I was delighted today to receive my THIRD new guest blogger to the site over the last few weeks. Love getting new input and opinion and feel it also helps keep the blog fresh for you all! (Also it was great to have Andrew Richardson return to the blog as well!!)
If anyone else fancies writing for us, for ANY rugby related subject, simply email me the article to Rich@RugbyUnited.info and I'll do the rest!!
Over (and many thanks) to Rhys!!
This season’s revamped European Challenge Cup has thus far failed to hit the heights of its previous incarnations, and has been a big disappointment to all concerned. Why? Here are four key reasons.
- The French don’t take it seriously
The competing French teams have treated this tournament with disdain. Take for example Stade Francais. They are second in the Top 14 (level on points with Clermont), but finished third in their Challenge Cup pool. With no disrespect to Dragons and Newcastle who finished above them, but if Stade cared at all about the competition those teams would likely be blown away. This malaise is not confined to the French capital - this is also the first ever Challenge Cup where not a single French side has made the quarter-finals, a further damning indictment.
Here are some interesting quotes from Grenoble coach Bernard Jackman on how he sees the tournament:
"The Challenge Cup, from my point of view, is a bit of a pointless competition”
"I just don't see it being sustainable in its current format. I think the organisers have probably got a bit of a shock from how little interest the French teams have had in it”
"And the public as well. The minimum crowd we would get for a Top 14 game is 14,000. For London Irish we got 4,500. The public aren't silly and you can't pull the wool over their eyes: they see it for what it is.”
If the coach of a competing team is saying that, the organisers need to sit up and take notice.
2 - Severe mismatches
Cardiff Blues beat Rovigo 104-12 in round five. In a professional tournament, there simply shouldn’t be scorelines like that. Rovigo are a semi-professional team playing against a professional outfit full of internationals. It’s not fair to the two teams and it’s an embarrassment to the tournament. Coach Mark Hammett even picked a prop to play second-row, showing the scant regard in which he held the opposition. The same also problem also applies to Bucharest Wolves of Romania in Pool 3. A third-tier tournament for these type of teams would be a positive move, and a more streamlined Challenge Cup would be more appropriate. Not only would this benefit all the teams involved, it would be much safer for all the players - lessening the serious risk of a semi-professional player getting injured playing against a fully professional side.
3 - No Champions Cup Qualification
Every Challenge Cup team wants to be in the Champions Cup, and the perfect way to increase the competitiveness would be the carrot of qualifying for the top tier of European rugby by winning the Challenge Cup which had been the case in previous years. The ‘reward’ for winning is a spot in the convoluted play-off system for Champions Cup qualification that includes teams from the top European leagues. For a team that has reached and won a final, tacking on more matches to an already lengthened season after they’ve already excelled is simply not fair. This is the most serious problem out of the four.
4- Top tier teams no longer dropping down
During the latter years of the old Challenge Cup, three pool runners-up from the Heineken Cup would drop down into the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter finals, joining the five Amlin pool winners. This added to the competitiveness of the second-tier knock-out stages and made it a real challenge and contest, as well as unifying the two tournaments. Ulster skipper Rory Best agrees:
“There’s a real worry certainly from players I’ve talked to that the second-tier competition could drift away, and that the gap between the two tournaments becomes wider rather than it narrowing”
“I think it’s wrong not to have teams dropping down from the Champions Cup to the second-tier competition for the knockout stages”
The key point here is that linking the Champions and Challenge Cups together increases the standards of both tournaments. For teams dropping down it decreases dead rubbers in the pool stage, and for second-tier pool winners it makes the knockout stage more intense and competitive.
The first season this was introduced, my team was the beneficiary. After beating both Newcastle and Wasps away, they travelled to the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille to play Toulon in front of 50,000 of their own fans - and beat them 28-21! That victory was something to be treasured and was truly earned against quality teams who cared about the competition they were playing in.
All of the changes have led to the Challenge Cup essentially being a farcical tournament, and just at the time when the Challenge Cup had gained traction as a credible tournament. Of course it would be nice to win it (it’s always nice to win a trophy!), but it’s a sad state of affairs for a once respected tournament. Unfortunately, this is the new Europe - created for and by the super-rich without any concern for poorer or lesser clubs.