Heineken Cup: Money woes leave English feeling bleu

The Heineken Cup begins this evening but the Premiership's salary cap means that clubs this side of the Channel may find their French rivals too rich for their taste. Chris Hewett reports
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The Independent Online

Even now, with the credit crunch biting and the banks imploding and the shadows of 1929 lengthening across every financial district in the developed world, there are English rugby clubs out there demanding a freeing up of the market. Of course, it will not matter a fat lot to the Treasury or the investment houses or the short-selling community if Leicester or Northampton win the argument and succeed in abolishing the salary cap currently imposed on Premiership teams, for in the great scheme of things, we are talking peanuts. It is, however, another example of prudence being sacrificed on the altar of raging ambition.

And what is it that gets the goat of those who urge an end to regulatory control? France, that's what. There is no salary cap in the land of Les Bleus, which is why Perpignan can afford to throw God's amount of money at the stellar All Black outside-half Daniel Carter, who joins the Catalans the moment New Zealand conclude their Grand Slam tour of the British Isles next month, and Stade Français can buy in the services of Mark Gasnier, who scored 11 tries in 15 rugby league Tests for Australia and will hardly have come cheap. England's richer clubs, who have money they are not allowed to spend, insist that unless restrictions are lifted, the nation will fall behind the French when it comes to the Heineken Cup, which enters its 14th season tonight.

What they really mean is "further behind". The domestic Top 14 tournament will probably never concede its special place in the collective heart of French rugby, but the big beasts of the Tricolore game – Toulouse and Biarritz, together with the aforementioned pair – have repeatedly set the standards on the European front, with a little help from the explosive Brive side of the late 1990s and an occasional contribution from the mercurial men of Castres. A simple points-for-performance calculation over the 13 previous Heineken Cup competitions puts the French comfortably ahead of the game, even when the English no-show campaigns of 1995-96 and 1998-99 are removed from the equation.

Every so often, the French have one of their vintage seasons. It happened in 2002-03, when they secured three places in the last eight, two in the last four and had the final to themselves. They were even more dominant a couple of years later. Ten different French clubs have made it into the knockout stages, and while the English now match them there, thanks to the unexpected achievements of Saracens and London Irish last term, they have some way to go to equal their rivals' overall success rate.

It is not that France is barren territory for teams crossing the Channel on Heineken Cup business. English clubs have won more than 35 per cent of their matches on Tricolore soil; indeed, Bath, back in the elite competition this time after a successful but unfulfilling spell among the down-and-outs in the Challenge Cup, have a remarkable record there, with six victories in eight visits. When it comes to hostile territory, Ireland is the place not to go. Compared with Limerick, where Munster perform their ritual slaughters in front of the most boisterous supporters to be found anywhere in world rugby, France is holiday country.

So if the fortress mentality is not the key to French achievement in this tournament – and contrary to popular belief, they have had very few lean years in Europe – where do we look for an explanation? It lies in their clubs' ability to recover from setbacks in the initial stages of the pool phase and kick on after Christmas. In the 1996-97 campaign, Toulouse reached the semi-finals despite shipping more than 70 points to Wasps in a match at Loftus Road. Six years later, Perpignan made it all the way to the final despite suffering 30-point defeats at the hands of Gloucester and Munster in early group fixtures. Far from being flakier than their English counterparts, the best French sides are frequently more resilient.

Assuming there is still money available for gambling in this chill economic climate, most of the smart stuff will be placed on a French or Irish victory at Murrayfield next May, although Ospreys, crammed with current Wales internationals and spiced with a little All Black know-how in loose forward department, might make a fist of it if they find a way out of their pool. That is easier said than done, though. The new seeding system, designed to protect the powerful at the expense of the rest, has for the most part kept the stronger sides apart, but Pool Three sees Ospreys, Leicester and Perpignan manacled together. If the Welshmen pick a safe route through that little minefield, they will be well worthy of inclusion among the title candidates.

All things considered, this could be a difficult campaign for the English contingent. Heyneke Meyer, the new coach at Leicester, openly admits that the Midlanders are less than 50 per cent of the way to where he intends to take them, which is no place to be when you have the Welsh glitterati and the Catalan hordes on your case. Wasps are in a softer pool, but as there is also a softness about their rugby right now, it is hard to see them beating Leinster in Dublin. Sale are good, but Munster are that little bit better; Bath and Harlequins are really good, especially under the current laws and interpretations, but they must mix it with Toulouse and Stade Français respectively.

Which leaves Gloucester, perhaps the only side in England boasting a squad that would not look out of place at the top end of the French game. They have 24 full internationals from half a dozen nations – only Toulouse lay claim to more – and there is a feeling in some corners of Kingsholm that a semi-final is the minimum requirement for Dean Ryan's team. Needless to say, Ryan doesn't see it quite like that, but the Big Bad Wolf is fully aware that while expectation and realism are two different things, the former generally carries more weight than the latter.

Gloucester are not in an easy pool, by any stretch of the imagination: Biarritz have their troubles, but they are hardened European campaigners; Cardiff Blues are slow burners, but if they get their strongest side on to the field, they are capable of starting a conflagration. If the Cherry and Whites lose a home game and fail to progress, the fallout could be considerable.

It is more than five years since this column predicted an end to English domination of the world's best club competition, since when the Premiership fraternity have had a presence in only two finals out of six. There is no great likelihood of an early return to the halcyon period between 1997 and 2002, when an English side appeared in every final – leaving aside the boycott year of 1999 – and bagged the trophy on all but one occasion. This explains why clubs such as Leicester, the only team to have defended the title successfully, want more naked capitalism, not less. Who gives a damn about the economy when there is a Heineken Cup to be won?

Four players to light up the tournament

Juan Martin Hernandez, Stade Français

Argentina's great untamed rugby talent has the capacity to propel midfield play into a new dimension.

Doug Howlett, Munster

The supreme All Black finisher should form an exhilarating partnership with the brilliant Irish newcomer Keith Earls.

Ryan Jones, Ospreys

Favourite for the Lions captaincy in South Africa next summer, the Welshman stands on the brink of something special.

Luke McAlister, Sale

If the outstanding All Black centre keeps kicking teams to death from 50 metres, Sale will go a long way.

POOL 1

Munster, Sale, Clermont Auvergne, Montauban

The champions have taken a liking to the lowest cardinal numeral: they are the No 1 seeds in the No 1 pool of the No 1 club tournament in world rugby. Their chances of joining Toulouse as three-times winners are more than reasonable, given their deep sense of brotherhood, the quality in the back five of their scrum, Ronan O'Gara's marksmanship and the try-scoring of Doug Howlett and Keith Earls. This is no gimme, though. Clermont Auvergne had their measure at home last season, and if Sale get a hold of them at Edgeley Park next week anything is possible.

And the winner is... Munster, after some almighty scraps.

POOL 2

Wasps, Leinster, Castres, Edinburgh

Weirdly, the pivotal game in this group could be tomorrow's meeting between Edinburgh and Leinster at Murrayfield, rather than anything involving the two-times champions from London. The Scots were good last season: indeed, with a little composure and killer instinct, they might have beaten Toulouse in the opening game. With their coach, Andy Robinson, all narrow-eyed and grumpy about life after a rough run in the Magners League there is more than a chance of an upset, and if they get away to a flyer, Wasps will not fancy their trip north in December. Castres, struggling in their domestic tournament, are probably the outsiders here, but none of the quartet is currently operating at the peak of their powers.

And the winner is... Leinster, perhaps with Wasps in tow.

POOL 3

Leicester, Perpignan, Ospreys, Treviso

Not nice. Not nice at all. The muddle-headed introduction of a seeding system has removed the traditional "group of death" from the equation, more's the pity, but Leicester, one of the teams who complained loudest about the iniquities of the previous draw format, have copped it pretty hard nevertheless. Their forward contest with Perpignan will be red in tooth and claw; their matches with Ospreys will pose an entirely different set of problems. And then there are the Italian champions of Treviso, who generally pick up a result somewhere. Ospreys will settle for nothing less than five wins from six. There again, neither will the Midlanders or, indeed, the Catalans, who expect to have a certain Daniel Carter on board in December.

And the winner is... Ospreys, or Leicester, or Perpignan.

POOL 4

Stade Français, Scarlets, Ulster, Harlequins

When a coach can choose between Juan Martin Hernandez and Lionel Beauxis at outside-half and bank on Sergio Parisse at No 8, he is blessed indeed. Ewen McKenzie finds himself in this happy position, and to judge by the way Stade Français have started in France, the others may as well not bother. They will, of course, and may just find ways of bothering the Parisians. Harlequins are playing as well as any side in England, and the current laws suit them. Scarlets, preparing to vacate their spiritual home at Stradey Park, will be emotionally charged, while Ulster know what it is to beat Stade at Ravenhill.

And the winner is... Stade Français, despite their dodgy shirts.

POOL 5

Toulouse, Bath, Newport-Gwent Dragons, Glasgow

They have had their peculiar moments down the years, but Toulouse, with their captain, Yannick Jauzion, usually find a way into the knock-out stages, as befits the greatest club side in world rugby. It is barely possible to imagine them struggling in Newport, although Paul Turner has the Dragons on a roll right now, and if they go down in Glasgow, it will only be because the Scots play on a pitch of Subbuteo-like narrowness. (Needless to say, neither will fancy their trip to the Midi-Pyrenees). It is this weekend's game against Bath, and the return in January, that sets the juices flowing. The West Countrymen are playing some terrific stuff, and as Toulouse consider it beneath their dignity to play it tight against a running side, we could have a pair of classics on our hands.

And the winner is... Toulouse, with Bath on their coat-tails.

POOL 6

Biarritz, Gloucester, Cardiff Blues, Calvisano

This is almost as impenetrable as Pool Three. Gloucester have underachieved in recent seasons by playing too much rugby – their coach, Dean Ryan, is fast losing patience with some of his decision-makers – while Biarritz have sold themselves short by playing too little. The Blues, meanwhile, have been improving slowly and have it in them to make life seriously uncomfortable for both the English and the French at the Arms Park. Jamie Roberts is making a name for himself down Cardiff way, and with the two New Zealand imports, Paul Tito and Xavier Rush, setting the standards, it would be no great surprise to see the Welsh region go through. The side who beat one of the two principal challengers on the road will make it through.

And the winner is... Probably not Calvisano.

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