Since its inaugural season in 1995-6, the Heineken Cup has added an extra dimension to European club rugby. Alongside its sister tournament, the Amlin Challenge Cup, the Heineken Cup has brought a new elite level of competition to the sport of rugby.

Image courtesy of [email protected]©, Flickr.

The success now associated with the tournament, however, has not come without some difficulties. Originally, Scottish and English clubs had chosen not to participate but quickly saw the opportunities the Cup could offer and swiftly joined in time for the 1996-7 season.
Despite this, English clubs opted to withdraw in the 1998-9 season due to differences over the running of the competition. The disagreement surrounded the fear that the Heineken Cup was interfering with the smooth operation of domestic competitions but a compromise was reached, enabling English teams to return in 1999-2000. By lengthening the time taken to complete the six pool matches, the European Rugby Cup (ERC) had secured English participation but also long-term prosperity for the tournament.
Although held in a number of guises since its inception, the Heineken Cup begins with twenty-four clubs initially divided into six pools of four teams. Chosen from the participatory countries of the Six Nations tournament, the six pool winners and two best runners-up qualify for the knock-out stages.
The success of the Heineken Cup has in part come from rules set out by the ERC governing the knock-out stages. To ensure there are a reasonable number of seats to satisfy the ever-growing demand from fans, clubs that have been granted ‘home’ advantage can choose to play their quarter final matches at stadiums with a greater capacity than their own.
For a semi-final match, the ERC has imposed further regulations to keep the spectacle accessible. Although the game must be played on a neutral ground, such a stadium must have at least 20 000 capacity and be located in the same country as the club nominally at home in the tie. Often, such as with Leicester Tigers in 2005, this simply means a larger stadium within the home club’s city. Image courtesy of M+MD, Flickr.
It only takes one look at the facts to show the impact the Heineken Cup has had on European club rugby. Average attendance figures for Cup games have risen from around 6,500 in 1995-6 to 14,900 in 2008-9. Although dipping slightly with the onset of the recession in 2009-10, average attendances were still well above 13,500, demonstrating how far the tournament has brought European club rugby in less than fifteen years.
A Heineken Cup fixture also holds the world record for attendance of a Rugby Union match. Although only the semi final of the competition, the combination of fierce Irish rivals Leinster and Munster at Ireland’s largest stadium, Croke Park, set a record of 82,208 spectators.
The Heineken Cup has brought European club rugby out into the spotlight. While international matches were almost always widely attended, the club tournaments seem not to have sparked the same passion in fans.
Perhaps that is the attraction of the Heineken Cup, fans are not only supporting one club against another but also one nation against another.
Whatever it is about the Heineken Cup that draws in the fans, it does not look like slowing. With this season’s tournament now entering the knock-out stages, five of the six nations have teams still hoping to represent club and country in May’s final at Twickenham. Figures released by the ERC last week suggest that fans from all five countries have been rushing to buy tickets, snapping up almost 35,000 of them already.
With its popularity growing year on year, the Heineken Cup has proved itself to be not only the newest and most prestigious prize in European club rugby, but also one of the most successful ventures in recent rugby history.

This article is produced on Keith Prowse’s behalf, the UK’s leading provider in corporate hospitality. Visit the website for Keith Prowse Heineken Cup hospitality.