Ignore Nigel Wray – a European Cup is much more than a money or TV game
Zebre struck a blow for the little guys , showing that market forces should not dictate everything
Toulouse’s Yannick Nyanga is tackled by Zebre’s Leonardo Sarto and Luciano Orquera during their Heinken Cup game on Saturday. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
The pair of them have been held up as symbols of all that is wrong with the Heineken Cup and sadly, not least given their opponents, Connacht’s day of shame came against Saracens, whose chairman Nigel Wray embodies the elitist view amongst the Anglo-French axis that only the wealthiest should survive in a TV-dictated, glorified equivalent of Formula 1. So take a bow Zebre.
Their 16-3 defeat at home to the four-time winners Toulouse may not have seemed much but Munster and their branch treasurer owe the Italians a big favour for making a phenomenal 177 tackles (missing 28) in restricting Toulouse to one try.
The old warrior Mauro Bergamasco led the way with 18 tackles, with none missed, despite joining fellow flanker Dries van Schalkwyk in the bin. It was only in that window that Sebastien Bezy scored Toulouse’s solitary try. Despite Saturday’s thumping, it’s worth noting Munster owe a debt of thanks to Connacht too for winning in Toulouse.
Oddly, the four-time winners seemed not to get the importance of recording a bonus point win, opting for and landing three penalties at goal. In stark contrast Munster eschewed all shots at goal in the chase for tries.
The net effect is that Munster host Toulouse (for the first time ever) and coupled with Ulster’s uber-cool and composed win in Welford Road, means Ireland host two of the four quarter-finals.
This is fair reward for a record return of 19 pool wins (three up on each of the last two years), which equates to a 79% winning ratio. Next come the English on 56%, followed by the French on 51%, the Scots on 42%, the Welsh on 35% and the Italians on 0%.
Despite Zebre’s heroics, it’s been another season of continuing stagnation for the Italians, yielding a dozen defeats in another dozen matches. They have won just one of their last 30 Heineken Cup matches, dating back to Treviso’s 30-26 victory at home to Biarritz in December 2011, and that sole victory was Treviso’s win over the Ospreys in a dead rubber on the final Sunday a year ago.
Ironically, given their insistence on changed formats and meritocratic qualification, Leicester and Saracens qualified as the best of the runners-up after accumulating a maximum 20 points against the Italians.
The four quarter-finals will now take place at a quartet of the most renowned European fortresses around. Clermont Auvergne have three league games to extent their 71-match wining run at the Stade Marcel Michelin before hosting Leicester, and Toulon have won all seven Heineken Cup games at their Stade Felix Mayol. Avoiding Clermont, who reminded us they have a team for all conditions in Sunday’s swamp and will be as motivated as anyone, is no harm.
Ulster and Leinster do have the possibility of home country advantage in the semi-finals, but the other key factor a Heineken Cup-winning side needs is not to suffer too much damage during the Six Nations window. As Ireland’s bulk suppliers, Leinster look most endangered.
Back in Nigel Wray’s world, where the sky is a different colour, might is right and only the strong should survive, he says: “It’s not that we’re marvellous. We’re not. It’s just that there aren’t that many people with disposable income who live in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Ask the TV companies. The money they pay is for the 60 million eyeballs in England. That’s why the Irish, the Welsh, the Scots and the Italians need England and France.” Shouldn’t it be 120 million eyeballs?
For sure, England and France have the biggest economies. But there should be more to the future of a pan-European Cup than capitalism and market forces, and why should rugby ape soccer? And why should there be two leagues in the game cherry-pick the best of the talent to come through the rest of the world game?
Besides which, it would less of a European Cup without the Celts and Italians, as it would be without the English or French. There’s also more to a game than television, as Wray and co ought to know from attending, say, Munster-Saracens games in both Thomond Park and Vicarage Road.
Premiership Rugby and the English club owners had no right to sell Heineken Cup or pan-European games featuring their sides against teams from other countries. It should be noted that Champions League TV rights are sold collectively, not by individual leagues.
Ultimately, if PRL wanted a financially stronger pan-European club tournament, Mark McCafferty would have brought the BT deal to the ERC board, in contrast to his time as chairman of the ERC marketing committee, when he is widely regarded within the set-up as bringing little or nothing to the table.
With the emergence of BT and beIN Sport in Britain and France, there is more money on the table, and it’s a pity the ERC, PRL and LNR couldn’t have worked uniformly to ascertain the true value of a truly pan-European league. Instead, PRL declared war with their BT deal.
The Six Nations and the ERC met in Dublin last Friday, and there is another Six Nations meeting scheduled to take place in London today.
The mood music appears to be better, there is much negotiating going on behind the scenes, but it really needs the IRB to follow through on their promise to bring more of a leadership role. As yet, there is still no sign of the world’s governing body actively striving to save the best club tournament in the world.