Meagre attendance at Ricoh Arena prompts concern over neutral venues
The future of Europe’s elite club competition is not yet entirely guaranteed beyond 2022
There was no hiding the number of empty seats at the Ricoh Arena on Saturday. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
Next month in Newcastle they are promising to host the best weekend that club rugby union has ever known. A convivial city, an iconic stadium, two ding-dong finals and a vibrant late-night social scene: anyone heading to Tyneside is in for a treat. Assuming the weather plays along, it will make Twickenham feel like Madame Tussauds.
It might come as a surprise to many, therefore, that the future of Europe’s elite club competition is not yet entirely guaranteed beyond 2022. The entire road map of domestic and international rugby is in the process of being reassessed and no one currently knows where the Champions Cup and its smaller cousin, the Challenge Cup, will fit in.
Last week, furthermore, it emerged the private equity firm, CVC Capital Partners, are looking for a stake in the Pro14, having already invested in the Premiership. There has been talk of aligning the two leagues by instigating a winners-take-all play-off between the respective winners. If those sides were, say, Leinster and Saracens, what would be Europe’s point of difference?
CVC, meanwhile, are also eyeing the Six Nations. Popularity-wise, the international game remains on another level, a fact underlined by the meagre attendance at the Ricoh Arena for Saturday’s supposed showpiece between Saracens and Munster. The half-empty stadium may have been an unfortunate consequence of Easter, rail disruption and assorted other factors but it has prompted concern even among true European believers. Have we reached the point where, outside the big Irish provinces and Clermont Auvergne, there are not enough travelling fans to justify neutral stadia for future semi-finals?
In short, it is crunch time for Europe. How many Premiership clubs, for example, regarded it as their absolute priority this season? Saracens and Exeter both did but not many others. Survival on the domestic front has been the primary objective for most. Wales, meanwhile, last had a semi-finalist a decade ago; Italy were not even represented this year.
Small wonder discussions behind the scenes have been intensifying. On top of everything else there is also player welfare pressure. The top players will inevitably play fewer games per season in the future. That means something has to give – but probably not the Top 14 or the newly flush Premiership. Nor will it be the Six Nations, still the northern hemisphere’s biggest selling point and its main economic driver.
Talk to some and they insist CVC’s arrival is great news: the more competitions touched by their investment, the more chance there is of an integrated global fixture calendar. They also relish the extra money and insist CVC’s influence will only really be felt in commercial areas. Maybe, but if so why is Mark McCafferty looking to retain his seat on English rugby’s powerful Professional Game Board after he steps aside as Premiership Rugby’s chief executive this summer to join CVC as a consultant? Anyone who imagines rugby will meander along as before without a great deal changing does not fully understand how private equity firms operate.
All of which means that Simon Halliday, chairman of European Professional Club Rugby, is an increasingly busy man. Talking to Leinster and Toulouse officials this weekend, however, he was reassured to find there is still a lot of love for Europe’s existing major club tournament. He said: “You’re not going to throw that away, are you? What would replace it? It’s in the DNA of a lot of these clubs and I don’t think they’ll want to see it devalued.”
Still, Halliday accepts some tweaks could be necessary, not least to current semi-final arrangements: “Having taken a lot of feedback in the last 48 hours, I think we do need to change something.” This could involve abandoning neutral venues or copying the Top 14 model and staging both semis in the same place, though the latter idea carries an obvious risk. “If we stick them in, say, the Aviva and no Irish team gets there, what happens?” Halliday asked. The start date of next season’s tournament, less than two weeks after the Rugby World Cup final, is also under review.
Around various other committee room tables, meanwhile, all kinds of opinions are being floated. Some argue Premiership Rugby should trim its play-offs to free up a weekend or two. Nor does everyone think the idea of a season-ending Pro14 v Premiership play-off is a brilliant idea. “Who would give a shit?” one senior administrator told the Guardian newspaper. “Everyone will have had enough by then. If they end up playing a meaningless fixture simply to suit a TV audience, isn’t that a case of the tail wagging the dog?”
Even the most epic of Newcastle weekends, therefore, cannot entirely guarantee the future of European club rugby beyond 2022. EPCR, for its part, can only hope the party mood sways a few influential hearts and minds. “There are debates going on from World Rugby downwards and we have been very clear we expect to be consulted,” Halliday said. “It’s in everyone’s interests. We’re not a separate organisation, we’re made up of the clubs, leagues and unions. No one can look at their own competition in a bubble any more.”
For all those who believe Europe is worth fighting for, these are crucial days.