Asked whether he considered Ringo Starr to be the best drummer in the world, John Lennon caustically replied: "He's not even the best drummer in the Beatles." Suddenly, big-time professional rugby in England is experiencing a Ringo moment of its own. Once celebrated as the strongest league in the world game, the Premiership now finds itself wondering whether it is the strongest league in the British Isles.
When Sale and Newcastle open the domestic programme at Edgeley Park a week on Friday, four Celtic sides will do likewise on behalf of the Magners League. As recently as three years ago, there would have been little dispute as to the main event of the evening. Now, it is perfectly possible, and perhaps necessary, to argue that Glasgow-Leinster or Ulster-Ospreys will pack the bigger punch.
Celtic teams have out-performed their Premiership rivals in each of the last two Heineken Cup tournaments – indeed, last season marked a new low point for English fortunes in the premier European competition – and to make matters worse, Cardiff Blues pinched the second-tier Challenge Cup title from under the noses of Toulon, thereby securing a final Heineken spot for Scarlets at the expense of Gloucester. These developments strengthened the Celts in their belief that the age of Premiership supremacy is over.
"Attitudes towards the Magners League have changed," said David Young, the Blues coach, at yesterday's tournament launch in Cardiff. "Not so long ago, many teams, particularly the powerhouse provinces from Ireland, used the competition to prepare for their Heineken Cup campaigns and rested their best players whenever it suited them. Over the last couple of seasons, the focus has shifted and the intensity of our league rugby has increased, partly because European qualification is now dependent on it. As a result, standards have been driven upwards. We've closed the gap on the English Premiership, definitely."
Another Welsh coach, Sean Holley of the reigning Celtic champions Ospreys, was equally bullish. "We've stepped up our act," he said. "The key is variety. When we take on English sides in Europe, they tend to be very physical and attritional, but much of a muchness in style. In our league, there is a greater range of style and approach."
According to Young and Holley, the Celtic teams still lag behind their English counterparts in terms of financial muscle. "If the English are spending £4m a year on wages, as their salary cap suggests, they're well ahead of us," remarked the Ospreys man. "People look at our side and say: 'Shane Williams, James Hook, Adam Jones, Alun Wyn Jones, Ryan Jones... you're the biggest rock-star team in Britain.' But we didn't go out and buy these people, we nurtured them from young. And we're still doing it. We'll have a couple of youngsters coming through over the next couple of years who will be sensational."
The Magners League is not without its problems. No-one quite knows how the two Italian additions, Treviso and the newly-formed Aironi side, will shape up, although the concentration of Azzurri talent has left them stacked with international know-how. There are also continuing concerns over the crowds, or lack of them, in Scotland. Edinburgh will once again play at Murrayfield, a 67,000-capacity stadium that is about 65,000 too big, while Glasgow managed a 26 per cent increase in their average gate last season without anyone noticing.
But with 85 per cent of fixtures attracting live television coverage, the tournament's profile continues to grow. English club rugby has some work to do.
A league apart...
2 Magners League sides reached the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup last season – Leinster lost 26-16 to Toulouse, Munster lost 18-7 to Biarritz
5 of the six Premiership clubs in the Heineken Cup failed to get past the Group Stage last season
12 the number of matches won by Magners League sides against Premiership teams in the Heineken Cup last season out of 21 games. There were also seven defeats and two draws
33-19 The emphatic score by which Munster beat Northampton in their Heineken Cup quarter-final last seasonReuse content