The coronavirus pandemic has simplified many people’s lives. They work from home, they go for walks, they watch sport on TV, and they get exactly half price meals on a Monday night out. But rugby union has gone down a different track – using the crisis as an opportunity to complicate, obfuscate, and confuse as outlined by Steffan Thomas.
“Life is really simple but we insist on making it complicated.”
Those are the words Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher and politician.
He was talking about the politics of the Qin dynasty who ruled China between 221 and 206 BC – a dominance it seems Leinster might one day come to match – but he could just as easily have been talking about the current state of professional rugby.
This week’s announcement of the Heineken Champions Cup format for the 2020/21 season is just the latest example that leaves you wanting to scream into a waste paper basket.
It should be straightforward. It isn’t.
It should have been the starting point for a simplification of the whole Pro 14 and European dog’s regurgitated breakfast of tournaments, conferences, pools, seedings, and long-haul flights to Port Elizabeth.
— Welsh Rugby Union 🏉 (@WelshRugbyUnion) September 2, 2020
But it isn’t. It’s the opposite. It’s a nightmare.
You could look at the Hungarian language Ikea instructions for constructing the Poang chair and they would make more sense than the mess dreamt up by European Professional Club Rugby.
What were they thinking? What were they dreaming?
In short, there’s two pools of 12 teams with each side playing four matches. Now, here’s the complicated bit.
The make-up of each group will be decided by tiers based on each club’s performances in their respective domestic competitions. The number 1 and number 2 ranked clubs from each league will be in Tier 1, the number 3 and number 4 ranked clubs will be in Tier 2, the number 5 and 6 ranked clubs will be in Tier 3, and the number 7 and number 8 ranked clubs will be Tier 4.
The Tier 1 and the Tier 4 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not in the same league, will play one another home and away during the pool stage, as will the Tier 2 and Tier 3 clubs which have been drawn in the same pool, but which are not in the same league.
Hilariously #Pro14 have now changed their earlier announcement and moved Glasgow to Tier 4 and Connacht to Tier 3
— Will Kelleher (@willgkelleher) September 2, 2020
The four highest-ranked clubs in each pool will qualify for the quarter-finals, and the clubs ranked numbers 5 to 8 in each pool will compete in the knockout stage of the Challenge Cup.
While it’s understandable things had to change due to Covid-19, surely the tournament structure should have been simplified not complicated?
There were even examples of some clubs’ social media feeds changing their statements after posting they were in the wrong tier.
Has the northern hemisphere learned nothing from the demise of Super Rugby?
As the Super 12, the southern hemisphere had a competition which attracted large crowds and sponsorship while the standard of rugby was even higher than the international game in some instances.
It was simple. Like Premier League football, you could look at it and grasp how it worked, when it would happen, and what to expect as it came to a climax.
But numerous attempts to expand the competition diluted its product while an overcomplicated and deeply unfair conference system has turned supporters away leading to its break-up.
The northern hemisphere, especially the Pro 14, haven’t heeded these warnings.
As former WRU chief executive David Moffett told Dai Sport recently, you should never waste a good crisis.
The Covid-19 pandemic has left rugby union at a crossroads and the blazers this side of the world need to start listening to what its key stakeholders want.
🚨 We’re delighted to announce a hugely exciting, exceptional format for the 2020/21 Heineken Champions Cup! 🚨
Check out our video to make sure you’re up to speed with how it’s all going to work ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/gTLQvh4WMQ
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) September 2, 2020
They have a blank piece of paper. But instead of drawing up something simple, like 2 + 2 = 4, they’ve proposed a quadratic equation.
It seems bizarre writing this piece in Cardiff, that Bristol Bears reside only an hour away, Bath and Gloucester an hour-and-a-half away, with Exeter Chiefs a mere two hours to the south.
Anybody with an ounce of sense would finding a way for the Cardiff Blues, Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets to regularly play these sides in meaningful fixtures.
What supporters want is to see are the best players on the field, week-in, week-out playing meaningful games which are tribal and historically relevant.
That’s simply not currently the case outside of England and France.
Instead, fans are forced to travel eight hours on a coach to Glasgow or, – if they have more money than sense – 12 hours on the plane to Port Elizabeth.
Talk about making it difficult for supporters to follow their side.
Southern Kings v Cardiff Blues
Live on Premier Sports 2 and in the Arms Park Clubhouse
LESSSSGOOOOO 🔵🔵 pic.twitter.com/rCpSn4TdSO
— Cardiff Rugby Life (@CardiffRugbyWeb) September 28, 2019
The Pro14, – or the Pro16 as it is set to become, with the almost certain addition of South African franchises the Bulls, Stormers, Sharks and Lions – has struggled to appeal to the majority of supporters in Wales.
Outside of local derbies, the competition fails miserably to attract any away support, while another over-complicated conference system hasn’t done it any favours.
The obvious solution is to petition for a British and Irish League but game’ rulers don’t seem capable of taking into consideration what the supporters actually want.
Try explaining to a football supporter how the Pro 14 works.
You’ll have Leinster against the Scarlets played on a Friday night in the middle of the Six Nations, shorn of the vast majority of their star players.
Why on earth are people shocked when the stands aren’t full?
Imagine Liverpool playing Manchester City on the same weekend as FIFA World Cup qualifiers and the clubs being without the likes of Roberto Firmino, Mohamed Salah, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne.
What would come across as pure madness in football is accepted as the norm in the oval ball game.
The Pro 14 is a tournament set up to service international rugby to the detriment of the sides playing in it and that needs to change if it is to progress.
Not long to go now…🤩⏳
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) August 31, 2020
And now there are serious concerns over whether the continent’s best players will be available for next season’s Champions Cup at all, due to an overload of international rugby.
Talk about commercial suicide.
The simplest and most sensible option would be to completely separate the international and the club game into different blocks so they don’t interfere with each other but this seems beyond anybody at the moment.
Old Confucius saw all this chaos coming and said, “He who will not economise, will have to agonise.”
He was right because while this mess continues there’s going to be a lot of pain for the Welsh regions for a good while yet.