Belfast Telegraph

Friday 31 October 2014

Why Ulster coach Mark Anscombe is up for the Heineken Cup

Sneak preview: Ulster coach Mark Anscombe gets his hands on the Heineken Cup and would love to be holding it aloft again come next year

Ulster coach Mark Anscombe is a huge Heineken Cup fan. In his opinion, the opportunity to pit themselves against the best players in northern hemisphere rugby is the incentive which has drawn New Zealanders, South Africans and Australians to these shores.

Ulster's line-up includes a trio of Kiwis in Jared Payne, John Afoa and Nick Williams, with Johann Muller, Ruan Pienaar and Robbie Diack South Africa's representatives.

Already Diack is Irish-qualified; this time next year Payne (below) will be, too.

"Southern hemisphere players come north because of the European competition and the prestige that it has," Anscombe contends. "That pits them against the best players in the northern hemisphere.

"There are a lot of great players spread out in this competition – from England, France, Wales, Scotland, Italy and, of course, Ireland. It is this competition – this Heineken Cup – that gives all these guys an opportunity to play against one another."

With a Sword of Damocles continuing to hover over the Heineken Cup, the clock is ticking. The time for decisions on the future direction and format of the tournament is drawing closer and conscious of that fact, the Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian unions are scheduled to meet their English counterparts this week.

Already there are signs of compromise in the hope of saving a tournament featuring a disparate mix of clubs, provinces, regions, districts or franchises from each of the countries which contest the Six Nations and currently compete in the Heineken Cup.

The English, and their French counterparts, appear to have wrung concessions from the others in the form of acceptance of a three-way split of the money. England and France are in line for the big cuts, with the others sharing what remains.

And the Irish, Scots, Welsh and Italians also look willing to deal on the matter of qualification from the PRO12 being based on finishing positions – in other words, on merit – rather than mere geographic location.

That leaves the big nettle of governance still to be grasped. England's Premiership elite and France's Top 14 want the clubs to run the competition, rather than the unions via the ERC.

Total acceptance of that hugely controversial demand is improbable, however; already the others are on record as having said no.

But here, too, there may just be a compromise, courtesy of a proposal which suggests that each of the six countries should have one club and one union representative on a new 12-member board.

"For the good of the game you hope common sense prevails when decisions are made as to how things are going to go," Anscombe said. "Because the game is bigger than one owner, or one club, and we've got to remember that.

"Sometimes we lose sight of what it's all about. But when all is said and done you want to perform against the best. You want those tests. That's why we play this game."

Europe, he points out, provides just such challenges. As a result, it forces players to find new levels of performance within themselves.

"We all like to be comfortable, to have 30 points on the opposition with a quarter of an hour to go so we can relax," Anscombe admitted. "It's not a great feeling when there's only one score in it and the opposition is hard on your goal-line.

"But at the end of the day, everything you remember in sport comes down to how you did against the big guys. If it's an individual sport, you remember that occasion in the Olympics or the Commonwealth Games or the World Cup.

"So maybe, judged alongside those competitions, that meeting in Birmingham or Belfast doesn't mean as much.

"And it's the same with players in rugby. Again it's being on the big stage against the best. They're the games you're going to remember and they're the games that will still be talked about in 10 or 20 years time."

There is still a sizeable gap between the English and French clubs and the others. That must be bridged if the Heineken Cup's successor is to match – never mind surpass – that which went before it.

With the current format expiring in June 2014 and the English and French pressing ahead with a breakaway Rugby Champions' Cup – and demanding the end of the ERC who have overseen the hugely successful Heineken Cup/Amlin Challenge format – the need to reach an agreement suitable to all interests is plain to be seen.

Whatever the form of any Heineken Cup derivative, Anscombe is insistent that there must be a premier competition involving the pick of each of the Six Nations' representatives and a subsidiary tournament for others. The reason for his insistence on the continuation of that level of club rugby is that he believes it brings out the best.

In his words: "Playing on the big stage in Europe challenges us to be able to handle pressure, to sustain pressure, to work hard as individuals, to work for each other, to challenge each other, to be honest in each other's performance and just to keep going for 80 minutes when you've got absolutely nothing left.

"That epitomises this game and that is what this competition requires of us."

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