The Heineken Cup is not a reliable barometer when it comes to the Six Nations, which may be why France are the favourites to win the championship this year while Ireland are dominating the club/provincial scene in Europe.
The country that has won the Six Nations has only twice in the last 10 years produced the Heineken Cup winners, although you can serve up the statistic another way and say that it has happened twice in the last three years, France winning the grand slam in 2010 and Toulouse claiming the European crown 12 months after Ireland and Leinster had achieved the feat.
Power has shifted in the Heineken Cup in a way it has not in the Six Nations. The European club scene was dominated by England and France in the early years of the professional era. Ulster were the European champions in 1999, but it was a year that the English boycotted the Heineken Cup as part of its then power struggle with the International Rugby Board.
The Anglo-French supremacy continued until 2006 when Munster, after years of near misses, finally won the final. They succeeded again in 2008 while Leinster hoisted the trophy in 2009 and last year. Wasps were the last English club to prevail, in 2008, and Toulouse gatecrashed the Irish shindig in 2010.
Ireland have only won the Six Nations once in the last 10 years. They achieved the grand slam in 2009, for the first time since 1948; Wales, who have yet to savour success in the Heineken Cup, enjoyed clean sweeps in 2005 and 2008; France, whose club standard bearer is Toulouse, have won five of the last 10 championships.
So in the last decade France are, by some way, the most successful team in the Six Nations but Ireland, who this year provide the top two seeds and three quarter-finalists, hold sway in the Heineken Cup. Given that Les Bleus are under new management this year, with Philippe Saint-Andre replacing the equally idiosyncratic Marc Lievremont as head coach, their status as bookmakers’ favourites reflects the fact they are playing both Ireland and England at home.
England are the defending champions, but the upheaval they have suffered since the World Cup has done little to encourage punters to get behind them. Their club scene is flat: the standard of play in the Aviva Premiership rarely flits above the committed but unenterprising and, for the second time in three seasons, only one of their clubs has made it to the knock-out stage of the Heineken Cup.
Several reasons have been put forward in England as to why they have become also-rans in a tournament they won for four successive campaigns (discounting the year they refused to take part): the salary cap in the Premiership, Ireland fielding provinces rather than clubs and the inhibiting effect on playing style of relegation.
Scotland and Wales do not field clubs but their record in Europe is poor. English clubs have won the Heineken Cup five times since the salary cap has been in place and the relegation scrap rarely involves more than two clubs.
What is different this season for the Premiership clubs is their record against Irish opponents. Harlequins and Leicester made home advantage count against Connacht and Ulster respectively, but Leinster recorded the double over Bath and Munster followed up a narrow victory over Northampton in Limerick by thrashing last year’s beaten finalists in the return.
Munster scored 51 points in Milton Keynes; Leinster went one better against Bath in Dublin while Ulster defeated Leicester 41-7 in Ravenhill, the heaviest ever defeat in the tournament suffered by the Tigers, the only team to have won the Heineken Cup in successive seasons.
Talent is stretched thinner in England (and France) than it is in Ireland: 12 clubs (14 in France) compared to four provinces, but they both have greater playing resources and there are four regions in Wales and just two professional sides in Scotland. What the Irish do have, unlike the Welsh, is central contracts and the union, rather than the provinces, decides what matches players will take part in.
Premiership rugby conducted a survey after the fourth round of Heineken Cup group matches in December and found that if the 45 starters who took the field for Ulster, Leinster and Munster, only four took the field in league matches the following weekend. Players in England and France rest when they are injured.
It does not explain why three of England’s biggest clubs, all former Heineken Cup winners and major suppliers to the national squad, suffered such ignominious defeats. Leinster are probably the most resourceful side in Europe, more rounded than Munster, although both went through the group stage undefeated.
Ireland in the last couple of years have tended to fall between the two models, neither one nor the other, overly conservative at times, as the selection of Ronan O’Gara ahead of Jonathan Sexton at outside-half in the World Cup quarter-final against Wales showed. The nation will expect more next month.