Preview of the Heineken Cup

The Heineken Cup reconvenes this weekend with a full schedule of group matches. Toulon are favourites to win the trophy and make a successful defence which would be appropriate 10 years after Jonny Wilkinson helped England win the World Cup. However, events on the field will be overshadowed by the news that English clubs may not enter next year’s competition.

heinekencupThe Heineken Cup is rugby union’s equivalent of the Champions League in soccer. It brings together the best club sides from France, Italy and the four Home Nations. The teams are divided into six groups of four and they play each other on a home and away basis. The top eight teams from the groups progress to an elimination format, which culminates in the final, this season in Cardiff.

England’s Premiership clubs are talking about not taking part next season and that would devalue the Heineken Cup. However, the rugby unions of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and France announced they would still play in the Heineken Cup even if the English clubs did not participate.

If this were to be the last Heineken Cup in its current format it would be fitting if Toulon won the competition again. Key to their success has been the kicking of Wilkinson who famously nailed the drop goal in extra time of the 2003 World Cup Final that beat Australia. In the meantime Wilkinson has suffered more than his share of injuries but is now looking almost back to his best at the end of his career.

Wilkinson was a key member of the England World Cup team in 2003. He then came back from a number of injuries to again help England reach the World Cup Final four years later. Wilkinson now plays in France but spent 12 seasons in the Premiership with Newcastle. He played for the Lions in Australia in 2001 and New Zealand four year later. He retried from international rugby at the end of 2011.

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Wilkinson was voted the Player of the Tournament in the Heineken Cup last season. His place kicking was an essential element of the team’s success. He did not miss a single kick in the elimination rounds from 17 attempts and scored 108 points during the tournament. He scored 11 points in the final which Toulon won by beating Clermont 17-16.

We have now reached match day 3 in this season’s Heineken Cup. For the purpose of extensive live television coverage the matches are played over three days at different times so as many as possible can be shown live. Sky Sports in Britain will show all but one match and Canal+ and Sky Italia will have live coverage in France and Italy respectively.

In five of the six pools the favourites to win the group are odds on. Based on the bookmaker’s prices Toulouse are the most probable group winners and last year’s finalists, Toulon and Clermont, are strongly fancied to progress to the elimination rounds. Munster and Perpignan are evenly matched in their group but both should qualify for the next stage.

The Heineken Cup has been a great tournament and identifies the best side in Europe. The matches are more intense then domestic rugby and more akin to international rugby than the club version of the sport. It does seem a shame that a tournament backed by a major European brand and given blanket TV coverage should be enveloped in such acrimony. You would hope Heineken do not feel the investment is now worthwhile as it might be hard to find a sponsor of similar standing.

Sadly, the English clubs are refusing to commit and the chief executive stubbornly predicts that they can fill the nine weekend of the Heineken Cup with alternative matches. He suggests his union can still put on strong competition even without French involvement. One option being considered is a tournament involving clubs from South Africa.

The English clubs representative points out the season would be less crowded and English clubs would be able to field their best players more often. There would be fewer clashes with international windows and the pressure on players would be alleviated. The league is also strong enough to cope with any loss of income from attendances and television money, he suggests.

Initially the English clubs had allies in France as their clubs were looking to play in a Rugby Champions Cup with their English counterparts. However, the French federation president is now advising the clubs to stay with the Heineken Cup. However, the new format is unlikely to feature English sides and therefore less attractive to sponsors and fans.

Another element of the issue is which TV company has the television rights. Sky Sports are the main broadcasters of the Heineken Cup but the Aviva Premiership in England is broadcast by their main rivals, BT Sport. The English federation would want any European competition in which they competed to be broadcast by BT Sport so clearly there must be some complex negotiations before all parties agree to the format and television coverage.

In the absence of the English clubs the Heineken Cup would feature teams from further down the pyramid. The plans are to two invite two composite sides from emerging nations such as Spain and Portugal. However, without the English the Heineken Cup would become less of an elite competition and more of a festival and the French clubs in particular would focus more on their main domestic league.

Before the politics take over we can only hope that this season’s Heineken Cup continues to be the pinnacle of European rugby. Toulon seem assured of a place in the elimination stage and given some luck with the draw and Jonny Wilkinson’s kicking ability they could become just the third side to successfully defend the trophy.

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