If the loss of a team’s opening two games in Europe is enough to consign their hopes of progress to dust – and it almost always is – then this season’s champions will come from England, France or Ireland. “What’s new?” cynics might ask. “We’ve always known that.” And they would be right. But there is something to be said for hoping, at least, that a Welsh, Scottish or Italian side might make the quarter-finals.
There is no such hope this time. When the Ospreys’ exhilarating attempt to storm fortress Barnet fell three points shy of victory against Saracens on Saturday night, attention resignedly turned to the usual suspects.
This season there are only four representatives from Wales, Scotland and Italy anyway, where once there were seven or eight, lending the old Heineken Cup its special flavour. All four of them have collected two defeats from two, which means, midway through the second month of the season, it is time for them to “concentrate on the league”.
The Ospreys, it should be said, have three points from those first two defeats. Victories in the next two rounds over shell-shocked Northampton, while Saracens and Clermont take chunks out of each other, may yet offer a glimmer of light. But, as Alun Wyn Jones sat in the press room afterwards, a beer in his hand, ice strapped to his knee, his legs pockmarked by the scars of this and so many other battles, he more or less accepted that that was it for the Ospreys and Europe for another season. He cuts a lone reference point these days. It is not hard, though, to remember a time when he was surrounded by Ospreys team-mates of a similar standing in international rugby to his, when they were live contenders for whichever competition they entered.
One season – two rounds indeed – is clearly not enough from which to extrapolate grand conclusions. Glasgow and the Scarlets were tipped by many to reach the quarter-finals this season, and with good reason. They are richly talented and boast the pedigree of recent domestic champions, even if the suspicion remains that neither are hard enough of mind to force their way to victory when the fates are conspiring against. Glasgow, indeed, made their debut in the knockout stages only last season. That is significant progress.
What is incontestable, though, is that rugby’s new Europe has been designed to intensify the competition, to narrow the focus, eliminate the weak. This much has been achieved, the ferocity of some of these pools all but unprecedented. The ruthless new format has been hailed as an improvement. It is an elite competition after all, with no time for losers.
The trouble is that losers are necessary. There cannot be winners without them. If a competition is serious about improving itself, it must bring on the weaker teams rather than cut them loose as the Champions Cup did when it reduced its count from 24 to 20 and will again when it removes the last of its free passes next season, which will likely cost the participation of the Italians.
In sport the survival-of-the-fittest creed that defines capitalism applies nowhere more ruthlessly than on the field. But in the boardroom it must be overridden. Sport cannot afford to whittle out its losers because even the most powerful winners need opponents to play against. The more there are, the healthier the competition.
Such breadth and length of vision, however, requires strong governance. The transition from Heineken Cup to Champions Cup involved the transfer of power from unions to the competitors themselves, in other words to those with no interest beyond the here and now.
The old system did institute a certain degree of subsidisation of the Celts and Italians by the English and French, which is as it should be, considering the power of the latter. The new, though, has redressed that balance, the monies now shared out according to feeder league rather than union. Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, has tried to claim that everyone is getting richer but he insults the intelligence of the game’s followers.
If an individual becomes richer by one unit while competitors do so by three or four, that individual is, in fact, becoming poorer. A GCSE economics student knows that much. So it is with rugby’s new Europe. The reorganisation overwhelmingly favoured the English and French, who were already hoovering up most of the global talent as it was. Now they are becoming world rugby’s black hole. The Irish are holding out for now, although the current squads of Munster and Leinster are nothing like as powerful as they once were, but the Welsh are teetering. The Ospreys are a shadow of their former selves and it is easy to forget the Scarlets/Llanelli were thrice semi-finalists in the Heineken Cup.