The start of the Champions and Challenge Cup starts in 10 days time and for the tournament's organisers the action can't come quickly enough
The Champions Cup starts in earnest this month with enough high-profile clashes to whet the appetite of the most ardent Euro sceptic. The English leg of EPCR’s (European Professional Club Rugby) whistlestop tour of Europe took place at a sun-bathed Stoop in South-West London last week, with Brad Barritt, Saracens’ teak-tough captain given the honour of entering the room holding the trophy they won back in May.
There’s little doubt Mark McCall’s men will be heavily backed to go ‘back-to-back’, having, on-paper at least, strengthened their squad. With Alex Lozowski shining in Owen Farrell‘s absence, Barritt later enthused that Schalk Burger was relishing any sort of competition which pits him against Springboks Bryan Habana and Duane Vermeulen on the opening weekend at the Stade Mayol.
Indeed, there’s no lack of box-office ties in the opening rounds. The opening salvos sees last season’s finalists, Racing 92 duking it out with two-time champions Munster, and Exeter Chiefs going toe-to-toe with last season’s sparring partners Clermont Auvergne.
Who will lift the trophy? Well the usual suspects spring to mind. Saracens are among the favourites, along with Racing 92 and a spluttering Toulon, but many are backing Wasps lifting a first Cup since 2004, with Kurtley Beale and Willie Le Roux still to add to their arsenal, despite Dai Young‘s protestations of an extra burden of pressure.
Speaking to the tournament’s organisers, it’s clear the action can’t come quick enough. The EPCR’s Chairman Simon Halliday was keen to stress that with all the destabilising talk of the global calendar swirling around, they remained an integral part in the jigsaw and were intent on becoming more powerful, “the EPCR has signed a long-term agreement to ensure it will be a central part of North Hemisphere rugby”, before adding that, “we want to manage aggressive growth as our clubs get stronger and stronger.”
There was also a bullish message about tickets sold for the 2016/17 finals at Murrayfield, with 20,000 paying fans ready to put bums on seats and organisers remain confident they will improve their semi-final attendances after last year’s semis were had the poorest overall numbers for 15 years.
Amid the fanfare, there was an acceptance that the competition has taken time to bed in and was no overnight success. Many, with a nostalgic glint in their eye, still argue that it has yet to reach the hearts and minds in the same way the old Heineken Cup did and the fact the Celtic nations provided not one side in the knock-out stages was taken as a sign by many disgruntled fans that a French-English duopoly could become the norm and weaken the tournament’s appeal as a bonafide pan-European tournament.
These concerns have all been aired and listened to and there’s no lack of resolve on the organisers part to redress any perceived emotional void, with plans for a fan village, and renewed efforts to ingratiate the competition into the fabric of club rugby. “We have a new team, new location, new structure and new format and it’s about time we got onto the front foot and promoted the tournament’s strengths and identity”, opined Halliday.
There was also a tacit acknowledgement that time was required to ‘grow a tournament’, and that includes commercial ambitions. Twelve months ago Turkish Airlines were named as a principal sponsor alongside Heineken and a further sponsor is expected to be added to the roster in the coming weeks. Definite signs of progress, but still work to do.
Vincent Gaillard, EPCR’s director general, maintained the upbeat stance by saying they’d had ‘more applications than ever before’ 2018 tender process and were keen to expand into new markets. There was more tub-thumping rhetoric about the club game’s health. “After a couple of very difficult years with the transition of two organizations, the ERC to the EPCR, we feel in a good place.”
In a matter of days, the slick montages, hyperbole and positive spin will be replaced by blood, sweat and tears of players hellbent on taking the highroad to Edinburgh.
It’s be time to strap-in for a season of European intrigue.