The Problems with the European Challenge Cup

In the jigsaw like Northern Hemisphere rugby season, the game has moved into the Autumn International window, although some top-level clubs and regions have continued into yet another competition (the LV Cup) whilst others take a break and Welsh grassroots clubs effectively close down.  It’s easy to forget the excitement, just a few weeks hence, of the inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup, the successor to the Heineken Cup, this time managed directly by the clubs and regions involved.

But what a great start to the competition it had been, some ferocious games, unexpected results, superb performances on both an individual and team level and a hugely encouraging competition all round.  Although the disjointed nature of the fixture list doesn’t help with its momentum, I for one am looking forward to the next two rounds in December with eager anticipation

However whilst the top tier of the new cross border competition flourishes, the level just beneath is in real danger of becoming a pantomime farce.  The European Challenge Cup should be a meaningful competition with crowds watching exciting matches week in, week out, in the same manner as the Champions Cup, however that is not the case.  The Challenge Cup has been relegated to little more than a simple development competition by the absence of criteria to ensure the winner is automatically entered into the higher tier event in the subsequent season, something which did in fact take place in the former Heineken and Amlin Cup tournaments.

All that really is at stake now as a result of winning a season-long competition involving many miles travelling is prestige.  And realistically, when compared to the Top 14 in France, or the Aviva Premiership in England, surely no-one expects the Challenge Cup to represent the same value to clubs participating in these leagues?  That is why we see sides like Stade Français playing their second string in Europe and whilst the Dragons deserve high praise for their win in Paris, it is difficult to imagine the same outcome had they been competing against the home sides first choice lineup.

Having won the battle for control, this was an opportunity for the newly formed European Professional Club Rugby organisation to get things right immediately, and whilst for the most part they did, they have also made a calamitous and potentially damaging mistake.  With French sides already playing their “Espoir” teams even at this early stage of the competition, I would be severely worried that propaganda could soon emerge from the EPCR critics who lost the “war”, highlighting exactly this issue for their own personal gain.

Overall, the situation does seem somewhat bizarre.  After all the gripes over the qualifying formats, subsequent changes spiced up competitions like the Guinness Pro 12 and turned them into meaningful events, yet one of the results of these alterations has been a diluted second tier in Europe.  Quite why this was not considered at the outset seems a rather bizarre oversight, however this is not a difficult issue to resolve and the administrators should seriously be considering making this change sooner rather than later so all clubs competing in Europe, and their multitude of fans, understand that every game, whether in the Champions or the Challenge Cup, will have implications further down the road.

The IRB Eligibility Criteria Conundrum

The recent wrestling with the IRB eligibility criteria is somewhat farcical, to say the least.  The current three-year residency regulation is being made a mockery of.  This is by no means a new development, but more and more often we see foreigners in the Northern Hemisphere leagues swapping allegiance to new countries and the Steffon Armitage situation really brought this to the top of the agenda.

It frustrates me to see players, often cast onto the reject pile by their country of birth, arriving on these shores for financial gain, subsequently gaining selection for their “new” nation and, worse still going on to represent the British and Irish Lions.  Players like Riki Flutey and Matt Stevens have all trodden this well-worn path in recent times and following the current trend will not be the last to do so.

None of the players who arrived in Wales during the “Grannygate” affair ever settled in the country afterwards, and the same was true of the ‘Kilted Kiwis’ in Scotland during the same era.  I believe if you play for a country you should live there, and more importantly, want to live there once your rugby career is over and not simply take the money and hot-foot it back to the warmer climes from whence you came.  I appreciate how difficult this is to enforce in practice, I just disagree with the spirit of the law and its liberal interpretation.  Clearly I understand the need to allow players such as Mako and Billy Vunipola and Taulupe Faletau to represent England and Wales respectively.  After all, they are born and bred here and have real history in the UK.  And of course, circumstances do change and the door should not be forever closed to those who need to move for valid reasons.  I simply worry the system is beginning to be abused.

Where the line should be drawn is a real headache for the administrators, and how the law should be enforced another difficult question.  I just hope a workable solution can be found as the status quo is not a viable option in my opinion.