Iain Morrison on rugby’s new European competition

Meet the new European competition – same as the old one, with more TV money, says Iain Morrison
Jonny Wilkinsons Toulon are favourites to make it three in a row. Picture: GettyJonny Wilkinsons Toulon are favourites to make it three in a row. Picture: Getty
Jonny Wilkinsons Toulon are favourites to make it three in a row. Picture: Getty

ALL the usual suspects are present and correct in the line-up. The clubs drawn in the same pool as the Italian team are rubbing their hands as ever. The “Galacticos” of Toulon will start as favourites to make it three in a row and Heineken are the only main sponsor on board. Welcome to the brave, but not entirely new, world of European Rugby.

We were promised jam, honey and nectar in a calorific land of plenty once the English club’s finest minds were put to work marketing the European Rugby Champions Cup (ERCC), but it hasn’t panned out that way, at least not yet.

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In fairness, the new competition was agreed so late in the day that most sponsors had probably gone to bed before the arm wrestle was over and already the negotiators are talking about the start of next season before four other co-sponsors join Heineken in getting their round in.

The beer giants are understood to be paying £3 million-odd instead of the £9 million they have contributed in the past as title sponsor. If ERCC can persuade four more brands to follow suit then sponsorship revenues will be markedly higher although, so far, no one has been injured in the stampede.

It probably won’t matter too much because overall revenues are already higher after bumper broadcasting agreements. The rise in television monies to something in the region of £44m per annum, a hike of approximately 60 per cent, more than compensates for the lack of “partners” lining up alongside Heineken.

One thing has changed: Scotland (and Italy) will have only one representative in the top flight European Rugby Champions Cup (ERCC). Edinburgh will instead bid for the European Rugby Challenge Cup (ERCC, confusingly). While they may not appreciate being thrown in with the Bucharest Wolves, the capital club only have themselves to blame after a less than stellar league outing last season. It might yet prove a blessing for Alan Solomons’ side, who could do with a confidence-boosting cup run. They have every opportunity if they can play anywhere close to their potential.

Meanwhile, Glasgow open with a zinger of a match against Bath, one of the form teams in England. The mighty West Country club, who won the league title five times from 1991-96 and the Heineken Cup in 1997, have found the best of themselves, with owner Bruce Craig’s millions helping show the way.

The fact that Craig was at the vanguard of the English clubs in demanding changes to the old Heineken Cup and control of the new entity only adds spice.

The shame is that England’s latest rugby league convert, Sam Burgess, won’t line up at Scotstoun next Saturday although Glasgow’s overriding emotion may be relief.

Elsewhere, the opening weekend has a feast of goodies for rugby fans. Harlequins host Castres, complete with their Scottish trio of Johnnie Beattie, Richie Gray and Max Evans, on Friday evening. Saracens renew their battle with old acquaintances Clermont, whom they kiboshed 46-6 in last season’s quarter-final – a low point in Vern Cotter’s career. The Scarlets will be expecting very little change from the holders Toulon in France but Ulster should be expecting four points from their trip to Leicester, which is surely a sign of the times.

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Several erstwhile European giants are struggling to keep their heads above the rising tide. With six Heineken Cup wins between them, Toulouse and Leicester are both sinking rather than swimming in their own respective leagues. The French giants were 11th in the Top 14 ahead of this weekend and the Tigers one better at tenth in the Aviva.

Along with Leicester and Toulouse, other recent European Cup winners such as Leinster, Munster and Wasps are all operating at several levels below their best, to be replaced by a nouveau-riche class of super-club: Saracens, Racing Metro, Bath and, the richest of all, Toulon.

Maybe times are changing after all.