Euro-sceptics left on the margins of innovation

Steve Bale previews today's semi-finals of the inaugural Heineken Cup, rugby union's most overlooked tournament
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The Independent Online
There is something neatly symbolic that the big game with the best chance of going ahead in these islands is this afternoon's between Leinster, Ireland's provincial champions, and Cardiff at Lansdowne Road.

The very fact that the international venue is being used for this semi- final reflects the significance which the Irish - as well as the Welsh, French and the rest of Europe bar the Rugby Football Union - have placed on the inaugural competition for what will become European rugby's greatest prize, the Heineken Cup.

Today's double bill of Leinster v Cardiff, the Welsh champions, and Toulouse, the French champions, v Swansea, the Welsh Cup-holders, at the Sept- Deniers stadium will produce the finalists for next Sunday at Cardiff Arms Park. If it is obvious that the final needs a Welsh presence, this is not to poke fun but merely to state a fact.

Besides, there has, by one means or another, been far too much disparagement of a worthy, even noble attempt to get pan-European rugby off the ground despite the English - the administrators that is, certainly not the clubs or players.

As it has turned out, they were only biding their time before entering next season, although the way the RFU rubbished the prototype organisation - playing in midweek, inadequate floodlighting and the rest of it - while suggesting they would go in on their own terms or not at all was a perfect example of what in Toulouse they might call folie de grandeur.

The loss is theirs, or at any rate Leicester's and Bath's. While the RFU was banging on about the congestion of its structured season and the burden on players, these leading clubs and others were making it clear they had no objection to joining forthwith and would fit it into their schedules with far less inconvenience than the RFU imagined.

With at least pounds 5m available in television and sponsorship fees just for this season, there was fairly serious money at stake. But then the pioneers of team sport have seldom been pioneers of its internationalisation; witness English football's initial absence from both the World Cup and European Cup.

At last we now know this is about to change, though the RFU should be - and doubtless are - under no illusions about the resentment their stance caused both among other rugby unions and their own refractory clubs. Rugby's European Cup has missed them, and they have missed it.

Not that this inaugural event can be considered wholly successful. Typically of their notion of PR, the Welsh clubs began by treating their Euro-fixtures as essentially no different from any other important matches.

This did nothing to elevate their profile, and the coincidental occurrence of the tours of France by New Zealand, Wales and Ireland by Fiji and Scotland and England by the Western Samoans denied the Heineken Cup a more favourable share of column inches and air time. With the semi-finals has come a change of media policy, so that most correspondents had decided to make Dublin their priority this weekend even before the weather had done its worst to the English programme. Until now, though, it has to be admitted that most people would have had little idea that this great innovation had been taking place.

Indeed you could argue it was not until Cardiff went to Bordeaux to play Begles that their players, and more important officials, came to appreciate precisely what was happening. The Andre Moga stadium was full and there was a formidable sense of occasion heightened by a superlative, drawn match followed by a slap-up banquet for 500.

As an example for others, it was superb as well as superbly demonstrative of what the European Cup could become. Next season the top four English clubs and the leading Scottish districts will be added to a savoury continental mix of Welsh, Irish, French, Italian and Romanian.

That the Spaniards, Germans and even Canadians - who would establish a squad in Europe during the autumn - have also applied to join tells its own optimistic story. For now, a Cardiff-Toulouse final would do very well.