Gerry Thornley: Once again the Champions Cup final rescues the tournament

Teams such as the Bulls fielding weakened sides has harmed competitive balance while the jury is still out on South Africa’s participation


The final rides to the rescue again. The Champions Cup has lost much of its lustre since the very Anglo-French coup of 2015, which forced ERC out of office to be replaced by EPCR, and the ensuring changes in format as the tournament was reduced to 20 and then expanded to 24 again have, as with other unfulfilled promises, simply not worked.

The jury remains out on whether the addition of the South African sides, while undoubtedly raising the levels of competition in the URC, has been to the overall benefit of the Champions Cup.

The pro-Europeans in say, France, are still sceptical that the South African sides have diminished the essence of the competition. But there are also some tangible difficulties about their participation in the tournament, and this is compounded by a format which has compressed the tournament to eight weeks as the LNR and PRL, the French and English organisations which comprise two-thirds of the EPCR board, prioritise their domestic competitions.

So it is that the Champions Cup is shoehorned into the season prior to the play-offs in the Top 14, Premiership Rugby and the URC, whereas in football the Champions League final comes after the completion of the major European Leagues.

The biggest difficulty facing the Champions Cup logistically is shoehorning the round of 16 and quarter-finals on successive weekends. Hence teams have to have contingency plans for two or even three different possibilities at a week’s notice.

When this involves a trek to South Africa or vice versa, this has, inevitably, led to Jake White bringing a second choice Bulls team for their 59-22 quarter-final hammering away to Northampton, and this was a week after Lyon took a similar approach for their 59-19 thrashing away to the Bulls. Whatever about dead rubbers at the end of the pool stages, no tournament needs them in the knockouts.

But the board recognises this and are looking at ways they might be able to overcome this problem.

Granted, some of the changing formats were forced upon the organisers by the pandemic and it was still an almighty achievement to ensure that the 2019-20 tournament was completed.

Furthermore, over 100,000 attended the semi-finals and only the Bruce Springsteen and Taylor Swift concert tickets sold out quicker than the Croke Park semi-final between Leinster and Northampton.

As well as having a first ever final between the competition’s most decorated sides, the organisers will be grateful that all of the three participating leagues are represented in the final weekend, as are four different countries.

The Leinster-Toulouse final is a big production. There will be 29 cameras in use for the six host broadcasters and this weekend’s Champions Cup final will be televised live in over 100 countries and the global audience of 73 million for last season’s final will be increased significantly.

Far from diluting interest, the World Cup appears only to have stimulated audiences for the sport, and this is particularly true in France, where Ronan O’Gara’s ability to force a mental shift in La Rochelle was vital for the Champions Cup.

The celebrations in La Rochelle were worth their weight in gold to the tournament and now it has a final for the ages.

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