Last year’s European Champions Cup semi-finals painted a picture of a rugby competition at odds with it the burgeoning strength of its sport.
At a time when rugby, high off its best-attended World Cup and forthcoming reemergence as an Olympic sport, was beginning to plant flags in the Americas and Asia markets, and Premiership clubs were selling 80,000 tickets for regular-season games at Wembley, the semi-finals of the Champions Cup were played against a backdrop of empty seats in sad-looking lower league football stadiums.
A year earlier, over 25,000 seats at Twickenham were left unclaimed for the 2015 final — the inaugural Champions Cup after it replaced the Heineken Cup as Europe’s premier club competition — between Toulon and Clermont.
The tournament returns this weekend for semi-finals between Munster and Saracens at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday afternoon and Clermont and Leinster at the Stade de Gerland in Lyon.
According to European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) chief executive Vincent Gaillard, the two games will showcase a tournament that is finally emerging from a “transition phase” that followed after the Heineken Cup and its former governing body European Rugby Cup were disbanded and growing into a healthy future.
“The semi-finals will show a very diverse representation of our leagues and show a balanced competition,” Gaillard told City A.M.
“This whole notion of an Anglo-French dominance has definitely not materialised and that’s a good thing. We’re seeing increasing attendances in both competitions. The increase in the quarter-finals was something like 60 per cent, extremely significant. And we are nearing over 90,000 attendance for the semi-finals. We’re in a good place.”
That assuredness in the long-term future of the competition is demonstrated in EPCR’s announcement earlier this month that the 2018 and 2019 Champions Cup final would be hosted in Bilbao and Newcastle — two cities located well beyond the rugby heartlands.
Gaillard says this aligns the competition alongside a wider trend within the sport to travel to new territories.
Australia, Ireland and New Zealand have all played test matches in the United States, London Irish followed suit with a Premiership game in New Jersey last March while last year’s Top 14 final between Racing 92 and Toulon was taken out of France and to Barcelona’s Camp Nou where nearly 99,124 people turned up to set a new record for a domestic rugby game — a success that directly inspired EPCR’s decision to bring a game to Spain.
“We have an overarching desire to expand and bring our rugby to new countries, new territories,” said Gaillard.
“That’s translated into several things; the Continental Shield tournament, the way we go about [selling] international TV rights and, clearly, how we choose host cities for future finals.
“From the get go of launching the bid process for the 2018 and 2019 finals, we decided to engage with new host cities we had never engaged with in the past.
“We’re very excited, we’re going to the first time in our history to a non-traditional market. Is it a risk? No, we don’t see it as a risk. There is rugby in Spain and, in particular, in the Basque country. We have seen a huge amount of support from the Spanish Ministry of Sport and the City of Bilbao which has a natural attraction — seaside, Guggenheim museum, the surrounding country — that we think will make it quite easy to attract core rugby supporters from our traditional markets.”
The ambitious plans have struck a chord with sponsors and broadcasters — both existing and potential — according to Gaillard.
“We haven’t seen one negative reaction from one single partner — sponsors, broadcasters and stakeholders,” he says.
Other initiatives, such as plans to raise the stakes of secondary club competition the Challenge Cup by granting a spot in the Champions Cup to the winner and the rebranding of the Challenge Cup’s qualifying competition — contested by clubs from emerging rugby nations such as Georgia and German — into the European Rugby Continental Shield, are said to have been a hit with commercial partners.
Long-term, that could lead to the Champions Cup — which is governed by representatives from the associations and leagues from Europe’s major rugby nations — opening its doors to a franchise from a new market such as Georgia in a similar manner to the incorporation of Japanese and Argentinean franchises into the southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby competition.
“Yes, there will likely be an acceptable of franchises, Georgia could be an example,” Gaillard says.
“We want to provide a platform for teams from all these emerging markets to show their rugby.”
EPCR is also looking at Super Rugby for a potential World Club Cup-style showdown between the two hemisphere’s respective champions.
Although southern hemisphere governing body Sanzar has not expressed a similar level of enthusiasm, Gaillard says EPCR will look to re-start negotiations next year.
“Our commitment to doing it still exists, it’s still there,” he says.
“But we’ve decided to wait until the global season calendar debates are settled before we reactivate these discussions.
“From next season we should be able to reactivate negotiations with Sanzar. I cannot say that they are definitely interested. I did not get that impression when we discussed with them a year or so ago — they had just hired a new CEO who had other things to worry about.”
Should Sanzar dismiss the idea — as happened last year — Gaillard says EPCR could look to arrange bilateral agreements with the relevant southern hemisphere unions to arrange the intercontinental event.
For now though, the competition returns to familiar surrounds of Dublin and the south of France where rugby roots run deep.