Friday, January 15, 2010

French Clubs Angle to Hoist the Heineken Cup

In France, the Heineken Cup—rugby union's answer to football's Champions League—is the tournament that dare not speak its name. Restrictions on alcohol advertising mean it is known as either the Coupe de Europe or the H Cup, the sponsor's initial happily evoking rugby posts.

Whatever they call it, French fans will be firmly focused on the Cup this weekend as it reaches round five of its six-match pool stage. Three French clubs—Toulouse, Biarritz and Stade Français— lead their groups with a fourth, Clermont Auvergne, handily placed.

Though France supplied the Heineken's first two winners—Toulouse and Brive—it couldn't maintain that dominance. Toulouse has won twice more to become the only three-time winner, but no other French club has triumphed since Brive's win in 1997. Since then, four English clubs —both Leicester and Wasps twice— and all three participating Irish provinces have lifted the trophy.

For five consecutive seasons prior to the 2003-2004 campaign, France had three quarter-finalists to England's two. In the following two seasons, they had three each. In each year since, England has placed three quarter-finalists, while France had two for two years, and then reached a new low last season. For the first time its teams lost more matches than they won. Only Toulouse made the last eight, and was promptly eliminated by Cardiff.

To explain France's current revival, it is necessary to ask why the country has performed so comparatively poorly of late, with only two losing finalists during the past four seasons.

He believes more French clubs think his way: "The difference now is that more clubs think they can win in Europe and are regarding it as a priority."

In addition, those clubs are increasingly equipped to chase two targets. Armed with a new television deal and booming attendances, French clubs have been flexing their financial muscles. Damian Hopley, chief executive of England's Professional Rugby Players Association (PRA) says, "The top French clubs have squads of international depth and quality. They could compete in the Six Nations championship."

It also brings full circle the situation described by French captain Philippe Saint André in 1997, when the introduction of professionalism in English rugby threatened to damage French fortunes.

"We are being left behind, and before long players will start looking to their pocketbooks rather than their quality of life," he said.

It was also around then that English clubs began to make an impact in Europe.

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