Law case hangs over European spectacle

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Given the choice, the organisers of the most riveting club competition in the world game would not waste a second of their precious launch week fretting over which of the opening matches might "kick off" straight from the kick-off, so to speak. That, though, is the Heineken Cup's unique burden. When a tournament gets a reputation for staging all the best fights as well as the best rugby - the Brive-Pontypridd extravaganza in the autumn of 1997 was like the three Ali-Frazier contests rolled into one - the subject of discipline is never far below the surface.

Given the choice, the organisers of the most riveting club competition in the world game would not waste a second of their precious launch week fretting over which of the opening matches might "kick off" straight from the kick-off, so to speak. That, though, is the Heineken Cup's unique burden. When a tournament gets a reputation for staging all the best fights as well as the best rugby - the Brive-Pontypridd extravaganza in the autumn of 1997 was like the three Ali-Frazier contests rolled into one - the subject of discipline is never far below the surface.

This year's 79-match epic - 24 clubs from six nations, live television coverage on seven stations and international players from every major rugby country, not to mention Georgia and Morocco and Cÿte d'Ivoire - slips into gear in Belfast, Edinburgh and Llanelli on Friday night, and the number-crunchers believe all previous attendance records will be broken every which way. Toulouse have already sold 30,000 tickets for Saturday's opener with Saracens, while Biarritz and Leicester will attract six-figure gates at Parc des Sports d'Aguilera and Welford Road, respectively. Bath, who have reacted to a front-row personnel shortage by luring the former England prop Victor Ubogu out of retirement, expect a capacity crowd for the visit of Castres.

Yet one player casts a shadow over the competition - a player who will be conspicuous by his absence during the coming months. Richard Nones, the Colomiers prop, was summarily banned for two years for alleged gouging during last season's pool match at Pontypridd - yes, them again - and the shockwaves are still being felt throughout the Continental game. Nones will not play Heineken Cup rugby this term, but, after successfully taking his case to the European Court of Human Rights, he has resumed his career at domestic level. The issue is before a French Rugby Federation appeals panel.

Jean-Pierre Lux, the chairman of the Heineken Cup board and a former French Test centre, voiced his displeasure at Nones' treatment at the time, and still has profound misgivings about the way the case was handled. Yesterday, he said that International Rugby Board disciplinary regulations were at odds with French law and hoped that the IRB would soon adjust its rules to fall into line - a touch optimistic, given the IRB's well-documented difficulty in understanding that the sport is no longer a private fiefdom, but fully subject to European legislation.

Most worrying from the tournament's perspective is that this season's procedures are broadly the same as those in force last time out. Clubs still have citing powers, so tit-for-tat complaints are a distinct possibility, and match commissioners will deal with disciplinary matters within two hours of the final whistle - too soon, surely, for all available evidence to be gathered and a rational decision to be reached. The fact that Pontypridd are effectively on a final warning for repeated losses of self-control on French soil will not make the atmosphere any less edgy when they travel to Pau on Saturday week.

For all that, the sense of expectation is building nicely. "This competition takes you into a completely different environment," the Wasps captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, said. "I don't think many English Premiership games have set the blood racing this season - from the point of view of Lions selection for next summer, I can't imagine much selecting has been going on - but the Heineken Cup will change that very quickly. You learn a lot about yourself and your squad in this tournament."

If the Heineken has a rival south of the equator, it is the provincial Super 12 series. Next year's competition will feature an old mucker of Dallaglio's, the former Wasps and England coach John Mitchell, who was yesterday confirmed as the new big cheese at under-achieving Waikato. Mitchell has not changed a bit since flying home to New Zealand last April. "I'll create a hard-working, honest culture and the first thing the players will have to do is fit into it," he said, bluntly.

Comments