Europe's rugby comes to the boil this weekend with the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup and the European Conference splashed with colourful clashes.
However, knock-out competitions are the rice cakes of sport, disappearing in an instant. What is needed is a hefty pudding of a competition. Something which will test the consistency, class and stamina more profoundly and, by virtue of its regularity, enable sides to improve by pitting them against the best that Europe can offer. In other words a league.
And if the French international Philippe Saint-Andre has his wish, then a European League Championship is not too far away. "I think it will happen," the 30-year-old Gloucester wing said. "Not straightaway, but I think the 1999 World Cup will be the watershed. That is the first, full-time professional World Cup and after that there will be a move towards a European League. I know the players and clubs in France would welcome it."
In evidence he cites the fact that the Heineken Cup has broadened everyone's rugby horizons. "French players are very happy with it. They are playing more English clubs. The standard is good and it is creating more interest in France; more people are going to games, it is on television more and in the long term that will attract more sponsors. It can only be good for the game."
But the point of cross-border competition is not merely to fill television schedules, nor is it solely to put cash in club coffers. The fundamental aim of European rugby was to improve standards in the northern hemisphere.
Saint-Andre, with half a season at Gloucester behind him, is encouraged by what he has seen and played against here. "I think club rugby in England has improved with the advent of European competition," he said.
However there is a problem. "The one weak point of English rugby lies in the playing staffs," he said. "While there are some very good players around in most clubs, too often their stand-ins are not of the same standard. In France clubs are quite capable of putting out two XVs of virtually identical strength."
He is cautious in his predictions of the outcome of this weekend's Anglo- French games. "I think the English have a good chance. Wasps-Brive is an awkward tie, but they are at home and that gives them a good chance; Quins have possibly the toughest tie at Toulouse, but they are a big occasion side."
As for Gloucester's hopes in their Conference tie at Stade-Francais, Saint-Andre is less optimistic. "Gloucester deserve to be in the quarter- finals," he says, "but Stade-Francais are unbeaten in the French Championship and they have signed some great players. We will have to be brave and strong to emerge with victory."Reuse content