The English and French clubs are ready to submit a list of demands on the Celtic countries, threatening to pull out of the Heineken Cup if they are not met. Chief among them is the desire to level the playing field and demand merit-based qualification from the Pro12. They claim the current system of virtually automatic qualification for ten Pro12 sides gives them an unfair advantage, because they can concentrate solely on Europe. The French also want to reduce the number of sides in the competition to 20, in order to squeeze more derbies into the year, by increasing the Top 14 to a Top 16. Madness surely?!
While we have no truck with the reduction to 20 teams or the Top 16 idea, we do see some merit to the Anglo-French complaints regarding qualification. Currently, six teams qualify from each of the English and French leagues, while ten make it from the Pro12. On top of this, the Scottish and Italian sides are guaranteed progress to the H-Cup, while the status of Connacht as a development province makes it all but certain who makes it from Ireland. As it happens, Leinster’s back-to-back championships have made room for Connacht at the top table.
It’s tempting to see the carping from the French and English as nothing more than moaning – because, let’s face it, they do moan an awful lot – but there is some truth to their argument. Here at WoC we’ve never given much credence to these arguments in the past. Stephen Jones has tended to write at least one article a year, the crux of which was usually relegation rather than qualification for the Heiny, but the case was never that compelling. Do Leicester really have to worry about relegation? And besides, the teams who challenged in Europe typically found themselves in the higher echelons of the then Magners League anyway. Leinster, Munster and – to a lesser extent – Ospreys nearly always made the top six at the very least.
This year it’s different. Without wanting to wail excessively on a smaller club who achieved a lot this season, it must be said that Edinburgh have rather made the Anglo-French argument for them. They won six out of eight games in the Heineken Cup, dumped out Toulouse and were a couple of dropped balls in the 22 away from the final. Contrast with the Pro12 where they won six, drew 1 and lost 15, finishing above only the now defunct Aironi and conceding more tries and points than anyone.
The reason? They didn’t try a leg in the Pro12. It makes a mockery of the Pro12. Half of WoC was there at the RDS when they allowed the Leinster seconds to rack up over 50 points. Had they been required to qualify for next year’s tourney, they would surely have put more resources into the Pro12 in order to finish above Treviso and Dragons, teams they are obviously better than. Instead, there are no consequences. It belittles the Pro12. The main thrust of the arguments WoC has seen against any changes are as follows:
- The tournament is designed to build support for the national game of each of the countries, and is not an end in itself
- Any change to the current structures will detract from the ‘international’ element of the tournament
- Northampton were relegated in the same year they made the semi-finals of the H-Cup in 2007, showing that league and Cup form can diverge, just like Edinburgh this season.
- It’s pure greed on the part of the English and French sides, looking to weaken the smaller nations in grabbing a bigger share of the pie for themselves.
None of the arguments are without merit, but there are solutions, as we see it.
- This is all well and good, but the Heineken Cup is big enough to stand on its own. Legions of fans prefer it to the staid, corporate Six Nations. The tournament has to have integrity. Let’s face it, it is a big advantage for the Celtic sides to qualify automatically.
- This can be managed through a fair compromise, more of which below
- It’s not the divergence of Cup and league form that’s the issue so much as what happened next. There were consequences. Not only did they not qualify for the following year’s Heiny, they were relegated. It’s just not comparable
- There’s probably some truth in this. But don’t forget about the Amlin Cup. Would it be the worst thing in the world if Aironi, or whoever replaces them, were to play in the Amlin, where they would be competitive, rather than be the fish in a barrel in the Heineken Cup?
We propose the following 24-team structure as a fair compromise:
- The top seven from each of the Premiership and Top 14
- The top Irish, Welsh, Scotish and Italian teams from the Pro12 o The three next best sides in the Pro12
- The Heineken Cup winners
- The Amlin Cup winners
- The highest ranked non-qualifier
- In exchange for the new structure, the French club sides must give assurances they will field first choice teams both home and away
The main benefactor will not be the English and French, but the Pro12. Heineken Cup qualification should focus the minds of the mid-ranked teams in the league and make for much more competitive fare. Would Ulster, for example, be happy to send down a junior side to the RDS knowing the points were important? Would the IRFU be compelled to give the provinces a little more access to centrally contracted players? It might just work to the Celtic sides benefit if they’re brave enough to go for it.