When the Heineken Cup was launched in 1995, in order to provide a new level of cross-border competition, it was very small beer indeed. The first match was held on the Black Sea resort of Constanta and there was one reporter present, which incidentally was one more than travelled with the Romanian party for their international against Wales in Cardiff last Wednesday.
Only 12 teams took part – there was no English and Scottish presence – and the inaugural final at Cardiff Arms Park was won by Toulouse. Despite home advantage Cardiff lost to the French club 21-18 in extra time. As the competition has grown in every respect, the Cup has since been lifted by Brive, Bath, Ulster, Northampton and Leicester, the latter beating Stade Français 34-30 in a memorable final in Paris last May; two French champions of Europe, three English and one Irish.
A number of modifications have been made to the seventh Heineken Cup including the decision to select a venue for the final before a ball has been kicked: the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, on May 25.
When Northampton defeated Munster at Twickenham two years ago the attendance was 68,440 and the organisers expect that figure to be exceeded in the capital of Wales. It might help if the principality provided a heavyweight contender although there is no evidence of such a scenario. The tournament kicks off next Friday evening when Cardiff meet Northampton at the Arms Park. With the final being staged next door the incentive for Cardiff to rise to the occasion this season can hardly be greater. But their chances of doing so could hardly be slimmer.
Cardiff have the clout, the infrastructure and the pedigree but they also give the impression of being the Harlequins of Wales. Rudy Joubert, their coach, inherited not so much a squad as a sick list and in their 125th year, the club have had little to celebrate, failing miserably to qualify for the quarter-finals of the new Celtic League in which the four Irish provinces all secured home advantage. Commentating on the Cardiff-Connacht match for radio, Robert Jones, the former Wales captain, described it as the worst game he'd ever seen. With Swansea similarly depleted and demoralised, Jones has a chance to put his money where his mouth is. He has been registered with Swansea to play in the Cup.
Leicester, who would seem to have a fair chance of becoming the first club to win the Cup twice, open Pool One against Llanelli at Fortress Welford Road on Saturday. Despite losing to Newcastle at the beginning of the season, the Tigers have resumed normal service. Swansea, when they were going well in the competition last season, were demolished at Welford Road and it would take a monumental effort by the Scarlets, particularly in the absence of the injured Scott Quinnell, to return unscathed.
The same applies to Bath who travel to Biarritz and Newport, who meet Newcastle at Kingston Park. There are also two intriguing Irish-French encounters with Munster at home to Castres and Leinster, who have been a revelation in the Celtic League, away to Toulouse. On the Sunday Wasps, who are missing the leadership of Lawrence Dallaglio, will have to produce something special to conquer Stade Français at Loftus Road.
The competition has attracted four additional sponsors – Orange, Parker, Peugeot and Norton Rose – and with each putting in £1m, it is moving towards its ultimate goal: a rugby version of the Champions' League.
The idea is to establish so-called "clean stadiums'' with advertising restricted to the official backers and to this end the playing surfaces will also get cosmetic treatment. On the touchlines the only people allowed in the "technical zone'' will be the team manager, doctor, physio and the tee carrier for the goal-kicker. To berate officials, and pass messages to his players, Dean Richards, Leicester's director of rugby, will have to call himself team manager. Either that or wear a stethoscope around his neck.
It has become customary in modern rugby to see squads of water/Lucozade/Heineken carriers invade the pitch even if the game is in its infancy but that practice too has been outlawed. The only refreshment to be carried on to the pitch will be by the doc or the physio. In all other circumstances players must go to the touchline for what they describe as rehydration.
In the event of a tie in the quarters, semi-finals and final, extra time will be reduced from 30 minutes to 20, 10 minutes each way. To avoid a repetition of last season when some clubs complained that because of injuries they were unable to field a specialist front row, those who reached the knock-out stages can nominate two players in January in addition to the squad of 34 that had to be registered by 14 September.
In another lesson learnt, European Rugby Cup Limited has decided that the 12 matches in the sixth and final round of the Pool stages will kick off at the same time. Last season, with clubs playing from Friday to Sunday, some teams approached the knock-out stages knowing exactly what they had to do to qualify.
The Cup is fond of boasting of big television audiences across Europe but with a host of broadcasters it has also contributed to one of its weaknesses. There are 72 pool matches and a bewildering array of start times. "What time is the kick-off?" will be the question on the lips of bemused spectators. Television, as always, dictates the schedule and in addition to BBC Grandstand, BBC Wales, S4C, RTE and FR2, this year ITV have joined the commentary box. For £3m they have bought the rights from NTL, the company that sponsored the Lions in Australia but who have had to abandon plans to run their own sports channel.
Of the 12 matches next weekend, the kick-offs are 6.45, 7.30 (Friday), 2.30, 2.50, 3.00, 3.30, 5.15, 6.15, 6.30, 7.10, 7.30 (Saturday) and 3.45 on Sunday. If they can have a uniform time for the sixth round, why not throughout the competition?
The Shield, which features Sale, London Irish, Gloucester, Bristol, Leeds and Saracens of the Premiership, has been not so much a bridesmaid to the Cup as a monkey to the organist. Last season, Romania's representatives had to withdraw because they couldn't afford to travel. On Tuesday the dented Shield finally unveiled a sponsor.
Line-ups and format
Pool 1: Calvisano, Leicester, Llanelli, Perpignan
Pool 2: Stade Français, Treviso, Ulster, Wasps
Pool 3: Bath, Biarritz, Edinburgh Reivers, Swansea
Pool 4: Bridgend, Castres, Harlequins, Munster
Pool 5: Cardiff, Glasgow, Montferrand, Northampton
Pool 6: Leinster, Newcastle, Newport, Toulouse
Pool matches: Round 1: 28/29/30 September. Round 2: 5/6/7 October. Round 3: 26/27/28 October. Round 4: 2/3/4 November. Round 5: 4/5/6 January 2002. Round 6: 11/12/13 January.
Winner of each Pool plus the two runners-up with the best records in pool matches will progress to the quarter-finals. The Pool winners will be ranked 1-6 in terms of the number of Pool points earned and the two runners-up will be ranked 7-8. Teams ranked 1-4 will have home advantage.
Quarter-final draw: Team ranked 1 v 8; 2 v 7; 3 v 6; 4 v 5.
If clubs in same Pool are equal on points, qualification/ranking will be based on the matches played between the two clubs. The winner will be: (a) Club which has earned most pool points (b) Club which has scored the most tries (c) Club with best points difference. If still unresolved, or two teams in different Pools, then qualification/ranking based on: (a) Number of tries scored in all Pool matches; (b) Points difference from all Pool matches (c); Club with fewest number of players sent-off; (d) Toss of a coin.
Quarter-finals: 25/26/27 January. Semi-finals: 27/28 April.
Final: 25 May (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff).Reuse content