European Champions Cup
This week, we continue to look at the European Champions Cup and focus on one the Six Nations countries’ participants in the tournament. This week it is Italy’s turn as we look at round 4, made slightly easier by the fact that they only have one team in the competition. As the old Heineken Cup tournament was painfully being reinvented last year, there was much debate on how teams from the participating countries should be selected, and that places should only be awarded on form and merit. There was obvious concern from the smaller unions that this would then have the competition representing only teams from the two big main unions, England and France. While this was a justifiable concern, in the case of Italy as evidenced by this past weekend’s action in Northampton, it does mean that some pools will have a weaker mix of teams than others. In the Six Nations, Italy is a spirited and worthy opponent and as we saw this past November is more than capable of making life difficult for the big teams, witness their close match with the Springboks. However, at the club level they have yet to reach such lofty heights and more often than not Italian club teams are made whipping boys and used as soft matches for the rest of their pool opponents. This is not fair to Italian players or their fans and damaging to the confidence of the national side as a whole.
Northampton vs Treviso
Final Score – Nor 67/Tre 0
To say that this was a painful match to watch if you were a Treviso supporter would be mild to say the least. As the top team in the English Premiership went up against the worst team in the Pro 12 championship, one couldn’t help but feel that a very one-sided contest was in the making. In the end the scoreline said it all, as Northampton ran home 67 points unanswered.
Whether Treviso was overwhelmed, demoralised from not having won a single match yet in the Champions Cup, or from only managing one win in nine outings in the Pro 12 we will never know. It was thrilling to watch Northampton’s all-stars at full throttle but depressing to watch an ill-disciplined and poorly organised Treviso outfit make mistake after mistake. Yes Northampton played well, but that was a relatively easy task when put up against opposition that simply didn’t show up on the day. Furthermore, although Northampton’s form in the Aviva Premiership hasn’t quite been replicated in Europe; as a result of their two fixtures against Treviso they now sit comfortably at the top of their pool, along with Racing Metro. This means that by round 4 this pool is simply a two-horse race. One could argue how fair this is, as surely when the pools were allocated, Northampton and Racing Metro must have felt that they could take it relatively easy in the pool stages in order to reach the knockout rounds unlike teams in the other pools.
As mentioned above, I do not mean to belittle Italian rugby. Particularly at Six Nations time, I really enjoy watching Italy especially when they upset bigger teams like France, but at the European Champions Cup level there is a serious imbalance. What really should happen is that the two Italian Club teams Treviso and Zebre should be competing in the European Challenge Cup where they would be much more competitive. Treviso’s spot in the Champions Cup should be made available to one of the Celtic Nations. With the recent impressive resurgence of Scottish Rugby as witnessed in the November Tests, Edinburgh would be a prime candidate. Ireland’s Connacht and Wales’ Cardiff would also be suitable contenders for the spot. Based on consistent performances by Italian teams in the European Challenge Cup and hopefully Treviso or Zebre reaching a semi-final or even final, then promotion to the Champions Cup tournament would be totally justified. However, on present form we are a long way off from this. If Italian players can get exposure to top quality competition where they are contenders as they could be in the Challenge Cup this will be beneficial to the development of the game in Italy as opposed to the humiliating one-sided thrashings they are getting at the Champions Cup Level. Meanwhile Italian players playing for other European teams in the Champions Cup will bring this top-level experience to the national side come International Test time. This to me is a much more sensible integration of Italy and Italian players into the European structure particularly at Club Level. Italy’s place in the Six Nations is cast in stone and they are continuing to grow as a national side into worthy Test opponents. However, at the provincial level there is a fundamental disconnect between performances in the European Champions Cup and Italy’s performance at International Test level. It is my hope for the sake of Italian rugby and ultimately the well-being of Italy’s national side that this can be addressed in years to come.