European quarter-final weekend – by some distance the most captivating of the club season and considerably more gripping to the true aficionado than the overblown Six Nations – begins this evening with a Challenge Cup tie between Sale and Brive at Edgeley Park. The one-time England outside-half Charlie Hodgson will not start for the home team, having missed training since the birth of his son on Tuesday, but as the All Black midfielder Luke McAlister, one of the best half-dozen players in the world, is ready and able to play at No 10, the northerners confidently expect to make it to the last four anyway.
Thanks to the seeding system due to be implemented next season – a system lambasted by many supporters as a naked exercise in big-club protectionism – Sale have a burning need to win the whole shooting match, not simply to ensure qualification for the elite Heineken Cup but to spare themselves a truly horrible draw if and when they get there. Saracens, the Ospreys, Cardiff Blues and London Irish are threatening to overhaul them in the rankings that will determine the 2008-09 pools, to the extent that the men from Stockport are at serious risk of dropping down a band and making life unconscionably hard for themselves.
Interestingly, the other side favoured to reach the semi-finals in Sale's half of the draw, the 1998 European champions, Bath, are in a similar position. If this weekend's proceedings go to form, the tie at the Recreation Ground at the end of the month will have a fair bit riding on it. Yet there are many who believe the advent of seeding to be a rank bad idea – a dampener, rather than a stimulant – and fear the Heineken Cup pool stages, in particular, will be far more processional than hitherto.
Under the new format, there will be no chance of any of the current six top seeds – Munster, Toulouse, Biarritz, Leicester, Stade Français and Wasps – meeting each other before the knock-out stage, although Stade and Wasps may slip a band after the conclusion of the this year's tournament. Yesterday, the chief executive of European Rugby Cup Ltd, Derek McGrath, admitted that this potential diminution of pool-stage drama was "one of the consequences" of the board's decision to embrace the ranking principal.
"I know there has been a reaction to this development, but that is a mark of the degree to which the people who follow European club rugby feel they have ownership of it," McGrath said. "We felt it was important to do everything in our power to give next season's quarter-finals the best opportunity of featuring the best eight teams and while there were obvious spin-offs from that we believed, and still believe, that the ranking system will take on an importance of its own and add value to what we do."
Those still attempting to work out what was wrong with the existing system, which in January produced a last round of Heineken pool matches in which all 12 games were mathematically "live", might like to know that things could have been worse. The agreed seedings are based on European performance over the last four seasons, but some board members favoured going back far further, which would have entrenched the current leading sextet.
One of those six, Leicester, will appeal against the 14-week suspension given to their Fijian back Seru Rabeni, who was this week found guilty of gouging the Saracens hooker Andy Kyriacou. The case has been scheduled for next Monday.Reuse content