One for the pub quiz enthusiasts and trivia buffs... who are the only winners of rugby’s European Cup?
The answer, to something of a trick question, is of course Ulster.
1999 was the only year that the northern hemisphere’s premier competition was referred to simply as the European Cup, owing to a lack of title sponsorship.
Never again will the moniker even be accurate.
What was once the Heineken Cup, and since 2016 the Champions Cup, will be altered forever next season.
With so much at stake for those involved, it counted as little more than a footnote in the weekend that was, but the URC’s Champions Cup qualification picture has become clearer after the European quarter-finals with one third of next season’s entrants now looking set to hail from South Africa.
Already due to the Welsh regions’ occupation of the lower rungs of the league-ladder, the lowest finishing of the cross-border competition’s play-off teams was due to miss out on dining at the continent’s top table next season to allow either the Scarlets or Ospreys their spot.But with Edinburgh and Glasgow both losing in the Challenge Cup quarter-finals on Saturday, missing out on not the only chance for silverware but the Champions Cup place that goes with it, the only way for the URC’s top seven to not be in the draw for the top competition would be if the league title is claimed by the bottom seed.
Barring that unlikely outcome, it means that next season there will be three South African sides in what was once a strictly European affair with the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls set to qualify. Not everyone is convinced by the change.
“I’m still a bit old-fashioned, and attached to some traditions, and for me that distorts this competition,” said Clement Poitrenaud, Toulouse’s backs coach who himself spent a year with one of the will-be qualifiers, the Sharks, at the tail end of his career.
While there will naturally be plenty of logistics to iron out in terms of scheduling and travel, one only has to look at how the URC has been reinvigorated this season and acknowledge the promise of further improvement once away sides become increasingly acclimated to cross-hemisphere contests.
There was scepticism by the boatload when the South African sides’ great northern migration was confirmed just prior to Christmas of 2020 but, despite the myriad complications caused by pandemic-related travel issues earlier in the year, the league is concluding in just the way organisers will have hoped.
Assuming public buy-in back home, and buy-in from their new rivals when undertaking lengthy away days, their impact should be similar in the Champions Cup.
Of greater concern to those with the competition close to their hearts should be the organisation of this year’s knock-out stages.
Issues with the pool stages, convoluted and abridged all the same time, have been outlined in this column before but things are proving no more straightforward when reaching the straight shoot-out of the traditional final eight.
Much has already been written about the ludicrous decision to see two of the quarter-finals — two of just the seven one-legged knock-out ties each year — to kick-off at the same time, an unwise call made to look all the more foolish when Munster’s epic with Toulouse went all the way to penalty kicks resulting in an over-run that saw three of the four games over-lapping.
If that was chalked up to the whims of broadcasters, then a calendar that sees the quarter-finals and semis played just seven days apart will be blamed upon the intransigence of the domestic leagues.
While the physical toll of playing the season’s most attritional club games in such quick succession is an obvious concern, the prestige of the competition will be considerably hit if the lack of time to shift considerable numbers of tickets results in sparse crowds.
Leinster shifted 20,000 tickets for the visit of Toulouse on Monday alone, but the short lead-in is clearly a nightmare for the marketing men and women looking to bring in the crowds that once made such dates so lucrative. The games in both competitions over the weekend again reminded us that, once we get to this stage of the year at least, the rugby on show can virtually sell itself.
It’s a real shame the sport is getting increasingly worse at showcasing it.