Alan Watkins: Punch-bags are diluting quality of Heineken Cup

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What would we be doing with ourselves if it had not been for the Heineken European Cup? I was about to write that we would be watching big men bumping into other, even bigger men, in one of the predecessors of what is now the Guinness Premiership, and looking forward to the beginning of the Six Nations Championship. But, of course, that is not quite correct, for what used to be the Five Nations Championship would be well under way, Scotland having played France on the first Saturday of the new year.

I am not asking for a return to the old fixture list. After all, I spent several columns lamenting the waste involved in playing what would, otherwise, have been attractive international matches in the depths of winter. Even so, we should be grateful for the Heineken Cup. Otherwise we would be restricted to Gavin Henson's latest misfortunes, Wales' injuries, and the most up-to-date techniques evolved by Wasps and Leicester to prevent the other side from playing.

Because the European Cup is proving such a great success, it may seem to be ungrateful to suggest some ways of improving it . There is nothing personal in this.

It is not because Llanelli have, once again, flattered to deceive, though this time they did not even do much flattering. Nor is it because the Ospreys have not come within several miles of their players' abilities as individuals. Nor is it even because Cardiff have been so consistently pathetic: a record they justified abundantly with their defeat at home by Perpignan on Saturday.

To someone whose view of the rugby universe was formed in the 1940s and 1950s, the decline of Cardiff is particularly poignant. They used to be the best side, not only in these islands, but in the entire world. There were two sides from England that might give them a contest, Oxford University and Coventry, which may give you some idea of the extent to which the game has changed.

On Saturday morning they found themselves, unusually, at the top of their group. Several of my countrymen thought they would consolidate their position. Perpignan, they considered, were even more fragile than most French sides away from home.

Hang on a minute, I said to myself. Were they by any chance the same outfit who had come to Stradey Park a few seasons ago with an Australian outside-half called Manny Edmonds who had kicked a lot of points? The Llanelli flanker, Dafydd Jones, had been sent off in the first 10 minutes, and the French side had duly won. It appeared that they were the very same outfit, except that Edmonds was now playing at full-back. So much for the theory of French vulnerability away from home. And so it duly turned out, though the spectacle was even worse than any Cardiff fan could reasonably have expected. It was not, however, all gloom for the United Kingdom and Ireland. Leicester put up a marvellous performance. Andy Robinson, the England coach, could do worse than introduce the young centre Dan Hipkiss into the set-up in some way: for the try he scored on Saturday and the try he scored earlier against the Ospreys both showed his possession of a certain quality.

Wasps cannot feel nearly so happy. They now find themselves at the bottom of their group. Even before they went to Toulouse, they had no realistic chance of qualifying. And yet everyone persisted in saying they did indeed have a chance: as if they had some God-given right to find themselves in the final.

It was similar to the response which greeted their earlier defeat by Llanelli at Stradey Park. The defeat did not surprise me in the least; whereas to others it appeared that the world had been turned upside down. But there is a sense of injustice hanging around which needs to be addressed. The Wasps-Toulouse pool means that one club is going to draw the short straw, and it is not going to be Toulouse.

I should prefer four groups of five, rather than six of four, which would mean that four clubs would have to drop out of the competition. Glasgow, Newport-Gwent and the Italian sides are really punch-bags and not much more.

The runner-up in each group would then have a guaranteed place in the play-offs. Perhaps not everyone would be satisfied, but there would be more happy customers than there are now.

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