Only the Irish can prevent an Anglo-French carve-up
On Rugby:All quiet on the ERC front, although as expected the tension amongst the stakeholders as the English clubs especially push for radical reform of the Heineken Cup is acute as meetings continue. This season’s competition could conceivably be the penultimate Heineken Cup or at any rate the penultimate Heineken Cup as we know it.
If the English and French clubs ensure the Celts and Italians are to have a smaller presence in the competition, and, accordingly, a smaller slice of the financial cake, then the Welsh, Scots and Italians picked a bad time to downplay their hand on the pitch. Not for the first time in the competition, the H Cup is being saved from a glorified Anglo-French carve-up exclusively by the Irish. It would be an exceedingly dull competition without us!
The weekend brought another round of defeats across the board for the two Italian, two Scottish and three Welsh sides, who between them managed just two losing points. Indeed, between the seven of them, they have managed a grand tally of one win and 20 losses from their 21 games to date – and that was when the Ospreys beat Treviso at home.
That the Italians are struggling is not such a surprise, although Treviso were unfortunate to have no reward from their 33-25 loss in Leicester. That the Scots are performing so poorly compounds their dismal autumn, the Pittodrie defeat to Tonga and the departure of Andy Robinson. They’ve usually lurched along in the professional era, but it’s hard to think of Scottish rugby ever being at a lower ebb.
The Welsh regions were always going to struggle given their flight of wild geese proportions to sunnier (and richer) climes in France. Likewise, after four successive Tests in November, that they would be a little bedraggled last weekend. Even so, with Cardiff and the Scarlets effectively out of contention after home defeats, only the Ospreys are remotely in contention, but they have to win their remaining games at home to Toulouse and Leicester, and away to Treviso to have any hope, and even that probably won’t be enough.
Conceivably therefore, all the Welsh, Scottish and Italian interest in the competition will be extinguished before Christmas. This cannot be good for the Heineken Cup, and as we’ve seen of late with the decline of the Welsh regions, it is also reflective of worrying declining standards for that Rabo Pro12 as well.
Nor is it very good for the Celtic/Italian bargaining power at meetings of stakeholders which are attempting to thrash out a new Accord beyond the 2013-14 season. As things stand, and has been the case for the last six years, the Welsh, Scottish and Italian provide almost a third of the direct qualifiers for the Cup and accordingly their Unions or Federations receive roughly 37 per cent of the base payments.
Were their respective numbers to be reduced (perhaps even endangering their presence in the Cup) and with it their share of the cake, then the three countries concerned would struggle even more to keep their indigenous players based at home, to revive flagging support levels and to maintain any kind of competitiveness in the Heineken Cup.
As well as potentially pulling Ireland down, their decline might well become even steeper, so much so that the chances of a prospective winner coming from even Wales, much less Scotland or Italy, will be even more remote than they’ve been in the past 17 seasons. In this time, there has been one Welsh finalist (in the inaugural season), one Scottish semi-finalist and not one Italian team has even threatened to qualify from the pool stages. In truth, the Heineken Cup is less of a pan-European tournament than it would like to think, but it could be even less so in the future.
If the English and French clubs browbeat everyone else into granting them a higher ratio of qualifiers and money, with which they can further cherry pick from the other four countries, things will only get worse. In other words, it will remain up to the Irish provinces to prevent the Heineken Cup becoming an Anglo-French duopoly.
And so it was last weekend. Connacht were the only team to beat French opposition, while Ulster (with perhaps the performance of the round) and Munster toppled two of England’s finest and as credible as any effort was the way a patched-up Leinster took the game to Clermont.
If Leinster can win the return in the Aviva on Saturday night, they will at least be well placed to chase Clermont all the way home in Pool 5 and, with Connacht potentially having removed Biarritz from the equation, would be well placed to secure one of the two best runners-up spots.
That would mean an away quarter-final against one of the top two sides, which should be Harlequins and possibly Ulster, who would surely prefer to keep a home quarter-final at Ravenhill during its redevelopment if at all possible rather than move it to the Aviva. We’ve had Leinster v Munster and Munster v Ulster, so maybe it’s the season for Ulster v Leinster. At any rate, if Mark Anscombe’s team complete the double over Northampton, they would have a home quarter-final in their own hands.
Munster have given themselves a lifeline, but unless they repeat the trick in Vicarage Road next Sunday, it’s difficult to see how they can progress. Connacht, despite their injury woes, are not out of contention yet and a win in Biarritz – who could be smarting, desultory or under a temporary new coaching regime come kick-off – would strengthen their hopes of stayin’ alive in Europe beyond January. Next weekend, it’s all about stayin’ alive.