Structure of H Cup biased towards Rabo clubs


FRENCH NOTES:Now I hate to say this, but the English and French have a point, writes MATT WILLIAMS

IAN CHAPPELL, a fiercely competitive former Australian cricket captain, famously once said: “The only good things the English ever did for cricket was invent it.”

I have always had the same view of the English regarding rugby. England have given the world many wonderful and enduring institutions. However, the reform and renewal of these institutions is not their strong point. In rugby, any proposed changes to the game that do not suit the English have no chance of success.

There has been much indignant comment from the RaboDirect PRO 12 Clubs, regarding the heavy-handed approach of the English and to a lesser degree the French clubs in the negotiations for a new ERC agreement.

Now I hate to say this, but the English and the French have a point.

As I have previously stated in this column, the structure of the Heineken Cup is biased towards all the Rabo clubs and to Ireland in particular. While the English and French have to finish in the top six in their domestic competitions to qualify, the Rabo Clubs have no such requirements.

Clubs at the bottom half of the Rabo competition table have no pressure to perform, as they have no fear of relegation. In the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14 there are always two intriguing competitions. One for the competition winner and another for those who will be relegated.

In April, during the Heineken Cup play-offs, the pressure on both English and French clubs to perform in their domestic competition is massive, while there is almost no pressure on Rabo clubs because they are assured of their Heineken Cup place for the next season.

Last season Edinburgh’s Heineken Cup success reignited passion for club rugby in the Scottish capital. It was great for the game in Scotland. Yet Edinburg were running second last in the Rabo, with a disastrous defensive record.

They had no pressure on them to perform in the Rabo, as they could not be relegated and they did not have to finish in the top six to guarantee their place in the Heineken Cup the following year.

They actually rested players in the weeks leading up to the quarter-final. Edinburgh won a famous victory over the Top 14 Champions Toulouse, but was it an even playing field for both teams? The French are saying it was not.

I recently visited Biarritz Olympic training prior to their Top 14 match against Montpellier. The consensus from coaches, leading officials and the punters was very clear. The “H” Cup, as the Heineken is called in France, was much easier for the Rabo teams and in particular, for the “rich” Irish clubs who could rest their leading players prior to European Cup matches.

As was pointed out to me more than once, the last-placed Italians clubs in the Rabo are guaranteed Heineken Cup places yet Stade Francais, who came seventh in last season’s Top 14 miss out.

Don’t expect the Brits and the French to cave in too easily during the negotiation process. I have the feeling that there is a touch of the “Maggie Thatcher” about their attitude and “they are not for turning”.

You know what? As far as having to finish in the top six of the Rabo to qualify for the Heineken, I hope the Poms win the argument.

Then we will be forced to put more prestige and importance on our wonderful domestic competition.

In Ireland we drastically undervalue “our” RaboDirect PRO 12 competition. Two years ago Munster dominated the league in a masterful season, with an amazing 19-3 win-loss ratio. Yet, because they did not win in Europe they were perceived as having had “a failed season”. That is simply wrong thinking.

The basis of Irish provincial success in the Heineken Cup is our domestic competition. The fact that the Irish clubs started winning Heinekens Cups a few seasons after the commencement of the Celtic League was no accident.

In 1999 the provinces played the Interpros and then went straight into the Heineken. When the Celtic league commenced in 2001, we gained tough weekly competition. We became cohesive and organised. We learned how to win away from home. We were able to blood and develop young players. Our poor fitness levels improved dramatically. Irish teams learned how to prepare and perform as professionals.

It is no accident that the dramatic improvement in the performances of the national team commenced in 2001. The national teams success had its genesis in the mental and physical strength gained from weekly competition. The Celtic League also provided the national selectors with player depth that was so lacking before the leagues inception.

If the English and French get their way, it will mean the importance of the RaboDirect PRO12 will be enhanced. That will increase the intensity, the pressure and drastically raise the level of competition.

This may force all in Irish rugby to realise that “our” competition is important and something to be valued.

Maybe, completely unintentionally, the English are doing something positive.

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