The start of the Guinness Premiership season has been exciting, if not unpredictable; the EDF Energy Cup has lived up to it’s “damp squib” billing; and the Magners League is proving just as irresistible as ever with rollercoaster games and lots of tries. However, none of these competitions can match the anticipation of what promises to be another epic competition in this years Heineken Cup.
The organisers have already declared their joy at how quickly tickets have been snapped up, with a “record breaking” start to their sales campaign. We all know what the competition means to the guys in charge, but what does it mean to the clubs, the players, and more importantly, the rank and file supporters who stand in the cold watching…?
The clubs view this competition as a cash cow. The TV rights for the competition coupled with the boost in gate revenues serve only to lube up and massage the club’s P&L. However, it also invariably boosts the reputation of those clubs involved in the competition, with a spot in the knock-out stages guaranteeing each club serious bragging rights for the rest of the season.
Ultimately, for the players, the incentive lies in the fact that the competition is the top tier competition for club rugby. It’s a step below test level rugby, with teams from the Home Nations, France and Italy all fielding their top stars – giving each player the opportunity to put themselves in the shop window and boost their chances of an international call-up. This year, the memo sent round to all the Home Nations players read:
“Play out of your skin as McGeechan is on the hunt for Lions!”
Traditionally it’s the players in form who get given the nod to don the famous red jersey, so every Irish, English, Welsh and Scottish player worth his salt will be digging deep come to weekend to lay down a marker for his rivals.
However, arguably, the Heineken Cup means something more for the fans. In 2005, the Heineken Cup final between Toulouse (the eventual winners) and Stade Francais saw 51,000 fans packed the rafters at Murrayfield (incidentally, the venue for the final for this years competition). The fans create the atmosphere, the fans will on the teams, the fans are the life force of each club in the competition. For the fans, the competition helps define their club, and rewards them for all those dreary nights on the stands.
Standing in the stalls, cold beer in hand, wrapped up in a club scarf and a thick coat on a dark autumn night watching your team play against another elite European side has its own sense of magic that you will only know if you’ve experienced it. The buzz of the crowd, the sense of unity and the tension make for one of the greatest club rugby experiences around.
Can anyone else feel the hair on the back of your neck tingle already? Or is it just me…?