Europe's threat to main event

Jonathan Davies says the bad luck of the draw cost Cardiff and Toulouse dear
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The European Cup has had such a big impact on rugby that it might even have an influence on the Five Nations' Championship. But before explaining that theory I would like to urge the organisers to take heed of the lessons of the present tournament when planning next season's.

The luck of the draw has played too powerful a part for such a prestige competition. Home advantage has been so great it has been the main deciding factor in matches and I would go so far as to suggest that playing at home in the semi- finals was the difference between winning and losing.

I take nothing away from Leicester or Brive and I am looking forward to their meeting in the final at Cardiff in two weeks time. They both played tremendous rugby and I don't begrudge either of them the honour. But after watching Toulouse go down at Leicester and taking part in Cardiff's defeat in Brive I feel that had the venues been reversed it could have been us against Toulouse in the final.

This may seem a strange opinion considering how brilliantly Leicester played but their opponents were a shadow of the Toulouse we know. French teams are not renowned as travellers but that doesn't explain their complete lack of inspiration. We saw how well they played in the final at Cardiff last year and they have been the dominant French club since. The on-off doubts about the game and the cold conditions might have got to them but they just didn't function.

You would never have thought they are rated a more accomplished team than Brive who rose to the occasion like giants. The atmosphere was like nothing we've experienced. The noise when I stepped up to take the penalties was almost unbearable. I was hit by a snowball just as I was to kick one and I pulled the ball just wide of the posts. I am not making excuses but I don't recommend the experience as ideal for penalty-taking.

I thought our defence was outstanding under the circumstances. We were still well in the game at half-time but made too many mistakes under the pressure of the afternoon. You have to be made of iron to withstand that level of intimidation and that goes for referees, too. Had that inspirational support been in our favour on our own ground, the balance would have been titled the other way and I have no doubt in our ability to have won.

The reason Leicester and Brive played at home is because they performed better in the group matches. But Cardiff and Toulouse were in the toughest group, everyone called it the Group of Death, and we were therefore punished twice by the luck of the draw. Not only was it harder to qualify we then had to visit teams who'd had easier groups. In future, home advantage has to be reduced by playing home and away legs and by staging the semi-finals on neutral grounds.

It is a competition that is going to grow and grow in stature but it must be slotted earlier into the season so that it finishes well before the Five Nations begins. While it may never challenge the international championship for importance it could lead to a conflict of interests if the tournaments are not kept well apart.

There is already such a conflict in the offing. The Five Nations has long been the undisputed ruler of rugby in the first three months of the year and the domestic league and cup matches have been well down the pecking order. But the financial demands of running a top club side have brought new priorities. Gate receipts from high league positions and cup-runs are now vital.

Added to which, qualification for a place in the European Cup by finishing in the top four is essential as we in Cardiff realise only too well. Playing for your country will always be the greatest thrill but players will find extra pressure from their clubs during the rest of the season. Nowhere will this apply more than in France.

One of the major revelations of the European Cup has been the strength of the club scene in France. Most of our fans had never heard of teams like Brive and Dax. The success of the European Cup has distracted attention from the lesser Conference competition. We had good teams like Swansea and Northampton competing yet all the four semi-finalists were French - Bourgoin, Castres, Narbonne and Agen.

The French clubs' race to qualify for next season's European Cup is going to be fearsome. Will it detract from France's challenge for the Five Nations? Players of all the nations will find it difficult with club demands rivalling the pressures of international rugby but it will worry the French most of all.