Savour these pool finale dramas - they might be nearly the last
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.