Matt Williams: Diminishing Champions Cup makes commercial sense for English and French clubs

Farcical format is the fault of administrators, not the clubs benefiting

According to Greek mythology, Hermes was the messenger of the gods. The bearer of information between the elites and us lesser mortals. At the time Hermes was double jobbing. He was also the god of thieves. He was renowned for being an untrustworthy and mischievous child of Zeus. A prankster god, with a wicked sense of the absurd, who delighted in leading the foolish toward calamity and misfortune.

With a personality profile like that, Hermes seems the type who might have enjoyed playing a bit of rugby. Most likely a practical joking old prop, with a crooked nose and ears like a couple of brussel sprouts.

This week the old prankster god must be laughing behind his hand when it became clear that with a solitary pool stage win Ulster qualified for the Champions Cup knockout stages. An outcome that fundamentally denigrates the integrity of the once great competition.

Despite a series of Hermes style messages from the EPCR that assured us that the new format was positive progress for the competition, the reality is that once again the bugs bunny (money) is far more important than the competition’s heritage or integrity.


None of this is a criticism of Ulster or any of the competing clubs. This is about the self-harm inflicted upon the best club competition in the world by those charged with its stewardship.

With the introduction of the Round of 16, the Champions Cup became the only elite sporting competition in the world where a vital stage along the road to the title was not based on merit. It is a round of games that is a financial reward for participation. It is like a kindergarten athletics day. Everyone gets a ribbon.

It is clear that the war for control of the soul of the Champions Cup has been won by the English and French clubs. Their major goal has always been to diminish the competition’s impact on the French and English domestic leagues.

The emasculation of the pool stages means that in reality, the tournament does not now commence until April. This empowers the English Premiership and the Top 14 clubs to dominate the media in their territory from September without any real interest in European rugby. That is the realpolitik of why the Heineken Cup pool stages have been butchered.

While the English and French clubs desire the financial benefit that the playoff stages of the Champions Cup brings, most of their clubs do not have the physical, mental and emotional strength required to emerge from a six game pool stage to earn the right to be involved at the elite end of European rugby.

European aristocracies such as Toulouse, Saracens and Leinster have developed a culture, cultivated across 25 seasons of emotional discipline, learning how to win a minimum of five pool games out of six. Only then could a team be certain of being rewarded with a quarter-final.

This season Ulster can reach a quarter-final with just two wins. This is a totally indefensible situation for the EPCR.

Many of the pool stage games under the old format were dramatic, desperate, must-win affairs. Stadiums were full of supporters who soaked in the drama and understood that to lift the trophy was a reward for a nine game, season long series of elite performances across all of Europe’s best rugby competitions.

Leo Tolstoy said that “Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.” And while the EPCR attempts to justify the unjustifiable, the rugby community understands that reaching a so called playoff stage with a solitary win is a farcical situation. It goes against all of the sport’s traditions and its ethos.

What is also clear is that despite Ulster qualifying with a single win, this current competition structure is a major strategic defeat for Irish rugby. Another goal of the alliance between the English and French clubs was aimed at weakening the deep historical relationship that the Irish provincial teams and their supporters have with the tournament.

A relationship that has driven high performance success at both club and international levels. Irish opponents strategically aiming to stem the rise of Irish rugby is not beyond the pale within rugby politics.

Ireland regards the Champions Cup as club rugby’s Holy Grail. The French and English do not. They place far more importance on their domestic league, so it is in their commercial interests to diminish the value of a pan-European competition that could be seen as superior to their own internal trophies.

Sadly, something they are slowly achieving to the detriment of Irish rugby.

The EPCR has taken the best club competition in the world and allowed the commercial interests of a few individual members to dominate the decision making to create a competition structure that has damaged their own product.

Hermes may have retired from playing rugby but there is a strong chance he has moved into administration.