European rugby embraces golden future

Heineken Cup: Factional squabbles and breakaway threats are banished to the past as club competition basks in surge of popularity
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The Independent Online

It is, by common consent, the biggest event in club rugby since Moses wrong-footed the Egyptian defence with a cleverly disguised dummy scissors.

Nearly 75,000 spectators will gather in Limerick, Llanelli, Northampton and Toulouse this weekend for the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup - four sell-out matches in which at least three-quarters of the participants are likely to be full internationals - and the pin-stripes on the tournament management board are not alone in regarding this as a defining moment in the short, bloody history of professional union.

If ever a moment was there to be seized, it is this one. Rugby, by some distance the most administratively challenged of the world's major sports, has somehow contrived to time its recent resurgence to perfection. While football attempts to come to terms with the butchery of Istanbul and cricket wallows depressingly in the cesspit of the Cronje scandal, union can point to a thriving Six Nations' Championship, an imminent peace agreement between Twickenham and the Allied Dunbar Premiership clubs and, by no means least, a classic European competition that is generating unprecedented levels of interest. Not before time, the 15-man code can stand tall and breathe in the fresh air of progress.

Of course, it might easily have been different. As recently as a year ago, European rugby was the hottest political potato in the union patch; indeed, the entire concept of an élite cross-border competition was under threat, thanks to interminable bouts of boardroom argy-bargy that resulted in English club owners attempting to woo their French counterparts into a Packer-style breakaway financed by satellite television money. Heineken, the most enthusiastic and supportive sponsors ever to involve themselves in big-time rugby, were out of the game. So too were the major bums-on-seats attractions from the English Premiership, who boycotted last season's tournament in favour of an increasingly farcical series of rebel matches against Cardiff and Swansea.

Yet in the space of 12 eventful months, Europe has gone from hot potato to hot property. From the moment the English agreed to bury the hatchet and sign the Paris Accord, which guaranteed them a greater share of everything - money, influence, tournament places - the momentum has been unstoppable.

Heineken are back on board to the merry tune of £14m over four years, with marketing expenditure on top. Perhaps more importantly still, the BBC is among a clutch of terrestrial broadcasters committed to regular live broadcasts. It took them far too long, but rugby's discredited political class have finally got something right.

"We can safely say that this is the biggest weekend for the club game since professionalism was introduced," said Stuart Gallacher, the secretary and chief executive of Llanelli RFC and a member of the 13-man board of European Rugby Cup Ltd. "I had my concerns, to be honest. There was massive enthusiasm for the tournament at the conclusion of the pool stages, but that was 12 weeks ago, since when we've had the Six Nations. People are human, and they are forgetful. I need not have worried, though. The interest in the Llanelli-Cardiff quarter-final is huge. These last couple of weeks have been chaotic on the ticketing front.

"Leaving aside one or two of our more famous matches against touring sides - the All Blacks, the Wallabies and so on - this is just about the biggest game the Scarlets have ever played. Now that the age of touring is pretty much over, Heineken Cup games like this are the high points, the occasions that drive your season. I actually think it's a good thing, because the gulf between international teams and club sides has grown too great to offer an even contest. What we are about to experience is the future, the way forward for rugby. The clamour for this game against Cardiff fills me with confidence."

The question now is: what next? The French, once fiercely protective of their own club championship, are beginning to wonder whether some form of European league might not pave the way to a more productive future. Significantly, Bernard Laporte, the national coach, has spent the lion's share of his first term at the helm ripping into a fixture schedule that stretches well into July. Already, the Tricolores have scrapped their version of the Tetley's Bitter Cup. Do they really want to continue with a 24-team domestic structure based on quantity rather than quality?

Gallacher detects a sea-change in the French mind-set, but rejects the idea of a cross-border, cross-Channel league. "I don't see a European league happening, and I don't see why it should, either," he said. "The worst crime we could commit at this stage of the Heineken Cup's development is to start chopping and changing and moving the goalposts. We've made some real headway this season: we're back on terrestrial television, which is vital for union's exposure to big audiences, and we now have a sense of stability and continuity because the English clubs are locked into the Paris Accord for eight years. What is more, we're delivering some outstanding rugby, some wonderful sporting theatre.

"I think we're absolutely right to retain this year's format for next season. Some of the mathematics surrounding qualification for the knock-out stages were pretty complex, but the bottom line was that 11 of the last 12 pool games were 'live'. Northern hemisphere rugby has something of value with this competition. Let's just concentrate on our standards and bring Heineken Cup rugby as close to Test level as we can. We're close already, in my view. There will be 26 internationals on the pitch at Stradey Park this weekend, and the intensity will not be noticeably different from a Six Nations game."

Given rugby's proven ability to go to war with itself, Gallacher's bullishness seems almost to be tempting fate. But the positive vibes emanating from an ERC board once pilloried as Pythonesque are deeply persuasive. The Heineken Cup custodians are sufficiently confident of the tournament's pulling power to insist on neutral venues with a minimum 20,000 capacity for this season's semi-finals.

If the winners of the Llanelli-Cardiff tie are given a home draw, their semi will be played at the Millennium Stadium, no less. If Northampton or Wasps get the advantage, Reading's Madejski Stadium will come into play. Munster intend to host any last-four tie at Lansdowne Road in Dublin, while Stade Français favour Parc des Princes in Paris. Toulouse have already nominated Stade Lescure in Bordeaux, where Bath famously beat Brive to win the 1998 title, while Montferrand, the outsiders, would take their tie to Lyon. Those are big venues, but then, we are talking big matches.

With the French buying so heavily into the Heineken market - 38,000 tickets have been sold for this Saturday's Gallic grapple between Toulouse and Montferrand - and the English Premiership clubs unanimous in their enthusiasm for the tournament, the road ahead looks free of obstacles. Even the Welsh, generally so downbeat about their club rugby, are up for this particular cup.

"We certainly have five sides in Wales who could make a mark at this level of competition, and that means we have five sides on which to build our rugby future," Gallacher said. "All things considered, we're on the right track at last."

* Va'aiga Tuigamala, of Newcastle Falcons, who has lived in Britain for six years, has had his application for citizenship granted and is no longer classed as an overseas player.