The breakdown | The professional success story of the Champions Cup eroded by the market economy

Jhe Heineken Cup has been universally recognized for years as the great achievement of the professional era. It’s the same age, the first match played on Halloween in 1995, on a Tuesday evening, on the shores of the Black Sea, when Toulouse beat the Romanian Farul Constanta 54-10 in front of two men and a dog.

Within a decade, it was heralded by such a prominent authority as the Observer as the greatest rugby tournament. More colorful than regular national competitions; more competitive than the World Cup; more teams than the Six Nations or (as it was then) the Tri Nations. On the eve of the 10th season, in 2004, our late correspondent Eddie Butler described the competition as a “new cultural experiment” to rival the Six Nations.

The northern hemisphere had just produced its first (and so far only) world champions, and, get it, the combined deficit of the nine Premiership clubs that filed accounts this season was just over a million pounds. Four of them were for profit. The salary cap was £2m.

How times change. As we sit on the eve of the 28th edition, which kicks off on the banks of the Thames on Friday, when the London Irish host Montpellier, does anyone feel the same about the competition as they did at their climax, even the most curmudgeonly would not flinch at calling by the name of his godfather?

Do we even know his name now? Heineken is still sponsor, or at least returned as such in 2018, after four years of absence. At some point, presumably to try to brighten things up (and/or copy football), someone introduced the word ‘Champions’ into the nomenclature. This season they have introduced South African teams to the roster which will no doubt bring a new dimension but pokes fun at the EPCR acronym where E stands for European. Then again, maybe Brexit had already done that.

In keeping with the times, something seems inconsistent with the beloved child of professional rugby, which, to keep the reader from looking for it, is now officially known as the Heineken Champions Cup. Covid has hit all competitions hard (see the Premiership), but it’s the only one to have had a weekend pushed out of its schedule.

In order to adapt to the chaos of the 2020-21 season, the classic six pool format has been abandoned in favor of the two unwieldy pools of 12 which now apply, to be played over four weekends. There can be no death pools in this configuration.

The format was positioned as a temporary arrangement while the world returned to normal, but here we are gearing up for its third season. Having lost two weekends in October in exchange for an extra weekend (a knockout round of 16) in April, a return to the previous structure would be a mathematical impossibility as it stands.

The Sharks take on the Bulls
The introduction of South African teams into this season’s competition mocks the European aspect of the Champions Cup. Photograph: Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, the launch of this season’s iteration took place at a shiny hotel in a wood near the M25. In keeping with the obligatory hype of these events, EPCR Chairman Dominic McKay performed admirably, but admitted he was not in his gift to recoup the lost weekend. Bad news, Dom. It means he will never come back.

Worse still, rumors persist of a Club World Championship. Given that the South Africans are now playing here, and that more and more of the best players from New Zealand and Australia are accepting contracts here as well, this very idea becomes redundant as a result. Still, the talks are now far enough along that McKay could have speculated on its likely format.

Answer: Every four years, the Heineken Champions Cup will forgo anything as trivial as its round of 16, to see how a handful of New Zealand teams could compare to Europe’s top teams. And South Africa. It is true that football has a Club World Cup, but it is hard to imagine the Champions League hosting it in this way.

The Heineken/Champions Cup has become as vulnerable as any other institution to the market economy model adopted by rugby. Originally, it was an aberration, a competition organized by the unions for the clubs, with revenue split between six, which meant, in effect, that the wealthier leagues (French and English) subsidized the rest.

Heineken’s move to Champions took place in 2014, when the clubs downgraded. Now they run the show, with unions little more than sitting at the table.

The South African union is not even that. While waiting for him to become a partner, we can consider their participation as a kind of trial. South Africa is desperate for meaningful competition for its top teams, but EPCR is desperate for a boost for its flagship competition. It could be considered a perfect match.

Again, everyone is hopeless in a free market model except the wealthy. With the Premiership’s recent tribulations, it’s roughly equal to the French these days, with an honorable mention for the Irish, even though this competition is much more important for the latter. Whispers at launch were that whether or not the South African experiment would succeed would come down to how French clubs approach travel and logistics.

The French have the wind in their sails, which is more due to the size of their economy and the place occupied by rugby than to the comings and goings of the great players. They include the last two Champions Cup winners and six of the last eight semi-finalists. More and more, the world of rugby revolves around them. This includes the competition which was for some time the best in the world.

This is an excerpt from our weekly rugby union email, The Breakdown. Register, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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