The Heineken Cup resumes today and if it is as keenly fought on the field as it has been off it in recent months, it will be a tournament worth watching. That is something, for the most part, that cannot be said for the three professional leagues in Europe this season.
The success of the Heineken Cup, in commercial and playing terms, has meant that every time its participation agreement is nearing renewal, swords are drawn. It happened in 1998, when the English clubs pulled out, in 2006, when the French said adieu, only to change their minds, and the English and French in June said they would not be taking part in the tournament from the 2014-15 season unless certain changes were made.
The players, of course, are not involved in any of the discussions. They can only wait for the administrators to sort themselves out and Sunday’s highlight of the opening round, Leicester’s visit to Toulouse in a meeting of two clubs who were the dominant forces in the Heineken Cup until Munster and Leinster took over, will show how much the tournament means to those at its sharp end.
The Heineken Cup is less a clash of culture these days – Toulon, the leaders of the Top 14, are one of the early favourites but at times in the league this season they have started with only four French players – and more about a variance in playing styles.
One of the complaints of the French and English clubs about the current set-up is that the qualification process means that most of the Celtic and Italian teams qualify by right while they have to fight it out in competitive leagues: their players have to battle on both fronts while the likes of Leinster and Munster are able to rest their top players for long periods.
Tom Johnson, the Exeter and England flanker, has played in 49 of his club’s last 50 Premiership matches. His Ulster and Ireland counterpart, Stephen Ferris, has appeared in 12 of his province’s last 50 Pro 12 matches. The example is far from isolated.
Because Leinster have won three of the last four Heineken Cups, with Munster prevailing in two of the previous three years, it is accepted by many that keeping players fresh for the Heineken Cup is a significant factor behind the success of the Irish, but they run the risk of being under-cooked.
The biggest single reason for Leinster’s success, along with the squad they have assembled, is the way they play the game. Too many English and French clubs regard the breakdown as an automatic right to recycle possession, going to ground readily and taking an age to set up the next phase.
Leinster, in contrast, do not go to ground as a first resort, looking for the off-load. When they do set up a ruck, they clear it out quickly and move the ball away. They look to play with pace and width, a policy adopted last season by Harlequins who were rewarded with the Premiership title.
Leinster can also win ugly, something Harlequins were unable to do in rainy Connacht last season where defeat cost them a place in the quarter-final. If Quins look the best placed of the six English clubs, and they are in a group that contains Connacht, Zebre and misfiring Biarritz, they need to be tactically cute.
No Welsh team has won the Heineken Cup and with all four of their regions losing leading players in the close season, the duck is unlikely to be broken any time soon. Ospreys look the best equipped, but they are in a pool with Leicester and Toulouse. The Scarlets have flair if not forward power, but they are grouped with Leinster and Clermont Auvergne.
As for Cardiff Blues, their name is apt after a poor start to the campaign. Their first match is at Sale, the only team in the Premiership without a victory, and then they face free spending and scoring Toulon.
Edinburgh reached the semi-final six months ago and they open with Saracens at Murrayfield on Saturday. Sarries are a team of all the talents but they are risk averse. Edinburgh do not have the same resources but they are more resourceful.
With the final next May being held in Dublin, Leinster would be at home, but it is time for a change. Harlequins should top their group and earn a home quarter-final, while Toulon should not suffer from the old French affliction of travel sickness.
Whatever and whoever, a lack of ambition and robotic reliance on gameplans will not get teams very far. Leinster are the holders because they are smart, leaving the English and French smarting.