Matt Williams: EPCR would do well to heed lesson of Super Rugby’s demise

Rugby supporters don’t like their competitions tinkered with once they have grown to love them

The Leinster scrum prepares to set during the Heineken Champions Cup round  three game against Montpellier at the RDS. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

The Leinster scrum prepares to set during the Heineken Champions Cup round three game against Montpellier at the RDS. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

 

It does not matter how the EPCR try to spin their decision of forcing a 28-0 defeat on Leinster in their cancelled December match against Montpellier. In doing so and in changing the operation of the pool stages, the EPCR have seriously undermined the credibility of the 2021-22 Champions Cup competition.

I have always been a great admirer of the competition. Until the EPCR made the changes to the format of the competition for this year, it was the most prestigious club competition in the world.

We should all remember that was not always the case.

At the beginning of the professional era, Super Rugby reigned supreme. It was a vastly superior competition to the Heineken Cup. That was until poor decisions made by Super Rugby officials changed the structure of the competition and killed the goose that laid the golden egg.

Super Rugby officials chopped and changed the structure of the competition, creating new pools and conferences. The most moronic of cases was when Australian Rugby cut the Perth-based Western Force from the competition.

These modifications were so confusing to the average rugby supporter that they voted with their feet. Bums were not placed on seats and matches on TV were turned off.

My former club, the Waratahs, are perhaps the greatest example of the decline in the interest in Super Rugby over the past few decades. With average home crowds in the early 2000s of 35, 000 to now averaging a tiny 6,500.

In comparison, the Heineken Cup remained consistent and unchanged for a quarter of a century. The sporting public loves dependability in their competitions and the Heineken cup’s understandable structure created its own great traditions. Traditions that were deeply admired by the paying rugby community, the clubs and the players.

Having coached for multiple seasons in both competitions I was completely opposed to the overly complicated tinkering to the playing calendar of Super Rugby in the early 2000s. At that point, it was “The” rugby competition and had captured the imagination of the entire rugby world. Those changes to the competition structure that emanated from Super Rugby’s committees confused the rugby public and in a few short seasons Super Rugby’s appeal had not only just dulled, it had collapsed.

I remain equally opposed to the changes that have been placed on the Champions Cup this season. The loss of the pool matches in October for the ‘Round of 16” fixtures reeks of the same greed that European elite soccer clubs displayed in attempting to create their “Super League” club competition. The attitude appears to say, “Let us get straight into the “cash cow” matches that benefit only European rugby’s elite.”

Two members of the crowd share an umbrella as they watch on during the round six Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and the Crusaders in Sydney in March 2019. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images
Two members of the crowd share an umbrella as they watch on during the round six Super Rugby match between the Waratahs and the Crusaders in Sydney in March 2019. Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Like the changes to Super Rugby in the early 2000s, administrators always forget that the law of unintended consequences is far more powerful than they ever factor in. By reducing the qualifying pool matches from six to four fixtures means that it may be possible for a team to reach the round of 16 with as little as five competition points. This is exactly what Glasgow currently has in Pool A and it may be enough.

That creates the ridiculous situation of a team conceivably gaining only a draw and three losing bonus points to qualify for the Round of 16. This sort of statistic undermines the credibility of the entire competition.

Under the old format of six pool games, in most years clubs required a minimum of 18 points to make the quarter-finals. Teams never qualified with a 50 per cent record of only three wins. Now it is technically possible to qualify with zero wins.

I can only speculate that pressure from the English and French clubs, who were not good enough to make the quarter-finals under the old system, have once again won the political battle to get their snouts in the money trough of the Round of 16. All at the expense of the Champions Cup’s credibility.

Leinster’s form in this year’s competition has been nothing short of outstanding. They are undoubtedly one of the leading contenders to win but ridiculously because officials imposed a committee-room defeat to Montpellier, there is a real possibility that one of the competition’s best performing teams may miss out on the top 16 cut.

No competition can retain its credibility when one of its best performing clubs does not qualify for playoffs because of the interpretation of competition rules by officials.

Despite Leinster stating that they were able to fulfil all of their obligations, officials have decided to place Leinster at an unjust disadvantage compared to other teams in the competition. In the rugby public’s eyes, the injustice sits in the reality that other games that were affected by Covid had their points shared between the teams.

If the Champions Cup is to keep its credibility, the competition must be determined by the skills of the players competing in the white-hot heat of competition. This is where the victors and vanquished should be determined, not in committee rooms by faceless officials.

What infuriates the rugby public even more about the EPCR decision against Leinster is that the community believes it is not in the spirit of the game.

Last year Rassie Erasmus was censured by World Rugby for breaching that spirit. A spirit that demands equality, fairness and sportsmanship not only from its players and coaches but also from its governing bodies. During the Champions Cup, the EPCR are the stewards of rugby’s spirit and they have badly let the game down.

Let us hope that in Leinster’s fixture against Bath today, justice is done on the field and the best team wins. That may very well be Bath.

If Leinster do not get a competition point, then the EPCR officials will have prohibited Leinster from taking their rightful place at the head of the Round of 16 teams.

Clubs reaching the playoffs with as little as five points and one of the competition’s best performing teams failing to reach the Round of 16 are the type of ridiculous absurdities that bring shame on those in the EPCR who changed the format of the competition.

The decline of Super Rugby’s credibility in the eyes of the rugby public in the early 2000s was astonishingly fast and remains seemingly impossible to reverse.

Those charged with the stewardship of the Champions Cup would be well served to recall the history of Super Rugby’s rapid decline. They are sleepwalking elite European rugby down a similar path. A path that with frightening speed, transforms into a steep and very slippery slope.

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