The number of close games in the Guinness Premiership is greater than in any of the world's other major leagues: far greater, according to recent statistics compiled by the people who run the tournament. Winning margins are smaller, points are harder to score, tries are significantly more difficult to come by and crowds, seduced by the brutal competitiveness of it all, are on the increase, to the extent that gates in top-flight English rugby are fast closing in on Super 14 levels, much to the puzzlement of the southern hemisphere supremacists who consider rugby in this neck of the woods to border on the medieval.
So everything in the garden is rosy, right? Wrong. For the first time since they first banded together in 2001, the Celts are the ones ahead of the game in these islands. There is now clear blue water between the Magners League and the Premiership, and the evidence is to be found in the one competition that involves everyone: the Heineken Cup. When the quarter-finals are played this weekend – the most eagerly-awaited weekend of the season for the union connoisseur – three Celtic sides, two Irish and one Welsh, will be involved. The English? They have Northampton, and no-one else. It is the country's worst performance in Europe since 1999, when, because of a mass boycott, they failed to perform at all.
The Magners League was once dismissed as a joke by those living south of Hadrian's Wall and east of Offa's Dyke. They had a point. The tournament was frequently distorted by waves of disinterest sweeping in from Ireland, where everything was geared to performance at European and full international levels, and weakened by Scottish teams incapable of beating anyone but each other. During the middle years of the last decade, there were always more English teams than Celtic ones to be found in the knock-out stage of a Heineken Cup.
That is not the case any more. Last season, Ireland and Wales both sent two sides through to the last eight, with England managing only three. This season, the differential has grown. When Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, reflects on this in public, he puts it down to a "blip", albeit a blip that must be watched closely by those on radar duty. Privately, he knows that the concentration of talent in the provincial-district-regional set-ups of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, allied to the greater financial muscle of the French clubs, is impacting on English fortunes in cross-border rugby.
Hence the stresses and strains within the Premiership community, where the likes of Northampton and Leicester feel the musketeerish "all for one and one for all" approach – salary caps, financial equalisation and the rest of it – has had its day. They favour the unfettered free market and to hell with the level playing field, arguing that while a rugby economy can go either up or down, it goes nowhere on the flat.
The French, generally the most successful of the six Heineken Cup nations, are set to grow more powerful now Toulon and Racing-Metro 92 have joined the traditional big spenders. But it is the upturn in Celtic fortunes that most alarms the Premiership clubs. In this season's Heineken Cup pool stage, English sides won only seven of 20 contests with Magners League opponents.
"As a coach, the games you welcome most are the tough, close games," said Tony McGahan, the Australian who took over the reins at Munster when Declan Kidney was appointed to the Ireland job in 2008. "In this respect, the standard of the Magners League has improved dramatically. You can see evidence of that improvement when you look at what is happening in the Heineken Cup. It's difficult to get to the back end of a competition like the Heineken unless you're able to play in different styles and handle different environments. Those are exactly the demands increasingly placed on teams in our league."
Another, more celebrated man of Munster – the grand Irish lock Paul O'Connell, who led the Lions in South Africa last summer – can be heard singing from the same hymn sheet. O'Connell was one of those who, a few years back, could be guaranteed to miss half a dozen Celtic matches at the start of a campaign. He doesn't miss them any more.
"It's grown tougher by the season and now we've introduced a play-off system that will allow teams to make a meaningful challenge for the title while contributing players to their national sides, it will only increase in stature," he said. O'Connell, nursing an injury, had just watched a Munster-Leinster derby played in front of 26,000 people at something close to Test pitch. At its best, Premiership rugby can be every bit as good. Unfortunately, it can no longer claim to be better.
The number of years since English clubs performed this badly in the Heineken Cup.Reuse content