Ahead of the final of the Heineken Champions Cup, Sport Industry Group spoke to Simon Halliday, Chair, European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) on all things rugby, returning after lockdown, and the need for government help.
When the Exeter Chiefs were crowned champions of the Heineken Champions Cup at Bristol’s Ashton Gate on Saturday, there was a new champion of European club rugby.
Despite the changes that have taken place in the sport since the inaugural Heineken Cup launched in 1995 - from the growth of professionalism through to the establishment of EPCR in 2014 - there hasn’t been a year quite like this one.
Returning after lockdown, rugby has had to implement greater measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 than many other sports that don’t require as much close contact. The domestic leagues were the first to come back, before European competition draws a truncated season to a close - but staging matches between clubs from multiple countries during a pandemic brings its own problems.
“Sometimes EPCR can come across as just a Swiss-based tournament organiser - which we are - but our stakeholders are the Six Nations and the three leagues,” said Halliday.
“So we've had all of those leagues and unions working together to try and see how we could fit the rugby in. We've worked really hard to find those dates - and it's been very difficult for player management - but, as you've seen, a lot of younger players have been given time to play over this period, and that's been a real benefit. To see how many good young players are coming through the system. There's a very aggressive view being taken on player welfare claim management, which is good to see.”
It’s not just clubs who have been forced to change their methods. Crises often force innovation and sport has had to adapt throughout the lockdown period. The 2019/20 seasons across the sporting world have been impacted, but so too will the 2021 editions.
Next season’s Heineken Champions Cup will include a new pool format to ease fixture congestion, but EPCR has also taken the opportunity to make its competition more compelling to fans, ensuring that teams from the same country don’t play against each other in the early stages.
A new world club championship, taking place between the winners of various international club competitions across the northern and southern hemispheres, has also been mooted.
“What's coming across here is that the disaster - and it is a disaster that we are having to deal with - has forced a lot of discussions to create opportunity for the future,” said Halliday.
“That’s no more evident than in our European world where we're looking at new formats, how they may look long term, and also potentially competitions such as the World Club Champions Cup, which is a really lovely idea if we can make it work that may never have happened in longer timescales, had we not been facing such a tough situation in rugby.”
“But obviously, across Europe, we have to bring together a lot of different viewpoints because we are cross-border. In the current environment that's made life very difficult.
“But the reset that’s coming is, in my book, going to be quite significant.”
That ‘reset’ will be felt across sport as a whole, and not just in rugby.
With new lockdown measures coming into place across large swathes of the UK, as well as being put back in place in other European countries, hopes of getting fans back into stadiums have been dashed by government policy. Now sport is waiting on government help, and Halliday warns it will have serious consequences.
“One of the things that's really worrying me, he said, “is that against the background of everything we're having to deal with, there seems to be a blanket approach towards sports as far as the safety codes that we're having to go through.
“I do genuinely think that the government - and as is the case for us, the governments, because we're talking about Ireland, France, and Italy as well - are taking a bit of a uniform approach to everything and I don't think that's right. And that's putting the whole sport at risk.
“We're going to have to talk a lot more aggressively in the corridors of power to say, ‘we're going to have to make local decisions, not national decisions because if we don't get crowds back into our stadiums very soon, we're not going to have a sport to talk about’.
“I think we need to act quite quickly. Some people say ‘well, why don't let the game go back to amateur?’ Well, careful what you wish for because 99% of the game is amateur, and they play for the love of it. But they can't start again and are struggling for their existence.
“Remember that the likes of Twickenham and Murrayfield, the Aviva Stadium and the Millennium Stadium, the money they get pays for amateur rugby. So we are facing a disaster scenario. And I don't believe the government really understands that and we're going to have to work hard to get fans back.”
Global rugby seemed to have been at something of a crossroads even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, even if there may look to be more pressing concerns. But the sport has to look to the future as well, says Halliday, who says the sport has to work on the assumption that it gets through this crisis and gets back to normal at some point.
“Clearly, if you don't have crowds, then the revenue numbers fall very, very sharply and people are now looking at the sustainability of the sport, with the volatility of the crowds - our revenue is dominated by broadcast media.
“But for us, it's all about fan experiences, the atmosphere in the stadium and the tribalism between teams: international-style rugby in club jerseys is what we call it.
“We have a really strong brand for the future, and we need to continue to grow into that. I don't think this has done anything more than accentuate that.”
With recent YouGov Sport data showing that the Heineken Champions Cup was achieving most cut-through among younger audiences, the sport will be looking to capitalise on that strong brand for the future.