Why the Heineken Cup needs to be saved
December 13, 2013
Tom May contests for the high ball while on Heineken Cup duty for Northampton Saints © Getty Images
European competition is here again and we are currently in the middle of another exciting block of games. The buzz surrounding the games isn't something confined solely to the stands and living rooms across Europe, for the players it adds something special to the season, something of exceptional value and excitement. It is different and the passion of the public has a big role to play.
From the players' perspective, the week in week out nature of national competitions like the Aviva Premiership provide the bread and butter. That is what clubs ultimately are measured on, certainly in England anyway. However, mixing all of the leagues together creates anticipation and excitement within the clubs themselves - new players to face, stadiums to play in, atmospheres to enjoy and just as importantly, new experiences to treasure. Rugby has a fantastic ability to give players magnificent adventures and memories and Europe offers that in abundance.
Some of my most memorable experiences have come in Europe; Newcastle beating Toulouse, Toulon playing Cardiff in the Amlin Challenge Final in the Veldodrome in Marseille and beating Ulster in Belfast with Northampton last season. Amazing days that will stay with me forever. You will see in the player's eyes this weekend the importance the games carry. Opportunities to play against some great clubs from across many European nations, a chance to be test themselves against some of the best players. They aren't normal games; they stand alone in their importance.
We all feel the difference a change makes in our lives; rugby is no different. Heading into Europe provides a lift, a freshness to training, leaving behind regular league games and the normal week. There is a new buzz about the club that is tangible. From the moment you arrive at the club to do your analysis of a team you hardly ever watch or play against, to using the European balls in training, to the moment you pack for the team run making sure you haven't forgotten the passport, there is a different feel to the week - a good feeling, a great feeling. Something special is about to unfold.
One of the things playing rugby at a professional level allows is for players to play at and experience fantastic grounds, performing in front of some amazingly passionate crowds. Heading to Gloucester, Leicester and Bath are all fantastic places to go to for ranging reasons but somehow you get used to them. Europe provides another difference. If you head to France, you can guarantee every ground you play at is going to be hostile. That's French rugby. Being given opportunities to play in that environment is something that players relish.
The same can be said about heading to Wales, Scotland and Ireland, some unbelievable teams (look at Leinster currently) with some crazy support. These are the games you want to play in as a player, the ones that you look for the moment the fixture list comes out at the start of the season. Every Heineken Cup fixture is going to be big. It doesn't matter what period of the season it is, the first round of games or the finals, the build-up week is huge. Some of most historic clubs are involved and to play against them is a privilege that players don't underestimate.
On duty for Toulon © Getty Images
The Amlin Challenge Cup doesn't have the same level of quality to it for clear reasons but adds more as an experience. Heading to Italy, France, Portugal, Romania this season, British clubs will travel far and wide across mainland Europe to many places players might not actually ever go to had they not been playing rugby. Rugby is of course about winning and progressing through these competitions but it is also about experiences and opportunities, seeing different places and meeting different people both tiers of Europe provide this in abundance.
Spending time with team mates is very important through the season and some of the away trips mean that players have extended periods of time with each other allowing the team to bond. Experiencing all that European rugby has to offer with the people that you work with on a week to week basis is brilliant. Going to see some of the sights and places in European towns and cities and experiencing them with friends is something rugby allows you to do. Players have the same fun on these trips as grassroots clubs do on their tours and it provides the same benefits.
The games are all challenges but Europe provides moments where there is a siege mentality. Teams are on their own, on someone else's patch. It's something I will remember as a player, the tightness of the team in needing to overcome the nature of the challenge. Of course there is a taste of this sometimes in domestic leagues but Europe has the extra meaning and where better to snatch a win on the road.
European rugby has given us some of the best games to watch over a number of years and it is something that needs to be kept alive. Whatever needs to be happen to save the rugby we have in its current format should be done. As for the English clubs' involvement, or not as the case may be, it may well be less attractive for top players to play in England if they aren't involved in the Heineken Cup; European rugby, like football, means that much. The most exciting games of recent years have been in European competition; let's not destroy it.
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