New Champions Cup
With the pool stages of the first Champions and Challenge Cups now consigned to the history books, it gives us a chance to reflect on how the new re-structuring has changed European rugby and whether all the changes are positive.
The publicly stated aim of the PRL and LNR when seeking only the "elite clubs" and wanted to make the new Champions Cup an "elite competition".
What makes an elite competition? Is it a high quality competitive tournament or a tournament featuring the best teams? There's no doubt that the likes of Toulon and Clermont Auvergne can claim to be under the 'elite' team banner. Not so for the rest of the 18 clubs.
Has this changed from the Heineken Cup though? Toulon and Clermont seemed to be the only teams capable of winning the tournament for the last two years, so this seems to be a continuation of that again.
My personal interpretation of an elite competition is one that is high-quality, exciting and one where any number of teams could win it. While at the same time, games are close, tight and any result would not be considered an upset.
This is what I thought the Heineken Cup was. If not last season certainly in previous years. The stats back this up. In the last five years of European rugby losing bonus points were awarded most in 2011/12 season with 55.56% of pools games ending up with a margin of 7 points or less. This was up from 43 % the previous season. The trend has been going down in the next three years with losing bonus points in 26%, 33% and 30% of games in the last two season of the Heineken Cup and in the new Champions Cup respectively.
Similarly, the number of blowouts in games (winning by 14 points or more) follows a reverse trend. It was at its lowest in 2011/12 with blowouts in only 32% of games, but this has been steadily increasing in recent years with 41, 40 and 43% over the final three season.
This suggests that there is a gulf growing between teams in the competition. What's curious is that this trend was continued in the new Champions Cup despite the 'supposed non-worthy teams' being banished to the doldroms of the Challenge Cup. I was to understand that this would make the competition more competitive, not less competitive.
It's not hard to figure out which teams are on which side of the gulf. The Pro 12 has been derided for it's performance in the competition, which apparently confirms to pro LNR/PRL supporters that the right move has been made. Leinster are the sole Pro 12 representative in the quarterfinals and are joined by four English clubs and three French clubs.
Is that fair? Aside from Treviso, who have their own problems, the Pro 12 teams have provided the most chance of an upset in the competition. Whether it's Munster beating a heavily fancied Saracens side, or Glasgow destroying an awful Bath side the Pro 12 sides were competitive, for the most part.
Looking at the Top 14 sides - three teams qualified with home quarter finals while the other three treated the competition with disrespect.
Castres and Montpeiller were shambolic this year, and highlighted the general contempt for European rugby that the French clubs have. This is echoed by the lack of French effort in the Challenge Cup that Bernard Jackman labelled "pointless". With a combined total of 5 points between them Montpeiller and Castres have shown disregard for the competition that wasn't there before. Even the least performing French teams would win at least 7 points for the last five years. You have to go back to 2009/10 before any non Italian team finished with less than 7 points when Dragons (6), Harlequins (2) and Brive (1) had particularly low points totals.
Which begs the question - is this new 'elite competition' treated as the most elite competition Europe? Surely the competition piting the 'best' teams from across Europe should be the pinnacle of club rugby in the Northern Hemisphere? But this isn't how the French clubs see it. When a team like Toulouse, for so long the giants of European Rugby say that they are hopeful they don't qualify before the last game when they are leading their pool then something is seriously wrong.
This perception that the new European competition isn't the premier competition gains traction when one looks at the knockout schedule. That the quarter finals are scheduled the week after the Six Nations is ludicrous. Worse is that the final is only four weeks later. From the start of the Six Nations, there are 8 elite games in the space of 11 weeks. Asking players to play all 8 'cup finals' in less than 3 months borders on cruel.
European rugby's premier tournament should mark the end of the season, not the start of finals season. The new tournament seems to suit the English and French clubs, but it's unfortunate that the French clubs don't seem to treat it in the right way.
Ultimately though, the struggles of the Pro 12 could be for many different reasons. Unusual seeding structures contributed to lopsided pools, but that is likely to be a once off as people realise how important final league standings are.
The Pro 12 seems to be weaker than it was, which doesn't help results in Europe either.
While there are definite areas to fix like the Challenge Cup and the french attitude, too many different interpretations can be taken from teams performances, and there is nothing to suggest that the restructure contributing to the Pro 12 decline or the top 3 French dominating.
We'll just have to wait and see what happens, but with the financial capabilities widening, we can't wait too long.