Savour these pool finale dramas - they might be nearly the last
It’s back and, as ever, not a moment too late. Few weekends stir the blood, or create so many headaches, than the final two rounds of the pool stages in the Heineken Cup. The one cloud on the horizon is next weekend’s penultimate round could also be the penultimate Heineken Cup.
The threat is real and dangerous, such is the impasse between the Anglo/French clubs and the remainder of the ERC stakeholders. Four round-table meetings featuring representatives of the six federations and unions, the English, French and Welsh clubs, and the ERC themselves, have made no headway.
The English and French clubs haven’t budged on their demands that the Heineken Cup be reduced from 24 to 20 teams, comprising six qualifiers each from the Premiership, Top 14 and Pro 12, with the winners of the Heineken and Amlin Cups each securing another place.
Their only “compromise” as such, the word used by Bath owner Bruce Craig, is the top six of the Pro 12 copperfastens at least one team each from the four respective countries. Some compromise.
There would no material benefit to the Heineken Cup if it was reduced from 24 to 20 teams, especially if it still guaranteed participation to the Scots and Italians. All this would achieve is potentially close the door on the likes of, say, Connacht, Exeter and Montpellier. The Champions League has long since had a certain sameness to it, and the risk of that happening to the Heineken Cup is even greater.
The competition would still consist of five pools of four instead of six groups, thereby failing to create one extra weekend in an over-crowded itinerary. Of course, the real motivation behind the English and French clubs is to increase their share of the financial revenues. Contrary to the false impression being put out by Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty and some club owners, as things stand, they divvy up almost 25 per cent each of the main pot – roughly €10 million each last season. Their proposal would increase their share to 33 per cent each, or roughly €13.5 million each based on last season’s share-out. The Celts’ combined dividend would drop from roughly €5.3 million each, or €16 million to, say, €10.5 million collectively, and the Italians from €4 million to €3 million or, more likely, €2 million.
Thus, the two leagues with the most TV revenues for their domestic competitions and the bigger budgets would swell their coffers even more, and make them even better equipped to pilfer players from the Pro 12. Well, that seems fair.
As it is, there are comparatively few restrictions, financially or on numbers of overseas players employed by Toulouse, Clermont and Toulon especially. The French clubs want a reduction to make it more feasible for their heavyweights to compete on both fronts and thereby complete a double. They also want to move the H Cup knock-out stages forward, so as not to compete with their own play-offs.
Serge Blanco and co should be reminded nothing has made the season more over-crowded, nor made it more difficult to compete on both fronts, than their retention of 14 top-flight clubs and, worse, the introduction of “le barrage”, ie another round of play-offs to accommodate the fifth and sixth-placed finishers.
The Celts and Italians should resist attempts to reduce the Heineken Cup in size and particularly, to have the knock-out stages run-off prematurely. The European final should be the European season finale and not be rushed out of the way in April or sooner.
Admittedly, the proposed compromise from the Celts and Italians to increase the Heineken Cup to 32 teams would dilute the quality of the competition. With two qualifiers each from eight pools of four, it would take away the unique way results across the pools matter. As we are about to witness again over the next fortnight.
An alternative compromise would be a 24-team Heineken Cup consisting of seven teams each from the Premiership and Top 14, along with the top eight in the Pro 12. This would still increase the financial share-out for the English and French clubs, while reducing the financial slice of the cake for the Celts and Italians, but not as drastically.
It would retain the teams’ format and quality, strengthen the geographical spread of the Amlin Cup and add renewed meaning to the Pro12. Based on current standings, the top eight would include representatives from all four competing countries, with Edinburgh, Connacht, the Dragons and Zebre missing out.
If the English and French clubs are adamant it has to be reduced to 20 teams, then the Celts and Italians should insist the Premiership and Top 14 be limited to six teams each, with the Pro12 having eight, and that if the winners of either the Heineken Cup or Amlin Cup don’t qualify by right, they qualify in place of a team from their respective countries.
If there’s a will for compromise, a format can still be agreed; which, admittedly, still leaves the far more vexed question of Premiership Rugby’s rival television deal with BT Vision.
PS: If Seán Holley didn’t want the Connacht job he shouldn’t have applied, or, having turned it down, he should have kept quiet out of courtesy to them. Pat Lam is still the favourite for the job.