We got there in the end. After months of disagreements within the boardrooms of European rugby, a new provincial competition has been agreed.
The European Rugby Champions Cup will replace the Heineken Cup as of next season, as well as the continuation of the second-tier Challenge Cup and a qualifying tournament that will involve developing rugby nations.
Run in much the same format as the current tournament, albeit involving four less teams and five groups rather than six, the main differences are seen off the field, in the pockets of the national rugby boards.
I can go on about the ins and outs of the new system. About how the proceeds will be split between the Celtic, French and English leagues – the current system sees the Celtic countries receive a larger share – and the fact that there will be no major title sponsor. Or that European Professional Club Rugby will take over the running of the comp from European Rugby Cup Ltd, encompassing representatives on the board from each participating nation.
But as a player, I’m just glad this great competition lives on.
When I moved over to Ulster in August 2010, I knew little about the Heineken Cup. The lack of media coverage in Australia at the time meant that I arrived in Belfast unaware of the importance placed on the tournament and how it encapsulates everything great about European rugby.
There were brief glimpses of highlights on Australian television prior to my departure, and the successful exploits of high profile Wallabies Rocky Elsom and Chris Whitaker at Leinster meant that I had some knowledge of the competition.
However, on arrival into Ireland, it amazed me how big it was, how it took over the whole nation and how winning the thing was every player’s dream.
Elsom was seen as a hero in Dublin after helping Leinster lift the cup the previous season, as well as winning the award for player of the tournament.
I arrived in all sense of the word, an unknown, no one knew who I was, I didn’t know who they were and I had no idea what to expect.
I soon became aware of the tournament’s importance when I made my Heineken Cup debut a month later away to Biarritz, who at the time were still a powerful force in Europe.
It was an experience I will never forget. Getting the chance to travel around Europe and play in France and Italy, experiencing the atmosphere at the grounds, the culture in the towns and the fanatical supporters, and probably the most important thing – the post match spread. There is something extremely satisfying about tucking into a simple bowl of pasta, a lemon tart and a glass of red wine after doing battle on the field.
Like the planned expansion of Super Rugby, rugby needs to constantly develop to make sure it keeps up with the other sporting codes. Having coaches and players from higher profile rugby nations involved in developing countries is key to upholding this progression.
Aussie expats help, such as Eddie Jones, currently coaching in Japan, has helped raise the profile of the game there, as they prepare to host the World Cup in 2019.
You might question the amount of money being thrown around to high profile southern hemisphere players to play in France and Japan, but they are not just being paid for what they do on the field. They have a role within the community, to develop the younger local talent, which will leave a larger legacy in the future.
Many people have questioned the inclusion of Italian teams in the new competition, given their lack of success and how we would be better off including more French and English teams who would be more competitive. For me, in terms of developing the game and upholding rugby union’s title as being a world game, we need countries like Italy involved.
The new qualifying tournament will help build this as well as teams from developing rugby nations getting the chance to compete on the big stage.
At least once a year also, the Heineken Cup throws up some outstanding upsets, unforgettable tales of the underdog overcoming the powerful, and without these teams, this would not be possible.
Irish province Connacht went away this season to Toulouse, the most successful club in the tournament’s history, and won, and Saracens thumped Clermont, the out-and-out favourites to lift the trophy, by 40 points in the semi final.
This weekend sees the final instalment of the great competition, and another chance for an unforgettable script to be written, as defending champions Toulon take on Saracens at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. It already has the making of a memorable battle, with Jonny Wilkinson announcing his retirement earlier this week, and it seems fitting that both the tournament and one of it’s greatest players hang up the boots at the same time.
What has surprised me most about European rugby’s players and supporters, is how much they are in awe of Super Rugby – the pace of the game, the unbelievable try’s and offloading ability on show every weekend.
They must realise that what they have in the form of the Heineken Cup is so special in it’s own unique way, and hopefully, with the new competition now set in stone, they will.