STOP OR AGAIN? The third day of the Champions Cup and the European Challenge takes place this weekend, after many adventures which the European Cups are customary

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

Stade Toulousain won its fifth European Cup on May 22, 2021 at Twickenham, beating La Rochelle in the final. — Adrian Dennis/AFP

  • Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, the EPCR, organizer of the European Cups, has been juggling between Covid-19 and health restrictions in the UK and the Continent.
  • Between matches lost on green carpet or transformed into draws for lack of possibilities of postponement, the fairness and even the legitimacy of the Champions Cup and the European Challenge have been called into question.
  • In the midst of a storm, the EPCR fights to keep its competitions alive at all costs.

The respite after the storm. Except “push” of unexpected Covid in one or more clubs, the third day of the European Rugby Cups is on track to take place normally until the end of the season. Sunday, in the Champions Cup as in the European Challenge, the unloved little sister. At the start of the week, the English and Welsh clubs had nevertheless threatened of a boycott, because France then imposed a 48-hour isolation for all travelers coming from the United Kingdom.

This measure has been lifted this 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 are planning to attend competitive matches on Days 3 and 4 [January 21-23] and we expect a positive conclusion to both tournaments,” to 20 Minutes the body that oversees the two tournaments, in a great burst of optimism.

Anyway, it could hardly be worse than the 2nd day, mid-December, which turned around. to the fiasco. Due to the travel restrictions then in force between the two shores of the Channel, five Franco-British duels in the Champions Cup and two in the Challenge had initially been scheduled. postponed, only to be “transformed” in a draw (0-0), with two points for each team.

At the same time, other teams were able to play a normal match. And d’ still others have been declared victorious on green carpet (like Montpellier against Leinster or Racing 92 against the Ospreys in the Champions Cup) on the score of 28-0 with five points in the bag, because the opponent presented many cases of Covid in its workforce…

“This competition doesn’t make sense anymore”

Enough to 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 doesn’t make sense,” grated the UBB sporting boss. “Between those who lose with 0 points, those who don't play who have 2 points, it’s zero. &ccedil annoys me because &ccedil has distorted the competition” Tuesday, when justifying this judgment of Solomon, the EPCR had put forward “the increasingly complicated calendar due to Covid-19”.

According to Midi Olympique, this decision was the subject of discussions between the shareholders of the competition and the representatives of the three Leagues (Top 14, English Premiership and United Rugby Championship Celtic and Italian). The English even pushed for the French to have lost matches. Good atmosphere…

And if a situation similar to this damned second day had to happen again, would the decision be the same?“Not necessarily” 20 MinutesEPCR, for whom it “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 disruption

However, this is what happened last year, the first year of a Champions Cup formula worthy of Georges Charpak, with 24 teams divided into two pools, finally pi. driven by the coronavirus. Future winner, Stade Toulousain had only played; only a group match, before playing his 8th, his quarter, his half and the final in the spring. And a year earlier, when the Top 14 froze; the championship, cooled by the first wave and its strict confinement, the final phases of the European Cups were played in September and October, at the start of the following season, to crown the English of ;Exeter at the expense of Racing 92 (31-27)!

The EPCR has therefore proven that she preferred to relocate a final to the Kerguelen islands rather than give up award a title, which could further undermine its legitimacy. For if the Irish provinces have always venerated the Champions Cup, by systematically fielding the best rested players in their domestic competition, many French clubs favor the venerable Bouclier de Brennus, awarded since 1892, at a competition born “only” in 1995.

Laporte wanted the end of the European Cups

With a few exceptions, however, start with Toulouse, five times winner of the European Cup (a record) and where  relocating the final phase matches from Ernest-Wallon (19,000 seats) to the Stadium (33,000) made the fans as happy as the treasurer in the pre-Covid era. Not to mention the “extras” like 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 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 did not go into detail: “Let's be frank:  The European Cup is not generating enough revenue.” And the talkative leader d’d evoke a future Club World Cup, slipped into a calendar where; continental competitions “would be brought to to disappear.

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

European Challenge matches, such as here between the Welsh Dragons and Lyon on December 17, 2021 in Paris. Newport, are often played in front of a sparse audience. – Gareth Everett/Huw Evans/Shutterstock/Sipa

Specialist in resilience, the EPCR made the round back, before replying with bombast. In early October 2021, when stepping down from his chair, England’s Simon Halliday unveiled a world club competition to be held “every four years” ;. An event organized “à” the place of the final stages of the Champions Cup”, whose holding (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 according to Laporte, the teams engaged in the European Cup do not play only for glory. In a guide to the “distribution rules”, the NRL says that each of the eight Top 14 clubs entered this season in the Champions Cup receives a fixed amount of 790,000 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 bonuses. the “meritocracy”.

A big deal

If he is French, between endowments from the EPCR and the LNR, the winner of the most prestigious event palpates 900,000 euros (600,000 for the finalist). Sums reduced to 375,000 and 225,000 euros for the “small” European Cup, which French teams only really take seriously when they get out of the pools, after having previously used young and revived “tricards” in front of a confidential audience.

Contested, mistreated by the Covid, the European Cups are resisting. But behind the scenes, the ECPR will still have to play it smart when renegotiating television rights. who arrive at expiry, for a new cycle of four years (2022-2026). In France, beIN Sports and France Tévisions broadcast the matches. When asked about their intentions for the future, the two groups did not wish to answer 20 Minutes questions.