English Premiership clubs have thrown the toys out of the pram, again, while the French Top 14 clubs are shaking their rattles, but, as yet, have not got on the same rocking horse as their Anglo counterparts.
Is the Heineken Cup, the greatest of all northern hemisphere club competitions in danger? That will apparently now be decided by a legal scrum. Oh to be a fly on the wall in Dublin during an ERC board meeting next Tuesday. The Celts will be sharpening their tongues.
So Premier Rugby has gone solo, and signed a new three-year €189 million deal with BT Vision, whose Chief executive Marc Watson boasted that their aim is to set up a “dazzling new European tournament with a fantastic new format, with, we hope, all the best clubs”.
Well, what have we got at the moment? Yes, okay maybe the format needs a little surgery. But that apart, the Heineken Cup sees the best players and clubs in the northern hemisphere parading their skills and they have brokered excitement, controversy, magic images along with a bit of shock and awe and a truck-load of subliminal moments.
ERC, the governing body of the Heineken Cup said that it was unanimously agreed at an ERC Board meeting on 6 June, 2012 that ERC would conclude a new four-year agreement with Sky Sports for the UK and Ireland exclusive live broadcast rights to the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup until 2018. Premiership Rugby was party to that decision which was rolled out a few hours after the renegade deal was announced.
It’s not the first time that England’s Premiership clubs have acted in what is perceived as an arrogant persona. Remember 1998 when they also thought they were not getting a big enough slice of dough in a quickly-rising pie and decided to drop out, dragging with them the sponsors.
That season was a defining moment in the competition. Ulster more than filled any void when they brought the competition home to the ordinary people and those people haven’t gone away! Ulster highlighted that on January 30, 1999 at Lansdowne Road that the competition didn’t need those who should have known better.
Mind, those who abstained realised their mistake, as did the sponsors, when they rushed back the following season after a then record crowd of 49,000 filed into the old Dublin arena to witness Ulster defeat Colomiers 21-6, the fourth time they defeated a French team from their nine games that campaign.
The next season, Munster, of course, were next to bring the competition alive, only to fall at the final hurdle in going down to Northampton 8-5 at Twickenham. English clubs did have their glory days. Bath were the first in 1997/8, then the Saints, Leicester twice, Wasps twice, then apart from Toulouse picking up their fourth title four years ago, it’s been an Irish take-over with Munster twice winning, and Leinster also picking up their second title after demolishing Ulster last season.
But it wasn’t just not the actual winning of the tournament, it was the fans and everything associated with the various teams that made it into the tournament it is now.
Now we have the English clubs moaning that the Pro12 is not as strong as the gym bunny Aviva Premiership with one well-known owner saying “they stroll into Europe”. Really?
Watching last night’s electrically-charged, high-tempo rip-roaring derby bash at a near-capacity Ravenhill you would definitely query that statement. In the first-half, Munster showed an error-strewn Ulster how to operate around the breakdown and looked to be trotting home with real cutting edge.
All change second-half then as Ulster sprang to life with their coach Mark Anscombe finally getting the better of his Auckland and Kiwi adversary Rob Penney for the first time in six games at various levels. From 16-9 down and looking a real mess, Ulster stormed back to lead midway through the second-half.
But it was just typical of Munster to score three points late in the game to steal back into the lead again when they were down to 14 men after flanker Sean Dougall was yellow-carded.
Paddy Jackson’s fifth penalty gave the Ulstermen the lead again, but then we had the sort of nerve-jangling final few minutes that Munster always seem to conjure up when they went through 23 phases in an attempt to line up a winning position for replacement Ronan O’Gara. But alas it was not to be his time.
A magical game once again between two historical rivals … even the wizards of the Premiership would find it hard to conjure up a match. The Pro12, yeah it’s alive and kicking.