Things just aren't what they used to be in the Heineken Cup. That was the message that came through loud and clear at the Edinburgh and Dublin launches for this season's tournament.
Not that ERC chairman Jean-Pierre Lux and chief executive Derek McGrath should be unduly worried. The reason things have changed since the tournament kicked-off in 1995 is that standards have risen so dramatically.
Edinburgh Rugby coach Frank Hadden set the tone at the official UK launch in Edinburgh, where the 10th anniversary Heineken Cup final will take place at the end of May next year, when he told an audience that included the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, the Rt Hon Lesely Hinds, that the games played now are unrecognisable to a few years ago.
"I went home the other day and heard the kids laughing as they watched the TV. I asked them what they were looking at and they told me it was a video of the game between Edinburgh and Biarritz in the Heineken Cup almost three years ago," said Hadden.
"They just couldn't believe how slow it was compared to the rugby that they see today. That is a measure of how the game is developing in the northern hemisphere and the Heineken Cup is playing a huge part in the taking the game forward."
Those thoughts were echoed in Dublin a day later when ERC invited three players who represented Irish provinces in the inaugural tournament to join them for a launch in Ireland.
Munster's legendary prop Peter Clohessy, a veteran of two Heineken Cup finals and 38 European battles, brought the house down with his views on the development of the tournament, while former Ulster and Castres second row star Jeremy Davidson and Leinster scrum half Alain Rolland gave their insight into the development of the competition.
"When Munster went to France in the early days of the Heineken Cup it was more of a social weekend than anything else. We simply weren't strong enough back then to compete with the French sides," admitted Clohessy, who was in the side beaten 60-19 in Toulouse in 1996.
"We would go out there and get the **** kicked out of us for 80 minutes and then go out and have a good night. In those days we didn't have a chance of beating a French side.
"We got closer after a few more years of trying and now Munster and the other Irish provinces are right up there with the best teams around. With Munster it was all a question of heart.
"We got a few wins, the crowds started to come out and support us and we simply grew in confidence. Nowadays it is teams from other countries who fear coming to Ireland to play at Thomond Park, Ravenhill and Donnybrook or Lansdowne Road.
"There is no doubt the advent of professionalism changed attitudes and training methods as well. The Irish provinces have worked hard at their game and all three save their best for the Heineken Cup - after all, it is the one trophy everyone wants to win."
Former Leinster and Irish scrum half Rolland is unique in the history of the Heineken Cup in that he is the only one to have played and refereed in the tournament. He is all set to control his 13th Heineken Cup tie in round one, when the French champions Stade Francais Paris entertain Gloucester in Pool 6, and he played five times for Leinster in the first two seasons.
"The tournament has really come on in terms of intensity. Everything about the competition has developed and it is fantastic to be a part of it," said Rolland, who refereed last season's Heineken Cup final at Twickenham.
"When you get to the semi-final and final stages, the only thing different between the games and Test matches is the fact the players don't win international caps for playing for their clubs. It is a great honour and feeling to play for your country, but it takes on a different meaning when you play at that level for your province or club.
"The hits, and everything else that happens on the field in the Heineken Cup these days, are ferocious."
Davidson played 14 Heineken Cup games for Ulster and six more for Castres Olympique, including a semi-final against Munster. Now retired, he is currently the director of rugby at Dungannon.
"Back in 1995 when the Heineken Cup first started I was playing for London Irish at a time when the English clubs weren't involved in the competition. The Irish selectors saw the Heineken Cup as the way forward and told us we had to go back to play for our provinces," recalled Davidson.
"It was a great move and the competition has done great things for the game in Europe. One of my greatest memories of playing at Castres was captaining the club against Munster and having to listen to all the Irish fans singing the Fields of Athenry."
As part of the build-up to next month's Cardiff 2014 Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup finals weekend, ERC has joined forces with the WRU, Cardiff Blues and adidas to develop an annual grassroots community rugby programme targeting young players.
The Ulster Rugby full back, Jared Payne (No 15), has been suspended for two (2) weeks following an independent Disciplinary Hearing in Dublin arising from the Heineken Cup quarter-final match against Saracens at Ravenhill Stadium on Saturday, 5 April.