Can’t help feeling English boycott of the Heineken Cup will harm England most of alll

The evidence of this weekend’s games alone gives the lie to the criticisms of this great competition

Munster players celebrate their team’s victory at the end of Saturday’s Heineken Cup Pool Six game against   Perpignan at the Stade Aime Giral in  Perpignan. Photograph: Raymond Roig/AFP Photo/Getty Images.

Munster players celebrate their team’s victory at the end of Saturday’s Heineken Cup Pool Six game against Perpignan at the Stade Aime Giral in Perpignan. Photograph: Raymond Roig/AFP Photo/Getty Images.

Tue, Dec 17, 2013, 12:00

The Heineken Cup runneth over yet again, until the last minute and even beyond, whether it be at the Aviva, the Stade Aime Giral or Stade Yves du Manoir. As ever, you couldn’t script it and the benefits for all the six competing nations, and their national teams, are indisputable.

The critiques of the competition from across the water and the year-long Premiership Rugby (PRL) propaganda war along with the impending and regrettable boycott by next season’s English clubs, simply don’t stand up when you watch another weekend like that.

Likewise, the suggestion that England might be better off not playing European Cup rugby over a year out from hosting the World Cup.

How on earth could Northampton’s strong English contingent not benefit from games such as the back-to-back encounters they’ve just had with Leinster? Ditto Exeter against Toulon, Leicester winning in Montpellier and a likely final day shoot-out with Ulster, Harlequins hosting Clermont next time out, and so on and so on.

Even the money-laden Top 14 would not be sufficient in itself to serve the French national team. The French-infused Toulouse were taught a lesson or two by Connacht over the last couple of weekends, and similarly Perpignan and Montpellier would rarely encounter away sides coming at them until the last play for match-winning tries as Munster and Leicester did.

Winning ratio
The winning ratio for home teams in this season’s Heineken Cup is 57 per cent. In the Top 14 it is 86 per cent.

The benefits to Celtic/Italian rugby are also huge, and the English boycott will be damaging to all concerned, but especially to England.

Alas, the vast majority of the PRL’s initial demands – backed up by threats and bully boy tactics – have been met, only to be replaced by a desire to make ERC defunct.

The issues of governance and commercial selling rights, along with two conflicting television deals, have barely been addressed, much less resolved.

The Celtic and Italian Unions, indeed the IRBl, cannot possibly sanction the individual selling of television rights to pan-European competitions; as PRL did when signing off European rugby matches to BT. When the dust finally settles, that deal will most likely have ensured an irreparable schism in European rugby.

Uefa would not sanction such a policy for the Champions League, where unity is strength. It would effectively mean a pan-European version of what applies in Spanish football, whereby Barcelona and Real Madrid sell their television rights for more than the rest of La Liga combined. Were it applied to a European Cup, it would mean the Top 14 and the Aviva Premiership could cherry pick the rest of European and World rugby talent even more than they already do.

If this is to be the last Heineken Cup as we know it, it’s assuredly never been more competitive, with only Ulster unbeaten, only the Italians winless and the majority still mathematically in contention like never before.

The events of the past fortnight showed how much the game remains firstly a mental and emotional exercise. Leinster perhaps won too handsomely for their own good in Franklin’s Gardens, and certainly far too hurtfully for a proud Northampton side.

Small edge missing
There was only a small edge missing, as well as the carrying of Seán O’Brien and Cian Healy, but it meant they lacked the same desire in their carrying, in their clearing out, in their support play and handling precision.

The margins are tiny and the results dictate so much. Had Munster’s game ended on 80 minutes, the review of another frustratingly imprecise performance might have been a whole lot different, but afterwards they could have flown home on their own euphoria.

It should do wonders for the organisation and the argument for extending Rob Penney’s contract forthwith, rather than tear up his project and start all over again – even if watching them at times does do your head in.

In mitigation, there was a better mix to their game and but for JJ Hanrahan’s brilliant try, Munster would also have had even more issues with the frazzled JP Doyle (and his officials) than after the Edinburgh debacle.

The host of wrong calls was abnormal – penalising James Coughlan for playing the ball when held in the tackle (when he wasn’t) and Damien Varley for not releasing after the tackle (when he hadn’t been the tackler), not to mention not even referring Perpignan’s try after two forward passes and allowing all manner of cheap shots and after-the-whistle argy-bargy, and more.

Munster should now progress, but no less than Leinster, will need to win their last two matches (each having tricky trips, to Castres and Gloucester, next up) to entertain hopes of a home quarter-final. Indeed, the probability remains that even Ulster will need to at least better Leicester’s six-point, one try apiece defeat in Ravenhill, in their Welford Road finale to avoid an away quarter-final to one of the top two seeds.

As for Connacht, last Saturday night felt like the end, but if they take five points at home to Zebre, and Toulouse beat Saracens at home, they will travel to the Allianz Park with second place at stake and the prize of at least advancing to the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals, which would be some achievement.

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