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Despite the scintillating start to the professional rugby season, in both the Aviva Premiership and the Pro12, most of the headlines have been dominated by the off the field controversy that has arisen over the Heineken Cup. For years now, players, coaches, and pundits alike have given voice to the growing concerns over the way the European championships are played. The main concern is directed primarily at the qualification system. The Heineken Cup is made up of, apparently, the top twenty four club teams in Europe. This is divided between six teams from England and France respectively, four teams from Wales and Ireland respectively, with the final four teams split two each between Scotland and Italy.
The current qualification system is however, flawed in one crucial regard. The teams from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy (aka all those that play within the Pro12 league) all automatically qualify. The twelve teams from England and France need to qualify by gaining a certain ranking in their respective domestic leagues. The argument for this system is that all regions need representation that reflects the size of their league. This is an argument that is now outdated, a dinosaur that has no place in the professional rugby era.
Some people may wonder why this makes so much difference. England and France already have more teams in the Cup then other nations. However, these teams have to go through the tension of the qualification process. Essentially, every result in their league has vital consequences, as they battle for not only play off places or fight relegation battles, but are also competing for the European qualification spots. It is an added chemical in an already potent mix that makes the French and English leagues that little bit more exciting.
In contrast, the teams from Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Italy do not have this problem. They are all guaranteed qualification. As such, this not only makes their season slightly less stressful, but it unfortunately makes their league that little less exciting. Each game means less because of it. The added addition of this qualification system would make the Pro12 League so much more entertaining. They probably have more raw talent then the French or English leagues, so it is a great shame that they lack the drama that could improve their viewing.
So how can this problem be rectified? Funnily enough, it is relatively simple. The proposal of the English and French Unions is thus. The current number of teams in the Heineken Cup should be reduced from twenty-four to twenty. The number of teams from each nation should also be reduced. Five teams from England and France, three teams from Wales and Ireland, and two teams from Italy and Scotland.
This would increase the competition for places from the Aviva Premiership and the Top 14. It would also increase the competitiveness between the Welsh and the Irish teams. It would mean that as the Pro12 League develops, there is also an independent table that reflects the games between solely the domestic teams of the respective country. The top three qualify for the Heineken Cup, the final team is dropped to the Amlin Challenge Cup. Scotland and Italy would be the exception to this rule. These are the two countries whose Rugby Unions need the exposure of the top flight to support the game. A qualification system where only one can progress could cripple their domestic teams and their respective national teams. They only have two teams each so a qualification system would also be redundant.
The Heinken Cup needs to modernise. The way rugby is being viewed and played is changing fast, the ramshackle ways of the amateur era are fast receding, and new, innovative ways are required to boost the now outdated tournament systems, not just of the Heineken Cup, but also the Pro12, and the promotion/relegation system of the Aviva Premiership in England. What I have outlined above is merely a suggested model, a combination of what many pundits are pitching, as well as a few personal opinions. One thing is for sure. The process will be slow, and we all hope that this frustrating process will do no further harm to the tournament, or indeed the game’s, reputation.