European Cup excitement puts domestic scene in shade

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The Independent Online

Not since its inauguration five years ago has rugby union's Heineken European Cup been looked forward to with so much enthusiasm. It makes the Rugby Football Union's exclusion of English clubs a couple of seasons ago (for some of us have memories which remain in reasonably good working order) look in retrospect all the more petty.

Not since its inauguration five years ago has rugby union's Heineken European Cup been looked forward to with so much enthusiasm. It makes the Rugby Football Union's exclusion of English clubs a couple of seasons ago (for some of us have memories which remain in reasonably good working order) look in retrospect all the more petty.

But while it is always pleasant to be able to mark the moment when a competition takes off, the cup's elevation has been the result less of its own merits as of a certain tiredness about the beginning of the domestic season in England and Wales. The players themselves, notably Lawrence Dallaglio, have already acknowledged this, and tended to blame the early start to the season.

They are quite right. They are right even without bringing the players' exhaustion into it, valid though that argument may be. There is no real reason for rugby to go the same way as football and begin the season in August: the more so when the cricket season is being extended well into September.

In addition, there has been a certain sameness about the domestic matches. I, for one, am by now thoroughly sick of tackles being referred to as "hits" or "big hits", of tackles which flagrantly breach the laws, of scrum-halves who feed the ball at an angle of 45 degrees into the second row - and of the referees who allow them to get away with it - and of the constant bullying from the commentary box of hookers who fail to find their man in the line-out.

Admittedly, all these failings would be just as prominently on display in the Heineken Cup as in the Zurich Premiership. But a wider stage would provide for a little more variety in the acts.

The domestic season so far demonstrates that Rob Andrew's proposal for at least a three-year moratorium on promotion to, or relegation from, the top division would make rugby even duller. Who wants to see Bath, Leicester, Northampton, Saracens and, maybe, Wasps, endlessly slugging it out?

So we were all looking forward to Saturday. Television coverage was supposed to be in the hands of the BBC rather than of Sky. Naturally, I said to a friend last Friday, the corporation would be showing us Toulouse v Saracens on Grandstand the following afternoon. No, he replied, better informed than I was. It would be Biarritz v Northampton.

So it was. It turned out to be an interesting match which Northampton would have won undeservedly if, in the absence of Paul Grayson and Matt Dawson, they had possessed the wit to include a half-decent goal-kicker in the side. Before the main match the BBC provided a cut version of Llanelli v Gloucester on the Friday evening. Afterwards there was an even shorter version of Munster v Newport.

That, as far as I could see, was that. There was nothing about Swansea v Wasps, in which Matthew Robinson, the Swansea wing, scored four tries and may have done something to persuade Graham Henry, the Welsh coach, that he had been discarded prematurely.

For further coverage we had to turn to British Eurosport later that evening. This is available by satellite and by cable. It is a somewhat mysterious channel which I cannot altogether make out. It gives the impression of being run on a bootlace. In showing Bath v Castres, the main match, it broke off transmission on numerous occasions in the second half, even though for short periods, and conveyed the traditional message not to adjust our set.

However, Gwyn Jones, the former Welsh captain, was a capable summariser, both knowledgeable (as he should be) and easy to listen to. But I was surprised to hear him, still a young man, coming out with a version of the characteristics of visiting French sides which would have sounded patronising even 30 years ago: that they went to pieces easily, became quickly demoralised, blamed one another.

This may have been true of Castres in the Rec rain on Saturday night. But it was not true of Toulouse at the same ground in the same competition last season. And it will not, I am sure, be true of Toulouse when they turn up at Vicarage Road later on in this season's group competition. Presumably, either the BBC or Eurosport will be able to bring itself to cover this match in full.

The immediate point, however, is that the BBC is not providing us with full or proper coverage of the Heineken Cup, despite its boasts that this is what it is doing. How can it be, when half - according to my Saturday stopwatch, over half - the coverage is in the hands of another channel entirely?

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