AS THE Heineken Cup row develops into all-out war, we delved into our back issues to remind you of Stephen Jones’s plan to solve the crisis…
THE ROW surrounding the Heineken Cup is rumbling on. The English and French clubs firmly believe that the system of qualification puts them at a savage disadvantage and they also believe that distribution of funds is grossly unfair.
All this adds to the traditional problems of season structure. In European rugby, competitions impinge upon each other, players switch from international to domestic to European and to Anglo-Welsh with bewildering rapidity, and it’s not to deny the strength of all these individual competitions to say that the season is a mess, that it’s getting even more cramped and messy. And because the season is not allowed to breathe, it affects the welfare of players and it affects the efforts of sponsors to maximise their investment.
Help is at hand. Here we present the answer to every question and nothing less! We present a blueprint not only for a brand-new and sensational competition ending on the last weekend of the season with a European Super Bowl of real magnitude, but which removes many of the complications and pinch points, which adds not a single game to the burden on the players, which makes week-in, week-out action more glamorous on a trans-European basis and which would be a sensational attraction for players, spectators, TV and sponsors. There.
We cannot claim all the credit ourselves. The plan was the brainchild of Terry Burwell, the former Leicester centre who went on to have a distinguished career as a rugby administrator. There are few men better qualified in world rugby to talk about season structures and competitions.
Under the Burwell plan, there is one enormous European club tournament, with clubs playing their traditional fixtures but also playing teams from other countries, including France. Ingeniously, however, it heads off any complaints that there would be no English champion, no Celtic league champion and no French champion – because in the plan the finals of the Aviva Premiership, RaboDirect Pro12 and French Top 14 still take place.
As you can see from our graphic representation of the whole tournament, it’s based squarely on the NFL in America. We tend to be sniffy about the weird and wonderful ways of American sport. What we must also be prepared to admit, however, is that the Americans can run a tournament. Organisationally, they are decades ahead. They are also prepared to be bold. Food for thought for those in European rugby terrified of change.
The Burwell Plan splits our three major rugby leagues into two conferences each, giving us six conferences in all. This can be done easily as the Premiership and the Pro12 already have 12 teams in each. In France, where there are 14 teams, it would need a little change or if the French, God bless them, simply couldn’t bring themselves to drop two of their lesser teams from the top tier, then they could be allowed to compete with 14 teams, in two conferences of seven.
Already, you can hear the complaints. Chief among them would be that in conferences you miss out on traditional fixtures. In fact, you do not. Take a putative season for, say, Harlequins, who are in the Aviva South conference. They would play all the other five teams in their conference home and away, making ten games in all. They would then play all six teams in the other English conference, home or away (reverse fixtures in the next season), giving us a running total of 16 fixtures.
They would then play three matches against teams from each of the other four conferences – two for France and two for the Pro12 – giving them 12 more matches and therefore a regular-season total of 28 games, which is precisely what they play now. The plan doesn’t include the Anglo-Welsh Cup, which would cease; the weekends devoted to it could be used for rest before international matches. To keep the tournament endlessly fresh, the inter-conference opposition would be rotated every year.
Then it gets serious. At the end of the regular season, each of the three leagues would have its divisional semi-finals, with the top team in Aviva South playing the runner-up in Aviva North & West, and the runner-up in Aviva South playing the top team in Aviva North & West – with a similar pattern in France and the Celtic League.
This would then give us our finalists for a stupendous day of rugby at Twickenham, and in Cardiff or Dublin or Rome or Edinburgh; and in Paris. At the end of the day we have our three national champions as usual. Then the European Super Bowl begins in earnest. The three champions would enter a draw for a semi-final play-off to make the Super Bowl final. Here, Burwell becomes creative, suggesting that we could invite the winner of the previous season’s Super 15 to take part, although he tends towards the fourth semi-finalist being a wild card – the club with the best regular-season record of the three teams which lost in their national finals.
The European Super Bowl would then climax the whole season, to produce the overall champion. All the while, there would be a secondary competition running for the teams who didn’t make the play-off stages for the elite tournament – so the Amlin Challenge Cup or its equivalent would still be running across the continent.
Here, we have one giant event, with glamour and commercial appeal, but which also retains the best of the old elements and occasions. We have something that would transport European club rugby into the stratosphere. It would do away with the need to have endless numbers of committees running different competitions, it would blow away the Super 15 as any sort of competitor, and it would bail out all the big professional clubs beautifully, so that the need for so many to rely so heavily on central funding or benefactors would be eased substantially. TV rights, primary, secondary or tertiary, would be the hottest of hot properties. The planning of each season would be almost infinitely easier.
Burwell was in the corridors of power for too long to imagine for a second that his brilliant plan would be adopted by the frightened men in suits any time soon. They hate everything that is not their idea, and which represents change. But, as they bicker on, they’d have to admit their alternative visions for a dramatic and profitable rugby future are drastically thin on the ground.
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 edition of Rugby World.
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