David Flatman: French riches leave Heineken Cup an uneven playing field

View from the front row with Bath & England prop
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The Independent Online

Toulouse and Stade Français will provide the most luscious of this season's Heineken Cup quarter-finals. At the risk of being crude, the sheer amounts of cash on display will make it a ritzy affair. Who needs Ronaldo and Real Madrid when these French giants are in town? Of course, the panache of the Toulousain three-quarter line combined with the perma-quiffed mane of Parisien hooker Dimitri Szarzewski will add to the occasion and a crowd of typical soccer proportions will complete the spectacle. Not quite an afternoon at The Rec but it'll have to do.

The prospect of Leinster, Europe's reigning and worthy kings, welcoming perhaps the most complete and in-form Clermont team we have seen also makes the mouth water. Even as recently as a couple of years ago you would have bet the wife on the French getting all homesick and caving in as soon as their hosts showed a hint of willing. But no more. These chaps come to play and have already proved that winning high-pressure matches on the road is now a big part of their repertoire – not a common trait in the Top 14. In fact, one might argue that the only team as well prepared are Leinster themselves. Still, might pop to Ladbrokes for a marital flutter anyway.

Munster are, of course, a monstrous force at home and will go into their match with Northampton as favourites but at no stage in this competition have they looked like real title contenders. I am confident that every member of this Saints squad believes they can win and, in truth, they have nothing to lose. Having played against the Saints already this season I can vouch for their confidence and tenacity as a group. They have a well-established playing staff, a top-class set-up and, most importantly, a handful of blokes who have the talent and front to win you a rugby match. Euan Murray will garner penalties at scrum time and Ben Foden, fed by Shane Geraghty, will always make defences shiver (can we not mention him skinning me in the 79th minute at Franklin's Gardens please?).

As a professional player I am obliged to resent the success of any other English team – in fact, it might even be part of my contract. However, apart from being a dedicated Bathonian, I am an Englishman and a rugby fan so to see only one Guinness Premiership side left to fight for European glory is saddening. Of course, the margins between winning and losing are now so fine that to panic so immediately would be ridiculous but I do think there are reasonable explanations for this lack of impact; money and game time. The wage bills of the French sides are well documented and are so often thrown into these conversations that their magnitude is unconsciously diluted. It should not be overlooked, though, as it makes for a staggeringly uneven playing field. The argument is not that, as I pack down against Stade's Sylvain Marconnet, he must push harder because he earns double what I do but that, were he to twist an ankle, another hardened, big-money international would arrive to take his place. The equation is the same for practically every position on the field and their squads often run four deep with top-of-the-range quality. After a few ill-timed injuries and a high-profile gouging ban, Stade were left with no regular scrum halves to play – and didn't we hear about it. Anyone would think they had a national disaster on their hands. The thought that a young kid might have to front up or a player might have to wear the wrong jersey for a week sent them into freefall. How the other (upper) half operate.

The Irish provinces prepare better then anyone else for the Heineken Cup. It has become, frankly, their raison d'etre. An interesting (or embarrassingly nerdy) way to observe their preparation is to read the team sheets of their weekly Magners League games. The big guns just don't play that often. This is not to say that the Magners is not taken seriously but it comes second to Europe. While we in the Premiership fight tooth and nail week after week, the O'Driscolls and O'Connells are watching from the sidelines and readying themselves for the Heineken Cup. Naturally, if you could hear my voice now it would smack rightly of jealousy but that really is not the point. While certainly not in any way unfair, this wrapping in cotton wool of the star men gives the Irish teams a huge advantage. Before playing Ulster recently, we had half a team training because the Premiership match the previous Saturday had rendered lame so many bodies. I am sure the training pitch in Belfast would not have looked so bare.

This is not a column of excuses but of likely reasons. Huge, glittering squads and extra rest have to put other nations' noses in front before a whistle is blown. A kick here or there, a stronger gust of wind or bit less dew on a spinning ball might have seen a number of results reversed and with them more English sides marching on but that's sport. Had a few more bounces gone our way and had those Frenchmen obeyed tradition and crumbled, we might not even be talking about these things. But we are English, and just as the Irish have a right to rest and the French a right to burn Euros, we have the right to moan about anything we like.

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