Rugby’s European Cup is careering headlong into its 16th season, overcoming one or two problems along the way. ERC’s top man, Derek McGrath, spoke to Simon Lewis
THE Stadionul de Rugby Farul in downtown Costanta may never go down as legendary sporting arena but it deserves its spot in the annals of the sport it was named for.
It was 15 years ago this month, on Halloween 1995, that the whistle first sounded for Heineken Cup rugby. There, on the shores of the Black Sea, in front of 3,000 spectators, Romanian side Farul Costanta were put to the sword by a rampant Toulouse to signal the arrival of a competition that now begins its 16th season.
There is continuity, four of the original 12 teams – Ulster, Toulouse, Munster and Leinster – having played in all 16 seasons and each of them having won the title at least once in a competition that never seems short on drama.
“There’s an energy there that carries it along and continues to pose the questions and continues to demand higher and higher standards,” says Derek McGrath, the chief executive of tournament organisers European Rugby Cup.
“The difficulty is staying ahead of the wave and making sure that at ERC we continue to provide the leadership that’s required because the tournament now has a big appetite and the important thing is to keep it moving in the right direction.
“The balance of opinion is that it provides fantastic drama, great competitive games and everybody involved, the players, teams or fans, just love it.”
McGrath was happy to agree that the drama provided throughout the pool stages suggests that every round-robin match is treated as a do-or-die affair.
“It really does,” he said. “Along the way, over 79 games, there’s a feast of challenges, battles, outcomes, drama that we know we’re going to see this year and throw up surprises at every level.”
Of course, no competition of this scope and intensity can operate without problems along the way and having a brewer as the title sponsor serves as a lightning rod for critics uncomfortable with the associations between alcohol and sport. Heineken, sponsors from the very beginning, are in year two of the current four-year deal with ERC and McGrath insisted that the issue has not strained their long-standing partnership.
“We’re obviously very aware of the problems but we have a very good relationship with Heineken. With this particular contract we’re in now, at the end of it, it would mean we would have worked together for 18 years, which is a fabulous period of time
“What it means though, is that we do understand their business and the challenges that being an alcoholic brand associated with sport brings.
“If anything, they’re more conscious of it than we are; clearly, that’s their brand. As an organiser we are already working with issues of alcohol in sport in France, where the tournament is called H Cup – that’s the law, so it’s something we’re very, very aware of. So we have to respond to the challenge in front of us and recognise that we are a sport that benefits from the association with a brand like Heineken.”
There is always a chance that such relationships may be forcibly brought to an end by governments in the name of health education and McGrath is ready for any such legislative move.
“We will be aware of any other regulatory requirements or any issues that might arise,” he said. “There has been a lot of debate in the UK and in Ireland of late; these are health issues that people want to debate. Sponsorship of sport is one element of the presentation of alcohol and its brands and we will be party to that.
“We believe that the industry, from our perspective, is responding very well to that but obviously we’re not party to the decisions that any regulatory bodies may take, although we’ll respect them when they happen.”
The experience in France has taught ERC many lessons, McGrath added.
“It’s provided us with challenges, there’s no doubt. Would it have worked as well for the sponsor? Well, clearly not because they can’t expose their brand in the way that they would. But, it’s one of the reasons that they’re involved with an international competition because it’s not just in France. Television signals are being beamed all over Europe and the world, so clearly there are associations that work as ours does with Heineken.”
For McGrath, though, the Bloodgate scandal, was far more problematic and potentially far more damaging. The controversy began towards the end of the 2008-09 quarter-final between Leinster and Harlequins. The fall-out rocked the sport, never mind the competition, with punishments handed out to Quins director of rugby Dean Richards, who took full responsibility and a three-year ban, club doctor Wendy Chapman, who cut Williams’ lip and was suspended by the General Medical Council until late August of this year, while physio Steph Brennan was banned from the game for two years and struck off by the Health Professions Council. Williams had his ban reduced form 12 to four months after confessing all.
That the stain of the incident has by and large avoided the Heineken Cup is not a perception McGrath would agree with.
“I wouldn’t fully accept that the tournament wasn’t tarnished by it. Perhaps if you look at the outcome and you say that ERC has perhaps managed to move on from this, I suppose that’s a reality of our being.
“We made our decision, we weren’t afraid to make tough decisions, which were taken but then we drew the line and said ‘that’s it now’ to any residual issues.
“Clearly this case has gone into another domain and that’s probably the most important thing to state; that it has moved to a medical discussion, to a physio discussion, IRB, Dean Richards.
“They’re discussions outside of our remits. Maybe it’s just been a natural consequence of that but clearly we were influenced, affected, not only by that but all the disciplinary cases that we have. They are becoming more challenging and the expectation is that they are managed properly.
“That’s something we’re working very hard to ensure, that the standards increase.”
Maybe 16 seasons of experience contributed to the Heineken Cup moving on, but would ERC have survived such a scandal earlier on in the tournament’s life?
“That’s a very good question,” McGrath said. “Unlikely, I’d say, because we’ve a lot of experience of these type of cases. We’ve good procedures in place, good systems, good people and that doesn’t happen overnight, that takes a lot of time to develop.”
Instead, McGrath is looking eagerly towards a new campaign, still excited at the prospect of it all.
“Saracens-Leinster in Wembley has got to be a special moment and it’s those days that really excite you,” he said. “And there’s the anticipation of surprise. You know, there’s a guarantee almost, that there will be things happen that nobody will expect and they are the ones that really make this tournament stand out.
“I suppose there’s also a growing awareness of the tournament, a growing sense of anticipation in each of the countries and seeing it grow. That gives us a lot of satisfaction when you’re involved in this over a period of time.”
Picture: ERC chief executive Derek McGrath<