Raising a glass to the Heineken Cup

Joe Cormack explains why rugby’s Heineken Cup is so brilliant

Leinster and Leicester prepare to pack down in the 2009 Heineken Cup final. Image: M+MD via Flickr Creative Commons

Leinster and Leicester prepare to pack down in the 2009 Heineken Cup final. Image: M+MD via Flickr Creative Commons

Leinster and the Northampton Saints do battle in Cardiff on Saturday for the right to call themselves champions of Europe, in a competition that grows in strength, quality and size every year. Irish referee Alain Rolland, who played in the inaugural tournament in 1995 explains that the competition was cobbled together and ‘came out of nowhere’ yet in just 16 years has transformed into ‘a monster of a tournament’ that most would argue is the pre-eminent club rugby competition in the world, perhaps even the best of any sport.

I can already hear the howls of derision coming from fans of the round ball game. Personally I think the Champions League is currently the greatest club competition of any sport. The Heineken Cup, however, might just come to challenge its dominance eventually. This year its average attendances have been double those at its inception, with the crowds in the knockout stages averaging 38,000 and with rugby on the up all over the continent, who knows it may not be too long before we see Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian and Georgian sides all at the European top table?

The elite European competitions for both sports can continue to learn from each other though; the Heineken Cup retains a far higher level of unpredictability, which the Champions League may wish to take note of as its rigid seeding system has made the group stages all too pedestrian in recent years. Leinster, for example, had to scrape through a group of death to make the knockout stages and fully deserved it. Yet the Heineken Cup must also learn the fairness of the Champions League, so instead of delivering, what is in effect, a ‘Home’ Semi-final to one team just from the luck of the draw, they should seek to move it to a neutral ground.

The Heineken Cup can certainly match any competition for its stunning variety and colour; with backdrops ranging from wet and wild Limerick to sunny San Sebastian in the Basque country and from grey Milton Keynes to the vibrant furnace of Perpignan. With every side comes a different culture, set of fans and style of rugby and every year the tournament is littered with sub-plots, rivalries and twists as well as producing world-class rugby. No wonder it has such a pull for players in the Southern Hemisphere who all universally cite it as a major reason for upping sticks and moving north (as well as the money no doubt!).

The Super 15 definitely produces fantastic rugby but can’t decide what it’s supposed to be; a domestic or an international competition, and as a result seems a bit sterile when compared to the spectacle of the Heineken. Expect to see even more of the Super 15’s very best in Europe after the World Cup this year.

So which way will the final go? The bookies have the ’09 champions Leinster as favourites. Hard to disagree with as they have barrel loads of style and substance and are probably the most complete side in Europe right now. Long gone are the days when Leinster were considered a bit of a soft touch up front. Although they will have their work cut out in the scrum against a Northampton front row that has been demolishing sides all year.

Talismanic skipper Brian O’Driscoll is a serious injury doubt for the Irish side though but he does have a miraculous knack of pulling through a last minute fitness test. Even if ‘BOD’ is missing in the centre I feel Northampton will lack the direction at half back and creativity in midfield to really capitalise and hurt Leinster, they have great talent out wide no doubt, it is just a matter of getting the ball to the likes of Foden and Ashton.

A final mention for Isa Nacewa, Leinster’s full-back, and my tip for European player of the year. Some magic from the in-form Fijian may be the telling difference in class between two great teams. I feel the victory will go to Leinster by 7-10 points and here’s hoping for a great occasion for Rugby at the Millennium Stadium.

4 comments

  1. Firstly, the Super 15 has higher attendences, better players and a better standard of rugby.
    Which is not to deride the Heineken Cup, which is a great competition.
    But to suggest it’s clearly better is ridiculous.
    And to suggest that the Super 15 doesn’t know what it is? What does that even mean?
    It’s not a sentiant person seeking to understand itself or something.
    It’s not more or less international than the heineken cup. And you say it’s sterile? That’s simply because you have no emotional investment in it.
    Try telling the fans at a Waratahs vs Reds game (a rivallry contested since 1882) that it’s a sterile competition.
    And besides you seem to think the only club comps, with the exception of S15, take place in Europe. What about the NFL?
    The heineken Cup is a great comp, but there’s no need to say other comps aren’t as good or better.

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  2. “who knows it may not be too long before we see Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian and Georgian sides all at the European top table”

    Not sure about this, I think creation of two Italian superclubs and the moving of them into the Magners can be seen as giving up on any sort of strong fourth league in Europe (and of course without a decent league to cut their teeth in, any team will just be group stage whipping boys).

    But anyways will be an exciting final. Will be interesting to see how Saints react after the East Midlands’ premier team dumped them out of the Premiership play-offs :)

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  3. Thanks for the comments guys

    Bromley- I agree it is a bit of a long shot seeing those sides in the Heineken, call it creative licence! but there are sides from these countries in the Amlin Challenge cup e.g El Salvador/ Bucharest Oaks albeit they do get whipped!

    Jon- I’m not having a go at Super 15, it does currently produce better players and skill levels no doubt and is a great competition. However I think you need to accept my point that it is still not a settled competition and the new format this year was developed so it would have more ‘local’ derbies. Also simply the geography involved makes it hard for any meaningful away support.

    Also there have been far wiser rugby heads than me (from the southern hemisphere as well) expressing that the Heineken is something extra special and compares favourably in many ways to the Super 15.

    Just wondering what a great game a Leinster/Toulouse would be against a Reds/Crusaders/Bulls and who would win?

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  4. Joe C, the Super 15 is still expanding and changing. It’s a league as well, not a champions league style compeititon seperate to regular league play.
    Within five-ten years there will be at least three more teams, probably more. The South Africans are desperate to add the Southern Kings, and Japan and Argentina are very realistic options for new teams.

    In regards to the HC, it is an excellent competition, particularly once it reaches the play off period. It offers something no other rugby comp can, which is European cross continental competition. It offers players alot of exciting opportunities. Many Southern Hemisphere players are interested in being a part of it, as a new challenge. This of course isn’t the primary reason they go to Europe though. That is obviously for money, and if they get to live in a new culture for a while and see Europe while playing in a fine competition like the HC, all the better.

    But that is seperate to Super 15, which is really diffrent altogether and offers players something else : the toughest compeititon with the best players in the world, played in front of the biggest crowds in rugby (outside of internationals), in the three countries ranked top three in the world consistently. It is a different beast.

    No need to constantly compare the two as competitions. Sure, compare the quality and style of play, but in terms of intrinsic appeall, they both offer something unique.

    And i would love to see Leinster/Toulouse vs Reds/Crusaders/Stormers (the Bulls are having a pretty average year). Who won might depend on alot of things, such as where the game was played, and the weather conditions. Sadly, due to the seasons not aligning, we’re unlikely to see a proper game between these sides.

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