European Champions Cup has lost its kudos without travelling supporters

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Winning the European Cup used to be the pinnacle of the club game. But I wonder if Covid-19 has damaged anything in rugby more than the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.

What made competing in Europe so special was for fans to be able to travel between countries – it created that closeness, that connection between the different nations. Being able to travel to the south of France, or to Italy. Watching your side at Thomond Park or playing in Edinburgh and Cardiff. Those games made the tournament special, and because it happened annually for nearly two decades it became really important to the players because they realised how much it meant to their supporters to be playing against the best sides in Europe year in, year out. Without the supporters, the concept just does not work. The lure has been damaged.

In Europe, you don’t get the same tribalism you have with the derbies in England such as Leicester-Northampton, Bath-Gloucester, Harlequins-London Irish. That animosity isn’t there. Yes, teams might have a history with each other, such as Wasps and Toulouse who meet again this weekend, a rematch of the 2004 final with Clement Poitrenaud’s moment of hesitancy. Munster and Leicester don’t really like each other. But look at this weekend’s fixtures. Cardiff and Harlequins doesn’t fire you up. Biarritz-Newcastle – that’s a nice town to go to. Connacht and Leicester? Not really.

Without that fire, combined with no spectators, Covid has denied the competition the chance to keep its foot on the pedal. If anything, the domestic leagues have now become more important for clubs to win.

Take Harlequins this season. If you asked them which competition they would rather win, Premiership or Champions Cup, the natural progression used to be that you won your domestic league, and then the next season went on to try and win Europe. The Champions Cup used to become your main focus. We have won our own league, now let’s go and beat everyone in Europe. Now, I am sure the Harlequins boys want to do that. But if you gave them the choice of retaining their Premiership title or winning Europe, I am not sure which way they would go this season. Because the Champions Cup doesn’t feel as weighty as it used to, it doesn’t have the same kudos of previous years. And I think that largely comes down to Covid and the inability to go to away games and get spectators in all the grounds.

There have obviously always been differences in culture, but we are now seeing differences in politics too. Look at Cardiff. If you are one of their supporters, you are sat there wondering why you cannot go to the game when Harlequins last week played in front of a full house against Exeter, and a few weeks before that, at Twickenham, had more than 70,000 in attendance. How is it different? Why are we different? Covid has pushed everyone further apart in European rugby and the organisers need to find a way to bring it all closer together again.

On another note, there’s a real question about how English clubs are going to compete in Europe moving forward following the reduction of the salary cap. Players such as Vaea Fifita at Wasps, their big signing this season, are now moving to Wales or Scotland. That has not happened for as long as I can remember. How can you be getting paid more there than you can in the Premiership? There is a rebalancing going on between England and the Celtic nations, while teams in France just continue spending whatever the hell they like to entice and build massive squads.

I think clubs in France would still rather win the Top 14 than the Champions Cup, unless you are serial runners-up in Europe like Racing 92. Clermont were the same in the past, less so now. Toulouse can win it because their ‘C’ team is probably better than anyone else’s. Where does the competition end up going if the French clubs dwarf the rest and all don’t necessarily, as a priority, want to win it? Obviously with the notable exception of Leinster.

It’s a fantastic competition at its best. The last-16 format we had in 2020-21, because of Covid, was an interesting new format. But it hasn’t felt as exhilarating for a couple of years and that’s not down to the teams or players, but Covid limiting cross-border travel.

I hope in the future we can make it the great tournament again that it has been for the past 20 years. You can forget the last two seasons – don’t worry Exeter and Toulouse, you can keep your titles – but I want the emotion and the supporters to come back to the tournament in force, to have a beer together and to make the Champions Cup the pinnacle of club rugby again in Europe, which it deserves to be once this is all over.

source : telegraph UK

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