European Champions Cup has lost its praise without traveling supporters

Winning the European Cup used to be the pinnacle of the club game. But I wonder if Covid-19 has damaged anything in rugby more than the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.

What made competition in Europe so special was that fans could travel between countries – it created that proximity, that connection between the different countries. Can travel to the south of France, or to Italy. Watching by your side in Thomond Park or playing in Edinburgh and Cardiff. Those matches made the tournament special, and as it was an annual event for nearly twenty years, it became very important to the players as they realized how much it meant to their supporters to play against the best clubs in Europe year after year. Without the supporters, the concept just doesn’t work. The bait is damaged.

In Europe you don’t get the same tribalism as with derbies in England like Leicester-Northampton, Bath-Gloucester, Harlequins-London Irish. There is no such hostility. Yes, teams may have a history with each other, as Wasps and Toulouse meet again this weekend, a rematch of the 2004 final with Clement Poitrenaud’s hesitating moment. Munster and Leicester don’t really like each other. But look at this weekend’s games. Cardiff and Harlequins don’t turn you on. Biarritz-Newcastle – that’s a nice city to go to. Connacht and Leicester? Not really.

Without that fire, combined with no spectators, Covid has deprived the competition of the chance to keep their foot on the pedal. The national competitions have now become more important for clubs to win.

Take Harlequins this season. If you asked them which league they would rather win, Premiership or Champions Cup, the natural course was that you won your national league, and the next season tried to win Europe. The Champions Cup used to be your main focus. We have won our own league, now let’s go and beat everyone in Europe. I’m sure the guys at Harlequins want that. But if you gave them the choice to keep their Premiership title or win Europe, I’m not sure which way they would go this season. Because the Champions Cup doesn’t feel as heavy as it used to be, it doesn’t have the same honors of previous years. And I think that’s largely because of Covid and the inability to go to away games and get spectators all over the site.

There have always been cultural differences, of course, but we now also see differences in politics. Look at Cardiff. If you’re one of their supporters, you’ll be left wondering why you can’t go to the game when Harlequins played for a full house against Exeter last week, and had over 70,000 in attendance a few weeks before that at Twickenham. How is it different? Why are we different? Covid has pushed everyone in European rugby further apart and organizers must find a way to bring it all closer together.

On the other hand, there is a real question of how English clubs in Europe will compete in the future after the salary cap is lowered. Players such as Vaea Fifita at Wasps, their big asset this season, are now moving to Wales or Scotland. That hasn’t happened as long as I can remember. How can you get paid more there than in the Premiership? There is a rebalancing going on between England and the Celtic countries as teams in France just continue to spend whatever they want and build huge squads.

I think clubs in France would still rather win the Top 14 than the Champions Cup, unless you’re series runners-up in Europe like Racing 92. Clermont was the same in the past, less so now. Toulouse can win because their ‘C’ team is probably better than anyone else’s. Where will the league go if the French clubs dwarf the rest and don’t necessarily want to win, as a priority? With the notable exception of Leinster, of course.

It’s a fantastic game at its best. The format of the last 16 that we had in 2020-21, because of Covid, was an interesting new format. But it hasn’t felt that exciting for a few years and that’s not because of the teams or players, but Covid restricting cross-border travel.

I hope in the future we can make it again the great tournament that it has been for the past 20 years. You can forget the last two seasons – don’t worry Exeter and Toulouse, you can keep your titles – but I want the emotion and the supporters to come back to the tournament, to have a beer together and make it to the Champions Cup again pinnacle of club rugby in Europe that deserves to be when this is all over.

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