Change in Italy has knock-on effect

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The Independent Online

England's leading teams are not obviously in a position to worry about any impending drop in standards at European level as they ponder their worst-ever performance in the Heineken Cup. Right now, the lower the standard the better. But Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, fears that next season's second-string competition, the Amlin Challenge Cup, could be seriously affected by developments elsewhere in the northern hemisphere club game.

The appearance of two Italian "super teams" in the 2010-11 Magners League – the tournament created for sides from the three Celtic nations – will inevitably impact on the Azzurri's domestic league as leading players head for either Treviso or Viadana, the clubs boasting a fully-fledged professional set-up. As the current 20-team Challenge Cup needs four Italian entrants to make the numbers work, McCafferty is fully justified in being alarmed at the prospect of more embarrassing, waste-of-time mismatches in the pool stage.

"We think the Challenge Cup should go to a 16-team format, cutting back on the number of Italian and invitation teams," he said yesterday. "By 'footballising' the competition with the addition of teams who failed to qualify for the knock-out stage in the elite Heineken tournament, we've made things much more meaningful this season. We're concerned at a potential drop in quality just when we've put a lot of effort into improving it. The Challenge Cup has the potential to go backwards if it stays as it is and we don't want our clubs to have a wasted season in Europe."

McCafferty is likely to get his way, but only up to a point. The competition may well be a 16-team event next season, but there is a mood on the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd to keep the weak Romanian and Spanish sides who found themselves overmatched in this season's pool phase, and add a Portuguese element to the mix. Expect more 60-point non-events next term.

Meanwhile, McCafferty was more upbeat on the prospects for the Guinness Premiership, where attendances are up by almost 20 per cent and closing in on average gates in the southern hemisphere's Super 14. "We're averaging over 13,000 on the latest figures," he said. "The crowds in football's Championship average out at around 17,500 – under 16,000 if you leave out Newcastle United and their big following – so we feel it is well within our reach to go past those numbers over the next five years."

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