Officials from England and France sold visions of a bright new order, when they took a wrecking ball to the Heineken Cup, writes Brendan O’Brien
BY the end of June, the organisers of rugby’s European competitions will have packed the last of their boxes and closed the door behind them in their Neuchâtel HQ. Come July 1, they will be trading out of new offices on Boulevard de Grancy in Lausanne. Or, the ‘home of international sport’, as the local grandees like to call it.
Lausanne already has 57 sporting organisations that call the place home and it’s a hub for business, science, and academia besides. That’s lots of scope for networking over some of the regional delicacy of sausage stuffed with cauliflower. The proximity of a major international airport only adds to the draw.
That speaks volumes for European Professional Club Rugby’s (EPCR) evolving ambition, both for itself and for the tournaments under its care, and it will follow on from the first staging of its showpiece Champions Cup final outside its traditional hinterland of the UK, Ireland, and France.
It’s a bold move — if overdue — but there may be a problem.
The prospect of an all-Irish decider in Bilbao may be generating a last-day-of-school air of giddiness in parts of Munster and Leinster this week, but it’s hardly taking liberties to suggest that the men and women of the EPCR might not be exactly enamoured with the idea of their continental showcase being diverted down a boreen towards a local feud. The prospect in itself isn’t anything new.
Four of the last eight deciders have been confined to clubs from the same jurisdiction, with Leinster’s defeat of Ulster, at Twickenham in 2012, adding to a trio of Gallic meetings since 2010. Whatever the outcomes tomorrow and Sunday, the Irish contingent have again proven their value to the competition, despite the ever-changing landscape.
A look at the attendance figures for semi-finals this past 10 years only reinforces how integral the provinces have been. The average crowd for those games involving an Irish side comes in at 41,778, compared to just 25,826 for those without. It’s actually fair to ask if the tournament would even exist without that sort of buy-in.
The whole concept really has endured a distinctly rocky patch.
Rugby administrators from England and France sold visions of a bright new order, when they took a wrecking ball to the Heineken Cup and showed its ERC organisers the door. More money was promised for all, via new TV and sponsorship deals, even if the Premiership and Top 14 clubs would scoop up the majority, due to their greater marketability.
“That is only fair, given that we are the two countries with by far the greatest number of chimney pots and therefore the draw cards for television,” said the Saracens chairman, Nigel Wray, back in 2012. “But because the BT deal involves such a large injection of money, everyone will receive more and what is already a good competition will become even bigger, better, and stronger.”
penny for Wray’s thoughts this week, then.
Sarries will be facing London Irish at a half-empty Madejski Stadium on Sunday, just as Racing 92 and Munster get going in Bordeaux and, if the four years since Wray and his ilk had their way with the European game have proven anything, it is the suspicion that rugby remains more of a furnace for funds than an ATM.
For all their success on the park, Sarries’ business model amounts to something of a disaster. They have been operating at a loss of over £15m this past four seasons and Wray found himself taking outright control of the club earlier this month, having bought out the 50% shareholding of South African investors, Remgro.
Europe was supposed to be a money tree and yet the most vigorous efforts at shaking it have loosened considerably less fruit than was imagined. The Champions Cup has been no Garden of Eden for sponsorship. What has been harvested, instead, is a barren enough ground that has been spoiled by the new way of thinking.
This is the fourth year under the auspices of the EPCR and there are still only two official partners — Heineken and Turkish Airlines — where five were promised. The madness of splitting the live broadcasting rights between two pay-per-view operators in Ireland and the UK will only end come the start of next season.
Steve Martin, CEO of M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, was quoted in the Daily Mail, last October, criticising the decision to dispense with the idea of a masthead sponsor for the Champions Cup and to go with what he termed a “half-baked” model of multiple commercial partners, just as football’s Champions League had done.
Martin estimated that the move was costing the organisers £7m.
Already nipped-and-tucked four years ago, the Champions Cup’s very structures may again feel the ripple effect of machinations in England, if plans to expand the Premiership progress beyond the drawing board and if space for player welfare — as if that is a priority — is needed elsewhere in the calendar.
An all-Irish final is the least the two provinces, and the likes of Wray, deserve.
Rugby Podcast: Ronan O’Gara, Donal Lenihan and Simon Lewis on the Champions Cup semi-finals. Plus travel agent Pat Dawson on the plight of the fans.
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