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Gordon D’Arcy: The Champions Cup’s future is far from certain, even in the short to medium term

Cullen’s side face their bête jaune et noire of recent vintage La Rochelle at the Stade Marcel Deflandre on Sunday

Donnybrook was bursting at the seams on a September night in 1997, some 7,000 crammed into the venue as the home team welcomed the Leicester Tigers and I was one of them, sitting on top of the main gates at the Old Wesley end to witness a win first-hand on my debut as a Leinster spectator. It inspired a love affair with rugby and especially the unique delights of the European Cup.

The Tigers came to town laden with stars, our own Eric Miller, Joel Stransky, the Fijians Sevens sorcerer Waisale Serevi and what would become the backbone of England’s 2003 World Cup winning squad, Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Austin Healy and Will Greenwood to highlight a few of the marquee names.

Little did I know that within 12 months I would be sharing a pitch with several of the stars from that Leinster win such as Trevor Brennan, Victor Costello and the hard-hitting centre combination of Kurt McQuilkin and Martin Ridge, who did so much to declaw the Tigers.

Leinster finished third in the pool behind Leicester and Toulouse, consistency in performances was still some way off against the dominant English and French clubs of the time. Munster disputed that primacy from the early 2000s leading into their two triumphs.


What caught my imagination as a youngster was how special it felt and right the way through to my final match the appeal of European games was like no other. In recent times, Saracens aside, it’s been largely an Irish-French duel to decide outright honours in the premier European tournament.

The financial success of the Six Nations Championship, Lions Tours and the Rugby World Cup has not trickled down to the club game, where growth under those parameters has been modest to underwhelming. The introduction of the South African teams was fundamentally about increasing revenue, looking to mirror the Champions League soccer with its multiple sponsor model.

The new format for the tournament induced by Covid-19 issues was a disaster and it hasn’t improved much since, at a time when boardroom discussions at World Rugby are looking at a new world order, when it comes to the fixture and tournament schedule.

The traditional format of small pools, home and away legs, gave us more memorable moments than the current structure, particularly over the last three seasons which have been a lacklustre triage for the knockout stages. The newest version has a sense of jeopardy in the opening four rounds of matches, albeit with a random set of fixtures: two home wins and you’ll progress to the next stage.

Connacht host Bordeaux-Begles at the Sportsground on Friday before heading across the Irish Sea to take on Mark McCall’s Saracens. Pete Wilkins will have been disappointed at the manner of the URC defeat to Leinster, burgled on the last play of the game but the season so far has been good and the western province will be fuelled by positive momentum.

Former Ireland under-20 coach Grand Slam-winning head coach Noel McNamara is the backs’ coach with Bordeaux, so a star-studded backline will be attuned to the demands of a Friday night in Galway.

Munster should take a five-point haul from their opening fixture against Bayonne in Limerick to the lovely Sandy Park the following weekend where they’ll have a crack at the Exeter Chiefs. Graham Rowntree and his squad should be upbeat about the next fortnight.

There are bigger challenges for the other two Irish provinces. Ulster head coach Dan McFarland called his players to account about intermittent quality at training, hoping to elicit the desired response against an in-form Johan van Graan coached Bath at the Rec and then a clash with Stuart Lancaster’s French top 14 leaders Racing 92 in Belfast on Saturday week.

Leinster have basically fielded different teams in their last two matches and neither has been able to produce the expected performance values, albeit acknowledging that they found a way to win those games against Munster and Connacht.

The fitful nature of the display against Munster was followed by an even more erratic 80-minutes in Galway dogged by mistakes. If Connacht hadn’t given the visitors a significant helping hand in the final throes of the contest, Leinster would have lost. What Leo Cullen will take from the contest was when staring into the abyss Leinster unearthed their most coherent passage of rugby to grab a game-winning try.

Cullen’s side face their “bête jaune et noire,” of recent vintage La Rochelle at the Stade Marcel Deflandre on Sunday. Both sides are struggling for form of late, some way short of their imperious best. Ronan O’Gara won’t be able to call upon Gregory Alldritt, man of the match in last year’s Champions Cup final. There’s no Johnny Sexton for Leinster.

It’s the game of the weekend. There’s no bedding in. Whoever wins this match creates a little breathing space to take into the following weekend’s game, in Leinster’s case against the Sale Sharks in the Aviva Stadium.

La Rochelle will go back to basics and rely on their talented roster to be the point of difference. Leinster have always offered more than the sum of their parts, but this weekend is a match they cannot play second fiddle in those key, game-defining, individual moments.

Leinster have perhaps become a little too predictable, the onus is on a few people to break those shackles this weekend. Predictable plays into the French giant’s hands, anything else levels the field.

For the Champions Cup to sustain prominence in the club rugby calendar relies on the quality of the product, the ability to capture the imagination of the supporters through its constituent countries. That’s not guaranteed and as a result its tournament future is far from certain, even in the short to medium term.