Odds being stacked against Irish teams under the new Champions Cup format
April has proven to be a cruel month for the Irish provinces and their future prospects are not looking too rosy
Toulon’s Bryan Habana is tackled by Munster’s Simon Zebo during the Heineken Cup semi-final. Photo: Billy Stickland/Inpho
For the Irish provinces, April is indeed becoming the cruellest month. Ulster, Leinster and latterly Munster all bade adieu to the Heineken Cup for the final time, as did Ulster and then Munster in this month last season. What’s more, little about the new road map for European rugby dispels the fear that the challenge of even reaching April, never mind going beyond, is about to become even more taxing.
At a stroke of course, the new European Rugby Champions Cup is going to become tougher for everyone, merely by dint of it consisting of 20 teams instead of 24. Irish teams had been punching above their weight anyway through the golden years of five Heineken Cups and an Amlin Challenge Cup in the previous eight years. It was always liable to be cyclical in any case.
Any organisation that loses the influence of Joe Schmidt, Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa in one summer, followed by Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen the next, was always liable to suffer. Similarly, after an intensive period of transition, Ronan O’Gara’s retirement will be followed by another change of coach in Munster and one wonders how many more chances a Munster pack led by Paul O’Connell will have to reach a European Cup final. And how on earth will they have ever replace his galvanising influence?
Ulster will struggle to find players with the same impact as Johann Muller and John Afoa, and last weekend’s events won’t have assuaged their sense of grievance over Jerome Garces’ decision to red card Jared Payne in the quarter-finals.
Ulster declined to appeal his two-week suspension, not least on the premise that by the time the appeal would be heard his suspension would have been completed. That’s some system.
Maybe the Swiss-based ‘European Professional Club Rugby’ (EPCR) will move more swiftly and fairly.
Yet the odds are being loaded more heavily against the Irish teams. For starters, the new European Cup will only seed the three league winners (which seems a little risible given two groups would thus have no seeds). In other words, achievements over the past five years in European rugby (which would have earned Leinster and Munster top seeding, with Ulster second seeks) will no longer count.
The Irish, and fellow Celts and Italians, have been guaranteed the same basic financial return from the new European pot but the French and English clubs are set to see their return increase from around 24 per cent to to 33 per cent , while their vastly improved deals for the Top 14 and Premiership have further swelled their pockets. The French Federation also gave each Top 14 club a €2 million loyalty bonus for signing up to a new accord including the then Heineken Cup.
Also , their clubs are increasingly coming under the ownership of wealthy new benefactors. Into this category fall Lyon, newly promoted champions of ProD2, and Bristol, who finished top of the Championship. With the 2015 World Cup set to spark a big exodus t from the Southern Hemisphere, Irish teams may be outbid for any overseas player by one of their privately-backed rivals.
That there is likely to be more money for players is overdue and the Irish provinces have a proven culture, sense of identity and loyalty, as well as competitiveness, which their fellow Celts would covet. They’ve defied the odds before.
However, according to the outline of the European Rugby Champions Cup, the final will take place no later than the first weekend of May. This has always been a key demand of the French LNR, so that the Top 14’s expanded knock-out phase (also requiring three weekends) can enjoy unfettered end-of-season primacy.
Ironically, the new governing organisation has sought to ape their European Champions League footballing counterpart in so many ways save this key one. As befits the latter’s status as the blue riband of European club football, the Champions League final is the continent’s seasonal finale.
No such status has been bestowed on the European Rugby Champions Cup final which instead has been downscaled by moving it forward. The subliminal message is that the Top 14 and Premiership finals have a higher standing.
There is potentially another significant side effect. Coming in the slipstream of the Six Nations, it must assuredly make life more difficult for the bulk suppliers to national teams, ala Leinster this season, if the knock-out stages of the European Cup are run-off within six or seven weeks of the completion of the Six Nations, rather than ten weeks.
By contrast, the likes of Toulon, who provided just two regular starters in the Six Nations this season, won’t be unduly inconvenienced. Without anything like the same financial resources or overseas’ signings, the pool format of three blocks of two games (which will remain) suited Irish teams, as did the three- and four -week gaps between the quarters, semi-finals and final. This appears less likely with the new format. So, all in all,even if Irish teams advance to the knock-out stages, April could continue to be cruel.