Heineken Cup qualification still a positive even in bleak times

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When Cardiff and Ospreys take to the field at Judgement Day on Saturday night the much-maligned Welsh Shield will be at stake, the prize for finishing as the top ranked Welsh side in the United Rugby Championship.

The Shield, referred to not inaccurately as the Welsh Hubcap, is itself something of nothing. Of course there’s the professional sportsperson mindset of wanting to win everything and having something to show for your achievements, but just like the URC as a whole it is a somewhat hollow competition.

Awarding a trophy when the competing teams’ fixture lists are unbalanced is difficult to rectify with sporting integrity. Who each team plays home and away has a major bearing on how their season will play out, as does whether you play a team inside or outside of the international window. You could win not by being the best on the pitch, but by having the easiest fixture list.

However, what the Welsh Shield does offer, for now at least, is a route into the Heineken Champions Cup, and despite the backdrop of Welsh professional club rugby going even deeper into a perpetual crisis, that is still worth something.

There are some who will argue vehemently that playing at the top table of European rugby should be avoided at all costs. With the current financial state of Welsh rugby resulting in a significant tightening of belts over the next few years and an exodus of talent from the four professional clubs, the realistic prospect of competing with the best in the northern hemisphere is non-existent.

It’s an understandable viewpoint, certainly. There are considerations around how any heavy losses would have an impact on squad morale, what it would do reputationally for the club and the possibility that finishing bottom of the pool in the competition’s current format means no knockout rugby in either European competition.

However, I think those are outweighed from a rugby and commercial outlook.

Commercially the Heineken Cup is the prized jewel in northern hemisphere rugby, no matter how much EPCR attempt to torpedo it through their never ending incompetence. It garners a media focus that is comfortably ahead of any of the domestic leagues and head and shoulders above the Challenge Cup which is an after-thought particularly at the pool stage.

The size of the fixtures and the attraction to sponsors would generate income that is much-needed for Welsh clubs currently, and create some excitement at a time when good times will be few and far between on a week-in, week-out basis.

From a rugby perspective there will be no pressure on any Welsh team to perform, but with a full squad available out of the international window the possibility of putting a strongest XV out may lead to some of the best performances of the season, and all it takes is a few points to at least qualify for the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup.

And finally, from a personal and selfish perspective, the away trips in the Heineken Cup are generally the better ones for supporters. Racing 92, Clermont, La Rochelle, these are the French weekends that you want, as good as weekends in Pau and Brive can be.

So when the sides do battle at Judgement Day have no doubt that there is plenty to play for, and hopefully Cardiff come out on top to end this dreadful season, and start a tough era, on a high.

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