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Premiership Rugby sets out battle lines with the Heineken Cup

Premiership Rugby and the French Top 14 have announced that they are prepared to pull out of the Heneken and Amlin Cups, in order to get what they see as a ‘fair’ competition. According to their contracts with the competition they cannot actually do this for another two years, so this is just  negotiating position, but it is still worth taking seriously.

The crux of their argument is that it is inherently unfair that English and French clubs get 6 places each in the Heineken Cup, meaning half of the Premiership and 8 of the Top 14 do not get the opportunity, while from the Rabo Direct Pro 12, both Scottish and Italian clubs get a place as do 3 each of the Irish and Welsh provinces, and often another one due to rules on the winners of the Amlin qualifying plus an extra place for the country of the winners.

Their solution is to change the number of teams in the Heineken Cup from 24 to 20, with six teams each qualifying from the Top 14, Premiership and Pro 12, with the winner of the Amlin, and the previous years Heineken Cup winner (or a representative from their country if the winner qualified anyway) making up the numbers.

On the one hand, it is easy to see their point, teams finishing low down in the Pro 12, sometimes even bottom, still get guaranteed entry into the Heineken Cup. While in England and France you have to finish in the top 6. Thinking about it purely as an elite competition this does seem unfair, and their proposal makes sense. However the Heineken Cup is not so simple.

ERC have a duty to help develop the game, as all rugby bodies do. Part of that commitment to the game is to help keep Italian sides in particular, but also Scottish sides, developing and progressing. There is no doubt that these teams have benefited from their Heineken Cup exposure, both Edinburgh and Glasgow have become top Pro 12 sides now and showed their value in the Heineken Cup last year. Italian success has been harder to come by, but then their exposure to the elite has been much shorter.

The part I find bewildering is that those from Premiership Rugby who have spoken out on the issue have missed the point and strength of their argument entirely. The strength of their argument is that it is inherently unfair for two leagues to get 6 qualification spots each, and another to get a minimum of 10 out of the twelve in its league.

However Northampton Saints Chief Executive, Allan Robson, completely missed the point when talking about the issue in an interview with BBC Northampton, saying:

“If you look at English and French sides, we’ve got strong Premiership competitions.”

“The RaboDirect Pro12 is arguably less strong and every club qualifies. That doesn’t appear to be very fair.”

“What’s more, if you were to look at what happens in the RaboDirect Pro12 competition and analyse the players that teams put out, the squads are able to rotate and take breaks in that competition, to some degree,”

“Teams can rest key players, so for a Heineken Cup match they draft in stronger players and they’re fresh. They’ve largely played less than the English players so it makes it a tougher competition for us.”

“We can look at the qualification process, the format of the competition – and not just for the Heineken Cup, [but] the Amlin Cup too.”

“Ourselves and the French have served notice that we want to come out of the competition in its current format and we would like to start discussing the format of a different competition. But, ostensibly, it’s the Heineken Cup and top European sides.”

He demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the issue. The Pro 12 can rest players for European competition because they took the decision not to have relegation, meaning clubs did not have to worry about losing their league place. English and French clubs chose not to do that, and to try to condemn the Pro 12 for making that decision is ridiculous.

It also demonstrates the breathtaking arrogance of Premiership rugby. Under what possible basis can they claim to be a stronger league than the Pro 12? Grand Slam winners Wales draw the majority of their players from the Pro 12, as did Ireland when they won theirs, while five of the last seven Heineken Cup winners come from the Pro 12. Most commentators would also agree that a disproportionate number of British and Irish Lions will come from the Pro 12.

There is also no consideration for the fact that through squad rotation and the resting of players, the Pro 12 sides, and in particular the Irish ones, have developed incredible strength in depth on low budgets.

It is the Aviva Premierships inflated idea of itself that really grates, the Top 14 sides have performed consistently well in the Heineken Cup and play more domestic games than the Premiership clubs, so clearly good sides compete no matter what. The Aviva Premiership clubs need to understand that the only way to show you are better is to perform better otherwise, quite simply, you are not better.

As I said before, I actually agree with the belief that there is something unfair about the number of Pro 12 clubs that qualify, however I think that the arrogant stance quoted above seriously harms that argument. I also think that it is important to have representation from all of the 6 Nations countries in the competition as that is how teams develop and it helps to keep that truly international and carnival atmosphere of the tournament.

The pools for the 2012/13 Heineken Cup have been announced and are as follows:

Group 1: Munster, Edinburgh, Saracens, Racing Metro 92
Group 2: Toulouse, Leicester, Ospreys, Benetton Treviso
Group 3: Biarritz, Harlequins, Connacht, Zebre
Group 4: Northampton Saints, Ulster, Glasgow Warriors, Castres
Group 5: Leinster, Clermont Auvergne, Scarlets, Exeter
Group 6: Cardiff Blues, Toulon, Sale, Montpellier

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