Peter Bills: Heineken Cup organisers must think bigger

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The Independent Online

I remember the reaction last time.

There I was, walking down a street in Toulouse, and the mobile rang. On the end of the line was a thoroughly irate ERC official who'd been incensed by a piece I'd written suggesting they ought to be broadening their horizons over the Heineken Cup.

Oh dear, look away now if you're from ERC. Because the point is even more relevant today than it was then, a good few years ago.

To me, it is an absolute nonsense that the two Heineken Cup semi-finals will be staged in Toulouse and San Sebastian. Toulouse v Leinster will be in the French club's backyard and Biarritz Olympique v Munster, in the Real Sociedad soccer stadium just across the French border in the Spanish coastal resort of San Sebastian.

A weekend out in Toulouse and San Sebastian for rugby fans? What on earth could be wrong with that, you may think. Well, what is wrong with it is exactly what was wrong several years ago. ERC is still not thinking big enough for this fantastic tournament.

By common consent, the quarter finals of this year's Heineken were perhaps the best ever. Classic matches, terrific contests, great locations…what more could you want? A friend of mine hired a private jet, took off on Friday afternoon for Dublin with a few friends and watched the Leinster-Clermont Auvergne classic.

They then flew down to northern Spain to see Biarritz the next day and afterwards, flew up to Toulouse to attend their match against Stade Francais on Sunday before returning to London. What a weekend, and all thanks to the fantastic, fabulous Heineken Cup.

In truth, 2010 won't be remembered as a classic for the 6 Nations. But it almost certainly will be for the Heineken Cup, cementing its increasing reputation as one of the best rugby tournaments in the world.

So why the gripe at ERC? Simply this. Once again, they have missed a golden opportunity to showcase their tournament to a vastly wider audience. 'Le Stadium' in Toulouse holds about 37,000, San Sebastian around 32,000. That means that thousands of rugby supporters in both Ireland and France won't get anywhere near either stadium. They won't get a ticket.

Then there's the considerable army of general rugby supporters who adore the game and would love to see a major event in this tournament. Don't tell me there aren't thousands of those in England with the money to take a flight on a Friday night out of London, for a weekend of rugby.

But again, they have been given no hope, no chance by the ERC's insistence that a toss of the coin should decree the venues of the semi-finals. And amazingly, they put no demands in place for the winning clubs fortunate to earn a home semi-final. For example, had Leinster been successful, it ought to have been a stipulation of staging the semi-final that it was held at Croke Park, with its 80,000 capacity.

In this case, it is an absolute nonsense firstly to give one club home town advantage in the semi-finals and then let them choose a stadium with a capacity below 40,000.

I called this 'a golden opportunity' lost and this is why. Had ERC cast their eyes upon a broader vision, they could have made semi-final weekend a wondrous experience. Had they staged both ties in Paris, one on Saturday evening with the other on Sunday afternoon, it would have been a weekend of unforgettable passion, emotion and shared experiences for rugby followers all across Europe.

At 80,000, Stade de France has the capacity to handle all the interest there would have been for both ties. Never mind the Irish and French; English rugby nuts would have poured over the Channel to share the fun.

The last time I raised this point with ERC, the lame response was, the French fans won't come out to support in sufficient numbers, they won't travel.

Believe me, that view is now bunkum. Anyone who saw the thousands of French in Cardiff this year or attended the French Championship Final in Paris last June, would know that simply isn't the case. Trains were running back to Perpignan all night after their Championship final against Clermont.

It is time Heineken finals were always played in stadiums big enough to handle the booming success of this event. And why can't these semi-finals act as a showcase for rugby in Europe in general? Why not hire Barcelona's Nou Camp one year and stage both semis there. Or the San Siro in Milan, where Italy somehow, God knows how, found 80,000 people interested in rugby last November for Italy v New Zealand. Graham Henry called that a rugby experience he'd never forget and so would a semi-finals weekend in such a venue.

It is time ERC showed greater confidence in expanding its event. After all, rugby can only be the winner.