COACH'S VIEW: Rugby Union: Variety gives the spice to Europe

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The Independent Online
TERESA GORMAN won't approve but Europe is back on the agenda and proving mighty popular among the English rugby fraternity. It can't just be me who has welcomed the Heineken Cup as an opportunity to freshen up the domestic scene.

The Allied Dunbar Premiership remains a competitive and attractive competition, with traditional foes set against each other and a preponderance of local and other well-established rivalries. However, even the thrill of taking on the Tigers at Welford Road does pall ever so slightly at the fourth or fifth time of asking. The stygian joys of Kingsholm - the scene of my own Saracens' seemingly annual awayday to oblivion - do lose some of their initial impact once you have experienced the Shed on several occasions.

It's not that Ravenshill, Thomond Park, St Helen's or Stade Toulouse are more intimidating arenas in themselves. Simply they are not as well known to the average English club side. As a result they require a different type of approach. This partially explains why so few Heineken Cup games are won by the away team - last week only Toulouse, Montferrand and Harlequins returned home with even a share of the spoils, while the other nine visitors came back with nothing.

It is always more difficult when the territory is alien - travelling across town to play Wasps at Loftus Road is one thing; traipsing up to Edinburgh is quite another - I'm not even sure I know where the Reivers play, but I noticed that Grenoble found a win there beyond them.

Even seemingly small matters, like the fact that the referee is not Ed, Brian, Steve or Chris, but some Celtic whistler whose name escapes you, mean that the whole experience is less familiar, less controllable but ultimately more challenging and enjoyable.

Although the specific playing standards at the group stage are not necessarily as consistently high as in the Premiership (there is every likelihood that Neath, Glasgow Caledonians and Padova would be Allied Dunbar relegation candidates) this does not diminish the attraction. Less is sometimes more and a change can be as good as the proverbial rest.

There is also the added spice of playing out the traditional Five Nations rivalries, albeit on a smaller stage. So Leicester's defeat at Donnybrook evokes memories of England at Lansdowne Road in 1993, and Toulouse's win at Bath conjures up images of Gallic conquerors at Twickenham. Meanwhile the revival of genuine Anglo-Welsh confrontations will benefit both nations.

The Cup also provides a vehicle for the development of the game in Italy. Make no mistake - rugby in the northern hemisphere needs another strong nation on the continent. An opportunity was missed when the talented Romanian side of the early 1980s were not given sufficient encouragement. As a result they have fallen back significantly. Now we must embrace the Italians and do everything we can to provide them with technical assistance, financial help if necessary and most importantly of all, regular, high-quality opposition. For a few years they will struggle but we must help build them up, not treat them as poor relations who are merely tolerated. In the long term we have as much, if not more, to gain as they do.

Even the scheduling is right - in contrast to the recent World Cup the games are spread out evenly over the whole weekend with widespread television coverage on terrestrial, satellite and cable platforms, enabling people to see a wide variety of teams in action.

It makes you wonder how great a competition it could be if the relevant authorities took the logical step and rearranged the Heineken Cup and Six Nations' Championship into two discrete blocks played without interruption. Imagine the excitement if the current tournament were played out over a single nine-week period - six weeks for the groups and then the knockout phase. Better for the players, better for the spectators, definitely better for the sponsors and TV. The value of the event would be enhanced and there would even be time for a short break before we all settled down to the international rugby season. Clive Woodward would have access to his players without them flitting back to their clubs every other week, while the clubs could hold centre stage for a considerable time, thus enabling them to secure their commercial futures.

Perhaps all this is too much to ask for - although I don't see why. Meanwhile let's be thankful for the fillip Europe has given to the game in England. Today Saracens entertain Munster, having narrowly lost to Colomiers in an excellent game last weekend. We have only ever played Munster once before, in a pre-season friendly - and that is why the whole weekend will be just that bit different and all the better for it. Let's bring it on.