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Toulon, Saracens query neutral venues

23rd April 2014 18:08

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Opinion: Ed Griffiths

Does the Heineken Cup need neutral semi-final venues? Saracens' CEO Ed Griffiths and Toulon's Bernard Laporte offer differing views.

Speaking in Rugbyrama, Laporte suggested that moving Toulon's semi-final to the Stade Vélodrome in Marseille would give his side only a 1 percent advantage over visiting Munster.

It's worth taking that comment with a piece of salt. Toulon will of course have a much larger advantage hosting a semi-final in France, just as Munster would if they were playing host at the Aviva in Dublin. Not the exact city, sure, but undoubtedly an advantage.

The whole process of having neutral semi-finals is up for debate in the first place, with the new Rugby Champions Cup beginning next season.

Why do we have them? Well, the concept of a neutral venue is meant to cut out the need for a two-legged semi-final such as we see in football's Champions League.

But then the venues are still selected in the "home" country, so are they even "neutral" at all?

"It's always a privilege to host [at the Vélodrome] especially for our fans, who will not have to pay €500 to 600 per head to see us play. That's great," was Laporte's comment on Toulon at least being able to play in France.

A true neutral venue for Toulon-Munster would have been say Twickenham, or Murrayfield, but then that burns a hole in the pocket of the fans for who reaching the last four in Europe is meant to be a happy occasion, not a financial burden as Laporte indicates.

For that matter, playing in your home country doesn't even necessarily guarantee success.

The complaint from Griffiths is that only 25,000 will attend Twickenham on Saturday for Saracens' semi-final against Clermont.

Saracens reached this exact stage last year and lost to Toulon at Twickenham, booted out by Jonny Wilkinson before Laporte's team went on to lift the title.

Over 61,000 watched Saracens play at Wembley against Toulouse in the group stages. Allianz Park is always sold out. Yet now Saracens, the designated "home" team, do not even have a true home advantage because they will be playing in an empty ground with no atmosphere.

"We think a better idea going forward is to move away from neutral semi-finals and give home advantage to the team which qualifies with the highest seeding from the pool stages," Griffiths told the Mirror.

"The truth of the matter is that were Saturday's game being staged either at Clermont or at Allianz Park, it would be packed. No doubt at all."

Except Saracens should never be hosting this weekend's semi-final in the first place.

The eighth seed to qualify for the quarter-finals after being beaten in their group by Toulouse, the semi-final draw fell in Saracens' favour when the knockout stages were decided.

But it shouldn't have been that way. Clermont's reward for being one of the top two qualifiers for the knockout stages was to have travel in the last four, which almost makes their group stage work redundant.

It's not the first time either, with Leinster having to travel to Clermont in 2011/12 despite being the second seed.

By altering the seeding policy to guarantee that the two sides that finish as the top two seeds are given home semi-finals, or their conquerors in the last eight, simply seems fair. It's a minor amendment that would make the competition more credible as a whole.

Though the comments from Laporte and Griffiths are not completely accurate, in some ways completely wrong, combined they illustrate the direction the new tournament needs to go in when it comes to the latter stages.

by Ben Coles

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