From the Torygraph
Something needs to be done about Europe's secondary cup, as clubs view it as an irritant
• BRIAN MOORE
It is safe to say that the first two rounds of the Champions and Challenge Cups, usually the jewels in the crown of European club rugby, have been underwhelming. Whether this is simply a case of natural post-World Cup blues is a moot point. Suffice to say that the tournaments that usually show the best of northern hemisphere club rugby have stuttered and stumbled, with only the odd game providing the usual thrills and quality we have come to associate with European rugby.
You can certainly see the effect of players having to be withheld because of prescribed rest after the World Cup, but in some cases you detect other reasons. It is clear that European Professional Club Rugby is going to have to do something about the secondary cup competition, the Challenge Cup. Rather like football’s Europa Cup, this is now seen as an irritant to many of the qualifiers and certainly of secondary priority to success or survival in the relevant domestic leagues.
I am going to highlight the Cardiff v Leicester game, but I am not singling out those clubs for anything other than illustrative purposes. There were similar matches over the whole of the weekend. If you had the misfortune to watch that game, you will have seen a handful of Cardiff’s best and almost none of the Tigers’ star players. What you make of this will depend on your perspective, but one point cannot be overlooked: if you bill this as a bona fide European Cup tie you are short-changing paying fans, sponsors and broadcasters, all of whom pay to support rugby, when you produce the sort of dross served up last Saturday night at the Arms Park.
Some will shrug their shoulders and say they have more important considerations, but they should remember a couple of important points. If one of these games is your first experience of rugby, as a fan and especially a sponsor who has invited customers, you are going to think long and hard about repeating the venture. Likewise, when you are a minority sport fighting for attention and your product is, in this case, not being seen on terrestrial TV, you will not attract any new viewers if this is what they see. The only way you can justify the absence of so many top players is if a tournament is clearly agreed, by all concerned, to be one in which it is acceptable to blood fringe and development players.
What EPCR does about this is problematic. Sanctioning teams for playing under-strength squads would only increase club resistance to the whole concept. There is a point at which one or more of the three participating leagues would refuse to cooperate. The Challenge Cup already gives one team automatic qualification for the Champions Cup but if you increased this to two places, to try to incentivise participants, which of the Pro14, Top 14 or Premiership competitions will give up one of their qualifying places? With domestic survival an absolute in England and France, because of the huge financial ramifications of relegation, would even that incentive be effective for their clubs?
To give a bit of balance, it has not all been bad. Saracens’ domination of the Ospreys was complete, even accounting for the number of missing payers from the Welsh side. When you consider that Elliot Daly was one of their star players at full-back, you can see their selectors having to shuffle their selections to keep three top-class No 15s happy. The beauty for Saracens is that Daly, Liam Williams and Alex Goode can all play in other positions, which softens this conundrum.
Exeter continued their good start in Europe by hammering Glasgow, in a strange game. If you look at the possession statistics without having watched the game, you would conclude that Glasgow must have had at least a reasonable amount of the game. In reality, they had so many phases of play in their own 22 that they rarely threatened Exeter’s line.
This was a baffling performance from Glasgow and tactically naive; if there is one team likely to maintain patience in attack and defence, it is Exeter. Simple attacking patterns were never going to work against a defence that tackled and realigned with alacrity.
As final asides, two Anglo-French games ended up with red cards for the French sides. Sale should have gained a bonus-point win over La Rochelle, while Gloucester battled hard away at Montpellier to go down by three points. With a bit more luck and better decision-making they could have done what few sides do: leave the Altrad Stadium with a win.
It is too early for sensible predictions, but one that is likely to turn out half reasonable is that whoever beat Toulouse might well win the lot.