Premiership Rugby’s decision to opt out of next season’s Heineken Cup and stand their ground in the battle to re-shape the European club rugby landscape was taken in a bid to help secure the long-term future of the leading English sides but could their stance instead prove costly?
The Heineken Cup has built a reputation as arguably the most enthralling and exciting club competition in the world over the last 18 years having consistently delivered high quality rugby. But it is not only supporters and broadcasters who are fans of the competition, with players and coaches always quick to highlight the intensity of the cross-border clashes that by common consent are the nearest thing to international rugby.
That last fact will not be lost on England coach Stuart Lancaster who now knows that his leading players will not be exposed to that level of competition in the season that will culminate with the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Some may argue that the respite offered by the boycott will benefit the Elite Player Squad and ensure they are fighting fit for the World Cup but that clearly was not Premiership Rugby’s aim having previously tabled their plans for an alternative – the Rugby Champions Cup – that earned some support but crucially not enough hence the current stand off.
As a coach which scenario would you prefer? Rested or battle-hardened players? Lancaster would surely prefer his charges were exposed to the kind of challenge posed only in the Heineken Cup and would consider their absence from the competition a disadvantage especially with their European rivals still set to take part.
The Heineken Cup would also provide a valuable insight into the form of his leading players and while the members of the EPS squad would also no doubt appreciate the opportunity to mix it with the best in Europe and underline their credentials. Fringe players are also aware that a string of strong performances in the Heineken Cup are the best way to force your way into international contention.
The Premiership clubs may be sitting pretty thanks to the riches provided by the broadcast rights deal with BT Sport and not need the remuneration on offer in the Heineken Cup, but they will be all too aware that a successful national side is key to driving the success of the domestic game. Similarly, shortcomings on the Test stage will soon be reflected at the turnstiles at domestic level.
With no Heineken Cup action to look forward to, the English clubs will have a significant void to fill in their season and so will the sport in general having lost one of the greatest adverts for the game. Fans around the world ride the Heineken Cup rollercoaster every season but it may not have the same appeal without the English clubs and therefore not a true European feast. Leinster boss Michael O’Connor spoke for many when he recently said any potential boycott would be “catastrophic for the game as a whole, globally never mind just in Europe.”
Unsurprisingly, Rugby Football Union chief executive Ian Ritchie is reportedly working hard behind-the-scenes to try and conjure a peace deal that would ensure English clubs remain part of the Heineken Cup next season. Reports suggested he fears for the financial security of his rival unions but there must be fresh concerns about his own side’s preparations for the World Cup which they will of course host. The RFU has supported Premiership Rugby’s quest for an overhaul of the Heineken Cup to this point but you suspect they did not anticipate being isolated in this manner especially in what could be viewed as the most important time in their history.
You may remember that we have been here before back in 1998-99 when the English clubs, once again frustrated by how the tournament was being run, chose to boycott the competition. The Heineken Cup was still in its infancy and not yet the intense cauldron that we delight in today but the loss of the competition will have no doubt troubled the then England coach Clive Woodward whose attention to detail would eventually steer his side to World Cup glory in 2003 but first came the agony of their quarter-final exit in 1999. How much the lack of pan-European fixtures that season impacted on England’s earlier-than-hoped exit is up for debate but given the choice it is not a gamble the RFU would take this time around with so much riding on the 2015 tournament – and not just an £80m hosting fee.
As much as organisers will stress that a successful England team is not key to a memorable tournament, it is crucial to the growth of the game. The sport in England will never have had such a chance to showcase itself as it will in two years’ time and it is imperative that it leverages that advantage as much as it can. The tournament has the potential to have a huge impact on awareness and lay the foundation for increases in playing numbers, supporters, volunteers and referees which in turn would propel the game to unprecedented heights.
The battle for hearts and minds has already begun with the England Rugby 2015 literature stressing that the ‘lead up’ is just as important as any ‘legacy’ dream. To reach that goal the England side must serve as a marketing tool with their success key to capturing the attention of the wider public – and selling the small matter of a couple of a million tickets – in the build up to the tournament and keeping them engaged in the sport when the rest of the world has gone home.
So as creditable Premiership Rugby’s determination to define their own destiny, are they jeopardising the future of the sport in England with their hard line stance?