Rugby Union: Heineken refreshes European Cup role

AFTER THE World Cup, the European Cup. As the northern hemisphere licks the wounds, both real and metaphorical, inflicted by the seemingly more skillful and adept teams from south of the equator, there was a welcome injection of cash into the game with the announcement that Heineken have re-entered the sponsorship stakes.

The European Cup has been guaranteed pounds 20m over the next four years by the brewing giant and there will be a higher television profile as well.

The competition will henceforth be known as the Heineken Cup, which gets under way next weekend. Last year the English clubs refused to take part in the tournament and consequently Heineken - the original sponsors of the tournament in its first three years - did not renew their contract.

But with everyone back in the fold and four-year broadcasting deals signed with the BBC, France Television and British Eurosport, Ulster's defence of the title should generate a great deal more interest Europe-wide.

"Everything is falling nicely into place," said Jean-Pierre Lux, the chairman of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the company set up to run the competition. "With a settled commercial picture for the next four years I expect the Heineken Cup to flourish."

The competition begins next Friday night when Leinster entertain Leicester, Cardiff tackle Harlequins and Edinburgh Reivers take on Grenoble, while on Saturday the match between two previous holders of the cup, Bath and Toulouse, will be broadcast live on BBC's Grandstand and on FR2 in France.

But before clubs enjoy the intensity of the pan-European tournament they have to negotiate the Allied Dunbar Premiership today, where victory from now on will be worth three points, rather than the two previously on offer. This was to compensate the leading clubs for the loss of their top players during the World Cup.

A glance at the Premiership One table shows three clubs setting the pace, all on 10 points, while a spread of four points covers the top nine places. Wasps, who were expected to have done better than two wins in half-a-dozen matches, are a further point adrift. All of which suggests a missed opportunity.

But Nigel Melville, their director of rugby, refused to accept that Wasps, or anyone else, have missed the boat. "The season starts at the weekend," he said. "The crucial factor next spring is more likely to be the points difference, rather than the number of matches won during the World Cup."

The Londoners travel to Leicester and Melville will be looking for Wasps to break a long-standing duck there: "We always do reasonably well at Leicester, but have never won in the league at Welford Road."

John Gallagher, Harlequins' director of rugby, sees things differently. His side has beaten Saracens, Bristol and London Irish and yet has failed against seemingly weaker sides. "It's an opportunity lost," he said. "We could have been in a much better position, but no doubt other sides could say the same."

Quins, for whom Gareth Rees makes his first start, entertain the bottom club Bedford, who are pointless, but have two games in hand. "They managed to embarrass us up there last season," Gallagher admitted. "With our European campaign coming up it is important we go to Cardiff having put in a good performance."

Bath, the co-leaders with Gloucester and Saracens - who meet tomorrow at Kingsholm - have a chance to break away from at least one of their rivals, provided they can dispose of struggling Newcastle at the Recreation Ground.

Northampton could have Paul Grayson back when they entertain London Irish. The England stand-off faces a fitness test on an ankle injury. South African fly-half Henry Honiball makes his debut for Bristol at Sale, opposite another World Cup No 10, Fiji's Nicky Little.