How much do external circumstances influence decisions? The obvious answer is to very much so, but it’s a topic well worth dwelling on a bit. The first ‘real’ drink your columnist indulged in was a glass of Heineken. Why exactly that was is unclear, but, in an era when sports sponsorship by drinks companies has been a hot and divisive topic, it came back to mind. That whole area isn’t about to be strayed into here, as such, but the face of sponsorship and the sport it backs may be about to change fundamentally. Top level sport needs sponsorship to survive. And yes, the reason any company gets into sponsorship is to increase in and uptake of their product.
But the contention that, for example, Heineken’s backing of the best tournament in rugby or that of Guinness for hurling makes more people drink is hard to swallow. People with no interest in sport drink too, and plenty of sports people don’t drink at all. Has anyone asked the question – how would sports fare without such backing?
Anyway, all brouhaha about drink sponsorship in sport and the like may be about to be quietened. Hardly hushed altogether, mind you. However, the recent decision by English and French rugby clubs to snub the Heineken Cup will surely alter competitive rugby in Europe if it goes ahead.
Or maybe it won’t. Already, the English have floated the idea of a new completion. They may have dressed up the proposal by saying it’d be open to sides from other countries. But, what it essentially sounds like is a restructuring of the current competition. Hopefully with most of the same teams involved.
Something the likes of Heineken would be into sponsoring? You can be sure of it. The big question, of course, is what brought about the Anglo/French break away? And make no mistake about it, the almost simultaneous manner in which the statements from both unions were released did nothing to dispel the inclination that the breakaway was a joint venture.
Officially, the reasoning given was that they felt they weren’t being listened to at meetings. That seems unlikely, but even if there was some substance to it, (a) matters presumably go to votes and if they are outvoted, that’s just democracy at work and (b) the whole thing stinks of petulance. What must happen is that, regardless of anything else, the dissenting voices cannot be allowed destroy a sporting institution.
If it was the case that teams from either nation weren’t competing well in the Heineken Cup there might be some sense to it. In the case of the French, at least, that couldn’t be so. Remember, Toulon and Clermont contested an all-French final only a few months ago. Which would surely suggest that all the pressure for change must be coming from the other side.
Seeing your neighbours as competitive and – until last season – dominant as the Irish teams have been in recent times generally spurs bodies into action.
Whatever happens, European rugby cannot be held to ransom. Nor can a situation develop whereby the top competition in the continent is split in two. Akin to the Christy Ring and Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher Cup that the GAA have, the Amlin Challenge Cup acts as a second tier competition. That should be more than enough.
Essentially, to use terminology aligned with the sponsors, what needs to happen is – basically – a situation that sees the same drink being served from a different glass. In other words, if the objectors are that desperate for change, what needs to happen is a restructuring of the current competition. Not a new one.
It’s actually curios that they’ve floated the breakaway idea now. The Welsh national team are admittedly in a very strong position at present, but, representatives of the valleys often struggle to make an impact on the club scene. Leinster are most likely heading towards a period of transition as Brian O’Driscoll and others come to the end of their careers. Munster – although obviously improving – may not be in a position to challenge outright just yet. Where Ulster stand is hard to quantify at present.
All of which, you’d think, would leave the English and French teams best placed to prosper. Maybe they can’t see that. Either way, probably best to enjoy this year’s European competitions, because it’s unlikely they’ll be the same thereafter.