After the protracted, tiresome saga that engulfed the European rugby world this season, the resultant Rugby Champions Cup is a competition that is going to be scrutinised like few before it. Will the concentration from 24 to 20 teams really lead to a better tournament? Will the dual-broadcast system of both BT Sport and Sky showing games pay off?
As a three-time winner of its predecessor, the Heineken Cup, there are few better placed to bear judgement than Irish legend Brian O’Driscoll. He begins life as a pundit as the newest addition to the BT Sport crew, one that impressed many in its maiden voyage into rugby waters last season. With half of the European Rugby Champions Cup matches set to be shown on BT Sport, he will have the pleasure of passing judgement on those he was playing with just a short time ago.
While the new tournament is positive for many – not least the English and French clubs who were the main drivers for change – rugby in O’Driscoll’s home country could be set to encounter greater problems than in the past. There has been a power shift behind the scenes in rugby circles north of the equator, away from the unions and towards the clubs. Ireland, a country in which the union wields significant power over its regions, could find things more difficult next season.
“There’s absolutely the potential for that,” admits O’Driscoll. “The provinces probably have batted above their average over the past few years with being able to rest players, with the player management programme that’s been put in place from the national team. The provinces have been told when they can and can’t play certain players – it’s a fine line between being rightly prepped, and having too much game time.
“They’ve probably struck the balance quite well the last few years, but the problem this time around is that the second team that comes in has to get themselves in the top six in the Guinness PRO12 – they have to do a job to make sure, and there’s going to be great competition to be in that top six.
“All of a sudden you don’t take that for granted anymore, which will create a fascinating subplot on the following season, while you’re still in the middle of things.”
It is a gripe that many English and French club fans have, rightly or wrongly, had in the past – that the Irish provinces would be well-rested for the big Heineken Cup games having not had to play their entire first team week in week out in the PRO12.
The new qualification system throws up some interesting questions, then. If it gets to the business end of the season, and a province is facing an away trip to Toulon in the Champions Cup and a battle to qualify for next season’s tournament in the Guinness PRO12, what do they do?
Without knowing the ins and outs of the agreement in place between the union and the regions, it is tough to speculate, but it certainly has the potential to cause more friction in the relationship – something O’Driscoll admits has already arisen in the past.
“There’ve been annoyances; just maybe not aired in public, in many a meeting in the last few years. I know it happens – irritated provincial coaches that have wanted certain players for key games, and have been told they have to rest them. Of course, there’s going to be huge frustration lying there.”
It’s easy to see how the increased competitiveness of the Guinness PRO12 could lead to more arguments between the regions and the union. It’s a good job, then, that the man at the top of the tree in the Irish coaching team came into the job straight from coaching a province. Having experienced both sides of the equation, Joe Schmidt is well placed to understand both parties’ concerns. O’Driscoll sums it up well.
“The last two coaches of the national set up have both been provincial coaches beforehand, so it’s whether you’re poacher turned gamekeeper or whether you’re understanding of the situation that the provincial coaches find themselves in. It’s an interesting dynamic.”
Whatever happens, it is not something O’Driscoll has to worry unduly about anymore. He’s hopeful that any tensions will be resolved behind-the-scenes as they have been in the past (Welsh rugby administrators, take note) and that the new competitiveness will have a positive effect not just on the European competition, but also the domestic leagues.
“If you look at the quality of the pools, maybe there were a couple of teams that were fortunate to make it into the Heineken Cup year on year, and now everyone has to work hard for it in their domestic leagues.
“I think that’ll just drive the standards of the European Competition, but also the domestic competitions.”
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Brian O’Driscoll has become an ambassador and rugby expert for BT Sport. BT Sport is the only place to watch top live matches from the new European Rugby Champions Cup, European Rugby Challenge Cup and the Aviva Premiership.
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images