Donal Lenihan: Munster and Ulster dealt cruel hands

There was a genuine fear not so long ago that European rugby, despite the magnificence of the Heineken Cup and the manner in which it transformed the club game over 15 years, could well have been consigned to history.

Donal Lenihan: Munster and Ulster dealt cruel hands

Unpalatable though that may have proved, the simple fact is that domestic rugby in France and England had the resources to go it alone if the revamped tournament wasn’t exactly to their liking.

The battle waged between the Dublin-based ERC and the representatives of Premiership Rugby (PRL) in England and the Ligue Nationale du Rugby (LNR) in France exposed the vulnerability of the professional game not only in Ireland but in Scotland, Wales and Italy to such an extent that in the end it proved a case of capitulate or die a slow death.

Things were even more complicated in Wales where the four district sides were at war with the Welsh Rugby Union, a potential weakness the PRL were only too happy to exploit by inviting the Welsh sides to come and join them across the border.

This led to panic in Scotland while the Italians gave serious consideration to withdrawing their sides from the Pro 12. All of a sudden the IRFU was feeling the cold and acquiesced to practically all the demands made by the combined might of the PRL and the LNR. Better to be at the table hovering up some of the crumbs rather than starving outside the door.

Sometimes good things come to those who wait. Whether or not that proves to be the case with the newly-constructed European Rugby Champions Cup remains to be seen but I am hopeful that once the action kick off tonight, all parties can move on and make the new tournament even better than its illustrious predecessor.

Last week was a good one for the EPRC, with official launches finally taking place in Dublin, London and Paris. Impressive new trophies were unveiled along with the dates for games in rounds 3 and 4 in December. With the French television deals for European competition finally sorted, yielding a reported 60% increase in overall television revenues, it is finally time for matters on the pitch to take precedence.

I quite like the new format, even if we now have three best runners-up slots across the five pools as opposed to two across six pools heretofore. Inevitably some pools are stronger than others, with Munster and Ulster being dealt a very cruel hand. The fact that there is now qualification through the Guinness Pro 12 has already impacted on that tournament and on current standings all four Irish provinces would qualify for the Champions Cup next season along with Glasgow, Ospreys and Zebre. One Welsh side in Europe’s premier tournament is not healthy, however, but there is a long way to go yet before those slots are filled.

The fact that the winner of the Challenge Cup doesn’t automatically qualify for the main tournament is a serious flaw and will result in a number of teams playing understrength sides throughout that competition. Will Connacht, for example, prioritise the Guinness Pro 12 over the Challenge Cup in the new year in order to keep one of the other three Irish provinces out of the Champions Cup?

Apart from a reduced percentage share in the commercial revenues accruing to the Guinness Pro 12 sides, the most damaging change of all in the new tournament format to the prospects of Irish success comes in the timing of the quarter-finals. If they make it that far – and bear in mind we have provided at least one quarter-finalist every year since 1999 – the reality for the coaches is that their side will have to perform from memory given that the quarter-finals have been brought forward by a week. That leaves a paltry two week gap between the completion of the Six Nations championship and renewal of European club hostilities.

The impact of this shift will be felt most in Leinster, who are likely to provide more players to Joe Schmidt’s starting Irish side than Munster and Ulster combined. The physical demands imposed by back-to-back tests and a series of five internationals over a seven-week period is that those players will have to be rested in the weekend after the completion of the international championship.

That means Munster, Leinster or Ulster’s first-choice side will not have played together since round 6 of the Champions Cup, a period of 10 weeks.

In addition the quarter, semi and final are set to be run off over a period of four weeks (compared to seven in the old format) which will also play into the hands of the big French clubs, given their strength in depth.

Injuries have become even more prevalent this season as the physicality of game has ratcheted up yet another notch. Leinster have already been severely compromised on that front but they will not be alone come next April.

On the positive side, by reducing the number of teams from 24 to 20, the quality of matches on offer across the 10 pool fixtures every weekend is breathtaking. Unfortunately Treviso, who have traditionally been difficult to beat at home, are having a horrendous season and could be on the receiving end of some terrible hidings from Northampton, Racing Metro and the Ospreys.

A bit of good news too for those who feared the introduction of a new tournament would consign Irish achievements in the Heineken Cup to the dustbin. For years the ERC issued a comprehensive tournament guide which became my journalistic bible for the season. It harboured every little detail on individuals and teams from the outset of European competition back in November 1995.

Last Monday morning the latest instalment dropped through the letterbox courtesy of EPRC. I was thrilled to see that the new tournament guide continues seamlessly from where last seasons finished. Hence Vincent Clerc is still recognised as the Champions Cup leading try scorer on 35, two ahead of the now retired Brian O’Driscoll and is now free to extend that total with Toulouse.

Likewise, Ronan O’Gara’s incredible haul of 1,365 points is still recognised as the standard for all to follow. The heroic endeavours of teams and individuals in its previous incarnation are integrated seamlessly into the new model. That is only right and fitting.

That also provides a further incentive for current back-to-back holders Toulon to reach unprecedented heights and chase a first ever three in-a-row in Europe’s premier competition. Will they achieve it? They have all the ingredients to do so in terms of star quality, squad depth, experience, leadership and key decision-makers.

If anything, they look a more dangerous attacking outfit, with Matt Giteau playing a more central role from out-half now that the great points scoring machine Jonny Wilkinson has hung up his golden boots.

The only question mark hanging over Bernard Laporte’s side is just how much hunger is left in the likes of Bakkies Botha, Carl Hayman, Juan Martin Fernandez-Lobbe, Bryan Habana, Mathieu Bastareaud, Drew Mitchell, Ali Williams, Martin Castrogiovanni, Juan Smith......the list goes on. On reflection, with that depth of talent available, maybe all they need is to feel a little bit peckish.....

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