The future of the Heineken Cup must be assured
April 24, 2007
"Last Saturday was one of those rugby occasions that you feel lucky to have been a part of - I'd put it in my top five as a spectator." John Taylor reports
The others were all grand international occasions - I was commentating when South Africa won the World Cup in 1995 and when England beat Australia in Sydney in 2003 - there have been various Grand Slam deciders and some memorable Lions matches - but the atmosphere at the Walkers Stadium as Leicester Tigers clawed their way to victory and a place in the Heineken Cup Final was right up there with the best of them.
Football grounds don't always work for rugby but this one did. It was comparable to the First Test in Brisbane in 2001 when the legions of Lions fans hijacked the Gabba cricket ground, silenced the Wallaby supporters and roared their team to that famous victory.
For once I didn't have to commentate or have a thousand words in by a five o'clock deadline.
I was there purely as a spectator with a few old mates from London Welsh. For me it was that rare chance to be a proper rugby supporter. It was amazing - all a bit soppy before the game - why do so many grown men feel the need to bake inside a tiger, or dragon suit? - but not a hint of trouble despite the consumption of gallons of the sponsor's product.
Once inside though it was suddenly the real deal - a sea of flags and raucous noise as 32,000 partisan fans showed just how much winning the Heineken Cup means to them.
The atmosphere was so raw and emotions ran so high the players must have felt it out on the pitch - Llanelli fans were outnumbered 2 to 1 but they just doubled their volume.
No wonder Lawrence Dallaglio was saying it gave him goose pimples even watching from his hotel room as he prepared for his own showdown on Sunday. It was one of those very special occasions that only sport can provide, a day that will stick in the memory for a very long time.
Unbelievably though, there is a huge shadow hanging over the future of this great tournament. If the warring factions continue to steer the idiotic course they are set upon at the moment there will no chance of a repeat performance next year.
Ian McGeechan, Wasps' Director of Rugby and a man who's experienced more highs than most in his long rugby career, summed it up for me when he said, 'I just cannot see any reasonable men failing to come to an agreement because there is so much to lose. The Heineken is very important to the clubs in England; I would be very surprised if it was not resolved before the end of the season.'
And so say all of us - the fans. If I've been asked once I've been asked a hundred times, 'What's it really all about?' When you start explaining that Premiership Rugby wants 'status' and an 'equal shareholding' with the RFU in ERC, the body that administers the competition, people's eyes glaze over because it actually means very little.
Basically, I find myself supporting the RFU position, that they should be allowed to govern the game - which includes the various competitions - but I have reached a stage where I think both sides should be marched off to a padded cell because their public utterances are bordering on lunacy.
The RFU have proved they cannot negotiate their way out of a paper bag while the Clubs are engaged in a stupid power struggle for no good reason.
Sure, professional rugby has come along way and the owners have invested hugely to make it happen but to use the most successful competition they have as the battle ground for a petty power struggle is financial madness.
I caught the eye of Jean-Pierre Lux, the Chairman of ERC, at the final whistle on Saturday and the sad bemused look on his face said it all. Having just staged the sort of megastar event he and his colleagues could only dream about when the competition was set-up in 1995 he was contemplating meltdown.
As they look forward to an all-English final in front of a full-house at Twickenham, the most important people, the players and the fans will not countenance it so get it sorted and if that means giving away half the shareholding on the governing body, so what? I for one no longer care as long as the tournament goes ahead next season. It's that important.
Of course the structure of the European season is a complete mess - made worse when the World Cup effectively takes out the first two months - but this should be a time for celebration in England, not a chance to settle old scores.
Let us hope the Chairman of the IRB, Syd Millar, has stepped back after turning up the heat by publishing messages of support from all the SANZA Unions.
If he tries to wear his headmaster's hat when he meets the representatives of the French and English clubs later this week it can only make matters worse; rapping them over the knuckles could signal open warfare - the signing of an accord between the English and French clubs last week was ominous.
The key is a face saving formula between the RFU and the PRL - the French will then fall into line and we can pull back from the brink - anything else will be a rugby catastrophe.