Irish Heineken Cup Lovers

26/09/2013

George Nash writes: The Irish have had a long running love affair with the Heineken Cup. Ever since Ulster won the cup for the first and only time in Dublin in 1999, Irish teams have had an obsession with winning the premier European club competition.

Whether based on lust for success or plain desire for achievement, the Irish quest for fulfilment in this competition is consummate.

At a time when the French and English clubs are questioning their future involvement in the competition, the great Irish Heineken love affair remains undiminished. The claim that the Celtic/Pro12 League teams have an easier path to Heineken Cup success than the English and French clubs is a view that is commonly put forward. Is this perception justified and do the facts on Heineken Cup success bear this out?  

Since the competition began in the 1995/96 season, 18 Heineken Cup competitions have been completed up to 2013. In two competitions the full complement of teams from the Six Nations countries did not take part. Scottish and English teams did not join the competition until the 1996/97 season - teams from Romania also competed in the first competition.

English teams also opted out in the 1998/99 season due to an organisational dispute, leaving 16 competitions where all the Six Nations countries participated. Taking the outright winning of the competition as the ultimate yardstick of success in the 16 seasons with full Six Nation representation, English teams have won the trophy six times, with French and Irish teams being successful on five occasions each. No team from Wales, Scotland or Italy has ever won the Heineken Cup.

If the indicator for success is broadened to include teams that reach the final, French teams have been beaten finalists on nine occasions, with England having four and Ireland three beaten finalists in the 16 seasons being used to measure success rates.

As the 1995/96 season has been excluded for reasons noted above, the appearance of Cardiff Blues in that season’s final is not taken into account. No Welsh, Scottish or Italian team has reached the final in the 16 seasons in question. Using the winner/beaten finalist model as the key success rate indicator, the French with five winners and nine beaten finalists are the most successful nation.

England with six winners and four beaten finalists are second in the rankings, with the Irish a close third on five wins plus three finalists. The Welsh, Scottish and Italian teams do not feature at all in terms of Heineken Cup success using the annual finalists as the key success indicator.

This simple model gives an interesting first impression of Heineken Cup success levels from the six competing nations. However, other factors need to be taken into consideration when trying to get a clearer picture of success levels amongst the participating countries. 

In the structure of the Heineken Cup, England and France have always had more teams in the competition due to the greater number of professional players and teams in those countries. In France, 14 professional teams play in the Top 14 league while a further 16 teams play in the second tier league.

The English Premiership has 12 teams with an additional 12 teams in the RFU Championship. The Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Italian teams play in the Celtic/PRO12 league. Ireland and Wales each have four professional teams, while Italy and Scotland have just two each.

Although qualification rules have changed over the years, the combined English/French team representation in the Heineken Cup has more or less been equal to the combined number of teams from the other four nations. In recent years England and France have had six teams each, with four each from Wales and Ireland and two each from Italy and Scotland.

These numbers have varied slightly in different years with one less team from Ireland and one more from France or England. What then are the relative success rates of teams from different countries and have the Celtic/PRO12 teams enjoyed greater success rates because of the easier nature of their league and qualification process?

On the face of it the French have a slightly better record that the English from roughly similar team pools and national league structures. The Irish and Welsh teams and playing numbers are also roughly similar.

Yet Ireland’s success record in the Heineken Cup is more on par with the top two countries than with Wales. In the 16 years under consideration no Welsh team has reached the final whereas Irish teams have won the competition five times and have been runners up on three further occasions. It is interesting to note that the success levels of the respective national teams are starkly different. Over the past 18 years Wales has been Six Nations champions on four occasions, including three grand slams. Ireland has won just one Six Nations championship in the same period.

The view being put forward by the French and English clubs that the Celtic/PRO12 nations have enjoyed greater success due to their easier qualification routes and the less competitive nature of the PRO12 League, does not seem to stand up. The facts indicate that it is the Irish who have enjoyed exceptional success rates in the Heineken Cup - taking into account their size in terms of playing numbers and teams – not the Celtic/PRO12 nations as a whole. Why then have the Irish teams been so successful in relative terms?

One explanation might be that at a very early stage in the Heineken Cup development, the competition ignited some sort of a love spark in the Munster rugby camp. Irish rugby in the guise of Munster fell in love with the Heineken Cup.

It became the Holy Grail for Munster players and fans alike. After initial failures in the Cup finals of 2000 and 2002, Munster’s passionate pursuit of the Holy Grail appeared to take on a life of its own. It seemed that during this time Munster had made success in the Heineken Cup a raison d'être and were determined to learn how to achieve that goal. This passion and desire to achieve eventually led to ultimate success in 2006 followed quickly by another win in 2008.

Traditionally in Ireland there had been fierce rugby rivalry between the four provinces. This rivalry continued unabated into the professional rugby era. Undoubtedly Munster was the dominant Irish team in the early years of professional rugby and in the first 12 years of the Heineken Cup. What effect did Munster’s dominance and their Heineken love affair have on the other Irish teams?

Munster’s last appearance in the final was in 2008. Since then a new blue Irish force in the form of Leinster has risen to prominence. Leinster has won three of the last five Heineken Cups. Unlike other multiple winners such as Toulouse, Leicester and Munster, Leinster has never been beaten in the final.

The burning Leinster desire to succeed has seen them outstrip Munster to become the dominant Irish Heineken Cup force. Was this passion to succeed ignited by Munster’s achievements? In the tiny gold fish bowl of Irish rugby did Leinster take the hump at Munster’s success and become goaded into following and bettering them on the European rugby stage?

Neither Leinster nor Munster would agree with such a proposition but anyone with a small insight into the Irish psyche might acknowledge that there could be an element of truth in it. Maybe Munster people might be happy to accept this notion after closer consideration: Munster’s dominance and their affair with the Heineken Cup has inspired Leinster and goaded them into becoming better Heineken lovers. After beating Munster in the quarter final in 2012 and going on to reach their first final since 1999, is Ulster next in line for a successful trip down the Heineken lover’s lane? 

The suggestion that the Heineken success rate of the Celtic/PRO 12 teams is due to the ‘soft’ nature of this league is not borne out by the facts. Their qualification process may be easier, but the Celtic/PRO12 nations as a whole have not enjoyed widespread Heineken Cup success. It is only the Irish teams that have been successful at this level.

Teams from Wales, Scotland and Italy have just not featured in the final stages of the Heineken Cup. It is the Irish desire and passion for the competition that has ensured a healthy success rate for the Celtic/PRO12 teams.

Is it incidental that the highest ever attendance of over 82,000 at a Heineken Cup match was when those rival lovers Leinster and Munster met in the semi-final in Croke Park in 2009?   If the currently mooted Anglo/French Cup happens, what about the Irish provinces getting together in an All-Ireland Rugby Championship?

The four Irish teams play each other home and away in a bonus point league. The grounds would be packed to the rafters for each match and the IRFU could sell the TV rights to the highest bidder!

 NB. Each year an Irish team won the Heineken Cup, they finished in the top 3 of the Celtic League the previous season

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