Five years on from the acrimonious restructuring of the European Champions Cup, the tournament’s new organisers, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) have finally stumbled across what appears to be the best balance between the old Heineken Cup, as driven by the Dublin based European Rugby Cup (ERC), and the new entity.
With the ERC — a body controlled by the unions from the six participating countries — disbanded, the new EPCR structure has resulted in the warring factions from the unions and the three club organisations from the English Premiership, the Ligue Nationale de Rugby in France and Regional Rugby Wales sitting side-by-side.
With nine parties perched around the board table, the transition was never going to be smooth. A central issue driving club interests in England and France into forcing a restructure (or a potential breakaway) was their belief the ERC wasn’t maximising the commercial potential of the Heineken Cup. The club interests also wanted a change in the distribution of funding and the qualification process for the main tournament.
Since the reduced 20-team format was introduced, the tournament has become even more competitive on the field, but has struggled to meet the financial goals set off it. EPCR looked enviously at soccer’s Champions League equivalent, with up to five title sponsors, and felt they could easily replicate that and generate more finance for all concerned.
Despite their best efforts, that hasn’t happened. Consequently, a dose of reality was required leading to a rebranding, with the welcome return of Heineken as the sole title sponsor. Hence, from this season onwards, the clubs are competing for the Heineken Champions Cup. Let’s just cut to the chase here and call it the Heineken Cup. After all, old friends are best.
The boardroom battle that led to an unwieldy alliance of BT and Sky Sports sharing the broadcasting rights did the EPCR no favours either over the last few years. That has also been resolved. BT Sport now holds exclusive satellite rights, along with a Sunday offering for terrestrial television from Virgin Media in Ireland and Channel 4 in the UK.
One of the better tweaks from EPCR was the insistence on meritocracy in qualification from the Guinness PRO14.
The top seven teams from that competition now qualify, regardless of nationality.
As a result, the anomaly that saw two sides almost guaranteed to qualify for the knockout phase from a pool containing an Italian team is gone this season. That is slightly ironic, given the improved performances being delivered by Zebre and Benetton in the opening rounds of the Pro14 so far, but the incentive is there for both to qualify on merit next season by virtue of their domestic performances. That is a much more equitable situation.
The net result of all these changes is that the tournament starts in reasonably good health on Friday night, when champions Leinster entertain Wasps at the RDS. As holders, Leinster enter the campaign with a big target on their backs. They know that. At the tournament’s recent launch, Leinster’s new captain Johnny Sexton fired the opening shot by claiming their squad, after the retirement of his predecessor Isa Nacewa and the departures of Jordi Murphy and Joey Carbery to Ulster and Munster respectively, is not as good as it was last year.
He may have a point, even if other club coaches might take some convincing of same. They would kill for the strength in depth that Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster possess in all the key areas. For a reminder on that front, one only needs to look back to the hard-fought win over Munster last Saturday, despite leaving a clutter of Lions and Irish internationals on the sideline. Their ranking as top seed has also presented them with a challenging but very negotiable pool.
Wasps and Bath are both without an English Premiership title win in over a decade. Leinster have captured four Heineken/Champions Cups alone in that timeframe, while former European kingpins Toulouse have also been
outside the top echelon of French rugby for some time. Despite the presence of three former European winners in their pool, I expect that Leinster will be hosting a quarter-final in Dublin next April.
Given their poor away form over the last 12 months — nine defeats and a draw in 15 games across the PRO14 and Champions Cup — Munster, just like the tournament organisers, also face a dose of reality, with some daunting challenges on the road in Pool 2.
Their opening game on Saturday, against 2017 Aviva Premiership champions and last season’s runners-up Exeter Chiefs, is fraught with danger, while current French Top 14 champions Castres in round three will also prove problematic. Munster were very fortunate to escape with a 17-17 draw at the Stade Pierre Fabre last season, a result that played a major part in ultimately securing a home quarter-final against Toulon.
With two challenging away contests in their opening three games, Munster will need some form of return in terms of points gained on the road to remain competitive in the pool, while the away fixture against Gloucester looks winnable.
Munster remain a dominant force at home and anything less than three from three in Thomond Park would be a shock, even if the Chiefs made life pretty difficult for Leinster in Dublin last season.
Castres’ away form in this tournament has been pretty appalling over the years, so chances are that all sides could drop points in the opening four games. The challenge for Johann van Graan is to make sure Munster remain in contention for qualification when the final two rounds come around next January.
Exeter currently sit proudly on top of England’s Gallagher Premiership, with six wins out of six, ahead of Saracens on points difference. They have a very impressive home record at Sandy Park, where many Premiership teams
appear beaten before they arrive.
Last season, Leinster gave a masterclass in silencing the home crowd when they bullied the Chiefs up front and showed the English champions that their European aspirations had a bit to go yet. Exeter will have learned much from that defeat and Munster need to be ready for an onslaught.
Last weekend’s fascinating bruiser against Leinster will have prepared them well for what’s to come. One just hopes it hasn’t taken too much out of them and that the level of
officiating, an area of increasing concern right across the PRO14, will be of a higher standard.
Losing the impressive Alby Mathewson is just about the last thing van Graan needs at this stage, with Conor Murray still incapacitated, and much will depend on whether the former All Black makes that starting line. A losing bonus point will be the minimum requirement from this one.
Whatever about Leinster, Munster go into Europe this season with a stronger squad than the one which made the semi-finals in 2017 and 2018. The addition of Carbery, Tadhg Berne and Arno Botha has the capacity to make a big impact and should see them advance, along with Exeter Chiefs, from their pool.
The wellbeing of Murray could ultimately dictate whether they do so as pool winners, with a home draw in the knockout phase, or as a best runner-up. For the former to materialise, their form on the road needs to improve sometime soon.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved