After a break for the autumn internationals and the Heineken Cup Saracens and Clermont, the respective favourites for the Aviva Premiership and Top 14, get their seasons back on track with winnable matches at the weekend. The rugby union season is structured so that there is often a 4 week break in the league schedules at this time of the year but domestic rugby is the main focus for the sport between now and the New Year.
After nine matches of the regular season Saracens are two points clear at the top of the Aviva Premiership table. They have lost just one of nine matches and are scoring at an average of almost 30 points per match. Their nearest challengers are Northampton, also with just one defeat this season but scoring at an average of three points less per game. Worcester Warriors have yet to win a match and look booked for relegation to the next lower sphere.
Clermont are the league leaders in France ahead of several weeks of fixtures. They have a four point lead in the current standings and are by far the highest scorers in the league but only six sides have conceded less. Toulon won the Heineken Cup last season and with Jonny Wilkinson still in the squad look in good shape to win the Grand Final in France next spring.
The highlight of the rugby union season in Europe is the Six Nations which takes place over several weeks in February and March. The matches are now played at different times so each can stand alone as a fixture for live television coverage. In the days of the Five Nations two matches were played at the same time over five successive weekends.
The host venues of London, Edinburgh, Paris, Dublin and Cardiff were places to be when the rugby was in town. In Cardiff over international weekend fans from the rest of the country went out to eat and drink and drink. The weekend was perfectly structured around the match at 3pm on the Saturday. By 5pm the bars near the ground were packed and the atmosphere was especially raucous if Wales had won.
Rugby followers plan their diaries around weekend trips to these European cities. The match was the focal point but an international weekend was far more than just 80 minutes of rugby. Even when Wales were not as competitive as old the traditional trips to the other capital cities were never off the calendar. The television companies now demand staggered starting times so the trips are now not as structured as in the past.
The structure of the European national competition changed when Italy entered the fray. The Heineken Cup could also look different in the next two years as the English clubs are threatening to withdraw. If they did go alone the English clubs would need to fill the nine weekends that are currently set aside for the Heineken Cup. There is talk of a new competition, including sides from South Africa and further down the pyramid.
A Heineken Cup without English clubs is less attractive to the broadcasters and spectators. The logistics of recruiting sides from South Africa would put this option in doubt. Global travelling is now easier but it would be tough from any side from South Africa to be competitive after a long haul flight. English clubs travelling the other way would be at a disadvantage against the strong sides in South Africa.
Another issue that has to be addressed is broadcasting rights for the Heineken Cup and any new tournament. The host broadcaster for the Heineken Cup is Sky Sports. Their bitter rivals in sports broadcasting are BT Sport, the official broadcaster for the Aviva Premiership. This means the English clubs are weakened by the fact that the two main competitions in which they compete are televised by rival companies.
It seems illogical that any European competition involving English clubs is presented by their broadcasting rivals. As it stands they have to negotiate with two companies and bringing the TV rights under one banner is a factor in prompting the English clubs to distance themselves from the Heineken Cup. Regardless of how this issue is resolved the Heineken Cup could look quite different in 2015.
The next Rugby Union World Cup takes place in that year when England are the hosts. The recent Rugby League version was predictable with Australia justifying short odds to win the tournament. The matches were uncompetitive but spread around the country to allow many small clubs and grounds to enjoy the World Cup experience. Pricing was set to fill the grounds and it was a privilege to be at Old Trafford for the final between Australia and New Zealand.
The rugby union version is already under fire for expensive ticket prices. The problem is that the organisers have promised a substantial profit which means gate money is a key part of the business plan. However, there will be many group matches between two relative minnows and crowds in the provinces may suffer due to the cost. Three tickets for seats with an excellent view of the rugby league final were £62.50 in total but it will cost more for one person to attend some group matches in the rugby union version.
Before these issues with regards the Heineken Cup, Six Nations and World Cup are resolved domestic rugby returns to the television screens with a full schedule of matches in the Aviva Premiership and Top 14 at the weekend. The Heineken Cup reconvenes in the second week of January and the first fixtures in the Six Nations are scheduled for a month later.
The nature of the schedules means the domestic clubs in England and France can get into a rhythm of regular matches over the Christmas and New Year periods. The outcome of the two leagues will be clearer after the next several match days of fixtures. The odds suggest the Aviva Premiership is between Saracens, Northampton and Leicester while Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse are the main contenders for the French Rugby Championship.