Anglo-French Moaning?

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.

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13 Comments

  1. Stevo

     /  May 30, 2012

    It seems certain that some changes are going to have to be made as the French and English hold too much financial sway to be ignored. Hopefully a compromise like the one you’ve outlined can be reached, because the English and French clubs don’t seem capable of working with the interests of the game of rugby in mind.

    The French idea of reducing the competition to 20 teams while increasing their own competition to 16 genuinely is madness, the kind of madness that appeals to your average Top 14 club owner. If you reduce the competition from 6 groups of 4 to 5 groups of 4, there are still the same number of games per group! The only notable difference, other than the absence of four teams, would be the need to have 3 runners up out of 5, rather than 2 out of 6, making up the numbers in the quarter finals. So in other words, you haven’t reduced the amount of matches each team has to play and yet you’ve watered down the competitiveness of the groups. One of the main selling points of the HEC is how competitive it is from the off, compared to the practically meaningless Champions League group stages. Every game counts at the moment.

    On top of this they want to add another two teams to their top division! They should be reducing it to 12, not increasing it! It’s a purely financial decision, adding 4 extra games to the calendar per side and effectively ring-fencing the bigger teams against relegation by ensuring there are two more smaller teams in the league as a buffer.

    One thing going against them is that the Heineken Cup as a competition was devised between the national bodies, rather than the three leagues. Each country is entitled to representation and that should ensure that a compromise like that outlined here is reached, rather than straight qualification from the Rabo. Competitiveness does need to be injected into that league, however, and the situation where we have practically all our teams qualifying is untenable, especially when the Scottish and Welsh have both reduced the number of clubs involved.

    One question, what do you mean by the highest-ranked non-qualifier?

    The Heineken Cup is the best competition in world rugby and I think we’d all hate to see it damaged by the self-interest of powerful clubs. Please let common sense and long-term thinking prevail!

  2. The example of Embra this season is being overused. They barely qualified out of the pool stages, winning two matches by a single point. Their other opponents in the pool were a very poor London Irish, a Racing Metro side that had more than one eye on their T14 campaign and Cardiff. It can’t be argued that it’s wrong to concentrate on the cup without acknowledging that French teams are concentrating more on their league and throwing in the towel once a couple of pool results go against them.

    Any agreements that they won’t do this will be as worthless as Greek drachmas when the whole point of their moan is to increase the size of the T14 and reduce the size (albeit in a not very logical way) of the Heineken Cup.

    Referring to this as a RDP12 problem is also misleading. After all, the Celtic/RDP12 league was created to give those unions with smaller club bases some level of meaningful competition. Each of the unions involved, brought their ERC slots with them to the league along with the criteria that came with those slots. Taking some of those slots off them because the league doesn’t work the same way as the AP or the T14 is completely missing the point. The slots were allocated by agreement at ERC level by all the unions involved and the method by which they would be allocated was also agreed. It’s completely open to the French and English to allocate their six slots any way they want and level the playing field in that way. After all, we have no say in how the T14 works.

    Incidentally, the ERC is made up of two members from each union and (currently) a French Chairman. The French and English unions have already ceded one of their representative slots to club interests. Any proposals coming from these blocs must be viewed with that in mind.

  3. RDS Curva Nord

     /  May 30, 2012

    The English and French say they want to make qualification merit-based; aside from Leicester Saints Quins and Sarries, English clubs do poorly (eg Gloucester Bath Sale etc). And from France, Toulouse, Clermont are usually good , Toulon now, but the rest lag far behind. Castres are practically whipping boys! They blame their poor performance on Scottish and Italian teams, rather than looking at themselves, and the complete dirge that their leagues have become, leaving the likes of London Eire or Brive ill equipped to go toe-to-toe with the European big hitters.
    In fairness, its all moot. This is about money, anything else is just spin.

  4. Xyz

     /  May 30, 2012

    Broadly I agree with you. I only really started to pay attention to the Pro12 this year and was amazed to discover, after some years of watching the Heiny, that, though I knew there were good teams in the league, THEY HARLDY EVER PLAY EACH OTHER. Your example of Leinster v Ulster in the RDS this year was actually the point at which I realised this.

    Anyway, your final point in the proposed compromise is a non-sense, sorry. It is completely unenforceable and the French will continue to do what they always do.

    Any solution that doesn’t involve guaranteeing there being one Aviva premiership side in the Heiny final will run foul of Stephen Jones, the dirty troll.

  5. toro toro

     /  May 30, 2012

    Not fielding second-string sides is basically unenforceable, and of dubious merit anyway. What would have become of Leinster’s home-and-away selection strategy this year? And what’s to stop the French sides, if that’s allowed, purporting to do the same?

    Ten years ago, the English and French wanted Celtic League representation reduced because our sides weren’t competitive enough. Now it has to be reduced because we’re too competitive. It’s like Republicans and tax-cuts…

  6. HenryFitz

     /  May 30, 2012

    I wrote about this recently in an attempt to sum up the ridiculous stance taken by PRL and LNR.

    If Aironi or Connacht or whoever really would prefer to play only in the Amlin, then it’s for their respective unions to say. Such a demotion should not be imposed by outsiders.

  7. Don

     /  May 31, 2012

    I am probably one of the few Cletic league fans who would be happy about having a limit on the countries from my league. I always though it should be the top 7 or 8 from the league that qualify for the Hcup, and everyone else goes to the Amlin. 7 from England and 7 from France. Winner of Amlin gets spot number 23. The 24th Ill leave to wiser people than me to decide who goes in there. With this system the three leagues also provide 15 of the 20 teams for the Amlin.
    If that means no Scottish or Italian teams (or anyone else really) then maybe thats a good thing. No one rates the pro12 as seriously as the Hcup. This is understandable but it completely reduces the importance of the league to us. Make it mean something. Make teams work at it, earn the right to represent their countries in the greatest club tournament in the world.
    But the way the other countries are proposing it is utter madness. Id agree if the Frence agreed not to increase their league and if the English learned to stop playing 10 man puke rugby 🙂

  8. PD

     /  May 31, 2012

    The Rabo is not directly comparable to the AP or Top14. We have a completely different domestic structure to the English and the French and to suggest that the 4 constituent Unions of the Rabo should have combined the same representation as each of the other two individually is also inherently unfair, and will ultimately prove bad for European rugby.

    Having said that there is a point to be made about the competitiveness of the Rabo. While the Edinburgh point may be being over done, they are not the first team to completely sacrifice league form for HEC glory – think Cardiff in ’09.

    My own solution would not require any change to qualification or structure (although I do like the one guaranteed from each Union and then purely merit based angle). The HEC seeding should be completely changed from a focus on previous HEC performance to on focused on the previous years league performance –

    1st seeds: HEC and CC Winners, 3 League Winners, best 2nd placed team in the 3 leagues with best ERC performance (or other criteria)

    2nd seeds: Other 2 2nd place teams. 3 3rd place teams, best 4th place team

    3rd seed: other 2 4h placed teams etc etc

    This would mean that every league game would be hugely important. A strong league run could give a huge advantage to the following year HEC chances and the opposite would be true too.

    Maybe reduce the Rabo participation by two and give those places to the best ranked (as you suggested) and a sort of “Fair Play” award like they do in football..

  9. Egg Chaser

     /  May 31, 2012

    Thanks for all your comments.

    I think the point about change being imposed from outside is an interesting one. The pro12 is currently on an high relative to other leagues – perhaps this/any change needs to be driven by the Celts?

    The reality is that we won’t always be on top, and that the pro12 is suffering. The playoffs aside, there were very few memorable games this season – introducing a degree of competition must ge good for its long term health.

    Maybe we should propose something in response similar to some suggestions below?

  10. Pete

     /  June 1, 2012

    Short comment, as I should really be in work but

    a) Embra aren’t the only team to have reached a HEC semi-final who doing poorly in their own league. They will be one of the few to be get back in the next season though

    b) Ulster would have totally sent down the kids to the RDS. Totally. Rotation works for leagues as well as cups.

    However, I am fully behind a revision of the rules, believe the English and French have a degree of justice on their sides, and more over enough clout to enforce their wishes regardless of justice.

    My chosen scenario would be – 7 from top 14, 7 from Prem, top 2 Irish teams, top 2 Welsh, top Scottish, top Italian, and next top 2 teams from the Pro12. Representation for all and competition. And of course the teams from the HEC/Amlin winners.

  11. Ben

     /  June 5, 2012

    The fact that established Irish internationals are rested at times in the Pro12 means they are fitter come season end and cup finals and also that the young bloods get a chance. If Sexton played everyngame for Leinster then nobody would be bleating about Madigan. Same for players in other provinces. Having all 4 provinces field full international contingents all the time is counter productive for Heineken Cup and Ireland.

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