Zebre kicked off their Champions Cup campaign against Wasps the past weekend in the Ricoh Arena, Coventry. The Champions Cup is a competition in which the best clubs in Europe get to compete against each other for the ultimate prize in northern hemisphere club rugby. Yet it includes a team that has struggled to compete in its own league since joining.
Zebre scored two tries against Wasps: a driving maul when they had a forward in the bin (which is slightly worrying for Wasps when they face a higher calibre of opposition) and an interception. But they also conceded twelve.
History in the competition proves that a group containing an Italian side usually produces the best runner up for the knockout phases of the competition. This is a very polite way of saying the Italian teams are the whipping boys of the competition.
Many people took to Twitter saying these teams shouldn’t be involved in the competition, which proves it’s not just an afterthought on a Saturday afternoon. It’s a genuine problem.
I asked earlier in the day if having one centralised team would improve the situation, such as the Jaguares in Argentina. Most agreed, few didn’t.
One argument was that many said the same of Connacht for years; they were once the whipping boys of the Celtic and Magners league, but look at them now. Surely Zebre and Treviso could come alive in the same manner as Connacht? I agree; maybe one of them could. But not both. Another argued that a number of weeks ago, Zebre very nearly beat the current Pro 12 champions in Italy. Which is also true. But unfortunately for them, the game was called off, and all the history books will say is that the game was called off to be replayed. Nothing more.
Zebre will have learned a couple of lessons on Saturday: their defence needs work, they need to be fitter, they have to work harder than their opposition to have any sort of chance. All very glaringly obvious lessons. But these lessons they learn week in, week out, in the Pro 12. What happened was that Wasps simply embarrassed them. Considering they also have Connacht and Toulouse in their group, it’s not like they’ll be reaching the knockout stages this year.
Before anyone jumps on me for counting unhatched chickens, I know European miracles happen. I was at the Munster Gloucester Miracle Match. I’ll never forget the second-half comeback by Leinster in their final against Northampton. Even Saracens win away to Toulon on Saturday could be chalked up. But we’re not comparing like with like.
Munster, at that stage, were a team well versed in grinding out victories. Leinster were a team peppered with Grand Slam winners and international stars. Saracens did the double last year. Zebre? They almost beat Connacht.
I understand the necessity of having an Italian team in the competition; it is a European cup; it has to include them. But the Challenge Cup is also European.
The winners of last year’s Challenge Cup, Montpellier, narrowly lost out to Northampton on Saturday. The other finalists from last year, Harlequins, hammered Stade Francais on Friday night in the Challenge Cup (to add to the argument, Stade were the French Top 14 champions just a couple of years ago).
In my eyes and the eyes countless others, there’s no way Wasps would have put 12 tries past either Harlequins or Montpellier, no matter how good or bad a day either team were having.
Maybe I’m being tough focusing on Zebre alone, so a quick mention on Treviso this weekend-they conceded 41 points to La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup. Hardly inspiring either.
I want to point out that I am not laying the blame at all on Zebre or Treviso. Their players, coaching staff, and backroom staff, do their very best every weekend, and of course they’re going to take the opportunity to play amongst Europe’s elite when offered. Why wouldn’t they?
But it simply isn’t fair to them or to teams not drawn in their group. Wasps against Zebre and Gloucester (who hammered Bayonne) against Treviso just shouts “5 points! Get your five points here!”, with other clubs fighting on a weekly basis to qualify.
Is there a way around it?
The Italian federation could amalgamate both teams, with a central base in Rome. With money invested the correct way, and guidance from a Graham Henry type figure (much like was done in Argentina) on the structures that should be in place academy wise, they’d become a much stronger force. There is bound to be a ground in Rome willing to share a venue, and the gate would probably take in a substantial amount. But that’s a pipe dream.
Another idea, presented by @TheBlack_n_Red, and I’m sure shared by others, suggested that all Champions Cup spots be down to league position and not preassigned spots to include every country. This would mean teams are qualifying off their own success every time. I don’t think many would be too happy with that system, as four Irish teams finished in the top six last year, which would have left only two places for Wales, Scotland, and Italy.
But how about having Zebre and Treviso compete in the Challenge Cup until such a time that they can compete with the big boys. I know the Champions Cup wouldn’t have an Italian representative, but it would make it more what it’s meant to be, which is a competition of Europe’s elite. And the Italian teams would still be competing in a European competition.
To fill the void of the missing team, both finalists of the Challenge Cup should qualify (or have the opportunity to qualify) for the Champions Cup, rather than just the one.
It would make the Champions Cup more competitive, eliminate the “easy points” in certain groups, and both Italian teams would be learning more, rather than being embarrassed by teams like Wasps.
Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe a miracle will happen and I’ll be forced to admit defeat. But as they say, David and Goliath was a once off; the smart money is always on the giant.