English club may land extra European place

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The Independent Online

Rugby officials the world over spend most of the working week trying to make the sums add up, and the administrators of the Heineken Cup, the jewel in the crown of the northern hemisphere game, are no different. Next week, the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd will address the burning arithmetical issue of the moment - the fact that they have only 23 teams for next season's 24-team tournament - and will consider awarding a precious extra place to either England or France, depending on which nation performs best in the current tournament.

The problem has its roots in Wales, where the radical move to a regional structure cut the number of top-flight teams to five. The Welsh were granted a place for each of the new sides this time around, on the understanding they would enter one of their professional quintet in the second-tier Parker Pen Challenge Cup from next season. That leaves a nasty little hole - one that will not be filled without a serious political squabble among the six competing unions and, quite possibly, something approaching a domestic crisis in Ireland.

Until now, England and France have been guaranteed five places, Wales four and the other nations - Ireland, Scotland and Italy - two apiece. The remaining four spots have been allocated on the basis of national performance, with a maximum of one extra place per country. The formula was perfectly simple until the Welsh complicated matters by embracing regionalism. Understandably, the ERC board members moved to defend the integrity of the Parker Pen tournament by insisting that Wales - and, by extension, the other five unions - participated. It is this ruling that has led to the present difficulties.

Scotland cannot take up the extra place, because they have only three teams - one of which must play in the Challenge Cup, rather than the Heineken. Italy could fill the gap, but a third Azzurri club at this juncture would only dilute the standard of the tournament. And Ireland? They could enter Connacht alongside the regular threesome of Leinster, Munster and Ulster, but that would leave them without a presence in the Parker Pen. Unless the ERC board opts to abandon the 24-team format and move to a 32-team competition - most unlikely, given the success of this season's Heineken, which has generated a 16 per cent increase in crowds - the only practical solution will be to play to strength and award the spare place to either England or France.

This would certainly get the Rugby Football Union out of a hole of its own making, for under current arrangements, the Powergen Cup winners are not guaranteed a place in the Heineken Cup - despite statements to the contrary by Twickenham which negotiated much-needed sponsorship for the domestic knock-out tournament. A seventh place would remove any potential for public embarrassment.

But it is in Ireland that some very large pigeons are preparing to roost. Connacht, condemned to professional extinction by the national union a couple of years ago and saved only by a public outcry, are playing far too well for Irish Rugby Football Union comfort at the moment and are a decent bet to win the second-tier title. That would automatically earn them a Heineken place in 2004-05 and force one of the more illustrious provinces out of the élite competition. As Ulster are performing exceptionally well in the Celtic League, the choice could lay between Munster and Leinster, both of whom are major players in this season's Heineken. It could get very bloody.

England, meanwhile, should find themselves with a new captain today when Sir Clive Woodward names the 30-odd players who will form the basis of his squad for the Six Nations' Championship. Lawrence Dallaglio, Woodward's initial choice as skipper back in 1997, is a warmish favourite to beat a raft of fellow senior internationals, but the coach may decide to make appointments match by match.