Alan Watkins: Singular rugby distorted by effects of complex rules

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The Independent Online

Everyone says, and I agree, that the Heineken European Cup is proving a marvellous competition. This season it is more interesting than ever. I therefore hope it will not seem churlish of me to raise a few questions which are less than condemnatory but more than quibbling.

Everyone says, and I agree, that the Heineken European Cup is proving a marvellous competition. This season it is more interesting than ever. I therefore hope it will not seem churlish of me to raise a few questions which are less than condemnatory but more than quibbling.

The main one is whether a competition can be wholly satisfactory if, to understand it in its intermediate stages (which were completed three days ago), you have to be in possession of A-level maths. As it happens, I am in that happy position. But it was a long time ago and, in common with many others, I struggled with the rules about progression to the quarter-finals.

The connected question is whether the rules produce a fair result. What you think is fair depends on your prejudices and on your assessment of rugby ability in a team. Thus I do not think that any injustice was done to the four clubs (or, if you prefer, regions) of my native land. Usually, Llanelli have carried the Red Dragon into the final stages but have never managed to reach the final, still less to win it. This time round, they were beaten fair and square by both Toulouse and Northampton.

This does not mean, however - and this is not prejudice - that Northampton are one of the best eight teams in the competition. Patently they are not. Perpignan and Wasps, both out of the quarter-finals, are clearly their superiors. Northampton have had a difficult season, with one thing and another. No one begrudges them their period of glory - until the quarter-final away to Toulouse. But the truth is that they are lucky to be where they are, however briefly.

Not so Leicester, after their two epic encounters with Wasps. They are not always the most lovable of sides but are now trying to play rugby. It is a pity, I think, if this means that Ollie Smith has to play out on the wing when Andy Robinson, the England head coach, might well want to use him in the centre. But in England, as we know, the interests of the national side do not always take precedence over the interests of the leading clubs.

If Leicester can beat Leinster at Lansdowne Road, I think they can go all the way, despite their defeat by Biarritz at Welford Road just over a fortnight ago. Rob Andrew deserves congratulations for taking Newcastle, against all expectations, to the top of their pool, but I cannot see them beating a Stade Français side who demolished Gloucester.

There is another consequence to the elaborate rules. To gain points in the competition, clubs distort their normal methods. Gloucester, to qualify for the quarter-finals, had to score at least four tries against Stade at Kingsholm. Nigel Melville, the coach, told them beforehand (or so it is reported) that they should not strain. But the occasion clearly affected them, with passes thrown anywhere, anyhow. What was more important, perhaps, was that three points from a penalty were several times disregarded in favour of a speculative kick to the corner, one of which sent the ball dead.

It was the same story with Wasps and Biarritz in France. The week before, Wasps had declined to take conversions against Calvisano simply to try to maximise the number of tries. This in itself was a distortion of the game. Against Biarritz they did not repeat the ploy but nevertheless did not play as they would normally. Like Gloucester, they did not take all the penalties on offer, though they kicked one of them. As their captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, admitted afterwards, this concentration on tries was probably a mistake.

It is arguable, certainly, that the emphasis on tries at all costs adds to the excitement of matches and gives the fans what they want. But it would be more satisfactory all round to have four pools of four, with the top in each pool guaranteed a home draw against the runners-up. We are stuck with a basic pool of this size because a total of six matches can be fitted in, just about, by this stage of the season.

However, a diminution in the number of clubs involved, from 24 to 16, would cause ill-feeling all round. What is wrong with enlarging the competition to 32 clubs, in eight pools of four? The number of matches in each pool would remain the same, six. The winner of each pool would then go through to the quarter-finals, and we would be spared both the distortions of the game and the need for A-level maths.

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