Will new European Tournament be good for Irish Provinces?
Munster will not get another opportunity to contest what would have been their fifth Heineken Cup final on May 24th after heart-breaking 24-16 semi-final defeat by holders Toulon in Marseilles on April 27. But the real question is how much will the new format affect Irish provinces’ prospects of success.
For these teams April is indeed becoming the cruellest month.
Ulster, Leinster and more recently Munster have all bade adieu to the Heineken Cup for the final time, as did Ulster and then Munster in this month last season.
What’s more, little about the new road map for European rugby dispels the fear that the challenge of even reaching April, never mind going beyond, is about to become even more taxing. On first sight the new European Rugby Champions Cup is going to become tougher for everyone, merely by dint of it consisting of 20 teams instead of 24.
But one must not forget that Irish teams had been punching above their weight anyway through the golden years of five Heineken Cups and an Amlin Challenge Cup in the previous eight years. A change in the format was always liable to be cyclical in any case.
Any organisation that loses the influence of Joe Schmidt, Johnny Sexton and Isa Nacewa in one summer, followed by Brian O’Driscoll and Leo Cullen the next, was always liable to suffer. Similarly, after an intensive period of transition, Ronan O’Gara’s retirement will be followed by another change of coach in Munster and one wonders how many more chances a Munster pack led by Paul O’Connell will have to reach a European Cup final. And how on earth will they have ever replace his galvanising influence?
Ulster will struggle to find players with the same impact as Johann Muller and John Afoa, and last weekend’s events won’t have assuaged their sense of grievance over Jerome Garces’ decision to red card Jared Payne in the quarter-finals.
There is no doubt that the odds are being loaded more heavily against the Irish teams. For starters, the new European Cup will only seed the three league winners (which seems a little risible given two groups would thus have no seeds). In other words, achievements over the past five years in European rugby (which would have earned Leinster and Munster top seeding, with Ulster second seeks) will no longer count.
The Irish, and fellow Celts and Italians, have been guaranteed the same basic financial return from the new European pot but the French and English clubs are set to see their return increase from around 24% to to 33% , while their vastly improved deals for the Top 14 and Premiership have further swelled their pockets. The French Federation also gave each Top 14 club a €2 million loyalty bonus for signing up to a new accord including the then Heineken Cup.