Thursday, 10 April 2014

Good riddance to the ERC


European Rugby Cup Ltd hasn't just made a mess with it's dealings with the 6 Nations. Here is explained why the soon to be defunct governing body also was shambolic in their dealings with the Tier 2 nations in the ENC as well.

Derek McGrath: ERC CEO
The ERC on their homepage have a motto of "driving European club rugby forward". For the sides outside the 6 Nations they, led by former Ireland international Derek McGrath as CEO (who has now confirmed his resignation), they have done anything but.

There were weak teams like Zebre in the Heineken Cup instead of more competitive teams, but that pales into comparison to the incompetence the ERC have shown in deciding the basis of which teams from outside the Top 14, Premiership and Pro12 occupy the 6 available spots for others in the Amlin Challenge Cup.

Over the past 2 seasons there have been in total 11 games in the tournament that haven't even reached four figure crowds with a low twice being 350, all hosted by one of those 6 teams. On top of that, on the pitch those 6 teams as a whole were awfully uncompetitive and far weaker than they could have been. The reasoning behind that is thanks to some utterly braindead decision making.

4 of the 6 spaces were hogged by the Italian domestic league the Eccellenza, which since Treviso and Aironi/Zebre joined the Pro12 has been the equivalent of adding Welsh Principality Premiership or Scottish RBS Premiership sides. Over the last four seasons since the Italian talent pool has been focused on the Pro12 sides, the average scoreline between an Italian side in the Amlin against a side from one of the main 3 leagues has been 48-10. At it's worst a side like Viadana this season would lose at home 80-19 to Bayonne, and do so in front of a meagre home crowd.

One of the two representatives from outside the 6 Nations, was from Romania and their representative was vastly weaker than it could have been. They entered a "Bucharest Wolves" side, which is essentially just a Romanian trial side for coach Lynn Howells to experiment and test out youngsters.
The Bucharest Wolves are a developmental team, not a team necessarily best designed to win.

You could argue that is a good thing for Romania to have that side, but it is much harder to argue it was good for the competition as a product. The Wolves side was a plastic made up entity that just played 6 games a year and had next to no real fan base. It was also a scratch side made up of players from different teams and had very little time together, in fact they played their first game in the tournament just a week after the Grand Final of the SuperLiga. The Wolves team selection was also on the basis of trialling players and giving their squad of 30 dozen players a run out, as opposed to selecting the strongest side to win. It was 100% a development side, not an entity designed for optimal results.

There is no way that the Romanian SuperLiga champions Timisoara wouldn't be a considerably better prepared and stronger outfit. They'd have a whole season together for cohesion not less than a week, the side selected would be with a mentality to win not to develop and trial, finally they’d also be able to call upon their overseas signings to strengthen their team unlike the Wolves.

As for the second spot occupied by a nation outside the 6 Nations, last season it did have a club side, a club side that was mid table in the Spanish league who were only as others couldn't afford to play. Unsurprisingly, this mid table Spanish side Bizkaia Gernika opened up the tournament getting thrashed 85-5 and 90-12 by Worcester and Perpignan in their opening 2 games. This season, there was supposed to be a drab development Spanish selection to get thrashed which couldn't afford to play so a drab development Portuguese selection got thrashed instead.

So the 6 teams from outside the main 3 leagues were as a whole, pretty poor and their selection from a competitive standpoint also was largely illogical.

Last season, from nations outside the 6 Nations, we had a cobbled together Romanian side who come together a week before the tournament and rotates their team every game and a mid table Spanish club. Even if you told that tiny bit of information to an alien from Mars, they'd be able to work out that there was no way whatsoever they was the strongest teams possible from outside the 6 Nations.

The weakness of the Italians in the competition also needs to be emphasised. As outlined, the Bucharest Wolves model is hardly an ideal way of having a successful and competitive team. Yet they were still stronger than the Italian outfits, in their last 6 matches against Eccellenza sides they have a 5-1 winning record. This season they comfortably beat Calvisano, the side currently top of the Italian league, both home and away by a combined margin of 34 points. The Wolves average points conceded total against sides from the main 3 leagues was markedly lower than the Italians.
Mid table Spanish side Bizkaia
Gernika still beat the Italian side
Rovigo home and away

As was also outlined, a mid table Spanish side was unlikely to be competitive. But nevertheless, Bizkaia Gernika still managed to beat the Italian side Rovigo both home and away in rounds 3 and 4. Rovigo in fact last season lost by an average of 72 points to Worcester and Perpignan, lost twice to a mid table Spanish side and had an average crowd of 700. That is a terrible endorsement of the Italian league continuing to get an excessive amount places in the tournament.

Also it may also surprise some that Spain, who have a pretty amateur union, and are a nation that last appeared at a World Cup in 1999 and have finished in the top 3 places just once since 2000 are the nation who the ERC hand picks to compete. The Iberians this year finished 4th and 5th in the ENC respectively, meanwhile a side from Georgia, the nation that are 7 times ENC champions in 8 years, have never had a chance compete. Nor has Russia, a side who was at the last World Cup ahead of the Iberians and look likely to be again in 2015. Teams from countries from the bottom half of the ENC were preferred to sides from the top half. Again even an idiot would be able to tell you that's not the best way of picking the most competitive sides to compete.
Georgia are 7 times ENC winners in 8 years, but have never competed in European domestic rugby.

So why was this? Quite simply because the ERC organisation simply couldn't have cared less about the nations outside the 6 Nations, nor did they care about which sides would be the most competitive.

The sides selected were selected merely through convenience to them. Hence why the 6 places where hogged by Italy, a nation from the 6 Nations clique, why Western European nations were preferred over the more foreign East due to travel and why a Union run tournament preferred Union run development teams as opposed to clubs.

Issues regarding the teams in the Amlin Challenge Cup are not new either, they have been going on for years. The current format to the tournament has been in place since 2005/06, the only minor change being that a Spanish side got a spot in 2007/08 after the Borders became defunct. In every one of those years the same thing happened time and time and again. With the issue becoming further exacerbating in illogicalness when Italian talent pool got condensed largely into two teams, the Romanian SuperLiga got an increase in investment and it became crystal clear that Georgia and Russia are stronger than the Iberians.
A stronger Romanian side in SuperLiga champions Timisoara were set to play in Europe this season but got blocked by the ERC.

The ERC seemingly has not cared at all about this though. As it happens, Timisoara were set to replace the Wolves as Romania's representative, they had the money and the FRR agreed to back them but got blocked by the ERC on a technicality. Likewise, Georgia are said to have been "clamouring for years" to get a side in the tournament, and it is on record that both they and Russia have been lobbying to get teams entered.

They have just been ignored, as it was easier for the ERC to stick with the status quo and go to Spain, a more amateur rugby nation with less financial backing who clearly could barely afford to play. It was easier for them to have Union run Romanian team playing. It was easier to have Italians from the Tier 1 clique, despite being palpably worse than the Romanian side and suffering losses to mid table Spanish sides. They have not cared about growing the game nor the sides being competitiveness, just what's easiest.

Unfortunately though, the ERC have escaped much criticism from the wider mainstream rugby press for the way they have handled the Tier 2 teams in the tournament, as the ENC and Italian teams affairs in the pool stages of the Amlin Challenge Cup has been pretty low key. Instead, the reputation of the leagues outside of the main 3 has just been massively sullied.

A side like Timisoara or Krasny Yar from Russia, would hardly be challenging for the trophy. But there is a good chance they would be more competitive than a mid table Spanish side, cobbled together Romanian trial side or than the efforts of some of the Italian sides.

It speaks volumes of the mishandling the ERC did with the sides from outside the 6 Nations, that even though the new governing body EPCR has reduced space from 6 to 2 sides it's a considerable improvement. With teams from outside the 6 Nations in Europe being able to qualify through a meritocracy, which if done properly should allow a system more towards getting the most competitive competing and no more mid table Spanish and Italian sides.

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