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Gerry Thornley: This season’s Champions Cup looks more competitive than ever

Were any Irish side to scale the summit this season it would be a triumph well worth celebrating

On Sunday, May 29th this year, an estimated crowd of 35,000 manned the port of La Rochelle for their team’s triumphant homecoming after beating Leinster in the Heineken Champions Cup final.

Had Leinster won, there would have been a homecoming in the RDS, but as with the province’s previous four triumphs it’s doubtful if much more than 5,000 supporters – if even that – would have done likewise.

Of course, we’re not comparing like with like. La Rochelle has a population of 70,000 – making the turnout the next day after the final in Marseille even more remarkable – but rugby is the only sport in town.

By contrast, as is typical of a capital city, Leinster are competing with the Dublin GAA football team – heck, the Kilmacud Crokes team – and much more besides.


There would be a similar and relatively muted response, compared to what unfolded in La Rochelle, if Saracens or Harlequins won it, or Racing 92 or Stade Francais in Paris for that matter.

Apart from two Yves du Manoir crowns in 2002 and 2003 (akin to a Celtic Cup and a competition which became defunct after 2003) La Rochelle had never won a major trophy in their 124 years of existence.

That victory in Marseille came just eight years after their promotion from the ProD2 and, of course, followed the bitter disappointment of losing both the Champions Cup and French Championship finals against Toulouse the previous season.

They carried those scars and the baggage of history. They were desperate for that title.

In much of this, of course, La Rochelle remind us of Munster when they made their long-cherished breakthrough in 2006 by beating Biarritz in the final.

An estimated 20,000 supporters were sardined into O’Connell Street in Limerick and were famously shown on the Principality Stadium’s big screen during the second half, and around 40,000 welcomed the victorious Munster team home the next day.

Having reached their Holy Grail that day, there was a similar reception for the triumphant homecoming the day after they beat Toulouse in Cardiff two years later after 60,000-plus members of the Red Army had again descended on the Welsh capital.

Starved of silverware since 2011, one ventures that were Munster to ever return to the summit of European rugby a massive crowd would again welcome them home. Likewise, Ulster, given their wait for a trophy has been even longer.

By contrast Leinster come from a capital city, but also their supporters have been comparatively sated.

That said, you’d hope that the final defeats of 2019 and last year will have whetted their appetite for a record-equalling fifth Champions Cup should Leinster win this season’s decider on May 20th at the Aviva Stadium.

Some of my UK colleagues were a little sniffy about the Aviva and Dublin being chosen to host this season’s final, largely on the 50,000 capacity and that it was a boringly safe choice. But in pandemic times, a boring, safe choice was entirely understandable, guaranteeing a sell-out, and constitutes one of the few positive decisions which the Anglo-French dominated EPCR have made in recent times.

Furthermore, it reflects what Irish rugby and their tens of thousands of travelling supporters have given the competition in the last 27 years, which is a good deal more than the Welsh, Scottish or Italians, or even some English and French clubs.

Yet Cardiff has had seven finals and Edinburgh three, while England has hosted eight finals (including six at Twickenham) and France a comparatively modest five, with the 2018 decider in Bilbao.

This will be the ninth season of the Champions Cup since the Premiership Rugby/LNR takeover of the European competitions in 2014 and, of course, the likes of Bruce Craig and Mark McCafferty and co were also hailed as the great visionaries of European rugby as the old ERC was replaced by the EPCR, to be based in Neuchetal in Switzerland rather than Dublin.

In terms of enhancing the Anglo-French hegemony of the tournament perhaps it has been relatively successful, with England clubs winning four of the ensuing Champions Cups (three by a Saracens club since found to have broken its own rules in assembling their squad), three by French teams and one by Leinster.

But in pretty much every respect all the grandiose pledges which framed the EPCR takeover have not materialised. Far from obtaining five different sponsors à la its football equivalent, Heineken were sheepishly brought back on board as sole title sponsors, so much so that their sponsorship was worth more to the competitions in the latter years of the ERC than currently.

Premiership Rugby and the LNR have ensured the sacred status of their own competitions by continuing to run off their knock-out rounds after the Champions Cup, while television income is also down, and so too are crowds

The French clubs will not be too perturbed by this given their latest deal with Canal+ for the TV rights to the Top 14, worth €453.4 million over four years (or €113.6 million per season).

What’s more, the Champions Cup has been further diminished by the Covid-induced change of format two seasons ago, and this second season of a revised, 24-team format appears to be cast in stone, even though it is complex and spectator unfriendly.

The format has cost the Irish provinces, along with everyone else, one additional home game per season which, with a full house, could be worth in the region of €500,000-€600,000 in gate receipts, and this is in addition to losing one URC home game per season.

Furthermore, there is no prize fund in the European competitions any more. Indeed, Leinster even had to pay for their own flights and accommodation for last May’s final in Marseille.

It will be interesting to see how the French and English clubs react to the cost and logistics of one-off games in South Africa, although the addition of four famous brands in the global game ought only benefit the competition.

Saracens are also back, and the huge squads of La Rochelle, Toulouse, Racing and Montpellier, new Top 14 champions, lead another strong challenge by the French (who have provided 12 of 20 finalists in the last decade).

Leinster have been to three finals in that time, and their triumph in 2018 is the sole victory by an Irish side in the last decade. Given it looks even more competitive than ever this season, were they –or any Irish side – to scale the Euro summit, it would definitely be worth celebrating.