It hasn’t proved an easy transition for the new tournament organisers, European Professional Club Rugby, since the two main competitions were revamped after the end of the 2013-14 season. Now in their third year at the helm, the board is struggling to meet the improved commercial targets originally set, while things on the field haven’t been seamless either.
The advent of having two separate subscription-service channels covering the competitions has proved frustrating for supporters, many of whom now watch few games that don’t involve their favoured team. Having the tournament spread out between Sky Sports and BT Sport is less than satisfactory and something I am sure will come under close scrutiny when a new media rights agreement is struck next time out.
The shocking Paris terrorist attacks of November 2015 led to the postponement of a number of fixtures across the Champions and Challenge Cups but, to their credit, EPCR handled a difficult and challenging period well and deserve credit for that.
This season has already thrown up some interesting challenges, not least the error in Galway last Saturday, allowing Connacht kick to touch to set up a winning lineout platform after the match clock had entered time added on against Wasps.
Who knows, if replacement referee Mathieu Raynal — only on the field due to an injury to fellow countryman Jerome Garces minutes earlier — hadn’t allowed John Muldoon kick to touch, the Connacht captain may well have set up a tapped penalty that would have led to a try in any case.
In that event Jack Carty’s conversion may not have been quite so difficult as the magnificent effort he slotted. All ifs and buts but the bottom line is that official error should not have happened and could prove costly for Wasps.
To their credit, despite their understandable frustration and annoyance, Wasps appear to have taken the error on the chin and are ready to move on. One wonders what the consequences of that will be at the conclusion of this incredibly tight pool with Connacht, Wasps, and Toulouse all locked together on 13 points after four games.
The thing separating them in the Pool 2 pecking order at the moment is tries scored, with Wasps on 20, Toulouse 17, and Connacht 15. The fact Connacht face Zebre at home next up will have a big impact on that.
If teams are tied on match points and tries scored at the end of the six pool games then points differential becomes the next point of difference. With that in mind, I am somewhat surprised that Toulouse made nothing of the fact their game away to Zebre was blown up with 17 minutes to go due to heavy fog.
The competition rules clearly state that if a game has to be terminated, once it has passed the 60-minute mark, the result stands. All well and good normally but, leading 36-6 at the time, with five tries scored, the likelihood is that Toulouse would have bagged another few tries over the final 20 minutes, strength-ening their points differential.
I am sure the EPCR will be hoping and praying Toulouse don’t end up on the same number of points as either Wasps or Connacht after round six as it could lead to further dissatisfaction. If this applied to an Irish province, we might not be quite so accommodating.
That last-gasp try and nerveless touchline conversion from Carty has put Connacht in an excellent position to progress to the knockout phase. They will hope Wasps defeat Toulouse at the Ricoh Arena next time out, preferably without a bonus point for either side, as Connacht are scheduled to travel to Toulouse on the final day of pool action. With Wasps facing Zebre on the same day, the odds favour them topping the pool, leaving Connacht in a head to head with the former champions Toulouse for a best runners-up slot.
Having failed to provide any quarter-finalist last season, all four Irish sides, at least mathematically, remain in the hunt at this stage, even if the odds look stacked against Ulster progressing.
They were blown away in Clermont on Sunday and badly need to bolster their front five resources to match the best sides. There is little point in having a back line brimful of potent runners if you can’t get them the ball. It is high time Ulster addressed that anomaly.
Both Munster and Leinster are well stocked on that front, hence their healthy standings in Pools 1 and 4, respectively, with Munster holding a game in hand over table toppers Glasgow Warriors. The game in Scotstoun in round five will now decide who tops the pool, with much depending on how Racing 92 and Leicester view their remaining games.
You know Leicester will fight until they are mathematically set adrift but Racing, as the reigning Top 14 champions, have been pretty abysmal in the tournament so far. Hopefully that will continue when Munster return to Paris for their postponed fixture on January 7.
Leinster are in the best position of all the Irish provinces, sitting pretty on top of Pool 4. Castres’ defeat of Montpellier over the weekend proved another boost after Leinster’s facile win over a shambolic Northampton Saints outfit. That club is in freefall at present.
As if the EPCR, and Northampton for that matter, didn’t have enough to deal with, the tournament organisers issued a statement threatening an investigation into the fielding of a vastly under-strength Saints team for their visit to Dublin, with a host of internationals — including Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Luther Burrell, and Louis Picamoles — left at home to do the Christmas shopping.
I’m not sure how you can police team selection as most squads extend to over 40 full-time professional players these days. Who is to say when and where a coach can rotate his charges and select one player ahead of another. I appreciate that the EPCR are absolutely right in attempting to protect the integrity of the tournament but it is a very difficult one to implement.
On top of the Dylan Hartley affair and the investigation by the Concussion Management Review Group — made up mostly of RFU personnel — into Northampton’s handling of George North’s most recent concussion in the Aviva Premiership against Leicester, you have to wonder what exactly is going on in that proud club.
The last thing the game needs right now, with a clear focus from World Rugby on addressing the worrying increase in the number of tackles made about the shoulder, is for one of the game’s star players to be out for a protracted period due to another case of undetected concussion. Northampton failed in its duty of care to North that day against the Tigers.
With Champions Cup action going into hibernation for a few weeks, the focus now turns to some spicy local derbies over the festive period, not least the Munster vs Leinster clash on St Stephen’s Day at a sold-out Thomond Park.
With both sides locked together on 37 points at the top of the Guinness PRO12 table, something has to give.
Until then, happy Christmas to one and all.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved