Heineken Cup did us proud, and we it

It will be interesting to see if ERC’s replacement body can also double their competition turnovers in just five years

Dejected John Langford (left) and  Peter Clohessy at the end of the 2000 Heineken Cup final against Northampton. Defeat hurt Munster, naturally, but arguably gave them the hunger to keep coming back until they won the competition, in 2006 and 2008.  Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Dejected John Langford (left) and Peter Clohessy at the end of the 2000 Heineken Cup final against Northampton. Defeat hurt Munster, naturally, but arguably gave them the hunger to keep coming back until they won the competition, in 2006 and 2008. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/Inpho

Tue, Apr 22, 2014, 06:00

It’s hard not to feel a little poignant about the closing stages of the last Heineken Cup as we know it. The competition has been especially beneficial to Irish rugby, and who knows whether we’ll have days like Sunday’s upcoming semi-final in Marseille between Toulon and Munster ever again.

In the grim 1990s for Irish rugby, it was one-off wins against the bigger Anglo-French guns which breathed life into the game in this country, and following Ulster’s win in 1999, after Munster’s march to the 2000 final in Twickenham, the provinces and fans alike embraced the Heineken Cup with a fervour that exceeded any of the other five founding countries.

For all the talk of a win next Sunday being possibly Munster’s biggest achievement in the history of the competition, they arguably came from a lower ebb in 2000.

Munster were 66/1 outsiders to win the Heineken Cup in 2000, and Toulouse were every bit the giants of European rugby, like nouveau riche Toulon and their galacticos now.

It’s doubtful whether Munster will score a better try than the near-length-of-the-pitch, four-phase move off a scrum outside their own 22 that May 6th day in Bordeaux which Ronan O’Gara finished off.

In hindsight, perhaps the one-point defeat to Northampton in Twickenham was not the worst thing that could have happened Munster, nor the defeat to Leicester and Hand of Back two years later.

Burning hunger
Sated once, they may never have had the same burning hunger. So they kept taking knock-out defeats on the chin and coming back for more until they won it in both 2006 and 2008.

Absent friends from that team, such as Mick Galwey, Peter Clohessy, Dominic Crotty, John Langford and a host of others were, in their way, part of that triumph even they didn’t collect winners’ medals.

This in turn inspired a longing in Leinster which meant that come the ’09 semi-final in Croke Park and a world record crowd for a club game at the time, they could take no more.

They have since won it three times, and Ulster and Connacht have in turn upped their games.

Along the way, they have punched above their weight (just compare and contrast with the Welsh, with the same numbers) on and off the pitch, bringing with them fans in numbers that surpass all other countries, which the Anglo-French axis has scarcely acknowledged – Saracens rather tackily attempting to drown out the Red Army’s singing with their PA system for their irritating club ditty last season at Vicarage Road.

As it was, Ireland’s six triumphs to date (equalling those from France and England) undoubtedly rankled, not least with Premiership Rugby (PRL) and ligue nationale de rugby (LNR), who clearly felt in their might-is-right view of the world, that this just shouldn’t be happening.

Nor will the scars from the last two years’ on-off negotiations be healed overnight either, whether it be the threats and bully boy tactics of PRL and LNR, or the disloyalty amongst the Welsh regions towards their fellow Celts in their belief that an Anglo-Welsh competition would the panacea to all their ills.

The immediate casualties from the new European Rugby Champions Cup would appear to be the Scots, Italians and Welsh, whose representation in the new competition will be each by cut by one – which in the case of the Italians and Scots, halves their numbers.

The main casualties are the ERC themselves though. Credit toward them has been in increasingly short supply across the water in latter times, but the organising body of the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup have overseen the spectacular growth of both competitions.

Revenues grew
ERC’s annual revenues grew from €14 million per annum in 1999 to €54 million in 2014. There has been a 147 per cent increase in revenues from 2004 to 2013/14, and the 2012/13 revenue of €51.7 million is double the 2005/06 figure. Over 15 million fans have attended Heineken Cup games.

It remains to be seen whether ERC’s replacement body, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), will double the tournaments’ turnovers in five years. Even if they do, it’s also worth noting the stakeholders (the six Unions/Federations, PRL, LNR and the Welsh regions) will remain the same.

They and the clubs themselves, were slower to embrace growth than the ERC, who often had to cajole and incentivise them to move matches to new and bigger venues. It was the stakeholders who opted for a seventh final in Cardiff and their over-priced hotels, compared to four in London, three in Dublin and France, and just one in Edinburgh (and none in Italy).

So it is the RFU opted for Twickenham as next Saturday’s venue for the Saracens-Clermont semi-final, and with it the rental of €120,000 or so, rather than say the MK Dons, which has hosted big knock-out matches.

Part of the problem with London is it doesn’t have a secondary rugby stadium below Twickenham, but while ERC will no doubt cop flak for not emulating the Saracens’ model of giving away tens of thousands of tickets for next to nothing, or indeed nothing, the choice of Twickenham was not an ERC decision.

The Heineken Cup has been the success story of the professional era in European rugby, and the ERC did well, though they mightn’t receive much credit for it.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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