Planet Rugby

Europe needs 'Super' rugby

25th February 2014 18:28

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A Toulouse fan L cheers with a Biarritz supporter

Room to grow: Fans love European club rugby

If the Northern Hemisphere is ever going to close the gap with the SANZAR giants, then Europe needs a season-long club competition.

While I join all of Europe in hoping that a resolution to the current crisis will soon be found - which is looking increasingly likely - I believe the recent revolution has stopped well short of where it could have taken the European club game.

The standard of top-level rugby produced by the southern hemisphere's big three is significantly higher than anywhere above the equator. That's not an opinion, it's a statement of fact.

If you wish to disagree with me, I invite you to look at the track record of northern hemisphere sides against New Zealand, Australia and South Africa since the advent of professionalism. You can count on one hand the number of times a NH team has broken into the top three in the IRB Rankings.

It shouldn't be so.

England and France both have significantly more resources than any other rugby-playing nation, both in terms of financial clout and player numbers.

Players in the southern hemisphere aren't bigger nor are the coaches aren't better trained than their northern counterparts. Seasons have nothing to do with it either - the black, green and gold armadas win almost as often in November as they do in June.

So why the gap between the hemispheres? The answer is simple.

Super Rugby.

Each year, rugby's three most successful countries funnel their entire talent pool into just 15 teams, meaning that from February until August, SANZAR's best players are given consistently tough challenges against top competition. Every weekend.

Meanwhile, Europe's talent is spread out across 38 teams where strength-versus-strength clashes are a rarity in an overloaded season.

Last November, after Wales were unable to match the intensity brought to the game by the Springboks, Warren Gatland lamented the massive gap between club and Test rugby. His players had the talent, he believed, they just weren't accustomed to being pushed to their limits.

To illustrate the New Zealander's point, a fortnight earlier, Rhys Priestland and his Scarlets team-mates had been battling to a draw with Zebre while Richard Hibbard and his fellow Ospreys were cruising to a home win over the Dragons. The step up required to compete with the Boks in their next competitive game was, in all fairness, unrealistic.

The Heineken Cup does not fill the same bridging role that Super Rugby does. European club games are too far apart and the quality of the competitors too diluted for there to be a comparison made with the week in, week out intensity of Super Rugby.

If we want to captivate big TV audiences (that is, after all, what professional sport is all about), if we want to see northern hemisphere rugby fulfill its true sporting and commercial potential, then we need a season-long, pan-European competition.

I'll take a moment here to pause and concede that some of the ideas below are somewhat radical and admit that they are unlikely to ever see the light of day. But we can all dream.

Wouldn't it be great if we could see big European clashes on a weekly basis? I want to see Toulouse v Munster every year, not once or twice in a decade.

Of course, the major question confronting such a fanciful tournament is, who would play in it?

Given European clubs' long traditions and deep roots, the prospect of a franchise system seems like a non-starter. (Though you could image that Racing Metro and Stade Français could put out an impressive team for Paris while Northampton combining with Leicester would make for a fearful East Midlands outfit.)

A season-long competition would also mean that clubs would not be able to compete on both European and domestic fronts, meaning the current landscape of the national tournaments would have to change drastically.

First to go would be the current season-long European competition, the commercial failure that is the Pro12. I would propose that the Welsh and Scottish teams join the other teams on their island in forming a 'British Premiership,' from which the top six teams would qualify for 'Super Europe.'

Similarly, six teams could come from a Franco-Italian league. Add to that the top three teams from Ireland (Connacht could either merge with Munster or play domestic rugby, acting as a feeder side.) These are obviously not proposition that would not please everyone, but you can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.

Selecting competitors would have to be based on more than just current form. Fan base, stadium size, and marketability would be the key factors.

With a global calendar mooted for 2016, it would make sense that the 'Super' competitions on either side of the equator take place simultaneously. Likewise, the Six Nations and Rugby Championship could then run concurrently. (Exactly when such competitions would take place is matter for a debate that is not strictly relevant here).

As mentioned above, I don't expect such a tournament to become a reality any time soon. But until is does, Europe's best will be a step behind the southern hemisphere's super troopers.

By Ross Hastie

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