Estimates suggested a £43m (€48m) boost to the local economy and local police chiefs were gushing in their praise of the trouble-free influx of fans to the city.

Bilbao should experience something similar.


For rugby in Spain it will be a welcome diversion from the World Cup qualifier loss to Belgium in March which has led to numerous suspensions, questions over governance and transparency, controversies over player eligibility and the establishment of an independent disputes committee by World Rugby.

The pity is that it has spoiled what had been a soaring success story. Spain’s women’s sevens side is ranked sixth in the world and stunned Australia, the world’s top seeds, in a tournament only last month.

Their male counterparts are 13th and the XVs boys played in front of over 15,000 people when crushing Germany 84-10 in their second-last World Cup qualifier earlier this year.

Indeed, King Felipe VI was among that 15,000-strong crowd.

When ‘Los Leones’ saw off Romania in February — a win that turned the dream of reaching a first World Cup since their first in 1999 into a distinct possibility — it was big enough news to persuade the national sports daily newspaper Marca that they should include a rugby story on their front page for the first time.

Rugby has long had a solid presence in the country, particularly in urban centres and especially those with third-class institutions. The local side, by way of example, is
Universitario Bilbao Rugby.

But, with roughly 35,000 registered players — France has over half a million — the potential for a country of its size is obvious.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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