Heineken Cup: No need for cup obituary just yet

AS this year’s big kick-off nears, Iain Morrison looks at English efforts to kill off Europe’s top trophy and concludes that it’s still breathing

THE poet and author Robert Graves is the only man to have his obituary in The Times twice over. The first time occurred after he suffered appalling injuries in the First World War, which led to him being pronounced dead by the operating surgeon and a telegram sent to his horrified parents. He promptly recovered sufficiently to read the news of his own death in the newspaper.

The Heineken Cup has been on life support at least as often as Graves, once back in 1999 when the English clubs boycotted the whole event and again a couple of weeks back when Premiership chief executive Mark McCafferty revealed a new television deal with BT Vision for league games and another European competition after the English clubs pull out of the tournament in 2014.

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But, just like the war poet, reports of the Heineken Cup’s demise are a little premature, not least because it constitutes one half of the financial foundation stones upon which Northern Hemisphere rugby is built (the Six Nations is the other).

Put simply, everyone involved needs the moolah that this competition generates, although the airwaves have been eerily quiet of late while all parties allow the dust to settle. The one exception has been European Rugby Cup (ERC) chief executive Derek McGrath, who was in conciliatory mood at the 2012-13 cup launch last Monday. “Our job is to ensure we find a way forward,” he told the assembled media.

That process continues tomorrow in Rome when everyone is due to sit down and play their cards. All the aces are held by the French clubs, who want the Heineken final brought forward to April. According to everyone who has aired an opinion, the French have no appetite for jumping into bed with the English in a cross-channel competition. If England’s clubs are planning a brave new world of European rugby perhaps they should have lined up some opposition first.

The only thing Premier League Rugby (PRL) have done to date is embarrass the ERC officials in charge of selling the television rights. It looks as if the ERC suits in Dublin didn’t think to pick up the phone to BT Vision before snuggling up to Sky for another four years but, until McCafferty reveals the contract smallprint tomorrow, we can’t even be sure BT were worth the price of the call.

The whole thing may have been for the best, because the sight of Zebre and Connacht in the same Heineken pool brings home the need for some tinkering to be done in the qualification process.

That is exactly what McGrath hinted at when he fired a warning shot last Monday. Asked if the format for qualification could change, the ERC boss replied that there were “no guarantees” before adding, “and that goes for any country”.

It sounds like McGrath may be preparing the ground for a compromise. The Scots and Italians could be guaranteed one team in the Heineken Cup instead of two, so ensuring the plurality of nations that the unions hold dear. Ireland and Wales could have their quota of automatic places cut from three to two, with an additional two places from the RaboDirect Pro12 decided purely on merit.

Each country would retain an involvement in the top competition but the RaboDirect would get a shot in the arm (or a kick in the pants if you prefer) with two places up for grabs. The need to fight to qualify would address the English (and French) complaint that, with no relegation and much qualification assured, Celtic sides can prioritise the Heineken Cup and so gain a competitive advantage over their English and French rivals, who cannot afford to take their eyes off their domestic competitions.

It would also give an added incentive to local derbies, with the sides knowing that only one of Edinburgh or Glasgow or two from Leinster, Munster and Ulster would automatically qualify forn the Heineken Cup.

Meanwhile, England and France would get seven clubs into the Heineken instead of six.

The RaboDirect would get eight, with the extra two – to make a total of 24 teams – being the winner of the previous season’s Heineken and Amlin trophies or the next best club from those countries if the winners have already qualified.

The powers that be have two years to thrash out the details so don’t expect any “peace in our time” nonsense after tomorrow’s summit.

The Sky TV deal will continue until the end of next season, at which time the mere shadow of BT Vision may persuade them to dig a little deeper into their pockets. An extra £10 million or so would be a small price to pay for the satisfaction of chasing their bitter broadcasting rivals off the European rugby stage. . . at least for now.

And so to this year’s tournament, which has hardly had a look in while the political rugby ball has had the Garryowens kicked out of it.

Neither of the Scottish teams looks likely to qualify but the same thing was said last year and a little more forcefully.

Glasgow’s form is scratchy and they are missing too many key personnel. Their best finisher, Canadian wing DTH van der Merwe, and two front row anchors in Moray Low and Ed Kalman, are sidelined, while Duncan Weir sat out yesterday’s match with a sore knee. They open with a tough tie, away to Northampton.

Edinburgh boast the stronger squad. The forwards have been strengthened and the backs remain a potent attacking threat, but whether the club has the mental strength and self belief to win on the road against Munster in Limerick or Saracens in London is doubtful, especially as no one will underestimate them this time after last season’s run to the semi-finals.

The Celtic cause should be led by Leinster again, helped by the incentive of a Dublin final, while Saracens, Northampton and Leicester will be England’s flagbearers if they can see off challenges from Edinburgh, Ulster and Toulouse respectively.

The French clubs are almost guaranteed a place at the business end of this tournament because Toulon should be shoo-ins for Pool 6. However, Jonny Wilkinson’s club are relative new boys to this competition and history suggests that you have to come close, perhaps several times, before being ready to win the big one.

In contrast, Clermont have the squad, the belief and the experience to drag themselves over the finish line.

At least a French or English winner would put paid to some of the hyperbole about an uneven playing field.

The truth is that French clubs have not always prioritised the Heineken Cup and English Premiership sides simply haven’t been good enough since Wasps last won the tournament back in 2007.

KEY QUESTIONS

1. Is this the end of the Heineken Cup or will common sense prevail?

2. What one thing would you wish to see on the field of play?

3. Will this season’s winner come from the usual suspects?

Marco Bortolami (Zebre)

1. I think they will find an agreement. Maybe the format needs some adjustments to find a compromise.

2. The Heineken Cup’s main goal must be to widen the audience of our sport and open the game to other countries. A European competition needs more than the usual six nations, let alone three or four.

3. I expect the French and Celts (ie the Irish) to stay at the top.

Phil Davies (Cardiff Blues coach)

1. I certainly hope it’s not the end. There’s a lot of goodwill to get it sorted and there is a consensus to improve the model.

2. To get a better standard of rugby all round and to get even more special occasions. There’s a great sense of tradition and theatre to Heineken Cup days, a brilliant atmosphere.

3. I’d like to think we’ll do well and it will be interesting to see how the Scarlets go. Toulon have a high-profile squad. And Saracens will be worth watching.

Kelly Brown (Saracens)

1. I’m sure there will be a competition involving Europe’s top teams. Quite what form that will take, is anybody’s guess.

2. Obviously for me, a successful Saracens campaign. I’d also like to see a lot of close, exciting matches.

3. Being at a club which has never won the Cup, I certainly hope not!

Richie Gray (Sale Sharks)

1. I certainly hope it doesn’t come to an end, it is the greatest club tournament in rugby. I’m sure the ERC and the English and French teams will reach agreement.

2. The same as every year: Great rugby, played in front of packed-out stadiums.

3. The likes of Toulouse, Clermont and Toulon are packed with quality players. However I think the eventual winners will come from Ireland and it will be Leinster.

Seb Bruno (Toulon)

1. The governing bodies will find a way to keep the Heineken Cup going.

2. I hope teams will play and that pressure won’t hold them back.

3. I hope Toulon will become regulars in the final stages. The Irish teams focus on the Heineken and their season revolves round it. The Irish often end up on the podium despite fierce competition from Toulouse and Leicester, for example, but every team has their chance.

Conor O’Shea (Harlequins director of rugby)

1. Compromise will win, I hope, and we’ll still be looking forward every season to the Heineken Cup.

2. I’d like to see the tackle area/breakdown refereed in a consistent manner across all the regions.

3. Toulon could be a dark horse given the depth of talent they have – they could field virtually two international teams. Otherwise Leinster, Clermont and Toulouse will dominate the betting. The beauty of the competition, though, is that, if someone gets on a roll, they can cause a few upsets.