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Given the sponsor’s famous slogan, it is apt that this weekend’s quarter-finals demonstrate that the Heineken European Cup can also reach places that rugby union’s other competitions cannot. All four teams which earned the right to play on their own grounds have opted for somewhere else.
On Saturday, Leicester entertain Bath and Toulouse play Leinster at large stadiums elsewhere in their cities, with the Tigers switching to Leicester City’s Walkers Stadium. Most spectacularly of all, Munster and their accompanying horde travel to Dublin’s Lansdowne Road for the visit of Perpignan. And on Sunday Biarritz cross the Spanish border to San Sebastian for their meeting with Sale.
There is a simple explanation – ground capacity. The stadiums usually used by the host quartet will accommodate a total of 57,500 spectators, many in greater proximity to their fellow fan than they might wish. This weekend’s four matches will attract sell-out crowds of about 154,000.
That’s a lot of extra income, the chance to pull in fans otherwise excluded and, in Biarritz’s case, an exercise in cross-border missionary work justifying their official title of Biarritz Olympique-Pays Basque. Had Perpignan earned a home draw, they intended a similar cross-
border excursion, playing up their Catalan identity in Barcelona.
The appeal of the Heineken has outgrown club rugby’s infrastructure. Capacities of 10,000-20,000 are fine for domestic competition but inadequate for games such as these. Six years after the competition’s rules moved semi-finals away from club grounds, the market is doing the same to the round before.
Yet the home clubs are taking a calculated risk. While there are varying explanations for home advantage – one analyst found that home teams generate more testosterone, while others argue for the effects of crowd support and the comfort that comes with familiar surroundings – nobody doubts that it exists. To give up that familiar dressing-room in which every player has his own peg and locker and the peculiar local knowledge of that bumpy patch near one corner flag and the way the wind swirls in the lee of one grandstand, to deprive your fans of their regular seats, neighbours and pre-match routines has its perils.
While the great cautionary tale on this subject comes from another sport – Arsenal’s Champions League failures at Wembley – rugby offers a recent parallel in Bourgoin. Following the marketing logic implicit in being a small-town club in a well-populated area otherwise short of top-class rugby, they have begun playing occasional games in larger nearby cities. Last week, in Saint Etienne’s Stade Godefroy Guichard, they lost their 46-match unbeaten record in home French championship matches built at their Stade Pierre Rajon.
That Perpignan were their conquerors will not be lost on Munster, who have never lost a Heineken match at Thomond Park, Limerick, where the wall of silence confronting opposing goal-kickers is even more unnerving than the raging fervour that accompanies the rest of the action. Lansdowne Road will be packed to its venerable rafters and is familiar territory to Munster’s proliferation of Irish internationals, but may not carry the same charge.
Yet home advantage has been diminishing. There were only two away wins in the first 20 Heineken quarter-finals – none at all for three seasons. Munster broke the spell with quarter-final wins at Bath and Leicester in consecutive years, plus semi-final defeats of French opposition on French grounds in 2000 and 2002. The fervour of their following doubtless helped to minimise home advantage. Six of the last 16 quarter-finals have been away wins. In 2003, allegedly poor travellers Perpignan reached the final via wins away to Llanelli and Leinster.
After a decade of European competition, crossing a border holds fewer terrors for players and coaches whose experience and sophistication have grown.
This weekend Toulouse, Leicester and Munster – the competition’s holy trinity – will all expect to progress. The best, least predictable contest could be in San Sebastian.
BO v Sale may look the ultimate sponsorship opportunity for deodorant manufacturers, but the clash of France’s champions and current leaders with the French-inflected English leaders should give off a distinctly heady aroma, with Biarritz’s power and experience giving them the edge so long as they concentrate for the whole 80 minutes.