For what seems an eternity to me, at the tender age of thirty four and having played and followed rugby in excess of twenty years, everyone and his dog has been talking about rugby in Europe. The Five Nations obviously, but I specifically mean, club rugby. Players, tea ladies, journalists, that old duffer who sits in the corner every Saturday after the game and who nobody ever speaks to. Yes, that's him - the ref. Everybody has been muttering about how wonderful it would be for clubs in Europe to play each other.. whether Racing Club de Paris were classier than Llanelli, or if Garryowen were as daunting as Gloucester or Gosforth.
Of course, those two particular questions would have been asked a long time ago, when continental travel required boat trains that left Waterloo or Victoria at God-forsaken hours of the morning, and involved two changes before Dover, a ninety minute wait at the docks, and a painfully slow progression across France in what appeared to be a converted cattle truck. And that was traveling first class! Travel to Ireland was doubly fraught, involving as it did epic journeys being herded around by British Rail (sadly no more with us, and who would ever have thought we'd have said that twenty years ago?) as if we were lepers, then a perilous crossing on the ark that Noah rejected before repeating the self same trip in reverse but this time facing the prospect of a strip search and internal cavity inspection by Her Majesty's distrusting security forces as soon as you stepped foot back in the U.K. This daunting prospect was even more likely for those that were unfortunate enough to have a surname beginning with an "O", such as O'Reilly. Or Ostlethwaite.
It is no wonder therefore that European rugby was little more than a whisper on peoples' lips after a few pints of Guinness, or glasses of Pernod. Chaps just wouldn't seriously consider a trip outside Blighty to play rugby once they were sober, and aside from that the food was always smelly and the beer came in silly little glasses, and cost the earth. Apart from Ireland where touring teams went down with beri-beri and scurvy due to the huge amount of potatoes they were fed everywhere and little else, and where the Guinness while at least coming in pints sealed a chap up for a week tighter than a gnat's chuff. Allied to this of course was the sure knowledge that Rugby outside the mainland was played by large hairy Paddies that kicked the bejeezus out of you, or effeminate Frogs that broke your nose when the ref wasn't looking. (No change there then.)
No, no, no... a rugger bugger was much better off staying at home in England where he knew he could tour against fellow gentlemen, and find a delicious foaming pint of ale served up by a curvaceous large breasted publican. And that was just the loose head prop having slipped behind the bar. If any foreign rugby was required then there was always the prospect of popping over to deepest Wales to play someone like Newport, or better still Chepstow, especially once the Severn Bridge and the M4 was built. That way you could be back in Bristol or Gloucester in time for opening as the beer was always awful in Wales. (No change there then, either.) Presumably before the Severn bridge was built, teams occasionally visited Welsh strongholds like Monmouth or Hay-on-Wye, which was even better because although it is in Wales everyone speaks with an English accent. Sort of. Of course, if one's club was buried in the far north, visits to Berwick or Gretna could be made in similar vein, and thus the desire to play internationally was sated for another few years; and there was always Cornwall for a kind of Celtic experience if the prospect of leaving England was too much.
The RFU were apparently happy with this scenario, as the one exception to the general rule that talk of European rugby was on everybody's lips was of course anyone with a blazer. Such men were far busier dealing with crushing rugby league, boot money and avoiding doing anything too much before the end of the season when they could all have a rest. The collective flatulence was unlikely to ever consider anything outside of the home counties let alone the motherland - it was bad enough that bumpkins in the west country and upstarts from the north insisted on being good, without having to contemplate any foreign johnnies.
However, the incessant march of technology brought foreign climes ever closer. British Visitors' Passports, valid for one year and resembling a dog-chewed piece of bathroom mat, and available at very Post Office in the land (the purchase of which usually brought the entire queuing system to a grinding halt and led to several OAPs dying of malnutrition whilst waiting to collect their pensions) soon had the average Englishman pouring onto the Continent in search of sun, sand and Watney's Draught Red Barrel. Poor Europeans. For centuries they had fought wars to keep the English out of Europe (except strangely enough the Portuguese, but I guess the English have never been that fond of sardines or green wine), and now because of the EEC they had to welcome them with open arms, throw open their resorts to them, and clean their vomit off the pavements. With this mass exodus to pastures continental soon followed the rugby players. Individuals swapped a bedsit in Dagenham for a villa in the south of France for a year in the pursuit of a different rugby environment, vast quantities of cheap red wine, and as many French birds they could shag in a season. I have often wondered if the reciprocal situation was ever true - some poor French lad, brought up in rich, beautiful countryside, surrounded by the bounties of nature and blessed with the joie de vivre of flowing Gallic rugby having to spend what must have seemed a lifetime in purgatory freezing on the wing somewhere in the West Midlands with only the prospect of warm, flat beer and a fat bird with bad breath after the game. I don't see it somehow.
And in the wake of the individuals came the clubs. Gone were the traditional Easter tours to Somerset or Suffolk; now clubs started planning Easter tours the previous May, setting up saving clubs for potential tourists so that the treasurer could run off with the dosh the following March. Tours flourished to Spain, Portugal (whose residents soon wished they also had been at war with the bloody English for centuries, and got their own back on the touring teams by feeding them sardines and filling them full of green wine) and France. Soon tales of broken legs in skiing accidents in the Alps played second fiddle at dinner parties to stories of broken jaws on tour to Pau. Even Wales and Ireland benefitted from this export of rugby; however, whereas before they had welcomed the likes of Waterloo or Blackheath, now they hosted all those clubs whose treasurer had run off with the tour kitty and who couldn't afford to tour anywhere else (I've toured to Newcastle Emelyn at Easter. "Where?", I hear you ask. Quite. The irony here is that I had only left Aberystwyth, thirty miles up the bloody road, the previous summer!).
But still the RFU kept its collective head in the sand. European rugby was something clubs did to let off steam at Easter. No future in it. Too bloody far. Absolutely impractical. Huh. If you couldn't get to the ground by train, then it wasn't worth doing.
Then some bastard went and built a bloody great tunnel, defacing half of Kent and Flanders in the process, and the RFU-scuppered. European rugby was a reality after all those years of half drunken debate. At last, we could find out if Racing Club de Paris was classier than Llanelli, or if Garryowen was mightier than Gosport (no one had told the Irish that the tunnel only connected England and France, but it didn't stop them wanting to join in); well, we might possibly be interested in the answers to those questions if those teams weren't crap now, but we undoubtably had the enthralling prospect of seeing the unstoppable Toulouse take on the unbeatable Bath.
Remember those blazers? The ones that were too busy before trying to sniff out ferret handlers and black pudding salesmen south of Doncaster? The ones who previously thought Dax was a toilet cleaner, and Hawick a noise you made when you had too much phlegm on your chest? Despite the fact a sponsor was ready and willing to pump a vast amount of its fizzy overpriced product's profits into making a European club competition work, Karlingz 57 sat on their bums and kept English clubs away from the party. "Too soon," they said. "Far too unplanned. It will need a twenty-seven member sub-committee reporting to an IRB supremo at twice yearly intervals for the next decade to ensure that any such competition is properly organised with a view to home/away, relegation/promotion and organisational structure, and especially important, which wine is served with the fish course. And you can't have a European Cup competition without us English chappies because that would be silly."
Then some bastard said "Stuff the RFU" (or words to that effect) and in twenty-three nanoseconds had organised the first European Club Cup competition, encompassing clubs from Celtic nations, France, Italy, Romania and Liechtenstein (only Liechtenstein had to pull out when they realised they didn't have fifteen players). And no English clubs. "Pah!" said someone in the RFU. "Stupid idea". And naturally it was brilliant success - in fact so successful, Heineken poured all its gassy lager into the same competition the next year and wouldn't give the Welsh any. The first final was a glorious game won by Toulouse over Cardiff, and at last the RFU accepted that maybe it was a good idea. "Well done you European chappies" they said "next season is when we would have suggested the competition could start, so we'll join in then OK?"
The rest is history. History is also bunk, according to Henry Ford, but what did he know about Rugby? This year has seen the magnificent debut of the inaugural European Cup (last year's doesn't count according to the RFU), where some despicable French team from Gdansk (or something) beat the magnificent and wholly English chaps from Leicester by cheating and running too fast and jumping higher. But let us not forget the European Cup's baby brother, the Conference. Actually, on second thoughts, let's forget all about it as it ended up being a completely French affair after about two matches. But I'm sure it'll be better next year when some English teams win something in it. Maybe. Or at least some team whose name we can all pronounce (except for Welsh teams with no vowels and seven "l"s in their name) gets further than carrying the oranges.
European rugby has gripped the imagination of the European rugby fraternity, the media, and most of Pau's opposition's genitals. The competition created an international interest arguably outweighing the totally nationalistic basis of the Five Nations; as the competition developed, national allegiances moved with the clubs that remained... Parisians barracked for Toulouse, Swansea men shouted for Cardiff, Gloucester supporters cheered for Bath (well, maybe not ...). And the standard of rugby has arguably risen as a result. Next year's cup is eagerly anticipated already.
And what of next year? And the following years? Well, European Club Rugby is here to stay it would appear. Who can say if the format will remain the same... maybe it will become a top level league. There are suggestions already of a divisional competition to equal the Super Twelve, which itself has taken several years under differing formats to flourish, and then only with the huge injection of cash from satellite/cable television. Whatever, there is one thing that is for certain... we won't be sitting around our club rooms any longer pontificating over who is better between Ponty and Treviso.
But... no... its daft... but... do you reckon Brive would beat Natal?