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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Tony Ward

Jury most definitely out on South African flavour to newly-established Champions Cup

Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff. Picture: ©INPHO/Dan Sheridan

When it comes to rugby and Europe, count me in. I’ve long been a committed Europhile. We should be proud in this part of the world at the role played in the setting up of the greatest competition outside of the World Cup in the oval-ball code.

The contributions of Tom Kiernan, sadly no longer with us, and Syd Millar, alongside that great Welsh administrator Vernon Pugh, at Five Nations Committee level to the setting up of the original Heineken Cup can never be understated.

They truly did honour the main sponsor’s logo in taking the new-found professional game ‘to parts others couldn’t possibly have reached’.

That was back in 1995 and, until 2014, it ran as just that, albeit with a little tinkering, to re-emerge as the European Champions Cup. In essence, though, it remained much the same top-tier, cross-border competition as Kiernan, Millar, Pugh et al had envisaged it to be.

Right now, most sporting attention is focused on Qatar, but even the four-yearly battle for the beautiful game’s biggest prize is struggling to stay the ever-changing pace, and rugby is no different.

So, as one who feels a genuine buzz of excitement when kick-off time for the game’s greatest tournament outside of Test rugby comes into view, it is tinged with an air of caution this time as, six years on from morphing into the European Champions Cup, the strictly-European aspect disappears as the newly-established Champions Cup is unveiled and presented for the first time.

Before a ball is kicked, a card issued or a ‘use it’ uttered, let me state – reluctantly, I might add – that the jury for this hitherto extraordinary annual competition between December and May is most definitely out.

We’ll not go into the nitty gritty, but, suffice it to say, the eight best teams from last season’s Premiership (England), Top 16 (France) and United Rugby Championship (the Celtic Nations, plus Italy and South Africa) will compete in two Pools of 12 within micro groups of four. Don’t ask.

The top eight teams in each pool then qualify from that four-match group stage for a round of 16 in the last weekend of March, with the quarters and semis scheduled for April. All roads ultimately lead to Lansdowne Road on Saturday, May 20 for the grand finale, where we hope and pray for an Irish presence.

We are tempted to suggest this Champions Cup, although still run by European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), is European, but it’s not. Perhaps a ‘line of longitude’ moniker might serve this new competition more accurately, although, yes, it did bear the same Champions Cup billing when La Rochelle beat Leinster in the final back in May.

We may not like it, but what we, sadly, must accept in an increasingly professional age is the reality of euro, sterling and rand setting the bar of consequence and, by extension, the rules of engagement.

Make no mistake, what we are witnessing is the absolute elite of South African rugby coming on board by way of their top three provincial sides from Western Transvaal (the Stormers), from Natal (the Sharks) and from Northern Transvaal (the Blue Bulls). Each great rugby powerhouse brings with it a different style of rugby and a different way of winning to the Springboks.

The bottom line sees as many participating South African teams as Welsh, Scots and Italians combined. In the search for meritocracy in terms of qualification, there should be no problem with that. We may have three on board through finishing in the top eight, but that can so easily change over the course of a season.

It would be overly simplistic to suggest the changing of a great competition, in little need of fixing, a grave error of judgment, but, clearly, there will be much tweaking along the way.

Whether the entrance of the Springboks into a revamped or re-engineered Six Nations is at the nub of this re-designed tournament, only time will tell.

It all kicks off on Friday, when London Irish face Montpellier, with Leinster travelling to Racing 92 on Saturday. Ulster are at Sale on Sunday, with the plum tie that afternoon between Munster and Toulouse at Thomond Park.

Irrespective of the title, the Kiernan-Pugh-Millar legacy is very much alive and kicking.

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