Empty seats show Champions Cup still in search of identity

The New tournament was supposed to rescue the European game. So where is everyone?

Leicester Tigers’ Telusa Veainu goes past Joe Rokocoko of Racing 92 in their semi-final clash. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

Leicester Tigers’ Telusa Veainu goes past Joe Rokocoko of Racing 92 in their semi-final clash. Photo: Dan Sheridan/Inpho

 

The lowest attendance figures for a European Cup semi-final since Wasps and Northampton drew 16,186 to Coventry’s Ricoh Arena in 2007. The lowest attended pair of semi-finals since 2001, year of the Foot and Mouth outbreak that caused so much rugby travelling strife. The second year of the Champions Cup – is this progress?

“It is not ideal for the sport where you have a big game involving two big clubs played in a stadium where there are gaps”– the view of a Saracens bigwig ahead of a Heineken Cup 2013 Twickenham semi-final.

“I don’t hold them culpable” he said, graciously, of the stout yeomen of the ERC. “They have one set of rules and they are sticking to them. If that means they lack flexibility, lack innovation and the ability to be creative, you can understand why.”

Revolution

Bruce Craig

That agreement, such as it was, brought to an end a time of serious controversy and ended the stream of silver-haired souls offering diamonds and pearls of wisdom to the great provincial unwashed: swing the bat; dance a little bit on the Heineken Cup and its supporters; get off the stage before the show would repeat next week.

The club game could now put its considerable gifts to work; hard-nosed commercial savvy and creative marketing brilliance oozing from every orifice. Finally rugby’s European potential would be fully exploited. Big contracts, big attendances. Let’s go crazy.

Symbol

Jerry Seinfeld

We point to shared experience, sense of place, connection between individual, family and team over time as well as occasional triumph. But one might also ask of the true meaning found in the competitions in which our teams play. “The one person always neglected in these discussions is the customer” (Nigel Wray, 2013). “What do they want? They want big games. They don’t want to see meaningless games.”

At the time of the rebranding of the Pro12 this column talked at length with an experienced advertising man; one of those conversations where the notes never made it into print but provided good thought fodder ever since. The ad man said before you rebrand a league you need to know what it stands for.

Here and now, when we look at sparsely-attended games at the business end of the tournament it might be time to ask that very question: two years in, what does the Champions Cup stand for?

When Doves Cry

In this parish the “Champions Cup” does not resound in the same way. Less joy (Munster and Leinster’s current position on the downswing of the success cycle notwithstanding), more fast-triggered memories of dark days.

Colourful Irish hordes not so much loved but tolerated – illegitimate bandwagoners enabled by backwoodsmen organisers. Money and power grabbed, disguised under the cloak of “meritocracy”. Clear-sighted objectivity was admittedly difficult with so much mud flying around.

New Power Generation

What a waste; a commercial opportunity unexploited. Thankfully control of the northern hemisphere game’s premier club showcase is already in the hands of the new power generation. In the hands of the predecessors - well, who knows? Perhaps one team would have turned up in Sudan.

Yes, it’s hard to be neutral. Mature, even. Yes, we must move on. But not before a first course of schadenfreude, served cold.

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