Europeans' currency of progress

RUGBY UNION: Britain finally goes fully Continental as the Heineken Cup starts today. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online
It may be tempting providence to say so, but not even the committee room politicians can mess this one up. English club rugby's first serious venture into Europe begins this afternoon and the fact that it is being undertaken more in the spirit of Kenneth Clarke than Michael Portillo suggests that the Heineken Cup is already being seen as a watershed for the game in the northern hemisphere.

After years of half-baked invitation competitions and last season's lightweight but ultimately thrilling inaugural Heineken tournament, won by Toulouse in vintage style, we are finally about to embark on a Euro Championship worthy of the name. Twenty sides from six countries, armed to the back teeth with some 180 full internationals and bolstered by mighty traditions of domestic achievement? The visionaries have been dreaming of this for decades.

Visionaries like Brian Ashton, the coach of English champions, Bath, and an unashamed Europhile of long-standing. Ashton spent part of his coaching apprenticeship in Italy in the mid-1970s - "I remember working with Ivan Francescato when he was still in short trousers," he says, keenly aware that the respected centre will be one of the key playmakers for national champions Milan in the coming weeks of the campaign - and found it one of the most invigorating experiences of his career. Now, he is looking forward to similar fulfilment.

"It's the only direction for rugby to follow if we're even remotely serious about competing on the world stage. At Bath, we've been pushing for a European dimension to the English season for as long as I can remember, hence our matches against sides like Dinamo Bucharest, Treviso and Toulouse. It's natural territory for us, as it should be for any ambitious club."

The sense of anticipation is almost tangible at the Recreation Ground, where Bath open their campaign against the Edinburgh district side today. "Thank God we're playing someone different for once," Ashton said. "We're away from the grind of over-familiarity for a few weeks and it's a wonderfully positive feeling." Whether the Scots return home in a positive frame of mind depends on how they survive what is certain to be as severe a test of character as it will be of technique.

Scott Hastings, captain of a young and untested Edinburgh side, fears that having identified this tournament as a top priority, Bath will be in unforgiving mood this afternoon. But even if the odd early match turns out to be embarrassingly one-sided, the quality of rugby will leave the domestic leagues for dead once the cream begins to rise. If you require proof, cast an eye over the contestants in Pool D, the Heineken Cup's equivalent of the Group of Death.

Both of last year's finalists, Toulouse and Cardiff, are involved in the most competitive of the four pools and when the two sides resume hostilities at Les Sept-Deniers a week today, the cast will be close to international strength - Emile N'Tamack, Thomas Castaignede and Christian Califano against Leigh Davies, Rob Howley and Jonathan Humphreys. But Lawrence Dallaglio's Wasps are also in the frame - they play Cardiff at Loftus Road tomorrow - as are Milan with their 17 Italian Test players and the wild cards from Munster. Wasps, well fancied for a place in the last eight, must go to Thomond Park in Limerick next weekend and as Earle Kirton, the former All Black stand-off and coach once remarked, "When you play Munster there you begin to appreciate how the Christians felt in the Coliseum."

It looks every bit as tight in Pool B, where Leicester's unusually fragile start to the season leaves them seriously vulnerable to both Llanelli and Pau, who have not won the French championship since 1964 but are now equipped with the most calculatedly aggressive pack in mainland Europe. With Brive, runners-up to Toulouse in France last season, lying in wait for countrymen Laurent Benezech and Laurent Cabannes and the rest of the Harlequins multinational conglomerate in Pool C, and both Dax and Pontypridd looking to hurt Bath in Pool A, early bets on the shape of next month's quarter-finals are risky at best.

This being rugby, a degree of uncertainty remains; no one has the faintest idea how successful the second-string European Conference will be - the 24-club competition is also launched today - while organisers and players involved in the main event have been tip-toeing their way around a variety of landmines all week. The wrangle over television coverage, or lack of it, continues in the wake of ITV's last-minute withdrawal while the legions of Irishmen playing their league rugby in England are still between a rock and a hard place. If they defy their clubs and play for their provinces in Europe, as several intend to do, they risk being held in breach of contract; if they take the opposite view, their international futures might fall prey to vindictive selectors.

There are even bigger issues lurking around the corner, great jagged fault lines, just waiting to split asunder and leave British rugby open to another seismic upheaval. The Euro-enthusiasts who want to harness the energy of the Heineken Cup and use it to establish a Continental Super League for the leading clubs next season are likely to meet stiff opposition from domestic protectionists, despite the pounds 227m of Sky money thought to be on the table. Fran Cotton, the new Lions manager, has already condemned the idea as a "disaster route for English rugby" while the Scots and Irish are certain to indulge once more in their traditional club versus province argument.

As usual, Cotton talks a good deal of sense. Worried by the numbers of non-English players holding down influential, not to say lucrative, positions in Courage League sides, he fears the trend will only gain momentum under a newly structured season based squarely on European competition. Likewise, the supporters of provinces and districts in Dublin and Edinburgh are right to ask how comparatively tiny clubs like Shannon, Garryowen, Watsonians or even Melrose could live with Harlequins or Toulouse on a week-by-week basis.

Yet a fair and equitable distribution of television money would do more than anything to strengthen club rugby in both Ireland and Scotland. Leading players might just be lured back over the Irish Sea or Hadrian's Wall, thus easing Cotton's concerns over an English domestic game effectively hijacked by foreigners.

As David Robson, one of Ashton's predecessors at Bath, used to say: "You never stand still in rugby. You either go forward or you fall behind." The Europhobes might not like the idea of a single currency in any sphere of activity. But among the top club sides, that currency already exists. It goes by the name of progress.