It has all the makings of a humdinger: Saracens, the English champions, travel to Swansea tonight for a Heineken Cup match with Ospreys, the strongest side in Wales, that will go a very long way towards deciding who qualifies automatically for the knock-out stage of the world's best club tournament. Unfortunately for those on the red-rose side of the Severn, there may not be many more humdingers ahead. Collectively speaking, the Premiership contingent are struggling badly in Europe, to the extent that 2011-12 may turn out to be 2009-10 revisited.
Two seasons ago, Northampton were the only English side to make the quarter-finals. It was, statistically as well as in every other sense, a low point for the professional club game in this country, so the growing threat of what might be called "cross-border calamity redux" is alarming indeed. Most alarmed of all are Northampton themselves, for they are already out of a competition that is only halfway through its pool phase. Bath, pioneering European spirits who broke new ground by winning the Heineken Cup in 1998, are on their last legs – defeat against Leinster, the holders, in Dublin tomorrow evening will end their campaign for another year – while Harlequins, the Premiership leaders, are by no means guaranteed to advance. Leicester, two-time champions? Ditto. As for Gloucester... let Bryan Redpath, the director of rugby at Kingsholm, tell it how it is.
"It's going to be very difficult to qualify for the quarter-finals from where we are," the former Scotland scrum-half said this week. "All the evidence says that you need 20 points from your six pool games just to have a chance of making it through as one of the two best runners-up. Realistically, that's not going to happen – not with the fixtures we have left. I'm not saying we've given up on European rugby this season: it's important that we do whatever we can to maintain the integrity of the competition, so we'll be throwing everything at it. But what I'm most interested in now is the bigger picture. We need to rediscover the habit of winning games and let everything else take care of itself."
As things stand, Saracens are best placed to make the knock-out cut, followed by London Irish, whose startling victory over the cash-rich Parisians of Racing Métro at Stade Yves du Manoir last weekend kept them in the hunt, despite back-to-back defeats in the opening tranche of matches in November. Yet the Exiles cannot be remotely confident of progressing: if anything, both Cardiff Blues and Edinburgh are more likely to feature in the last eight.
According to Redpath, things are likely to grow tougher before they get easier. "If you look at the French clubs who have genuine ambitions to win the Heineken Cup – the likes of Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne – you have to acknowledge that, by and large, the English teams are not in anything like the same position in terms of budgets and squad sizes," he said. "It's no coincidence that the top French sides are the most dominant financially, which allows them to be the most dominant physically. Being able to rotate international players makes a massive difference.
"We can't just sit back and accept it. We have to fight as best we can because we all value the Heineken Cup massively. But the Premiership is our bread-and-butter business and if you have a relatively small squad it's difficult to front up in both tournaments. Ultimately, it's a funding issue. In England, we're in the strange situation where the third of our three competitions – the LV= Cup – is the shortest in duration, yet offers the most prize money. You can play five games in that, win the thing and bank more than you would if you were European champions. There's a lot of thinking to be done about how to solve these issues."
Financial disparity is at the heart of the English malaise in Europe. Many of the leading French clubs play in municipally-owned stadiums – the balance between public and private investment is far healthier than it is on this side of the water – and sides like Toulouse and Clermont have the added advantage of tapping into support from major industrial and manufacturing concerns that are both local and multi-national in outlook. It is little wonder that when Richard Cockerill, the Leicester director of rugby, expressed an interest in the services of the brilliant Wallaby back Adam Ashley-Cooper midway through last season, he found himself offering precisely one-third of the salary available to the Australian in France. And Leicester are the biggest club in England, by miles.
As long ago as 2003, this newspaper argued that England's domination of Heineken Cup rugby was at an end – an argument roundly dismissed by those then running the Premiership. In the eight tournaments since, there have been only two English victories, both delivered by Lawrence Dallaglio's vintage Wasps team. It will be a surprise of considerable proportions if the Irish-French stranglehold is broken this time round. If it is, the Welsh are the most likely to do it.
Which makes tonight's game at the Liberty Stadium a highly significant affair. Of the English contenders, only Saracens are in control of their group. That control will evaporate if they lose against an Ospreys side motivated by two factors: a feeling of rank injustice stemming from last week's defeat against the same opponents at Wembley – the referee, Pascal Gauzere of France, did them precious few favours – and an even stronger sense of underachievement in this tournament stretching back years. The Welshmen believe it is high time they reached the last four in Europe, and they are not alone in that opinion.
Tommy Bowe, Shane Williams, Adam Jones, Ryan Jones... four Lions Test players have been named in the Ospreys starting line-up, under the captaincy of the highly-rated flanker Justin Tipuric. They have an all-international pack, a Wales outside-half in Dan Biggar and a couple of uncapped backs, Richard Fussell and Ashley Beck, who are fast making names for themselves. What is more, they have won 15 and drawn one of their last 16 home games in Europe.
It is also a fact that they consider Saracens to be rather predictable. "We didn't see too much that we didn't expect from them last week," said Sean Holly, their head coach. "They came with a big driving line-out and a kicking game, an aerial assault. We just didn't deal with it, especially in the first half when we gave them a head start. There won't be much in it this time, just as there wasn't at Wembley. This is all about us: we all know our roles, so we need to do our jobs and be accurate."
Leicester, meanwhile, have given themselves a lift ahead of tomorrow's must-win meeting with Clermont Auvergne at Welford Road by talking the England prop Dan Cole into agreeing a three-year contract extension. Cole does not start as many games as he would like, thanks to the continuing presence of the folk-hero Italian scrummager Martin Castrogiovanni, but rumours of a move have proved inaccurate.