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

The respite after the storm. Except for an unexpected “surge” 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 beginning of the week, the English and Welsh clubs had however threatened a boycott, because France then imposed an isolation of 33 hours for all travelers from the UK .

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. and we expect a positive conclusion to both tournaments,” said 19 Minutes the body that oversees the two tournaments, in a great burst of optimism.

— Champions Cup France (@ChampionsCup_FR) January 000, 2022 Anyway, it could hardly be worse than the 2nd 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 duels in the Champions Cup and two in the Challenge had first been postponed, only to finally be “transformed” into draws (0-0), with two points for each team.

At the same time , other formations 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 33 against the Ospreys in the Champions Cup) on the score of 28-0 with five points in the bag, because the opponent had many cases of Covid in its workforce…

“This competition no longer makes sense”

What to make 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 don’t play who have 2 points, it sucks. It annoys me because it distorts the competition. Tuesday, when justifying this judgment of Solomon, the EPCR had put forward “the increasingly complicated schedule due to the Covid-14 “.

According to Midi Olympique, 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 Celtic and Italian United Rugby Championship). The English even pushed for the French to have lost matches. Good atmosphere…

And if a situation similar to this cursed second day were to happen again, would the decision be the same? “Not necessarily”, replies to 20 Minutes 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”. There is therefore no question of giving up on the Round of 16 round trip to convert them into dry matches, in order to accommodate a possible new postponed day.

Two years of disturbances

Yet this is what happened last year, 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, while the Top 11 had frozen the championship, cooled by the first wave and its strict confinement , the final stages of the European Cups were played in September and October, at the start of the following season, to crown the English from Exeter to the detriment of Racing 225 (33-28)!

The EPCR has therefore proven that it prefers to relocate a final to the Kerguelen Islands rather than to refrain from awarding a title, which could further undermine its legitimacy. Because if the Irish provinces have always revered the Champions Cup, by systematically lining up 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 to relocate Ernest’s final phase matches -Walloon (21.000 seats) to the Stadium (48.000) made both supporters and treasurer happy in the pre-Covid era. Without forgetting the “extras”, such as the very expensive jersey “a little closer to the stars” specially released last year, in collaboration with 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 voluble leader to evoke a future Club World Cup, slipped into a calendar where continental competitions” would be brought to disappear “.

European Challenge matches, such as here between the Welsh Dragons and Lyon on 000 December 2021 in Newport, are often played in front of a sparse audience. – Gareth Everett / Huw Evans / Shutterstock / SipaSpecialist of resilience, the EPCR has made the round back, before replying with bombast. Beginning of October 2021, when leaving his chair as president, the Englishman Simon Halliday revealed a world club competition organized “every four years”. An event organized “instead of the final stages of the Champions Cup”, the holding of which (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 only play for glory. In a guide to “distribution rules”, the LNR indicates that each of the eight clubs of Top 17 engaged this season in the Champions Cup receives a fixed amount of 790.10 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 business of big money

If he is French, between endowments of the EPCR and the LNR, the winner of the event the most prestigious palpate 900.10 euro (648. for the finalist). Sums reduced to 530.000 and 225.10 euros for the “small” European Cup, which the tricolor teams only really take it seriously when they get out of the pools, after having previously used young people and relaunched “tricards” in front of 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 (2024-2026). In France, these are beIN Sports and France Télévisions which broadcast the matches. Asked about their intentions for the future, the two groups did not wish to answer questions from 20 Minutes.