European revolution sees Munster sent to Geneva

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The Independent Online

European rugby grows more European by the day. The Heineken Cup, the most compelling annual tournament in the world game to true aficionados, is likely to break new ground in the most literal of senses when Bourgoin face the title holders Munster in... Geneva, of all places. The reason? Ground size, pure and simple. The competition has been outgrowing itself for years now - last season, crowds moved within a few thousand of the million mark - and with 16,000 tickets already sold for the 2007 final at Twickenham next May, there is little doubt that attendance records will be broken left, right and centre.

The organisers have given the French club permission to move to a 25,000-capacity stadium across the Swiss border in January, just as they have sanctioned Biarritz playing in San Sebastian in the past, and will encourage Perpignan to relocate to Barcelona should they earn themselves a home quarter-final.

"Increasingly, clubs are seeing and embracing the possibilities the competition offers them in terms of profile," said Derek McGrath, the chief executive of European Rugby Cup Ltd, at yesterday's launch.

Expansion plans are in place across the landscape of the tournament, which begins on Friday week. Cardiff Blues have shifted this month's pool match with Leicester from the Arms Park to the adjoining Millennium Stadium; Stade Français will play Sale at Parc des Princes rather than in their home arena next door; while Agen intend to forsake familiar surroundings by hosting Leinster in Bordeaux. Munster and Leinster, the two most powerful Irish provinces, are also looking for alternative venues, albeit for other reasons. With Lansdowne Road out of commission from 31 December, they are considering playing any "home" ties at the knock-out stage in London or Reading.

"It is not an ideal situation," said McGrath, "but both provinces struggle to cope with big-match demand at their home venues." Even though Ireland are playing their Six Nations matches with France and England at the massive Croke Park in Dublin, there is little possibility at present of the stadium authorities sanctioning a non-international fixture at this Gaelic holy of holies. The only other venue in the country big enough to handle a knock-out game is Windsor Park in Belfast - a non-starter as far as Munster and Leinster are concerned.

Due to the increasing physicality of the professional game, competing teams will be permitted squads of 38 for the 2006-07 tournament and may also register a "wild card" player if they find themselves struggling in a particular position. The organisers have also introduced a system of fines for teams announcing bogus starting line-ups to try to pull the wool over the eyes of their opponents. Those members of the public who spend hard-earned money on a programme, only to find it full of erroneous information, will be the first to applaud the decision.

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