What is perhaps even more bewildering, is that players are signing extensions to their contracts without the certainty of in what competition they will be playing next season.
If current form continues, there is a real danger than Cardiff could fail to qualify as of right for next season’s European Cup. Worse still, could fail to qualify for a play off place against the third Italian side.
Next year’s European Cup
For the 2005 / 2006 season, the 24th place will go to the winners of a play-off between the highest placed non-Heineken Cup qualifying team from Scotland, Ireland or Wales in the 2004 / 2005 Celtic League and the third-placed side in the 2004 / 2005 Italian Championship. This game will be played the weekend after the 2005 Heineken Cup final at a venue in Italy.
With the final of the European Cup to be played at Murrayfield on Sunday 22 May, the Italian game will be on the weekend of 29th May – the week of Whitsun Bank Holiday. In a further twist, this will be a week before Wales’ game against Canada, and the week before the Lions opening game against the Bay of Plenty. Could be an interesting tug of war over a number of players – Martyn Williams and possibly Shanklin and Gethin Jenkins in New Zealand, and a whole host of others in Canada. Will Ruddock try to force players to rest? If he does, and Cardiff comply, then the team playing in Italy could be seriously weakened to the point of rendering them underdogs.
Italian Club sides
SKG Gran Rugby
The best Cardiff can realistically hope for this season is to qualify for this play off game (over the season, the table doesn’t lie and if that’s where Cardiff finish, then they don’t deserve better). The latest status in Italy’s Super 10 competition shows Calvisano in third place. But the competition is only half completed and there are nine more games to play. Should we start planning a trip to Italy? Well, Calvisano play at Brescia – between Milan and Verona. Ryan Air fly to Brescia pretty regularly from Stanstead – that’s the good news. The bad news is that we won’t even know who Cardiff will play until mid May – so how do we organize our flights?
Should Calvisano (or the team who finally finishes third in Italy) face the game on the weekend of the 29th May, then they will benefit from fixtures right up to the weekend of the qualifying game. Moffett and the WRU have failed to provide a fixture list that will give the bottom finishing Welsh team such a luxury. Should Cardiff fail to qualify for the Celtic Cup competition, they will play their last fixture six weeks before the Italian game.
If Cardiff can reach 8th place in the Celtic League, they will play the first game of the Celtic Cup on the last weekend of April – still one month before the play off game.
The run in
The next home fixture will be against Munster, and like far too many games this season, the policy of the respective Unions is the first thing to consider when trying to predict the result. Will either club be allowed to field their best XV? Last season, Munster were thrashed 60-14 at CAP, but earlier this season Changalang-supported Munster gave Cardiff a going over. The only good news for Cardiff is that with such a big gap in the fixture list, there’s an opportunity for the walking wounded to recover. Next up is a trip to Stradey. Cardiff have won only once in Stradey since September 30th 1995 (but what a victory!)
With only one victory away from home all season, it’s unlikely that Cardiff will win in Glasgow either (where they’ve at least one twice in the last five years), but the final two games should see maximum points with near to a first XV available.
Given the state of the league table, Cardiff’s best hope is to catch Connacht – Ulster are too far ahead, as are Llanelli. There are two key Connacht fixtures approaching – one against Llanelli and one against Leinster. But once more it seems that the Union will have final say over the competition. With the Leinster game mid-Six Nations, it seems likely that Leinster will be forced to face their second XV and given their lack of strength in depth, Connacht should win this game. Should they gain victory against Llanelli and Leinster, it seems unlikely that Cardiff will quality for that game on the weekend of May 29th.
For the club to finish 8th, they must finish above Ulster or Connacht and Edinburgh which is more than unlikely. With victory in Stradey and Glasgow very unlikely, Munster at home even less likely, then victories over Borders and Ulster seem all that’s left. Cardiff will need results to go their way to even qualify for the game in Italy, but to qualify for the Celtic Cup is unlikely.
Cardiff don’t qualify – so what?
Well, this time everyone suffers. All money from the Heineken Cup will be equally shared equally amongst all four professional teams, and next season that means completely equal funding (and the Ospreys will loose the £0.5m funding advantage next season). So ERC money will be reduced, so less money will flow into the game in Wales. Lack of high level competition means that Cardiff’s internationals could spend the peak of next season playing games against Spanish or Portuguese sides (and all this the season before the next world cup). That will hardly bring the punters through the gates, and so revenue from attendances will also fall.
Sadly, Moffett and his chums have agreed to a further impoverishment of Welsh rugby with the decision to allow only three teams of right into the Heineken Cup. A few seasons ago, Wales had five.
So what led Moffett to give away a place for one of Wales’ teams at the top level of the sport? “The WRU is very grateful for the on-going support it has received from its ERC partners. This is a very important decision for our regions and we are delighted with the outcome for not only next season, but also for the format put in place for future qualification,” said Moffett.
So reduced revenue for the sport (from the ERC and Sky), reduced gates and reduced exposure for Wales’ top players to top European competition and what does Moffett say – “The WRU is very grateful”. What sort of madness is this?
Remaining fixtures in the Celtic League
Ospreys vs Borders (L)
Newport vs Borders (L)
Edinburgh vs Borders (L)
Ulster vs Borders (L)
Borders vs Munster (L)
Cardiff vs Borders (L)
Newport vs Ulster (L)
Ulster vs Glasgow (W)
Munster vs Ulster (L)
Ulster vs Borders (W)
Cardiff vs Ulster (L)
Ulster vs Llanelli (W)
Connacht vs Llanelli (W)
Edinburgh vs Connacht (L)
Connacht vs Leinster (W)
Connacht vs Ospreys (L)
Newport vs Connacht (L)
Cardiff vs Munster (L)
Llanelli vs Cardiff (L)
Glasgow vs Cardiff (L)
Cardiff vs Ulster (W)
Cardiff vs Borders (W)
European Challenge Cup Teams
2004 / 2005
10 French (Seeds: Brive, Beziers, Montferrand, Montpellier, Agen, Pau. Non seeds: Narbonne, Grenoble, Auch, Bayonne)
5 English (Seeds – Sale Sharks, London Irish, Saracens, Leeds Tykes. Non seeds: Worcester)
8 Italian (Seeds: Viadana, Rugby Parma. Non seeds: Rugby Rovigo, Petrarca Padova, GrAN Parma, L’Aquila, Leonessa, Amatori Catania)
1 Irish (Seed: Connacht)
1 Scottish (Seed: The Borders)
2 Spanish (Non seeds: Cetransa El Salvador, UC Madrid)
1 Portugal (Non seeds: RC Coimbra)