Maybe the best team lost on the day but the Heineken Cup is still a winner
Leinster, Munster and Ulster avoid big French three next season but could face Racing Metro
Clermont captain Aurelien Rougerie (left) and Toulon skipper Jonny Wilkinson run out past the trophy for Saturday’s Heineken Cup final at the Aviva Stadium. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
As European final weekends go, that was hard to fault, save for the minor detail of arguably the wrong team winning the Heineken Cup. So, à la Toulouse losing to Wasps at Twickenham courtesy of Clement Poitrenaud’s dallying and Rob Howley’s opportunism in the last minute, bang goes the theory that the best team invariably wins the trophy.
Wasps were the winners in 2004, despite Toulouse producing the best 20 minutes of high tempo, off-loading rugby witnessed in a final, and Toulon won in 2013 despite Clermont occasionally touching the heights of Toulouse nine years before and creating so much more than their opponents.
And, over the tournament, Clermont were the best team too, dominating the Opta Amlin stats, winning eight from nine and evicting the preceding back-to-back champions from the tournament.
As a game, Saturday’s final also touched those epic heights of 2004, and was a good deal more entertaining than the previous all-French finals or last season’s kick-bore between Biarritz and Toulon in the Amlin Challenge Cup final, or the tryless semi-finals and final of the Top 14.
The Amlin has received a huge shot in the arm with the re-routing of three Heineken Cup sides into the secondary ERC tournament, and the presence of Leinster in Friday’s decider ensured not only some decent rugby but a 22,000 sell-out and an occasion to exceed all previous Challenge Cup finals save for Toulon against Cardiff in the Stade Velodrome three years ago.
Leinster supporters may have quibbled about their paltry share of 1,300 but the presence of 50,000 at the Aviva the following day vindicated the ERC’s policy of advance ticket sales.
The organisers need to sell tickets in advance and link some of them together to ensure a proper pan-European occasion regardless of venue or teams. In 2002, Leicester and Munster supporters gobbled up their 15,000 tickets apiece, and then some, for a 74,600 sell-out Millennium Stadium final. But a year later, a mere 28,500 attended the Toulouse-Perpignan decider at Lansdowne Road.
Granted, in 2003 (when the presence of Trevor Brennan saved the occasion from being a complete damp squib) five countries were represented in the final, whereas for last Saturday’s final 13 countries were represented.
Ever since, the ERC don’t keep back 30,000 for the respective finalists. As it was, an estimated 22,000 still made the pilgrimage to Dublin for the weekend’s rugby, with Dublin Chamber of Commerce estimating a direct economic dividend to the capital of €21 million based on the overseas visitors alone.
For once the silence from the disaffected English and French club owners has been deafening. There has been no progress on even the vexed issue of competition format and with it the larger slice of the participation/distribution cake being demanded by the English clubs and French clubs especially, much less the legally-vexed question of TV rights.
Toulon and Clermont were both making their first appearance in a H Cup final on Saturday, the former becoming France’s third different winner after Toulouse and Brive, and France’s sixth winner overall, thereby equalling the six Irish and six English triumphs (though it’s now been six years since a Premiership club lifted the trophy).
Viewing figures outstanding
Television chiefs and tournament organisers were ecstatic, with figures from French television for its coverage of last Saturday’s final outstanding.
The average figure on FR 2 was 4.1 million viewers, which peaked in the second half at 4.7 million. This compares more than favourably with an average of 3.27 million for the Toulouse v Biarritz Olympique final in Paris three years ago.
All in all, even if some supporters have become spoiled by recent successes and excesses, the Irish teams could be said to have had some major moments in Europe and remain contenders next season.
Indeed, with Toulon elevating themselves to a top tier seeding for the pool draw in the first week of June along with Toulouse and Clermont, Leinster, Munster and Ulster (seventh in the ERC rankings but top seeds because fifth-ranked Biarritz didn’t qualify) will avoid the French big three in next season’s pool stages.
The flip side is Connacht, in the third seeds, will have to face one of them, while the other Irish provinces will be pitted against Perpignan, Montpellier, Castres and/or Racing Metro.
No two clubs from the same country will be drawn in the same pool except for France, who have seven clubs in the tournament. Therefore, Racing Metro, as the lowest-ranked qualified club from France, will be drawn last of the 24 clubs into a pool with another French club.
But if that is Perpignan and Montpellier, rather than the French big three, Jonny Sexton, with Ronan O’Gara in the background, could face Leinster or Munster.
Tier 1 : Leinster, Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont, Munster, Ulster.
Tier 2 : Northampton, Harlequins, Cardiff Blues, Saracens, Leicester, Perpignan.
Tier 3 : Edinburgh, Ospreys, Scarlets, Glasgow, Montpellier, Connacht.
Tier 4 : Gloucester, Castres, Racing Metro, Exeter, Treviso, Zebre.