Heineken Cup 2013: What have we learned after week one action?

With Europe’s top club competition entering what will surely be its final campaign, Chris Hewett analyses what happened last weekend

We’ve been hearing a lot about Anglo-French plans to pull out of the Heineken Cup at the end of the season and introduce a new competition featuring teams from the two domestic tournaments: the Premiership and the Top 14. Are the English crazy? They won’t stand an earthly in a cross-Channel championship if recent results are anything to go by

It is certainly true that the opening act of this year’s Heineken Cup, the last in its present form unless the world spins off its axis and the breakaway clubs renounce everything they have been saying for the last 18 months, was an alarming one for the Premiership contingent. The results sheet tells us they emerged honours even, with victories for Exeter, Gloucester and Saracens to set against the defeats suffered by Harlequins, Leicester and Northampton. Yet while this was just about par for the course at European level, there was in reality far more to endure than to enjoy.

Those who believe the Premiership is now two leagues in one, with three clubs chasing the glittering prizes and the remaining nine chasing fourth place, will have been struck by the performances of the top-end sides. Struck dumb, even. Leicester’s failure against Ulster in Belfast was nowhere near as catastrophic as usual, but then, the Irish province are nowhere near as dynamic as they were when they reached the final of this tournament in 2012, or indeed the final of the Pro 12 back in May. Northampton? They set their sights firmly on victory over the French champions Castres, travelling with all their big summer signings in the starting line-up and drawing on the experience of a fine victory in the Tarn three seasons ago. For all their huffing and puffing, they failed to find the best of themselves. As for Saracens, a six-point victory over Connacht, by far the weakest of the four Irish provinces, was nothing to write home about. Steve Borthwick and company will talk it up as a job well done in the stressful surroundings of rugby’s bandit country, but as the former England captain once used the word “outstanding” to describe a spellbindingly dire Six Nations performance against Italy, no one should listen to a word of it without immediate recourse to a salt cellar. If Sarries are to continue their climb up the European ladder, they will have to play a whole lot better.

Starting on Friday night, presumably. Will their meeting with Toulouse at Wembley tell us all we need to know about English chances this season?

It will tell us an awful lot. The four-time champions, who remain the most revered club in the sport, put half a dozen tries past the Italian side Zebre last Friday night, and while that was no particular achievement in itself – the Monty Python team would probably have beaten the Parma-based side, even with John Cleese in “Ministry of Silly Walks” mode – we all know how dangerous La Vierge Rouge can be when they get off to a decent start.

What is more, they will have power to add as the tournament unfolds. Vincent Clerc, Gael Fickou, Lionel Beauxis, Yoann Maestri, Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles were among the rich talents who did not start against Zebre.

In addition, Harlequins must visit Clermont Auvergne two days later. No English side – no side from anywhere, for that matter – has won there since the Battle of Agincourt. Why are the French so ridiculously strong right now?

It’s the economy, stupid. Contrary to popular belief – and it’s an easy mistake to make when Jonny Wilkinson is reported to earn more than £48,000 a month at Toulon and is being given a run for his money on the earnings front by the Irish outside-half Jonny Sexton at Racing Metro – the French clubs operate under a salary cap system.

It is, however, an unusually generous salary cap: more than double the £4.5m limit imposed on the Premiership clubs, some of whom are desperate to move closer to parity and some of whom could not spend a penny more without finding themselves in the workhouse.

Add to this the lavish support of local industrial and commercial giants – Castres have the pharmaceutical giant Laboratoires Pierre Fabre behind them; Toulouse have a mint of aerospace money to draw on; Clermont Auvergne have beneficial links with the Michelin tyre company – and the fact that many of the leading clubs play in stadiums that are to some degree publicly owned and you can see why every rugby player on the planet who fancies earning a proper wage heads for the land of Les Bleus at the merest hint of an invitation.

Crowds in the Top 14 have increased from an average 2,400 in the early years of professionalism to 14,000-plus now. The numbers are unlikely to fall: draw a line diagonally from Bordeaux in the west to Lyon in the east via Clermont-Ferrand in the guts of the country and you have the world’s biggest rugby constituency – an audience big enough to challenge, and on occasion surpass, the numbers watching Ligue 1 football.

If the club owners succeed in securing a significant upturn in broadcasting revenues over the coming weeks, French rugby’s financial advantage will be consolidated.

So why do the English think it’s a good idea to go anywhere near them? Wouldn’t it be better for them to strike an accord with the Scots and the Welsh, who are both boracic, as the Cockneys might say, and therefore easier to beat?

Two reasons. Firstly, the big Top 14 sides are pure box office. Toulon and Clermont Auvergne may not stack up against the strongest Irish provinces when it comes to travelling support, but they put bums on seats in unusually large numbers. Why else would Saracens sacrifice home advantage by taking the Toulouse game to Wembley?

Secondly, they see the French, with their football-style club system, as kindred spirits – crucial partners in the long-running battle against rugby’s traditional form of governance.

With French money on the table, they can drive a very hard bargain in the fight for sporting deregulation and greater commercial liberty. No one has dared say so publicly, but there are supporters of the proposed Anglo-French competition – the Rugby Champions Cup, as it is putatively branded – as the union game’s version of cricket’s IPL, albeit with the mercenary aspect largely removed. There are those in authority who see it the same way, although they are rather less enthusiastic about its ramifications.

So if the English can’t win the Heineken Cup this season – and they may never have another chance by the sound of it – they’ll be cheering on the French?

That’s about the size of it. England and France are already the biggest rugby markets in Europe and between them they have more money – and more front-line players – than the rest of the union-playing continent put together.

If they can dominate competitively as comprehensively as they dominate commercially, they can dismiss their opponents in the union establishment as knuckle-dragging anti-modernists with antediluvian sludge where their brains should be. Which, lest we forget, is pretty much how the three major southern hemisphere nations went about it when they forced the game to go open back in 1995. Plus ça change.

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