The Heineken Cup, the Northern Hemisphere’s premier domestic tournament, is set to pass a remarkable milestone this season.
The all Ireland Heineken Cup clash between defending champions Munster, and compatriots Leinster, will likely sell out, pushing the attendance for the 14th tournament beyond the 1,000,000 mark for match day gate receipts.
It is likely that the clash between Paul O’Connell’s Munster and Brian O’Driscoll’s Leinster —the two men effectively going head to head for the upcoming Lions captaincy—will set a new Irish domestic record with the match officially sold out at Croke Park.
The home of Gallic football has a capacity of 82,500.
The quarterfinals last weekend officially attracted 101,466 people.
When the Cardiff Blues downed three-time champions Toulouse, there were 36,728 fans on hand. This set a new Welsh domestic record, and pushed the season total to 981,946, well beyond the current record season total, set in 2005/06, with 964,853 attending 79 matches.
So, notwithstanding the final at Murrayfield, which has a capacity of just shy of 68,000, this will set the season average for matches at approximately 12,820, an astonishing achievement.
The unique qualification system of the Heineken Cup, and its junior tournament the European Challenge Cup, shows a sound format that may be emulated by the future Southern Hemisphere super tournaments—with a view to employ the conference style systems that have had large success in the north.
Effectively, participation in these showpiece European championships is decided by the previous season’s standings in each country's respective domestic competition.
Under the Heineken Cup system, the top six teams from England and France qualify (based on Guinness Premiership and Top 14 standings), Ireland and Wales supply three teams, Scotland two teams (based on Magner’s League standings) and finally Italy with two teams from their Super 10 championship.
The final two places are decided by a playoff between the best placed non-qualifiers from the Magners League and Super 10; and the other by the highest ranked team from England, France, or Italy that is the last remaining, non-winning side.
So next year, this team will be the Leicester Tigers, since there are no French or Italian teams left in the championship.
Any team that does not qualify for the Heineken Cup effectively gets to compete for the European Challenge Cup.
The Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup champions automatically qualify for the following year's Heineken Cup, which then counts towards that country's respective number of qualifiers.
The match officials for the semifinals of the two championships have been allocated, with senior Welsh referee Nigel Owens taking charge of the all Irish derby, and Irishmen Alain Rolland controlling the second clash between the Cardiff Blues and Leicester Tigers.
There will be plenty of former New Zealand based players in action in the Heineken Cup semifinals, starting on May 1.
For Cardiff, former Hurricane Paul Tito will continue to lead his team, supported by former All Black number eight Xavier Rush, Matamata born Jason Spice, and former Highlander Ben Blair.
For Leicester, former Crusader and All Black Scott Hamilton has scored three tries in his five appearances for the English team.
All Black record try scorer Doug Howlett and former Manawatu centre Lifeimi Mafi are key members of a Munster team dominated by Grand Slamming Irish, and even Leinster depend on Isa Nacewa, who was a core member of the Auckland and Blues teams.
Heineken Cup Semifinals (Kick-offs local time)
Saturday, May 2
17.30 - Munster v Leinster - Croke Park - Nigel Owens (Wales)
Sunday May 3
15.00 - Cardiff Blues v Leicester Tigers - Millennium Stadium - Alain Rolland (Ireland)
European Challenge Cup Semifinals (Kick-off local time)
Friday May 1
19.45 - Northampton Saints v Saracens - Franklin's Gardens - Romain Poite (France)
Saturday May 2
13.30 - Bourgoin v Worcester Warriors - Stade Pierre Rajon - Peter Fitzgibbon (Ireland)