It says something for the uniqueness of Heineken Cup rugby that the tournament custodians, not usually backward in coming forward when it comes to earning a few quid, are willing to turn away the best part of 26,000 paying customers when the eighth European final takes place on 24 May.
This season's showpiece will be played at Lansdowne Road in Dublin before a sell-out audience of 49,293 as opposed to Twickenham, which can sardine 75,000 into its plush piece of Greater London real estate. A victory for the common man over the accountants? Definitely.
Both venues were in the frame when the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd met last week, with Twickenham a white-hot favourite. However, Jean-Pierre Lux and his fellow administrators identified two problems with the bigger stadium: that it could not offer a clear weekend because of the England-Barbarians match scheduled for 25 May, and that it was no place for a decent celebration. The Heineken Cup, earthier and more tribal than the increasingly remote and uncompetitive Six Nations' Championship, is being seen as the thinking – and drinking – supporter's event. And there is no better place than Dublin to think drink, so to speak.
Lansdowne Road, a rickety throwback to the days when sports nuts were allowed to watch a game on their feet rather than their rear ends, was considered an outsider, especially as last May's final between Leicester and Munster had attracted a 70,000-plus crowd to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff – a neutral venue.
But the success of big-city Heineken Cup finals in each of the past two seasons persuaded the board that pre-rugby and apres-rugby considerations should be uppermost in their minds. Twickenham, situated in nondescript suburbia, cannot compete on that front.
This year's tournament begins on Friday week with matches in Dublin, Edinburgh, Neath and Sale, and marks the end of Heineken's current run as title sponsor. Derek McGrath, the chief executive of ERC, said yesterday that while renewal negotiations with the brewer were in progress, other options were being explored. McGrath also confirmed that ERC had decided against copying the football's Champions' League model, which boasts a number of élite sponsors rather than a single big-money backer. "At this stage of the competition's development, we believe a title sponsor would be the best way forward," he said.
Pressed on why Murrayfield, the major rugby venue in Scotland, had been overlooked once again – Dublin, London and Cardiff have all hosted two European finals – McGrath hinted that the commercial risks would have been too great, largely because of the repeated failure of Scottish teams to make the remotest impact on the Heineken tournament.
But he added: "We believe that in future, finals will be held in both Scotland and Italy, the major rugby playing countries that have yet to host one. I cannot put a time scale on it, but when we set ourselves a target, we generally reach it more quickly than expected. When we do play finals in those countries, we will know the tournament has truly arrived as an outstanding international sports event."
Roger Pickering, the chief executive of both the Six Nations and Lions committees, has announced his resignation after six years in the Dublin-based job.
* The England prop Julian White will appear before Rugby Football Union disciplinary chiefs tomorrow week. The Bristol forward was sent off for head-butting during the win over Leicester on Sunday.
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