Loose Pass: ‘Ridiculous’ Champions Cup and Club World Cup rant

Lawrence Nolan
Split image of Leinster's James Lowe, Bulls' Zak Burger and the 2023 Super Rugby winning Crusaders.

This week's Loose Pass focuses on the Investec Champions Cup and the Club World Cup.

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with the futures of all the tournaments…

What a mess

Rugby is no stranger to a little friction between its stakeholders; run (for the large part) by a phalanx of alpha-ish males and other assorted powermongers, frequently owned by the same, and with competitions splintered along constantly shifting geographical lines, it’s ripe for permanent disruption.

Chuck in the financial implications of trying to weave together two of Europe’s largest economies with three of its smallest, trying to combine countries where rugby is a national sport with others where it is at best fourth-choice, with others whose populations are smaller than even more others’ capital cities, not forgetting that a lot of this is based upon the premise of regular inter-continental travel and… well, you know, it’s unlikely there will ever be a perfect fit as an answer.

But was there ever a time when a good answer seemed further away?

What do we have currently? We have the once-magnificent Super Rugby looking decidedly second-rate, with a rash of red cards for violent play and still being played in half-empty arenas. We have the supposed pinnacle of European rugby played out by one of the teams, leaving 11 front-line players at home. We have one domestic league which is endless fun to watch but which is three teams short of what it once was. And we have another domestic cross-border league in which one country’s teams are now financially a long way from functional compared to the rest; the Welsh clubs may yet be the next rupture in sub-international rugby’s volcanic landscape as the rumbles of an Anglo-Welsh league continue in the distance. Oh, and there’s France. It’s all working pretty well in France, yet nobody seems ready to look at them and see what they have done right.

The solution to it all? Chuck in another competition of course. And nuts to climate change, let’s fly yet more scores of 100kg plus men half-way around the world to play in a tournament with no tradition and which will sit uneasily in the middle of the year’s already-stuffed calendar once every four years and mean, among other things, that there is no European champion in those years.

Not that there is such a thing as a European champion at all these days, not since South Africa decided that if they had to fly 12 hours to play matches they should at least do so in similar time zones. European and African champions? It’s a bit of a mouthful, let’s hope nobody splits hairs about that one.

And moving on: the problem is, given rugby’s schedulers’ propensity to chop the season up into numerous competition blocks so that players would be forgiven for not being quite sure who or what they are playing for from one week to another (and assuming their union allows them to play), a South African team has now realised it is a bit of a slog to go back and forth from one side of the world to the other once or twice a week, so they opted to give the lads a bit of downtime.

Surely not! How dare they! Let’s haul them across hot coals for devaluing the very competition they said they wanted to play in. Sort of fair enough, except were you to ask said players how they felt about dragging their bumps and bruises back and forth across the equator on a weekly basis, they’d probably ask for a break once a month too.

2024 Rugby Championship fixtures and kick-off times confirmed as full tournament returns

We truly are in a ridiculous situation at times. You can’t blame Jake White for looking after their players (someone has to), nor can Jake White blame SA Rugby for not wanting to shell out millions of rands on plane tickets which might not have been used but nor, in truth can you blame EPCR for being a little miffed that a Champions Cup quarter-final was played with by no means a first-choice team. Lest we forget, the Bulls were in the quarter-final, having decimated a Lyon OU team similarly ‘rotated’.

You can, however, take a look at the way the season is organised and wonder how nobody conceived that this might one day be a bit of a problem. Or wonder how nobody made some sort of contingency plan to ensure that competition finales were carefully isolated and further ensure that the players, who are noticeably absent when it comes to getting frustrated with all the toing and froing and yet have every right to be full of frustration, were given a more plannable and comprehensible schedule.

But then back we come to the beginning: someone did take a look at it all. And chatted to few mates, scratched a few backs and came up with… the world club championship. More expense for a game where clubs are going bust all over the show. More travel for teams whose players are perpetually jetting off somewhere. More games in the seasons just after World Cups when the very best players will have been going at it for 12 months already.

There are times when you just couldn’t make it up.

Bulls furore should give cause for thought

To be explicit, having the South African teams involved in Europe has not been disastrous, and they have certainly added colour.

But when the practical difficulties present themselves as they did the weekend past, we were given a timely reminder by the other three games that European rugby, as it was in good old Heineken Cup days, is rather fun.

Granted, we’d prefer representation from Scotland, Wales and Italy a little more in the latter stages, but economics are what they are now and we’ll have to be patient.

Despite that miss, the rugby in the other three quarter-finals was vintage stuff – it might have been even better had La Rochelle not been so clearly as exhausted by the international travel.

Imagine what the Bulls might have been able to add in a well-structured season, but also remember how good European competition used to be before all the silly format-tinkering and travel time. The question of South African sides in European competition needs significant further cost-benefit analysis.

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