Super Rugby v Heineken Cup

Last Saturday saw the final round of regular season games in Super Rugby. There was high drama all day, especially after the Brumbies’ unlikely loss at home to the Blues saw the reigning champions the Reds pinch the Australian Conference title off them at the last minute.

Since it’s off season up here in Europe and I have no Leinster or Ireland performance to give an opinion on this Monday, I thought I’d offer my contribution to a long standing debate – which competition is better…Super Rugby or the Heineken Cup?

I have picked a few random categories to compare them under.

History – Us stuffy European rugby heads wouldn’t like to admit it, but the Heineken Cup was essentially born because we wanted our own version of soccer’s Champions League which was going from strength to strength every year. Since rugby had gone professional, a pan-European tournament with a decent TV rights income was (quite rightly) seen as the only way forward for the game.

Unfortunately, not everyone was happy with to see the end of the amateur era, which made the transfer a laborious one which we still see evident today. Since top level rugby is really only played in six nations, while soccer has to deal with over fifty, you’d think it would be a lot easier for rugby’s European Cup to be formed, but as it turned out, although the first Heineken Cup was played in the 1995/96 season, it wasn’t until 1999/2000 that all of the Six Nations were supplying teams’

Down under things happened a little differently. The concept of a tournament spanning the three major southern hemisphere nations not only was born before professionalism, it was being talked of before South Africa was formally accepted back into the international fold. In 1993 we finally had the “Super 10” which included teams from NZ, Aus and SA.

Then in 1995 the game went pro and the competition became the Super 12 and it has gradually expanded to the 15 team entity we now know as “Super Rugby” with the possibility of many more teams being added in the future.

Competing teams – This is where I feel rugby has struggled to produce a stable product in both hemispheres.

European soccer has a structure for its Champions League where all the clubs can compete in the competition so that the cream can rise to the top. Egg-chasing, however, emerged from the amateur era with strong clubs in England and France on account of their large player pools. The Celtic Nations all had pyramid club formats in place as well at home but the playing base was much, much smaller thus the talent was spread thin.

This meant that if they were to put forward clubs to a new European competition, they needed to embrace the concept of “super teams” or “franchises”. Ireland was lucky in that it had four ready-made regions with which the public could readily identify. Wales, Scotland, however, had to start from the back of the pack by trying to “create” teams (though it took the Welsh a few years to accept it). It could be argued that the fans still haven’t warmed to the idea in either country.

Italy have always been considered an exception and put their “top” clubs into the Heineken Cup as lambs to the slaughter every year until eventually they went the super team route though they haven’t quite gotten it right yet and are still considered whipping boys. And of course we must not forget the French, who rarely have more than two of their six or seven qualifiers give a jot about the competition every season.

The southern hemisphere found the transition to the franchise system a lot smoother, though with the ongoing Southern Kings saga they’re not having things their own way by a long shot. Much like the top two tiers of the English game the current Super Rugby regular season has ended with absolutely nothing decided as to who will compete next year, a crazy state of events for any top level sport.

Format – Article after article written by Southern hemisphere fans seems to complain about the current “conference” system employed by Super Rugby. They can’t wrap their heads around the fact that the Reds on 58 points finish ahead of the Crusaders (61) Bulls & Sharks (both 59) on the overall table.

That may sound crazy when put in those terms, but not when you factor money into the equation. Dividing the 15 into conferences and allowing the winners of each occupy the first three seeds guarantees that at least one playoff game will be held in each market, crucial for advertising purposes. Plus, whatever you may say about the varying strengths of the three conferences, the Reds finished first in theirs, the other teams did not. This format is almost a carbon copy of what the NFL has been doing for decades now and its fans don’t have much trouble understanding why it must be that way.

Of course with six different countries in the Heineken Cup, a similar method wouldn’t be feasible. And as the English and French clubs keep reminding us, the teams in the Pro 12 for the most part don’t have to bother with qualifying each season as they do. So before a ball is even kicked in the competition, the playing field isn’t level.

Then we have the actual Heineken Cup format itself, with everyone dying to draw an Italian team to boost the chances of the “best runner-up” coming from their pool.

The most glaring difference between the two formats is in the calendar. Super Rugby takes place on consecutive weeks to a conclusion. True, it had a three week break for internationals, but that’s nothing compared to the breaks Heineken Cup coaches must endure. At least the test matches during the SR break are friendlies…if you’ve worked hard to get your squad into the final eight of the H Cup, all you can then do is pray that your squad makes it through the Six Nations intact, and that can be a long, worrying two months no matter how deep your squad may be.

However the European system can at times be kinder to coaches…say a team’s star player throws a swinging arm at an opponent in the final regular season game as Quade Cooper did last Saturday. A similar one-week ban means you miss nothing a you’re more than welcome to take part in the next game in the competition, unlike Cooper, who misses their playoff clash with the Sharks next weekend.

Style of rugby – General consensus is that Super Rugby is more free-flowing….since they were the first to introduce the 4-try bonus system into the sport the culture is more geared towards try-scoring down there while in Europe caution is generally shielded from the wind.

The tide may be turning, however. Joe Schmidt’s Leinster were generally scoring tries for fun last season on the way to their third H Cup triumph in four years (I’ll use any excuse to say it) while the Stormers topped the overall Super Rugby “log” despite being the competition’s lowest try scorers.

Crowds – Numerically Super Rugby has the edge, but in Europe we seem to be better at playing Heineken Cup matches in stadia that will fit the demand for tickets (Murrayfield of course being the glaring exception). So for the most part last weekend we saw massive gaps of empty seats at Super Rugby games (Suncorp of course being the glaring exception).

Money – Three words – Sonny Bill Williams. If the NZRU can’t keep him, they’ve got piggy bank problems. Richie McCaw may be of the old-school “loyal” variety but you can’t blame young talented players to maximise their earning potential in a sport where their career could be cut short at any minute. And going by the massive numbers moving south to north instead of vice versa shows just exactly where the power lies.

Conclusion – It’s a tough one to call. Ideally I’d like the calendar and format of Super Rugby with the full houses and the financial clout of the Heineken Cup.

If the ERC lost all reason and put it down to me I’d change the Heineken Cup to four pools of six and have the round robin matches played home and away in successive weeks. The domestic leagues would finish before them and teams would qualify directly into the same season’s Heineken Cup instead of the following year’s as it stands now.

But overall my conclusion is very similar to the one I came to on last week’s rant, in that I think the entire world professional rugby union calendar needs to be taken down and re-assembled in such a way as to (1) make sense (2) allow for players to play for club and country regardless of hemisphere and (3) allow for an annual playoff between the winners of both competitions so this argument can be settled on the pitch rather than in blog posts.

Hang on – what would I have to rant about then? Oh wait, just thought of at least a dozen different topics. I’ll try to have one chosen by next week.

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