European rugby can ill afford complacency in Champions Cup

There are two easy ways to look at this year’s Champions Cup semi-final draw and both are overly simplistic. Viewing the last four purely through downcast English, Welsh or Scottish eyes is to diminish the serious amount of Franco-Irish talent involved, while fixating solely on the tasty duel between the La Rochelle coach, Ronan O’Gara, and his rivals at Leinster also risks obscuring the bigger picture.

Because the more pertinent question everyone should really be asking, regardless of the sides still standing, is how best to give the entire tournament a long-term turbo boost. Even before Bordeaux, Racing 92, Clermont and Toulouse combined to serve up 180 anti-climatic, try-free minutes on Sunday there was not a second’s worth of footage from Saturday’s two quarter-finals on the main evening news nor much in the way of prominent coverage on the homepage of the BBC Sport website.

Maybe it would have been different had Exeter or Sale fared better but the reality has to be faced: European club rugby’s flagship tournament is not persuading millions of new fans across the continent to drop everything and marvel at Ross Byrne’s calmness under pressure or, even in passing, to wonder if O’Gara and Jono Gibbes are watching their sides’ games from a small potting shed somewhere on the Île de Ré.

Covid-19 has plenty to answer for, of course. Stripped of colour and passion in the stands, rugby is even more reliant on the games being spectacular, which, until Sunday, they mostly have been. But then you read a little more about the shortening of youthful attention spans, the increasingly fragmented sporting landscape and Uefa’s plans to try to pep up football’s Champions League. Factor in newer contenders for global eyeballs such as cricket’s Indian Premier League and European rugby’s overlords can ill afford any complacency.

All kinds of ideas currently remain on the table, with the number of competing teams for next season almost certain to be revised back up from 20 to 24, possibly with the inclusion of South Africa’s leading provinces. As shown by the issues now engulfing this month’s scheduled Rainbow Cup, however, the latter concept comes with inevitable extra complications. Ultimately it comes down to working out the optimal structure to showcase the sport’s top players and enhance the broader narrative.

So what does that ideally look like? Reverting to 24 teams looks sensible on paper but the last things any tournament needs are more mismatches, dead rubbers or mundane pool fixtures. No surprise, then, that this year’s hastily introduced last-16 format may well be retained: more knockout rugby plus more jeopardy equals more drama.

The Breakdown understands the most likely scenario, pending a late rethink over the next month, will be four pool matches for every team followed by four knockout rounds. Eight weekends rather than nine is seen as good news from a player welfare perspective but does that match the impact of the erstwhile Heineken Cup format, which had six pools of four with the top side in each pool progressing to the last eight along with the two “fastest losers”?

With only one year of the existing TV deal left there is also clearly a danger of too much tinkering. Whatever the organisers do opt for – and if the English Premiership increases to 13 teams next season the Challenge Cup equation will be further complicated – they have definitely enjoyed a narrow escape this weekend. The original pre-Covid plan was for two-leg, home and away quarter-finals over consecutive weekends but rugby is a different mathematical beast from football.

If the system had been retained this season as planned, would Sale have had a prayer of beating La Rochelle by 25 clear points in a second leg? What would have been the chances of a deflated Exeter going to Dublin and defeating Leinster by a 13-point margin to progress to the semis? Last year’s quarters were a similarly cautionary tale. Two of them, as this year, were won by the away teams, with the other two yielding such one-sided home wins as to make a second leg superfluous.

So, what to do? If the organisers are smart they will ditch the home and away idea, pick up the phone and dial a certain number in La Rochelle to canvass the views of the man who can instinctively point them in the right direction. No one is more steeped in Heineken Cup lore than O’Gara, nor more aware of the critical balance to be struck between the glossy big occasion and the crucial gritty bonus point salvaged in the pool stages.

In his days as Munster’s fly-half the tournament was full of improbable theatre; the unforgettable January day in 2003 when Gloucester travelled to Thomond Park with Munster needing to score four tries more than their opponents and win by a margin of 27 points will for ever remain etched on this correspondent’s memory.

Sure enough, the last-minute try from John Kelly and angled conversion from O’Gara – who later admitted he was unaware of the kick’s full significance – miraculously sent Munster through to the last eight, causing an overexcited Guardian hack to file the following gushing intro: “Think Red Rum hunting down Crisp at Aintree or Ian Botham taking Australia apart at Headingley in 1981, set it in the wild west of Ireland in front of a delirious crowd and it is hard to imagine anything better.” And now here we are, 18 years later, again looking to “Rog” to elevate the tournament to the next level. If anyone knows how to make European club rugby great again, it is him.