Look out, Boris Johnson – Europe is on the march! At least, it is in rugby as the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup swing open the borders to competition this weekend. Although, as Geraint Powell notes, there are fewer people waving the flag with quite the enthusiasm of a few years ago. It’s a familiar story of English land grabs and cash battles which have spectacularly backfired.
I recently looked in my personal blog at the question of the ongoing omission of a Welsh regional rugby double-header at the Principality Stadium in Round 5 of the Guinness Pro14 (https://thevietgwent.wordpress.com/2017/10/02/the-pro14-round-5-another-season-and-once-again-where-was-the-other-welsh-regional-derby-double-header-at-the-wru-stadium/), to kick start the regional season for the wider rugby public, even though there were Welsh derby matches in Round 6.
A crowd of only 8,178, inclusive of the vocal Dragons travelling support, watched the Cardiff Blues secure a 43-29 win in the eastern derby on Friday evening.
Bernard Jackman will have been reasonably satisfied with his team securing a 21-10 first half lead with the breeze, an inherited and currently injury-decimated long-term underfunded squad reinforced only by Gavin Henson and (the long-term injured) Zane Kirchner. Even those acquisitions were somewhat offset by the forced retirement of Ed Jackson and by the departures of Nick Crosswell, Craig Mitchell and Tom Prydie.
Jackman is already showing what he should be able to achieve in future seasons, with a stronger squad and a meaningful impact bench.
Danny Wilson, himself desperately missing Gareth Anscombe, Gethin Jenkins and both Sam Warburton/Ellis Jenkins at the breakdown, will have been slightly perturbed, even playing against the breeze in the first half, that his much stronger and less injury-ravaged squad had to rely upon its second half bench to finally catch and overtake a decimated Dragons, who were without a meaningful matchday 23 due to a mostly academy bench.
Seb Davies once again showed why the other three Welsh regions, more stable off the pitch, are so interested in him. He would certainly make a good replacement for the Scarlets’ homeward bound Tadhg Beirne, albeit any such move would entail, once again, the undermining of regional rugby.
Pontypridd RFC product Jarrod Evans laid down his marker for the future in the second-half, for he will only get better with age. Matthew Morgan reminded us all of what he can add in attack to sides on the front foot and with a tiring opposition unable to take advantage of his defensive limitations.
A larger, if still not particularly impressive, crowd of 12,093 watched the western derby between the Ospreys and their Scarlets neighbours at the Liberty Stadium on Saturday evening.
The Scarlets eventually prevailed 19-18 in a typical hard fought derby march, although they will be glad of the missing Leigh Halfpenny’s goal-kicking in Europe after a wayward goal-kicking display from Rhys Patchell in his absence. Three tries to nil, saw them home. Steff Evans is clearly determined to play for Wales, and the intelligent Hadleigh Parkes is making a case for future Welsh Test honours, subject only to whether he can cope with the pace of Test rugby.
Some Ospreylian pride was restored, after a traumatic September for the traditional powerhouse of Welsh regional rugby, but there are still a number of problematic issues both in attack and defence as the Ospreys continue the evolution of their gameplan. No tries were scored.
The Pro14 now goes into hibernation until the Welsh derbies, Ospreys v Dragons and Scarlets v Blues, on 27 and 28 October respectively and just before the Welsh Test team gathers for their autumn international series against Australia, Georgia, New Zealand and South Africa. The latter two had a colossal battle in Cape Town on Saturday, their first clash at Newlands since 2008.
Attention over the next fortnight turns to Europe, but without the enthusiasm of years gone by. The EPCR Champions Cup is mostly unloved by the Celtic countries, due to the grubby politics surrounding the demise of the better loved ERC Heineken Cup.
This is especially so amongst Irish rugby fans and where there is a widespread feeling that the English clubs took ruthless advantage of Welsh weakness and divisions to achieve their commercial objectives at the expense of the Welsh and the other Celts.
The English clubs, with the benefitting of less interested French clubs letting the Anglo-Saxons do “the dirty work”, acquired a bigger slice of the Europe pie to plug their financial losses and then gain much greater commercial control through the new EPCR.
But an exercise in player wage inflation – “prune juicing” that would exasperate even Lord Alan Sugar – the combined impact of the domestic BT Sport “money pit”, increased Test match cross-subsidy from the RFU in the latest participation agreement, and the increased slice of the Europe pie, has corresponded with a significant deterioration in English club finances!
Meanwhile, the longer-term base line relative Welsh and Irish share of Europe revenues declined from 13.25% to 8.50% each, currently disguised by the five-year transitional guarantee.
There was a once in a generation golden opportunity about five years ago to boost non-Test finances across the Six Nations and the three professional leagues, with BT setting-up BT Sport to help defend their broadband market from increasing Sky penetration and with the Qataris setting-up beIN to challenge Canal+ in France, but it was badly bungled.
All bombastic talk from 2014 of a £100 million plus income stream within five years has long since disappeared, decisively losing that gain line collision against the commercial reality of non-Test professional rugby, with the new EPCR struggling to get much above £60 million despite the two ferocious commercial conflicts amongst broadcasting rivals.
ERC would have achieved a similar, if not a greater, increase if they had been allowed to pit the new entrants against Sky and Canal+ and without all the restructuring costs from ERC to EPCR and also all the relocation costs to Switzerland.
These are difficult times for rugby sponsorship, given the general glut in sports sponsorships available. Paul Rees of The Guardian recently reported that Aviva’s sponsorship of the English Premiership is believed to have declined by around 30% this season, with no successor to be found and Aviva agreeing one extra year at a heavily discounted rate.
It is worse for Europe, where an intended sponsorship stable of the inherited Heineken plus four others turned out to be no more than Heineken and Turkish Airlines (the latter in their final year) and between them paying much less than Heineken did alone prior to 2014.
In addition to this general hubris, leaks indicate the Welsh regions are faced with English clubs being prepared to sacrifice Europe income in the next 2018-22 broadcaster cycle to have some live free-to- air exposure in the UK (the irony of Europe income not being maximised to now use Europe as a shop window to attract more rugby fans to English domestic matches and BT Sport subscriptions).
In terms of on-field matters from a Welsh regional perspective, most attention will undoubtedly be on the Scarlets in the main competition. If they can obtain an away win against Toulon (who are not the force of old, as they themselves demonstrated last season) and back that up with a home win over Bath, their European campaign will well and truly be up and running.
As Pool 5 also includes Benetton Rugby, the last season of an automatic Celt-Italian entrant based on nationality, there must be a good chance of two qualifiers from this pool.
The Ospreys, the other Welsh team in the main competition, have been drawn in a horrific Pool 2 with Clermont Auvergne, Saracens and Northampton. If they do not win their opening home fixture on Sunday evening against Clermont in Swansea, I would expect them to have practically abandoned Europe by the time of their trip to Saracens a week later.
Their immediate priority will be turning around their Pro14 season, including qualification for Europe next season.
The Blues have been drawn in a difficult Pool 2 in the Challenge Cup, with French club Lyon and the aristocrats of Toulouse in addition to Sale. The Blues start their campaign this month with Lyon home and then Toulouse away.
With those clubs currently sitting first and third in the Top 14, much will immediately depend upon whether the French dip their toes in the Challenge Cup waters safe from any immediate relegation concerns or whether they concentrate entirely on their Top 14 campaigns and ignore Europe.
The Blues will expect to secure a home win over Lyon, as a minimum, and the French club has recently lost Carl Fearns to injury for the season.
The Dragons have radically different considerations. They are at the early stages of a long rebuilding exercise, of the entire business and not just of the squad.
September was a business success, in that momentum at home was achieved through wins over Connacht and the Southern Kings, but the five home matches in succession in December are pivotal for the Dragons’ business long-term revival and getting more rugby fans from both the city and the wider region to venture to a home match.
The home Friday evening match against Ulster in the Pro14 on 1 December will be followed on successive Friday evenings by Newcastle and Enisei-STM in the Challenge Cup, and then home Christmas/New Year Pro14 derby matches against the Blues and the Ospreys.
With a wafer-thin squad, already decimated by injuries, it is likely that head coach Bernard Jackman will have to write-off November including the Pro14 trips to Limerick and Dublin and not just the Anglo-Welsh Cup.
But it looks likely that Jackman, at least barring further key injuries, will have a go this month against Newcastle and Enisei-STM in Pool 1 on the road and then also against the Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium at the end of the month. He will certainly be praying for no serious injuries, particularly to vital pivot Gavin Henson, given his overall game management for the Gwent region.
Realistically, Welsh regional hopes will probably depend upon the Scarlets in the main competition.
The Blues have the potential to achieve something in the plate competition, as they have a surprising squad depth for a £5 million budget, due to the constant inflow of young talent and especially from the three Rhondda Cynon Taff rugby schools districts and Coleg y Cymoedd.
One can’t help but think that the Ospreys and the Dragons will be focussed elsewhere, albeit two victories this month by the Dragons might cause a reappraisal of priorities in Gwent.