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Turned upside down by the Covid-19 and often disputed, do the European Cups still have a future?

Respite from the storm. Barring an unexpected “push” of Covid in one or more clubs, the third day of the European Rugby Cups is on track to take place normally until Sunday, in the Champions Cup as in the European Challenge, the unloved little sister. At the start of the week, the English and Welsh clubs had however threatened a boycott, because France then imposed a 48-hour isolation for all travelers coming from the United Kingdom.

This measure was lifted on Friday and the leaders of the EPCR, under pressure since the start of the pandemic two years ago, can breathe, at least for a time. “We plan to see competitive matches on matchdays 3 and 4. [du 21 au 23 janvier] and we expect a positive conclusion to both tournaments,” he told 20 Minutes the body that oversees the two tournaments, in a great burst of optimism.

Anyway, it could hardly be worse than the second day, mid-December, which turned into a fiasco. Due to the travel constraints then in force between the two shores of the Channel, five Franco-British Champions Cup and two Challenge duels were first postponed, to finally be “transformed” into draws (0-0) , with two points for each team.

At the same time, other teams were able to play a normal match. And still others have been declared victorious on the green carpet (such as Montpellier against Leinster or Racing 92 against the Ospreys in the Champions Cup) with the score of 28-0 with five points in the bag, because the opponent presented many case of Covid in its workforce…

“This competition no longer makes sense”

Enough to trip the sanguine Christophe Urios, manager of a Bordeaux-Bègles who therefore won a baroque 0-0 without playing on the Welsh lawn of the Scarlets. “This competition today no longer makes sense,” gritted the sports boss of the UBB. “Between those who lose with 0 points, those who do not play who have 2 points, it’s zero. It annoys me because it distorts the competition ”. Tuesday, when justifying this judgment of Solomon, the EPCR had put forward “the increasingly complicated calendar due to Covid-19”.

According to Noon Olympic, this decision was the subject of bitter discussions between the shareholders of the competition and the representatives of the three Leagues (Top 14, English Premiership and United Rugby Championship Celtic and Italian). The English even pushed for the French to have lost matches. Good atmosphere…

And if a situation similar to that damned second day were to happen again, would the decision be the same? “Not necessarily”, answers 20 Minutes the EPCR, for whom this “may vary depending on the situation”. The wording is vague, but also be aware that “no changes to the tournament format are currently planned”. No question therefore of giving up on the round of 16 round trip to convert them into dry matches, in order to fit in a possible new postponed day.

Two years of disruption

However, this is what happened last year, the first year of a Champions Cup formula worthy of Georges Charpak, with 24 teams divided into two pools, finally trampled by the coronavirus. Future winner, Stade Toulousain had only played one group match, before playing its 8th, its quarter, its half and the final in the spring. And a year earlier, when the Top 14 had frozen the championship, cooled by the first wave and its strict confinement, the final stages of the European Cups had been played in September and October, at the start of the following season, to crown the English of Exeter to the detriment of Racing 92 (31-27)!

The EPCR has therefore proven that it prefers to relocate a final to the Kerguelen Islands rather than give up awarding a title, which could further undermine its legitimacy. Because if the Irish provinces have always revered the Champions Cup, by systematically aligning the best rested players in their domestic competition, many French clubs favor the venerable Shield of Brennus, awarded since 1892, to a competition born “only” in 1995.

Laporte wanted the end of the European Cups

With a few exceptions, however, starting with Toulouse, five-time winner of the European Cup (a record) and where relocating the final phase matches of Ernest-Wallon (19,000 places) to the Stadium (33,000) was just as much happiness supporters than the treasurer in the pre-Covid era. Without forgetting the “extras”, such as the very expensive “a little closer to the stars” jersey specially released last year, in collaboration with the ambassador Thomas Pesquet.

But this enthusiasm is far from being shared by the boss of the FFR, Bernard Laporte. In April 2020, while campaigning for the vice-presidency of World Rugby, the very influential Tarnais had not gone into detail: “Let’s be frank: the European Cup does not generate enough income. “And the talkative leader to evoke a future Club World Cup, slipped into a calendar where continental competitions “would be brought to disappear”.

European Challenge matches, like here between the Welsh Dragons and Lyon on December 17, 2021 in Newport, are often played in front of a sparse audience. – Gareth Everett / Huw Evans / Shutterstock / Sipa

Resilience specialist, the EPCR made the round back, before replying with bombast. At the beginning of October 2021, when leaving his chair as president, the Englishman Simon Halliday unveiled a world club competition organized “every four years”. An event organized “instead of the final stages of the Champions Cup”, whose holding (not before 2024) would be made possible thanks to “a new agreement for eight years”, “a real triumph in terms of negotiation and shared objectives between the leagues and federations of Europe”.

Despite Laporte’s statements, the teams involved in the European Cup do not play only for glory. In a guide to “distribution rules”, the LNR indicates that each of the eight Top 14 clubs involved in the Champions Cup this season receives a fixed amount of 790,000 euros, against 530,000 for each of the teams in the race for the European Challenge. Then, of course, everything depends on the course, and it is then a question of “meritocracy” bonuses.

A big deal

If he is French, between endowments from the EPCR and the LNR, the winner of the most prestigious event touches 900,000 euros (600,000 for the finalist). Amounts reduced to 375,000 and 225,000 euros for the “small” European Cup, which the French teams only take seriously when they get out of the pools, after having previously used young people and relaunched “tricards” in front a confidential audience.

Contested, abused by the Covid, the European Cups are resisting. But behind the scenes, the ECPR will still have to play it smart when renegotiating TV rights that are about to expire, for a new four-year cycle (2022-2026). In France, beIN Sports and France Télévisions broadcast the matches. Asked about their intentions for the future, the two groups did not wish to answer questions from 20 Minutes.


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