After the conclusion of this season’s Champions Cup and Challenge Cup tournaments, Planet Rugby features writer James While takes a closer look at some of the things we learned from the two competitions.
For those who espouse the notion of ring-fenced leagues with tight salary caps, the success of the French teams in this season’s European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) shows just what a difference a more open system makes, as their teams dominated both the Champions and Challenge Cups, providing three finalists and five semi-finalists and two eventual winners.
Bolt onto this a French Grand Slam in the Six Nations and it seems the extended salary cap, combined with the rich seam of challenge coming from some outstanding clubs in Pro D2 has provided France with the platform for winning a clean sweep in Europe this year, with only the combined force of Ireland and Leinster coming close to breaking that domination.
With the Premiership clubs looking to cut their caps for next season by a further 28% from £6.4m to £5m to offset the affects of the pandemic, it seems likely that the French domination will continue for a few years yet.
Sure, it could be argued that Leinster are the equal of any side in Europe, but with a form of central contracts, incredible player welfare management and what could be described as a close loop Irish system with the Irish Rugby Football Union driving the performance and pastoral agendas, their system is completely different to any other and one designed to allow the national team to succeed.
But right now, France are head and shoulders above any other country in terms of domestic quality, competition and player depth – this year was merely a warm-up for 2023 and judged on the performances and results we’ve seen, very little can stop them.
Rags to riches
Only five months ago Planet Rugby ourselves were harbingers of doom about the construct of the EPCR season. Random cancellations and baffling decisions bounced hither and thither, with both Scarlets and Ospreys particularly unlucky in ‘copping one’ in terms of some strange decisions about matches during the Omicron period of the tournament. By the same token, Cardiff benefitted from a gimme in their favour when again EPCR rather whimsically awarded a 28-0 win in their favour after Toulouse had already named a team, albeit almost unrecognisable from their usual line-up, for the game.
Regulations for eligibility were relaxed to kick start some fixtures where teams were struggling in certain positions.
It was chaos – shifting sands of perplexing and inconsistent decisions, a powerful feeling of mistrust from all the competing nations in EPCR and an absolute opaque set of rules and regulations which seemed to change as unpredictably as the virus itself.
But the decision to allow a last 16 with home and away legs rejuvenated the competition and captured public interest as crowds returned to full capacity and even fuller volume and, as the competition crystalised to eight and beyond, clever management and stadia choices combined to allow EPCR to deliver a first class knock out stage, one that provided ties, penalty shootouts, one point wins on aggregate and much more.
It is often said that it’s how you react to crisis management that defines the impact of the crisis and in this regard, EPCR turned a potential catastrophe into a celebration of the best of European Rugby and for that, they should be applauded.
Let’s be perfectly honest here, the British clubs hardly fired a shot in anger.
Sure, Wasps, Leicester Tigers, Sale Sharks and Saracens had their moments and Harlequins did their best, but the English clubs were absolutely outgunned in the final stages – with Toulon’s disposal of Saracens and Leinster’s hammering of Tigers away from home showing just how big the gulf has become between the Premiership and Europe’s elite.
But the Welsh regions showed that they weren’t even at the races as the continued turmoil in their domestic set-up saw just one team (Cardiff) progress into the last 16 of either competition (indeed, Italy achieved the same level, with Benetton also reaching the last 16 of the Challenge Cup) and, rather worryingly, none of their clubs looked even close to the quality of the French, Irish and English outfits they faced. Make no mistake, Welsh club rugby is in crisis and it’s absolutely key that the Welsh Rugby Union uses EPCR as a platform for restoring excellence to what was once the greatest club rugby culture in the northern hemisphere.
North of the border in Scotland, yes, Glasgow Warriors and Edinburgh managed quarter-final places, and that’s commendable, but these are the two Scottish super clubs competing in what is effectively the runners-up cup but right now the performances of all of the British clubs is concerning and given the changes to salaries previously alluded to, there’s a big danger that gap could become a yawning chasm next season unless something drastic is done to prevent it.
Stars of the season
A great tournament is made not only by the performances of the teams, but by the individual stars within.
Josh van der Flier was announced as the player of the year, but with the fabulous Gregory Alldritt not so far behind. In fact, both Leinster and La Rochelle were buoyed by some incredible performances not only from their established starts like Victor Vito and Johnny Sexton, but by the supporting casts – the emergence of the likes of Jamison Gibson-Park, Calean Doris, James Lowe, Dany Priso and Pierre Bougarit who all underlined their huge progression as players.
Elsewhere, Nolann le Garrec was so impressive that already it’s certain he’ll be fast-tracked into the French side to tour in July, with the possibility that Louis Carbonel at Toulon might also join him, as both Matthieu Jalibert and Romain Ntamack have been less than their usual impressive selves for their respective clubs, whilst England’s Zach Mercer, who Bath seemingly couldn’t wait to get rid of, put in such memorable performances for Montpellier that Eddie Jones is planning every method he can to recall him to his England squad.
And who will forget the Challenge Cup final that saw Lyon’s Dylan Cretin, Joel Kpoku and Jordan Taufua totally eclipse three greats of the game in Sergio Parisse, Charles Ollivon and Eben Etzebeth in a game that nobody fancied Lyon to win other than themselves.
It was a season where the old bodies flourished and the new faces challenged, and as a result, there’s a host of emerging starlets to look forward to following over the next few seasons.
The bottom line
After the convolutions of this season, EPCR have announced a shorter and more agile approach for next season.
The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup will be played over eight weeks with two pool stage matches in December, with the following round to take place in January 2023 over consecutive weekends.
The Round-of-16 will begin on March 31 followed immediately by the quarter-finals beginning on April 7, with the semi-finals starting on the final weekend of April. The two finals will be played on May 19 and May 20 in 2023.
Gone is the fabulous double headed last 16 concept, which is a great shame considering the level playing field it gave to the qualifying clubs, but with all sides prepping for a World Cup year, it seems sensible that player commitment is kept to the bare minimum and it’s thought that post France 2023, that this might be revisited due to the critical acclaim the concept produced.
What is key is that EPCR remains at the absolute pinnacle of world club rugby, building upon the huge successes of this year, retaining the things that worked well and in particular, sticking with the double headed finals weekend format that worked so well in Marseille.
For many, Planet Rugby included, EPCR 2022/23 cannot come soon enough and we cannot wait to share the road to Dublin with you.