It’s still officially called the European Rugby Champions Cup, though of course Heineken’s title sponsorship acts as a sticking plaster over the words ‘European Rugby’, which is rather handy for the organisers.
Otherwise, it might be hard to explain why a competition that has one team each from Scotland and Wales now features three from South Africa, but such is the nature of the evolution of modern sport and the “maximisation of commercial possibilities”, as we might term it.
The addition of South African teams to the Celtic League, turning it into the United Rugby Championship (URC), meant that a similar move was always likely in the Champions Cup.
On the surface, it’s good for the strength of the competition as it raises the quality level, but if we are left with an all-South African final next May, as in the URC last season, how full would Aviva Stadium be likely to be?
It used to be a hard enough sell when it was an all-French final, so it’s difficult to see people converging to watch the Stormers play the Bulls, as good a game as it might be.
Still, that’s something to worry about down the line – for now, we will hope that one or two of the three Irish provinces in the Champions Cup will make it to the final, along with Connacht in the Challenge Cup, the decider of which also takes place at the Aviva.
It all gets going this weekend, with another set of fixtures the following weekend and then two more rounds after Christmas before 16 teams progress to the knockout stage.
The 24 competing clubs are split into two pools of 12, but that doesn’t mean that a team plays the 11 other sides. Instead, there is a labyrinth based on seedings, with each of the eight French, eight English and eight URC sides given a ranking of first, second, third or fourth.
The first seeds play the fourth seeds in their pool, with the second seeds playing the third seeds – essentially, it’s a way of guarding against too many upsets and making sure that the biggest teams advance.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t some attractive fixtures in that middle two-versus-three tranche, where the three Irish provinces reside.
Leinster’s trip to face Racing 92 on Saturday is a really explosive way to start off the campaign, while Munster host Toulouse and Ulster are away to Sale Sharks.
Leinster and Ulster top the standings in the URC and so are in rude health as Europe begins, while Munster have found some form after a slow start to the season.
For Connacht, there’s a Challenge Cup clash with Newcastle Falcons as they seek to generate some momentum.
With things going so well at international level, one would hope for a trickle-down effect so that the year might end on a high on the continental scene before the Christmas inter-provincial derby clashes.
Groom on Saturday, best man on Sunday – it was quite a weekend for Shane Beston.
Player profiles in matchday programmes can sometimes throw up some interesting answers – for the AIB Munster Club Junior Hurling Championship final against St Kieran’s, Ballygiblin hurler Beston had a response that was in a league of its own.
Asked what he’d buy if he were to win the Lotto, he said: “Something expensive for Emma, who I married yesterday and is letting me play today!”
It was already an unusual situation for Ballygiblin. In 2021, the North Cork club won the county Junior A Championship and went on to win the Munster title in January of this year, making it to the All-Ireland final, where they narrowly lost to Kilkenny’s Mooncoin.
Ballygiblin were promoted to Cork’s fourth tier – which had previously been known as the Lower Intermediate Championship – but for 2022 Cork County Board renamed it as the Premier Junior Championship, meaning that the winners of that competition progressed to Munster.
Ballygiblin won the Premier Junior this year and victories over Tipperary’s Grangemockler-Ballyneale and Waterford’s Colligan brought them to Sunday’s final in Mallow against the Limerick champions.
Shane and his fiancée Emma Coughlan had set December 3 for their wedding – as any married person knows, it’s all about building the brownie points for use at a later date and Emma certainly built an early lead.
However, Shane justified his balancing act with three first-half goals to give Ballygiblin a 3-2 to 0-7 half-time lead and they won by 3-12 to 0-11, with the attacker having added three more points by the end.
“It was a matter of having a chat with Emma and seeing the logistics of the whole thing,” Beston said afterwards, “luckily for me, she’s into the GAA and she understood.
“I always said that she knew what she was signing up for, marrying me! We had a brilliant day on Saturday and then Sunday was Roy of The Rovers stuff, every time I went for a ball it bounced my way.
“I’m just really proud of all the lads getting us over the line, to win back-to-back Munsters is special stuff.”
An All-Ireland semi-final awaits next weekend against either Commercials of Dublin or Wexford’s Horeswood, who play on Saturday, but Ballygiblin – and the new Mr and Mrs Beston – had a good night last Sunday.