Rugby Union: Cup winners' path to Europe barred

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The new sponsors of England's national knock-out cup will reward this season's winners with a cheque for pounds 50,000. But they want their competition to carry a far greater incentive: direct entry to the Heineken European Cup. Chris Hewett reports on a delicate problem for the country's rugby authorities.

Success breeds success, but it also breeds friction and discord. The Heineken Cup may have established itself as the pre-eminent club competition in northern hemisphere rugby in the space of a single extraordinary year, but it has also become the biggest political football currently to be found bouncing around the committee rooms of Europe.

Everyone wants a piece of the action, but there is only so much action to go round; as any clubhouse barman will confirm, it is impossible to cram a quart into a pint pot. And therein lay the seeds of conflict. Over the next few months, the debate over the future configuration of the Heineken Cup is likely to generate more argument than a chance meeting between Brive and Pontypridd in Le Bar Toulzac.

Carlsberg-Tetley, multi- million pound sponsors of England's domestic knock-out tournament, believe the winners of their competition should qualify automatically for the Heineken. They know full well that while qualification is restricted to the top four finishers in the Allied Dunbar Premiership, the Tetley's Bitter Cup will remain a very definite second on the leading clubs' list of priorities.

"We're probably too late to secure Heineken entry for next season because the Premiership campaign has already started, but we're very keen to see the 1999 Tetley's Bitter Cup winners qualify for the 1999-2000 tournament," said Huw Thomas, a spokesman for the sponsors, yesterday. The company will have an awful lot of persuading to do; at the moment, the overwhelming feeling amongst the Premiership clubs is that the league holds sway over cup.

"It's something we can discuss, certainly," said Donald Kerr, chairman of the English Rugby Partnership, the body that administers domestic club competitions and has an all-important say on who should progress to the Heineken. "But I think the current feeling is that those sides who battle their way through 22 hard Premiership games are the ones most worthy of a European Cup place."

Given that prevailing view, Carlsberg-Tetley are likely to get their way only if the English successfully argue for a fifth Heineken participant. ERP believes England to be under-represented - an attitude that has seriously annoyed the Welsh, Scots and Irish - and intends to press the Heineken directors for another place.

Their chances of immediate satisfaction appear to be zero, however. Roger Pickering, the Heineken tournament director, said yesterday: "We've made it quite clear that the present 20-team format - four clubs from England, France and Wales, three from Ireland and Scotland, two from Italy - will remain in place for another two years. There will be no change in that period."

Even when Pickering and his colleagues do decide to change the qualification system, England are by no means certain to force an extra place. If any country deserves a fifth slot, it is France; the Tricolores dominated last season's second-tier European Conference and are likely to contribute at least five of this year's quarter-finalists.

As far as the investors of Carlsberg-Tetley are concerned, the Heineken incentive appears out of reach, at least for the time being. Next May's Twickenham showpiece will be a sell-out, of course, but it will not offer the most sought-after reward of all.