This phrase encapsulates a mantra all teams live by. Just like Tiger Woods changing his swing when he was World Number 1, a team at their peak must change their game in order to stay on top.
The Heineken Cup ended three seasons ago, and thus, the Champions Cup was born. Throughout its infancy, there has been many complaints about the new-look European competition. Being honest, last year’s competition failed to excite me in any real way. But this year is different.
In the penultimate round of this year’s competition, every game seems to be bringing about a change in the top eight. The qualification table has changed a number of times since Friday evening and will continue to do so until the final game is played next week. This is what the fans of European rugby want; a competition in which their team must continue to produce at the highest level in order to qualify.
But there are still a couple of problems in this competition, problems which can be easily eradicated to both the players’ and fans’ benefit and enjoyment.
I’ve long campaigned that Treviso and Zebre should not have a place in the Champions Cup unless it has been earned through merit, and this has been more obvious than ever this weekend.
Connacht have suffered a high number of injuries this season. So many, in fact, that I reckoned that Zebre (after conceding seventy points to Leinster the week previous) may be in with a shout in their second European meeting. Connacht proved me to be magnificently wrong.
Playing with a scrum-half in the outhalf position, Connacht put 66 points past a poor Zebre side to go from third in their group to first and stormed their way into the qualification table. Between their two clashes, Connacht won 118-28. Not to mention Zebre also shipped 82 points to Wasps in their opening round.
I’m not here to poke fun at Zebre’s ability, but I am highlighting that the Italian teams are way out of their depth in this competition. As Andy Goode tweeted this week, this competition is for the European elite, and having poor Italian teams included just belittles the competition.
Fine, you can argue that Northampton and Montpellier both shipped big losses to Leinster this season too, but it’s not the same argument. Neither side have been consistently poor in Europe.
The Champions Cup organizers need to change the qualification process for the Pro 12 teams. Including Zebre because they finished above Treviso in the league isn’t saying the stronger Italian team is being included; it’s saying the better loser is.
Both teams should be included in the Challenge Cup until strong enough to compete with the European elite. Simple as. This would strengthen the competition and avoid more embarrassment to players who, you can be assured, are doing their best. It would also end the idea that teams lucky enough to draw an Italian team are guaranteed circa ten points.
Zebre may not even be a team next year, as a centralized team in Rome is the aim for Italian club rugby at the moment. But that newly-formed team, whenever it may come, should be forced to prove itself in the Chllange Cup before gaining entry into the Challenge Cup. Organizers should be learning from mistakes.
The second problem is the division of games between Sky Sports and BT Sports.
As I type this, I am missing Toulon v Sale, a game which has some of the world’s best players on show. Why? Because I’ve already paid a subscription to one sports channel.
European rugby is an expensive business for fans. New jerseys seem to be coming out every year, meaning parents are under pressure when their kids see their idols’ new uniforms. Away games can mean expenses such as plane tickets, accommodation, match tickets, food, etc. Home games aren’t cheap either. But that’s accepted. It’s part and parcel.
What’s unacceptable is that fans who stay home are forced to fork out two subscriptions to two different channels in order to watch one competition.
Champions Cup organizers should not divide the rights to the competition. It adds an extra cost to fans who already give their all to follow their teams, and put simply, it is unfair to impose that extra cost on fans to pay the wages of pundits they never wanted in the first place.
The TV rights are up for renewal this summer and apparently they will not be shared again between two subscription channels. This needs to be imposed in order to continue to win over the public. It would be a very simple solution to what is a big issue.
The Champions Cup has been going from strength to strength and is finally capturing the imagination of fans again. But there are changes to be made. After all, to change is to improve.