While the sights and sounds of the raucous end to the Six Nations 2013 melt away into memory, attention turns this weekend to European rugby’s premier club competition and the Heineken Cup Quarter-Finals. And you know what? I’m finding it hard to care. Yes, there are eight great teams on show and, yes, the ‘Lions Selection’ factor adds another dimension (thanks to those continental missionaries Wilkinson, Armitage, Sheridan and Co) but as I sit and write this I just don’t feel that tingle of excitement from a couple of weeks ago. If I’m honest, I don’t feel the same thrill I would before an Abertillery vs. Brynmawr match in the Welsh Division Three East.
A shockingly flippant start to this week’s blog post it may be, but I wonder if I’m alone in adopting a blasé attitude to the competition? This is not to say that I find the prospect of Saracens v Ulster or Toulon v Leicester boring. Nor do I view the Heineken Cup as a second-rate competition. Far from it! Since its inception in 1995, the tournament has improved the standard of northern hemisphere club rugby year after year while producing some absolute belters of games along the way. I can appreciate the drama, spectacle and quality of the tournament as well as the next neutral observer. But that’s the problem: I am invariably a neutral observer when I watch the latter stages of the Heineken due to the woeful record of Welsh teams in this particular competition. Neutrality does not breed excitement.
No Welsh side has reached the Heineken Cup Final since the inaugural tournament and, this year, the regions collectively produced the worst showing in over a decade. Furthermore, we are told by Wales’ four professional teams that this sad state of affairs will not change any time soon. They argue it’s impossible for any Welsh side to win the tournament given their limited budgets when compared to the French giants of Toulouse, Toulon etc. Now at this point you’re probably thinking ‘Here we go…another piece about the row between the WRU and the regions’. If so, you’ll be glad to hear I’m not going in that direction, as I haven’t got the space (or the patience) to write about that this week following the nonsense that’s taken place between both parties this past weekend. Instead I want to focus on what I think is a bigger question for Wales and the Heineken Cup – a question of desire.
There is no doubt that each of the regions want to play and succeed in the Heineken Cup. It remains the biggest money-spinner in European competition and (as with most tournaments) the further you progress, the more prize money you receive. Add to this, the larger gate receipts a team can expect to obtain when playing in the knock-out stages (when matches tend to switch to much bigger stadiums) and the incentive to progress in the competition becomes very attractive indeed. In theory, the WRU share the ambition of the regions as the quality of rugby played is much higher than that of the Rabo Pro 12 and therefore good for elite player development. However, if you’re going to succeed in the Heineken Cup you are going to need a large, competitive squad filled with quality individuals (take a look at the winners from previous years for evidence of that). The problem is that assembling such a squad costs money. In essence, to succeed in the Heineken Cup you have to speculate to accumulate and here is where the governing body and the regions disagree. The regions argue that they need more financial support from the WRU to compete against the riches of France and (to a lesser extent) England, but it seems that the top brass are reluctant to pay out. Instead they’ve opted to focus their resources on maintaining a strong ‘elite rugby environment’ for the national side while gradually reducing their historic Millennium Stadium debt. It seems that the regions and the WRU simply don’t share that same desire for Heineken success.
But what about the fans? Is there a desire among supporters to see a Welsh region crowned Kings of Europe? I suspect if you asked that question to any follower of the Blues, Dragons, Ospreys or Scarlets they would invariably say yes. Yet if that were to happen, it seems certain that the WRU would have to play a more active role in the financial development of those teams. ‘Fair enough’ you might say but what would be the consequences for the national team and their progression if such a decision was taken by the governing body?
The most successful teams in recent Heineken Cup history have come from Ireland. This is not surprising given the IRFU’s commitment to strengthen the provincial game. Both Munster and Leinster have succeeded several times in sweeping all before them on the European stage. Yet the success of these teams has not been reflected at international level. The Irish bowed out at the quarter-final stage at RWC 2011 and finished fifth in this year’s Six Nations (just in front of France – another main supplier of recent Heineken Cup winners). Results would suggest that success at both international and European club level is a difficult thing to achieve for any country. I suspect this is particularly tricky for a nation the size of Wales. So maybe the question put to regional supporters shouldn’t be whether they want to win the Heineken Cup but whether they want to win it more than the Six Nations or Rugby World Cup.
The future of the Heineken Cup (in its current format) is still very much in doubt with English and French clubs having stated their intent to leave the competition once the current participation agreement ends at the close of the 2013/2014 season. The prospect of Welsh teams watching from the side-lines of European rugby is still very much alive. The regions will be desperate to avoid that from happening, particularly at a time when it seems the truly big bucks from television rights are just around the corner (as seen with the BT Vision/English Premiership deal). Yet I suspect that if the ‘nightmare scenario’ were to take place today, Welsh fans wouldn’t be as disappointed as people would expect. That is, of course, as long as the national team maintain their impressive form. In an ideal world both the national team and the regions would be conquering Europe in their own way, but the game in Wales is far from ideal at present. So, for the time being at least, we are faced with a choice. I know where my allegiance lies.
For what it’s worth I hope the Heineken Cup remains as the premier club tournament in the northern hemisphere. I also hope that our Welsh representatives reach a point where they are genuine contenders in the latter stages of the tournament rather than just making up the numbers. For that to happen, however, a solution will need to be found to break the see-saw imbalance of the game in Wales where the national team succeeds and the regions flounder. But that’s a blog for another day…in the next post I will be looking at the regional game in Wales, explaining what’s gone wrong and asking what can be done to secure the future of our professional teams.
As far as this weekend’s action is concerned, I am expecting victories for Clermont, Saracens, Harlequins and Toulon.