Rugby Union: The cup on a plate for France

Rugby Union: English players unhappy at exclusion as weakened European competition prepares to get under way
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IMAGINE, IF you will, a football World Cup without the South Americans, a Tour de France without the Alps, a Hoddle without his mystic, a Clinton without his zipper. No fun, eh? Well, the next five months of European Cup rugby will be equally short on laughs, thanks to a political stand- off that has jettisoned the English and reduced a silk purse of a tournament to the status of a sow's ear. The devaluation of the finest club competition in the world game is so complete that the Russian rouble looks rock solid by comparison.

Not even the French are smiling. The English boycott, declared as long ago as January and consistently reaffirmed throughout months of committee room turbulence and diplomatic brinkmanship, effectively leaves Stade Francais, Toulouse, Perpignan, Colomiers and Begles-Bordeaux fighting among themselves for the silverware. They may as well incorporate the whole shooting match into the French championship and have done with it.

Between them, the suits and blazers have contrived to create the original lose-lose situation, for no one has emerged the stronger from this wreckers' tea party. European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organising body, saw 90 per cent of its British broadcasting revenue disappear through the exit door along with the English and was forced to plunder its own financial war chest just to keep the Tricolores on board. The five French clubs are being paid pounds 800,000 apiece, just for turning up. You could persuade Tiger Woods to don a jockstrap for that kind of brass.

In the trenches on the opposite side of no-man's land, the clubs are contemplating the unappetising prospect of an endless diet of Allied Dunbar Premiership fodder; a meat and two veg menu sorely lacking the pizzazz of a continental dimension. Privately, senior coaches and players agree that a 14-team Premiership is unsustainable - 12 would be better, 10 ideal - and accept that the European boycott has cost them, both in terms of competitive edge and public support.

How different was the scene in Bordeaux seven and a half months ago. The Heineken Cup final between Bath and Brive was no classic in the pure rugby sense, yet the occasion was shot through with an emotional charge of extraordinarily powerful voltage. Jon Callard, the goal-kicking full- back responsible for every last one of Bath's 19 trophy-clinching points that unforgettable afternoon, speaks for the silent majority when he tears into those responsible for the current stalemate.

"I sometimes wonder if these people understand what we had with the Heineken Cup," Callard said. "There was something at stake in that tournament. Something of value, something worth going out there and fighting for. It was as close to international rugby as you could possibly get without pulling on a Test shirt. It was something in which the players and supporters, the lifeblood of the game, took special pride and pleasure.

"To be honest, I can't even begin to discuss the reasons why Bath are not in Europe this season to defend their title. I'd end up effing and blinding and slagging everyone off and I'm not sure how helpful that would be. All I can sensibly say is that the Heineken Cup was a competition that everyone - players, fans, sponsors, broadcasters, the lot - fell over themselves to be involved with. Everyone, that is, except one or two people at the top. Who are they? What do they want?

"The people I feel really sorry for are the players from Newcastle and Saracens, who should be playing Heineken Cup rugby for the first time this season. They must find the situation incomprehensible. I know I do. We're all aware of the administrative difficulties of the tournament, that there were fixture problems and money hassles and all the rest of it. But we should be thrashing out solutions from the inside, not from the outside. We're punching ourselves in the face on this one, I'm afraid."

Yet from his own unwanted vantage point on the outside, Callard may have unearthed a solution to one of the tournament's most pressing problems. Try as they might - and in truth, they may not have tried particularly hard - the two sides have been unable to reach agreement over Europe's precise position in the structured fixture list. While the English clubs have pressed for a season-long "thread" of matches culminating in a spring final - that way, disruption to the Premiership would be minimised - the ERC board, dominated by the Celtic fringe of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, continues to block the games into the opening months of the season. The final remains in January.

Callard believes the European Cup should be run on a knock-out basis from the outset; a 32-team competition would comfortably accommodate the best of England and France and with the finalists playing a maximum of five games, the major domestic competitions would scarcely be affected. "To my mind, a British league with a sudden-death European tournament on top would really capture the imagination," he said this week. "It's radical, but if you accept the premise that rugby is far too physical a sport to entertain regular midweek activity, it's the only realistic way forward."

He has a point. Sponsors and broadcasters would kill to get their hands on a knock-out competition of such obvious quality in depth and a sensible spread of dates would give the marketing boys every opportunity to maximise crowds and revenue. What is more, it would introduce some breathing space into a hopelessly congested fixture list. Something has to give and according to the big cheeses on the International Board, Test rugby is not a candidate.

As things stand, though, the European Cup is anything but. Munster versus Padova? Llanelli against Leinster? With all due respect, it means nothing. The pick of today's opening round of pool matches sees Begles squaring up to the red-hot favourites from Stade Francais. The match may be in Bordeaux, but it has nothing else in common with the epic grandeur of last season's piece de resistance.


Pool A

Begles-Bordeaux, Stade Francais, Leinster, Llanelli.

Llanelli are involved only as a result of the political ructions involving Cardiff and Swansea and while Leinster have just won four on the trot, look no further than the French to qualify for the last eight. Stade Francais, the national champions, have recruited Sebastian Viars from Brive, possess the nastiest front row in the business and look good bets to go all the way.

Pool B

Munster, Neath, Padova, Perpignan.

The Irishmen are well capable of a 100 per cent return from their three home games but Perpignan, bolstered by the addition of French national captain Raphael Ibanez, have started their domestic campaign at a gallop. They also boast a high-class international No 8 in Thomas Lievremont and his presence alone should account for a desperately weak Neath and an untested Padova.

Pool C

Ebbw Vale, Edinburgh Reivers, Toulouse, Ulster.

Unbeaten Toulouse will qualify for the quarter-finals with one eye shut; armed with a squad of unfathomable depth - they now have Lee Stensness, the former All Black centre, on their books - they wield far too much clout for their pool rivals. Edinburgh have lost five from five and with Ulster also in disarray, pure enthusiasm may just earn Kingsley Jones' Welsh outfit a knock-out place.

Pool D

Colomiers, Glasgow Caledonians, Pontypridd, Treviso.

Pontypridd bring a degree of, how shall we say, fight to their European campaigns and while they will suffer from a shortage of meaningful domestic competition, they are hard-nosed enough to reach the last eight. Colomiers are classy indeed - Galthie, Dal Maso and Sadourny are the big guns - but neither Glasgow nor Treviso will roll over and die. Competitive stuff, for once.