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European Cup, selections… How rugby is (finally) preparing for its revolution

Forever the last. The team that will win the Champions Cup on May 28 in Marseille will complete a cycle that began in 1996, at the dawn of professional rugby. From next season, three South African provinces, the Bulls, the Sharks and the Stormers, must integrate a test until then only composed of European formations. In other words, in oval language: French, English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Italian.

“The flavor of a European Cup is necessarily distorted”, decides Stade Toulousain manager Ugo Mola, before the alluring semi-final this Saturday in Dublin at Leinster. The other half, 100% French, will oppose Racing 92 to La Rochelle, Sunday in Lens. « Jerome [Cazalbou, le manager du haut niveau à Toulouse] explained to me how we were going to have to leave on Monday or Tuesday for South Africa to play on Saturday, before returning and preparing for the next match. It will be another competition. »

And a new facelift, two years after the transition from 20 to 24 teams against the backdrop of the health crisis, with a formula worthy of Stephen Hawking. The slew of matches lost on the green carpet in Covid weather has not helped to establish the legitimacy of a tournament which has always struggled to find a place in hearts, except in Ireland or in a few French strongholds like Toulouse, fivefold winner. Out of modesty, let’s not talk about the Challenge Cup, the little sister hidden in a closet under the stairs.

“The European Cup, nobody cares”

“In rugby, the World Cup remains the Holy Grail and, behind it, the VI Nations is a strong brand, notes Lionel Maltese, lecturer at Aix-Marseille University, specializing in sports management. But unlike the Euroleague in basketball or the Champions League in football, the European Rugby Cup, nobody cares, it shows in the audiences, the TV rights… ”So, for seduce, the organizer EPCR wants to adorn its protege with new finery.

Pa won, even among the main interested parties. If he personifies audacity on the pitch, the Toulouse back Thomas Ramos plays it conservative this time: “The European Rugby Cups, they want to change them… The European Football Cups, they want to change them… We are always innovating instead of doing simple things that are sometimes the best. “It must be said that simplicity is not the first quality with which we associate rugby, both in the rules and in its organization.

Provinces vs Clubs

“There are two systems that coexist, analyzes Mathieu Giudicelli, general manager of Provale, the union of French players. The club model, as in England and France, and the provincial model, as in the southern hemisphere [ainsi qu’en Irlande, au pays de Galles et en Ecosse]. It’s a completely different economic system, more struggling, which only revolves around the Federations. With us, there is also the LNR which manages professional rugby, 30 clubs which are independent [Top 14 + Pro D2 à 16 clubs]. In order not to perpetually change formulas as in the European Cup, it would be necessary to take example from the Top 14, which works wonderfully. »

But the revolution in rugby does not only concern the Old Continent. Monday, the Times; revealed that World Rugby, the International Federation, was working on the biggest reform since the advent of professionalism in 1995: an elite competition with the 12 best selections (France, England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Argentina, Japan, Fiji).

This cousin of the Football Nations League would take place in even years from 2026, so as not to overshadow the World Cup. The matches would take place during the international windows of July and November, and a promotion-relegation system would link up with a second division also with 12 countries (Georgia, Romania, Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, United States, Canada, Uruguay, Chile, Namibia, Samoa, Tonga).

“The Top 14 comparable to the NFL”

According to the British daily, the stakeholders still had to settle a few “minor” problems before a presentation of the project in November: revenue sharing and in-depth talks with the countries of the southern hemisphere, the most affected by the consequences of the Covid which blew up Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship.

“That rugby is globalizing is a good thing, judges Ugo Mola. Afterwards, let’s go to each other’s bedside… I have the impression that it’s always the same people who give. The Toulouse manager fears that the provincial system will end up crunching that of the clubs embodied by our good old championship, also defended by Lionel Maltese. “The Top 14 is comparable to the NFL in terms of level, it’s extremely competitive. It is an important, attractive brand. When Canal+ manages TV rights, it is above all the Top 14 and Formula 1, even if there is also football. It is very qualitative. »

The United States, land of mission

The sports economist points to the major concern which, according to him, penalizes rugby: “There are a lot of stakeholders and no leadership. There is a problem of governance to balance the interests of nations, clubs, players. “The small world of the oval would miss a kind of Mr. Loyal, on the model of the commissioner in the NBA. “World rugby also suffers from the fact that the major economic nations are not exposed: China, the United States or Germany,” continues Lionel Maltese. In this context, the choice, made official this Thursday, to award the 2031 World Cup to the country of US football and baseball is not trivial.

If the revolution is underway, its little soldiers, already exhausted by the sustained rhythm of the “battles” and the violence of the clashes, do not want it to devour them. “There are already provisions that protect players, notes Mathieu Giudicelli. In the NRL regulations, it is recommended not to participate in more than five or six consecutive official matches, or 300 to 400 minutes of play in a row, because beyond that, there is an increase in the number of injuries. Every weekend, Provale analyzes everyone’s playing time and sounds the alarm if necessary. »

A meeting between player unions in June

The French manager has an appointment in June with New Zealander Conrad Smith, Irishman Brian O’Driscoll and other fellow members of the IRP (International Rugby Players), a transnational union, to take stock of the situation.

“The calendar is already super busy, it is not possible that there are more matches, continues the former pillar of Montpellier and Biarritz. Perhaps a larger workforce is needed, with more turnover. And also good compression stockings for all the trips that are being prepared.

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