The Heineken Cup has hardly been overflowing with champagne rugby this season, but the rebellious French and English clubs have made their point on the field more succinctly than they have off it.
The dominance of the Irish provinces may be over, at least for this season. Leinster and Munster go into the final round of group matches knowing that victories at Exeter and at home to Racing-Metro respectively may not be enough to take them into the quarter-finals.
Ulster are already in the last eight but the leaders of the RaboDirect Pro 12 have a growing injury list. The No 8 Nick Williams is their latest
casualty, out for two months after being injured in last week’s victory over Glasgow, and they may need to win in Castres to secure a home draw.
Harlequins, Clermont Auvergne and Toulon have already qualified. Saracens will make the quarter-finals if they defeat Edinburgh on Sunday in their final match in Watford before moving a few miles to their new ground which has an artificial pitch and the winners of Leicester and Toulouse at Welford Road a few hours later will progress.
Three group winners have already been determined – Ulster, Harlequins and Clermont. Toulon need a point at Montpellier to make sure, Saracens should not mess up against a side that has lost its five group matches and Leicester should prevail against a Toulouse side that has struggled away in Europe in recent years.
More uncertain is the two sides that will qualify as the best two runners-up: the next three will go into the quarter-finals of the Amlin
Challenge Cup. Montpellier have the most points of the sides currently in second place, 18, and they may not need to beat Toulon to go through.
Northampton, who are at Glasgow, have 14 points, as do Biarritz who are at home to Harlequins on Friday night. Leicester have 16, two behind Toulouse, and one more than Leinster and Munster.
What is certain is that there will be no Welsh or Scottish representation in the quarter-finals of either the Heineken Cup or the Amlin. Their five sides have between them won two matches out of 25, the Ospreys beating Treviso and Toulouse.
One of the reasons that the French and English clubs have given for serving notice that they will pull out of Europe when the current participation agreement runs out at the end of next season is that they want the money generated by the two tournaments to be shared out more evenly.
They feel that as the two most populous nations in the tournament, they are effectively subsidising the rest. As part of their bid for change, they want qualification to be merit based and the number of teams taking part to be cut from 24 to 20.
Talks between the stakeholders have gone round in ever decreasing circles and nothing significant is likely to happen until the French clubs, taking their cue from the English, agree a new television deal for the Top 14 which has a European element built into it.
One of the reasons the Welsh and Scottish sides have been struggling is that they cannot compete financially with the French or Irish, whose playing budgets are nearly double theirs, while the English clubs are also better off.
If the effect of the proposals from the French and the English is to make the Irish provinces worse off, the Heineken Cup may turn into the
Anglo-French tournament that it effectively was for most of its early years.
With Italy’s two teams, Treviso and Zebre, yet to taste victory, half the countries in the Heineken Cup have a combined success rate of a fraction
over seven per cent. Take out Ospreys, and it plummets to zero.
The failure of Cardiff Blues, the Scarlets, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Treviso and Zebre to make any impact has been one reason why this season’s Heineken Cup has been so muted. Connacht, supposedly the runt of the Irish litter, have secured more points, eight, than the six have between them, seven.
The danger with the formula of the French and English – and the Rugby Football Union, which had adopted a neutral stance, weighed in this week to back calls for a meritocracy – is that it would probably turn the Heineken Cup into a three-country tournament officially.
Ospreys are swimming against the tide, unfortunate to be drawn in the same group as two previous winners, and the danger for Wales ahead of the defence of their Six Nations title is that regional failure is impacting on them.
Something needs to be done because the final two weekends have thrown up few headline encounters. The tournament would be better enhanced by all six countries having potential quarter-finalists, but for some even three’s a crowd.
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