Belfast Telegraph

Champions Cup needs to change clubs' attitudes, not tournament format


As the fella once said, we've never been big on predictions around here and we never will be. (stock photo)
As the fella once said, we've never been big on predictions around here and we never will be. (stock photo)
David Kelly

By David Kelly

As the fella once said, we've never been big on predictions around here and we never will be.

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Nevertheless, in Europe's Heineken Champions Cup, a sense of inevitability is threatening to cannibalise the competition which this year celebrates its 25th season.

Looking back, it is almost quaint to recall the birth of an event which the Irish approached with so much ambiguity that they almost entered club sides instead of provinces.

Even then, the initial diffidence, allied to the still latent amateurism to which so many on this island were firmly wedded, meant there was little initial interest.

Ulster's breakthrough win in Lansdowne Road lit the blue touch paper for their Irish colleagues, even if their win was asterisked by the first signs of English recalcitrance as they boycotted that year's event.

Munster, then Leinster, supplanted them and the Heineken Cup, bolstered by free-to-air coverage and the general growth spurt of the pro game in Ireland, soared in popularity.

Like professionalism itself, with which it shares a birthday, the European Cup has experienced multiple growing pains; it still does.

Seven of the clubs who featured in the early years would become extinct; this would accelerate into double figures at the start of this century as proud Scottish, Italian and Welsh clubs folded, re-modelled or re-classified.

Still, although several dynasties - Leicester, Munster, Toulouse - threatened to form a hegemony, there remained enough variety in the early years to represent a true sense of competitiveness; there were seven different names on the trophy in the first eight seasons.

In the last eight seasons, there have been but three different winners - each parading a dominance that was not as widely celebrated in the last decade as the diversity that was enjoyed in the early days.

Sepia-tinted nostalgia naturally infers a sense that the past was more enjoyable than the present.

For example, in the Champions League 25 years ago, no British side made the knock-outs and the quarter-finals featured a remarkable egalitarian selection from eight different countries; Uefa would swiftly remove that possibility.

And, while the standards have never been higher in that competition, until last year's line-up the cast of teams reaching the final stages were as predictable as the almost endless series of group games.

Its less popular and glamorous oval ball cousin is threatening to go the same way but for different reasons; the obvious one being that there are less teams of a sufficient quality.

Advancing professionalism has not necessarily widened the net. Rather, it has been concertinaed; the wretched Welsh, inept Italians and shambolic Scots have collectively failed to land any blows as Toulon, Saracens and Leinster carved up the last decade between them.

Add in the decline of proud names like Leicester and Wasps, and the difficulties faced by consistent challengers like Munster, Exeter or Racing 92 to break the glass ceiling, all of which means that the status quo is unlikely to be changed.

Europe's response has typically been to shake itself up and there are whispers they may do so again, with talk of three-team groups, a reduction in qualifiers and two-legged knockout games.

Yet again, the administrators will be missing the point.

As has remained the case since the reduction of qualifiers from 24 to 20, the main obstacles to a truly democratic spread of contenders has been widespread indifference.

Any cosmetic changes will not alter this state of affairs unless more clubs take Europe seriously - and right now not enough are doing so.

"It devalues the competition if you continue to tinker," said Neil McIlroy, manager of Clermont. "It looks like there will be the same old faces in the quarters, but there is a freshness about the groups every year and if you keep reducing the numbers that will disappear."

And the more they try to change things, the more they will stay the same.

Belfast Telegraph


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