Rugby's uneviable, but thoroughly deserved reputation as the world's worst-run sport was reinforced once again yesterday when the great and good at the top end of the game confirmed that the winners of this year's Heineken Cup would, after all, be granted the automatic right to defend their title next season. News of the committee wallahs' last-minute exercise in goalpost-shifting left some of the most senior figures on the English club scene, not least the Bristol coach, Bob Dwyer, angry to the point of incandescence.
From the moment the draw for the Ã©lite Champions' League-style tournament was made last summer, European Rugby Cup board members insisted that clubs could qualify for the 2000-2001 tournament only via a nomination from their home union - a stance that led the English clubs to believe that the top six finishers in the 12-team Allied Dunbar Premiership would get the nod. Top six became top five when the Rugby Football Union decided to give the winners of the doomed Tetley's Bitter Cup a Heineken place. "Finishing above seven sides is a lot more difficult than finishing above six," Dwyer groaned at the time.
The ground rules have been changed again, however: yesterday, two days before the first of this term's semi-finals, it was announced that Northampton, the sole English survivors, would participate next season if they won the trophy on 27 May, irrespective of their Premiership finish. If Northampton do indeed take the European title, and Wasps beat them in the final of the Tetley's tomorrow week, only the top four in the Premiership will be guaranteed the lucrative spoils of Heineken participation. That could cost either Bristol or Saracens a seat at the top table.
Terry Burwell, the director of operations at Twickenham, revealed yesterday that the change had been agreed by ERC in March and, in an early bid for the Understatement of the Millennium title, admitted: "Communication in our sport is a significant problem." Dwyer was rather more forthright. "It's not a problem of communication, but a problem of decision-making," he fumed. "One of the time-honoured laws of sport - a moral law, if you like - is that you don't change the rules when the race has started. This is precisely the kind of farce we've come to expect."
Ironically, Dwyer's Bristol have made the last four of the second-tier European Shield - an unsponsored and largely unloved competition that he, among others, sees as a costly distraction from the real business of qualifying for the Heineken. The fact that the Shield winners will win a place in the more exclusive tournament from the end of next season, as opposed to this, has made the World Cup-winning Wallaby coach's mood all the darker. "If we were to win this season's Shield at the expense of qualifying for the Heineken, it would mean less than nothing," he said this week.
These latest developments come at a bad moment for the sport. Last month, the Heineken quarter-final between Llanelli and Cardiff was disrupted by an embarrassingly public dispute over whether the sin-bin system was in operation. On Wednesday, an International Rugby Board disciplinary panel effectively washed its hands of the so-called "Grannygate" scandal, in which three high-profile players were exposed as winning Test caps under false pretences. Almost five years into professionalism, the amateurs are still calling the shots - and the wrong shots at that.
Northampton's chances of beating Llanelli in Reading on Sunday were improved yesterday by firm indications that several of their walking wounded - Matt Dawson, Garry Pagel, Budge Pountney and the captain, Pat Lam - should pass fitness tests tomorrow. Allan Bateman and Nick Beal are still in the 50-50 bracket, however, and the Midlanders will need both if they are to repulse a Welsh challenge strengthened by the availability of the Tongan wing, Salesi Finau, who was sent off during a league match at the weekend but quickly exonerated by a disciplinary panel.
Meanwhile, Pat Howard, the former Wallaby centre, has been given a player-coach's role at Leicester for next season, while the French outside-half Thierry Lacroix will leave Saracens and return home at the end of the season. Lacroix, a qualified physiotherapist, has accepted a managerial job at a medical complex and plans to play part-time rugby with Perpignan.
Cardiff will not allow the prop Andrew Lewis to join Bath. The club's chairman, Peter Thomas, has invoked a clause in Lewis's contract that will now keep him at the Arms Park for at least another season.