Will Greenwood: Heineken Cup is in league of its own but money must not skew playing field

Rugby is turning into football. Don’t kid yourself, don’t bury your
head in the sand, one is morphing into the other. I am not talking
about diving; although we do advocate cheating at breakdowns, and good
cheats seem to be heroes for the supporters of the teams that get away
with it.
Heineken Cup is in a league of its own with the kudos and cash on
offer but money must not be allowed to skew playing field
European fan: Ireland’s Brian O’Driscoll enjoys the intensity and
quality of Heineken Cup competition Photo: PA
Will Greenwood

By Will Greenwood

10:30PM GMT 11 Nov 2011

Nor am I talking of Twitter and the way footballers use it to moan
about everything; although Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu isn’t helping. Come
to think of it rugby has had drugs scandals, ‘Bloodgate’, dwarf
tossing, threatened pay strikes and plenty of other embarrassing
incidents that it really is impossible for us to inhabit the moral
high ground any longer.

But before I get lost in a stream of recrimination and disappointment,
let me say that I was thinking about football in a positive way when I
made the comparison between the two sports.

What struck me most was how central to the season, how defining,
rugby’s European tournament has become. Just as with football, the
lure of playing in Europe is what drives the top talent to sign for
the clubs who can offer them this stage to star on.

Heineken Cup rugby is now the minimum requirement of the top clubs and
top players. In football, the Champions League is the cherry on the
season’s cake, giving both an economic and emotional incentive.

It’s all very well beating your neighbours in a football derby, but
there is something quite different about turning up against Barcelona
at the Nou Camp. The kudos and cash is king

For professional rugby it is no different. Europe is the shop window
where you have to play. If you want to represent your country, you
need to be playing for a side in the Heineken Cup. Some legends have
dodged it and still got the call-up, but they are few and far between.

And if anything, when you realise that I am talking about players such
as Jonny Wilkinson and Jason Leonard then you could also argue that
their club loyalty meant the only people who suffered were themselves,
missing out on the chance to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that they
were World XV players at the time.

But even though this was only a few years ago, today it is already a
very different scenario.

This time round, after the World Cup there are six rounds of Heineken
action over the next 11 weeks. It is the lead up to the Six Nations
and this is where selection will take place. If you are 19 and want to
play for England you are hoping your agent gets a call from Mallinder,
O’Shea, and the other top talent spotters.

This is where it starts, for a career and in reality the next World Cup.

It may seem I am jumping the gun, it may seem as if we have only just
finished. But the reality is that the new World Cup cycle kicks off
this weekend, and you don’t want to be playing in the sideshow while
your rivals are taking on Munster at Thomond Park.

The Heineken Cup is the closest thing to international rugby that is
not international rugby, and in many ways it matches it. That is why
coaches pick a player who has delivered in Clermont over a kid who has
delivered in Worcester. It’s as simple and as ruthless as that.

When Brian O’Driscoll talks of leaving a Heineken field more battered
than when he leaves an international pitch, you have to sit up and
take notice. And when he talks of using the tournament to get over
World Cup heartbreak, you realise how much it means to people and what
it will take in terms of commitment and mental strength.

To reach the finishing line of a Heineken Cup you need to get through
nine matches. It is a gruelling schedule and only the best can do it.
The problem you have with the cup, though, is that for all the
positives unfortunately you can see the same issues developing as is
already very evident in football.

In England, for example, there is a danger of a two-tier Premiership
developing. There are those teams who play Heineken rugby and those
who play Amlin rugby.

The haves and have-nots are destined to grow further apart and the
balancing act for the Rugby Football Union and other administrators of
the game will be ensuring that the playing field does not get too
skewed in favour of the money men and the bankrolled European
juggernauts.

Not least because the biggest driving factor of the Heineken Cup’s
success will be the quality of the rugby being played and the depth of
competition. Not every minute, and not in every match, I grant you.
But as a whole, as a championship, as a tournament there is very
little to compare.

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