Champions Cup triumph undermined by free-market model

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By Creative Media News

For many years, the Heineken Cup was universally acknowledged as the greatest success story of the professional era. In front of two men and a dog, Toulouse defeated Farul Constanta of Romania 54-10 on Halloween, 1995, on the shores of the Black Sea.

Within a decade, no less an authority than the Observer hailed it as the greatest rugby competition. More colorful than local competitions, more competitive than the World Cup, and with more teams than the Six Nations or (as it was then) the Tri-Nations. In 2004, on the eve of the competition’s tenth season, our late writer Eddie Butler hailed it as a “new cultural experience” to rival the Six Nations.

The northern hemisphere had recently delivered its first (and to date, only) world champions, and the combined deficit of the nine Premier League clubs that submitted accounts for that season was almost £1 million. Four of the five were profitable. The salary cap was $2 million.

Champions cup triumph undermined by free-market model
Champions cup triumph undermined by free-market model

How time passes. On the eve of the 28th edition, which kicks off on Friday on the banks of the Thames between London Irish and Montpellier, does anyone still feel the same way about a competition that, in its heyday, even the most cynical would not have hesitated to refer to by its sponsor’s name?

Do we even know its name at this point? Heineken is continuing sponsors or returned as sponsors in 2018 after a four-year absence. Someone incorporated the term “Champions” into the naming scheme at some point, perhaps to spice things up (and/or mimic football).

This season, South African teams have been added to the playing roster, which will surely add a new dimension but somewhat mocks the acronym EPCR, where E stands for European. Then again, perhaps Brexit had already accomplished this.

Success story
Champions cup triumph undermined by free-market model

Something feels out of place with professional rugby’s cherished offspring, which, to spare the reader the trouble of searching it up, is now called the Heineken Champions Cup. Covid has severely impacted all competitions (see the Premier League), but only this one has had a weekend removed from its schedule.

To handle the chaos of the 2020-21 season, the traditional six-pool format has been replaced with the cumbersome two pools of 12 that will be fought across four weekends. There cannot be any death pools in this scenario.

The format was intended to be temporary while the world returned to normal, but we are already planning for its third season. Having sacrificed two weekends in October for an extra weekend (a round of 16 knockouts) in April, a revert to the former structure is mathematically impossible.

The premiere of this season’s version took place in a glistening hotel in a forest near the M25 last week. Dominic McKay, chairman of the EPCR, behaved excellently, but he accepted that it is beyond his control to recover from the lost weekend. Poor news, Dom. That means it will never return.

Even worse, rumors about a world club championship remain. Given that South Africans are now playing here and that more and more of the greatest players from New Zealand and Australia are signing contracts here, this concept is becoming redundant. However, negotiations are now well enough along for McKay to guess its potential structure.

Answer: the Heineken Champions Cup will forego its knockout phases every four years to match a handful of New Zealand sides to the finest in Europe. South Africa as well. Football indeed has a Club World Cup, but it is hard to envisage the Champions League accepting it in this manner.

The Heineken/Champions Cup is as susceptible as any other institution under rugby’s established free-market economic model. Initially, it was an anomaly, a competition run by the unions for the clubs, with income split six ways, meaning that the French and English leagues effectively subsidized the rest.

The transition from Heineken to Champions occurred in 2014 when the clubs rose to prominence. Now they rule the show, with the unions relegated to mere spectators.

Even so, the South African union is not that. Until it becomes a partner, its participation can be viewed as a trial. South Africa is anxious for meaningful competition for its top teams, but EPCR is keen on a boost for its premier league. This may be considered a perfect fit.

In a free-market system, however, everyone is desperate, except for the wealthy. With the recent difficulties of the Premiership, the English are currently comparable to the French, with the Irish receiving honorable mention even though this competition is significantly more significant to the Irish. The success or failure of the South African experiment will depend on how the French clubs react to the travel and logistics, according to rumors at the opening.

The French are on the ascendancy, which is due more to the size of their economy and the importance of rugby within it than to the ebb and flow of great players. They have produced the previous two Champions Cup champions and six of the previous eight semifinalists. The rugby world is increasingly gravitating toward them. This covers the competition that was once the best in the entire globe.

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