As the Guinness Premiership elite are painfully aware of the extent of their mess-up in Europe this season – the sounds of wailing and gnashing of teeth are almost deafening – there is little to be gained by labouring the point.
But hey, what the hell? When the big Heineken Cup semi-final productions roll into south-western France and north-eastern Spain this weekend, the English contingent who once dominated the world's best club tournament will find themselves bracketed with such powerhouses as the United States and the Cook Islands in being represented only by the odd rugby drifter here and there.
It has been a desperate campaign, comfortably the worst since the English first ventured forth into continental competition in 1996. Unsurprisingly, those who speak for the Premiership are clinging grimly to the "blip" theory, arguing that this time last year, the French found themselves in precisely this position. They also point out that for a range of reasons – fake blood, missed drugs tests, internal upheavals, mass player departures – Harlequins, Bath, Gloucester and Sale were in no proper shape to take on the likes of Toulouse, Stade Français and Biarritz when the first cross-border hostilities broke out in early October.
But there was, and is, more to it than that. Jim Mallinder of Northampton, the only Premiership side to find their way into this year's knockout stage, warned after his team's quarter-final defeat at Munster that the sands were shifting fast, leaving the English clubs vulnerable to growing economic and organisational forces. "We don't have the financial muscle you see in France and we're not set up like the Irish, who prioritise the Heineken Cup in a way that isn't open to us," said the Midlanders' director of rugby. "Do I think the trophy will come back to England? It's becoming increasingly difficult."
Up the road at Leicester, twice winners of the tournament and three times the runners-up, this bleak assessment rings true. No one in English rugby understands more about the dynamics of Heineken Cup rugby than the Tigers' current head coach, Richard Cockerill, who played in the 1997 final against Brive, guided the club to last year's final with Leinster and spent the latter days of his hooking career across the water with Clermont Auvergne, then in the early stages of a surge that will see them ranked high among the favourites for the title in 2011. How does Cockerill read the runes? In a word, pessimistically.
"The clubs at the top end of the Premiership can, if they keep everyone fit and performing somewhere near their best, compete effectively in Europe," he says. "But I don't put it any higher than that, which is worrying from the perspective of someone like myself because, here at Leicester, there is an expectation we'll challenge for the domestic title and feature in the knockout stage of the Heineken Cup. If we do neither... well, that's the kind of thing that costs coaching staff their jobs.
"Clermont Auvergne have the manpower to field two sides of a very high quality, full of international talent. Toulouse are not dissimilar. These clubs have playing budgets of €10m [£8.7m] and upwards, compared with the £4m we're permitted to spend under our salary cap. The differential is huge and it's getting harder to bridge it. The situation isn't terminal yet, but it doesn't take a genius to work out that it's going to be a major problem for us fairly soon."
Countries in the Eurozone are hardly immune from financial hardship in this new age of austerity: the Irish seem to have an emergency budget every other week. Yet Cockerill cannot help envying the likes of Munster, who, as he puts it, "can spend millions on a wonderful redevelopment of their Thomond Park stadium and are still able to go shopping for a world-class centre like Jean de Villiers when a hole appears in their back division."
He is equally envious of the amount of money still sloshing around in France, despite the imminent introduction of their own salary cap. "The French cap will be almost twice as high as ours," he points out, "and that is an enormous advantage in a marketplace that has gone through the roof over the last five years. Players' salaries are up by 25 per cent, so if you want to hang on to your top blokes, you have to reduce your numbers. The French will have to cut their quotas next season, but when it comes to having a top-notch international on your books together with a strong back-up player in the same position – which is basically what you need if you want to challenge seriously at the top level of club rugby nowadays – they'll still be able to manage it far more easily than us.
"People say: 'Hang on a moment, Leicester are still the only side to win back-to-back titles and they're still in the mix more often than not.' To which I'd reply: yes, we have a bloody good record overall. But simply in terms of physicality, modern Heineken Cup rugby is unrecognisable from the rugby played in 2002, when we last won the tournament. And with the financial realities we currently face, how do we deal with that when squads are growing smaller rather than larger? As I said at the start, the first requirement for success is keeping people fit. And the more games they have to play, the more challenging that becomes."
When the 24 competing teams from six nations announced their squads back in October, the French and Welsh had more internationals per club than anyone else, closely followed by the Irish. Even the Italians had more access to Test performers than their English rivals, albeit performers of the ho-hum variety. The two Scottish contenders, Edinburgh and Glasgow, were bottom of the pile, yet both were more heavily tooled up with capped players than either Bath or Northampton.
There are two explanations. In France, vast budgets equal large, extravagantly salaried squads. (They are helped in this by the fact that most stadiums are municipal facilities: a significant advantage). In Ireland and Wales, the available home-grown talent, garnished with exotic sauces and pickles purchased in the southern hemisphere market, is concentrated in a small number of teams who play their weekly rugby in a Magners League competition free of relegation, which makes long-term European planning blissfully straightforward.
This imbalance is placing the musketeerish "all for one and one for all" spirit of the Premiership fraternity under severe strain. Leicester and Northampton crave success in Europe, as do Saracens, who have a billion-pound board behind them, and Bath, who have just landed a new owner wealthy beyond the dreams of Croesus. Will these go-ahead clubs allow their ambitions to be sacrificed on the altar of the salary cap while their competitors disappear into the distance? Cockerill suspects he has the answer.
"At some stage, there will be a breaking apart," he warns. "It's bound to happen if you have clubs who want to make the product bigger and better and can afford to drive it forwards while others are struggling just to stand still. At Leicester, we've taken an educated gamble to finance a major redevelopment of Welford Road. That will have to be paid for sooner or later. Why should we be dragged down to the lowest denominator?
"Ultimately, rugby will follow the football model because it's the only model in our sporting culture. And in football, you either do what you have to do to keep pace with your rivals or you fall away."
Europe next season
Leicester, Northampton, Saracens, Bath, Wasps and London Irish have already qualified. Either Gloucester or Harlequins, will sneak in if Wasps win the Amlin Challenge Cup – or, in Gloucester's case, if French sides win both European trophies.
Perpignan, Toulon, Clermont Auvergne, Toulouse, Castres and Racing-Metro 92 have qualified. Biarritz, who finished seventh in the domestic Top 14 tournament, could still make it even if they do not win this season's tournament.
Leinster, Munster and Ulster – the usual suspects – are definite qualifiers. Connacht will join them if one of the surviving Irish teams win this current Heineken competition or if they themselves win the Challenge Cup.
Cardiff Blues, Newport-Gwent Dragons and Ospreys have qualified through the Magners League. Scarlets, once the country's standard bearers in Europe, will miss out for the first time unless the Blues win the Challenge Cup.
Edinburgh and Glasgow always play in the Heineken Cup. Why? Because the Scots are guaranteed two places in the competition and, cleverly, have only two teams. It drives the English mad.
Italian resources are being concentrated in two new "super clubs": Treviso and the new Aironi team, who will represent Lombardy and Emilia Romagna. Both will play in the Magners League next season and have automatic entry.Reuse content