It seems like a lifetime ago that the seemingly endless bickering and squabbling amongst Europe’s elite clubs and regions came to an end and the new shiny European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) tournaments sprung up.
The Heineken Cup and the 2nd tier Challenge Cup were subsequently replaced by the unimaginatively named European Rugby Champions Cup and the equally mundane European Rugby Challenge Cup. It looks like marketing and branding were an after thought after 2 years of civil war in the northern hemisphere game.
The new organisation that was to run the tournaments (EPCR) was set up in Switzerland and we entered a brave new world of European rugby. We were told the new structure was all about meritocracy; those teams that performed well would be rewarded.
A season and a half in to the Challenge Cup it seems that meritocracy only goes so far.
The 2nd tier European tournament has been through a number of guises but it has generally been a competitive tournament. Teams from England, France, Ireland and Wales shared the title between 2009/10 and 2013/14 while France provided the runner up for 4 years during this period.
This has now all changed. Since the introduction of the EPCR Challenge Cup the French resistance has collapsed.
Rather like a recalcitrant husband being dragged around The Body Shop for an hour’s Christmas shopping on the Sunday before Christmas Day, the French attitude to the Challenge Cup seems ambivalent at best but ‘no interest at all’ is probably a more accurate description.
The inaugural EPCR season was in 2014/15 when no fewer than 8 French teams entered the pool stage. The law of averages would suggest that at least one of these teams would get through to the knock out stages but no, not a single French team could muster up enough interest to win a few games and progress.
These were not poor teams. They included Stade Francais, who finished the Top 14 season in 4th place just 6 points behind Toulon and Oyannax who finished 6th. It was not a lack of talent that stymied their progress but a combination of weak team selections and poor application on the rugby pitch.
The French teams also have an uneasy relationship with playing away from home, which is surprising given it is a nation where both the wife and the mistress attended the funeral of an ex-president.
There were some abject away performances from French teams in the 2014/15 season including these heavy away defeats; Gloucester 55 – 0 Brive, Exeter 41 – 17 La Rochelle, Exeter 45 – 3 Bayonne.
Fast forward 12 months and we get a similar picture. In the two fixtures between Newport Gwent Dragons and Pau the aggregate score has been 56-17, with the Dragons picking up two comfortable victories against the team in a similar position to them in the Top 14. Is the Pro 12 that much stronger than the Top 14?
Harlequins 41 – 18 victory over the nouveau riche Montpellier has been another one-sided affair with Harlequins playing most of their big names – Mike Brown, Nick Evans, Care, Marler and Easter, against a Montpellier that put up very little fight.
It is conceivable that there will once again not be a single French team in the quarter finals.
Where is the meritocracy?
Let’s put aside the fact that supporters are being short changed with sub-standard team selections and performances, and that the integrity of the competition is in question when nearly half the teams aren’t really competing to win.
We were told that the new European tournaments were all about meritocracy so how will the French teams be punished for their poor performances? The answer is they won’t be.
We will still see the same number of French teams enter the competition next year because there are no credible options to take their place. EPCR will keep the French teams in the tournament because they bring in revenue, regardless of their levels of performances.
The second tier European tournament needs a strong French representation to be a success. Of course there will be times when teams will use the opportunity of the Challenge Cup to rotate some of their players but when poor teams are chosen who then show little interest in the game the game loses credibility.
EPCR needs to tackle this or ask the French teams to step aside for other teams that will welcome the opportunity to play at this level.
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