Dear readers, my intention for this week’s blog was to write a witty, insightful and entertaining summary of the continuing Heineken Cup saga. It made sense to do so. After all, it has been the only topic of rugby conversation since English and French clubs announced they were setting up their own ‘breakaway’ competition (the recently named ‘Rugby Champions Cup’). And God knows I tried (oh how I tried!) to sit down and sift through the tangled web of claim, counter-claim and bluff that has characterised this most fierce case of rugby politics. But that’s the problem: it’s all rugby politics and it’s just dull. Dull, dull, dull. I suspect I’m not the only rugby fan who has felt somewhat disillusioned these last couple of weeks as we witness the death throes of a great rugby tournament. Don’t get me wrong, the Anglo-French concerns are legitimate and should be addressed, yet I can’t help but feel a sharp pang of regret that a solution to save the competition hasn’t been found. As such, plans to write a witty, insightful and entertaining summary of the continuing Heineken Cup saga have been (as a friend of mine likes to say) chopped. Instead, I offer you the drawing above as a succinct way of describing the overall situation. Besides, journalists better than I have written some very good pieces this week which skilfully unravel this ball of European rugby yarn. Go read theirs.
There is a positive side to this developing story however. Contracts, TV rights and participation agreements are so interwoven into the future of European competition that a potential change of tournament could well have an impact on the future of the existing domestic leagues. Put simply, everything is in flux and all possibilities are on the table. Now, some would regard that thought as troubling but I would view it as an opportunity – an opportunity for the game’s administrators to be ambitious and innovative in their plans for how rugby should be played in the northern hemisphere. Let’s get the thinking caps on and come up with the ultimate rugby tournament while we have the chance. Our slate is as clean as it’s ever going to get. So what would the ideal rugby tournament look like? This week the blog defies the naysayers and delves into the world of fantasy rugby by examining a few ideas that have been doing the rounds since the continental war broke out.
North v South?
Since it was announced that English and French clubs were picking up their ball and moving to a different playground, the rugby press have pondered whether they will have anybody to play with. Enter, from stage south, the South Africans who are in a bit of a contractual battle of their own concerning their participation in Super Rugby. On the face of it a competition involving English, French and South African teams would have a commercial value, but I would question whether that tournament would be of greater interest than the current pan-European one. After all, rugby is a parochial game and nothing fills the stands like a cross-border ding-dong with your neighbours. The danger of staging an Anglo-Gallic-African competition is that initial novelty could easily give way to apathy among supporters used to attending away games on a frequent basis. If a cross-hemisphere competition is to be considered then why not introduce Kiwi and Australian teams and create a World League. An expensive administrative nightmare it may well be, but it would be more commercially attractive than the fudged-up South African proposal.
A major stumbling block from day one in this argument has been a perceived sense of injustice surrounding qualification. Currently, English and French clubs have to qualify for the Heineken Cup while the majority of Celtic and Italian teams enter the competition automatically. So why not remove the problem by doing away with the domestic leagues and creating a European League which would act as the ‘bread and butter’ tournament for Europe’s 38 professional teams. Why not create three divisions of 14 (adding four teams from emerging European nations like Georgia, Spain or Romania)? With promotion and relegation it would certainly be competitive and would maintain the standards displayed in the Heineken (at least in the premier division) and it would attract mega bucks from TV deals. There would, of course, be some initial hurdles to clear: how would teams be allocated to divisions? How would second-tier English and French teams be compensated for no longer having access to first-tier rugby? What happens to existing commercial deals among the Aviva, Pro 12 and Top14? But hey, this is fantasy rugby…and this tournament would be a cracker.
One of the most innovative ideas for a new rugby tournament involves an amalgamation of the two thoughts above. A few weeks back Rugby World magazine re-printed an article from 2012 which outlined a plan put forward by former Leicester centre Terry Burwell. Burwell’s plans have an American NFL feel about them with initial ‘local’ conferences followed by a ‘finals series’. There’s even room for a cameo from the Super Rugby Champions. It’ll never happen in a million years but the ingenuity and ambition is pretty breath-taking. It’s well worth a look.
But what do you think? If you had the chance to start from scratch, what would your ideal club rugby tournament look like? Answers, as ever, below. If they’re particularly good we’ll forward them onto the European suits for approval. By that time, they may be the only options left. Thank God the international season begins next month. Which leads us onto the biggest game of the year so far: South Africa vs. New Zealand takes place at Ellis Park this weekend with the Rugby Championship title at stake. The next blog post will pick up the pieces from that result and examine how the top teams are shaping up two years out from the Rugby World Cup.