Premier Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty today dismissed Warren Gatland's criticism of the Guinness Premiership as a "cheap shot".
McCafferty believes the Wales coach's comments have been motivated by his frustration at the unavailability of Sale scrum-half Dwayne Peel for the autumn opener against New Zealand.
Gatland, who masterminded three league titles and a Heineken Cup crown during three years as Wasps' director of rugby, yesterday described the Premiership as the weakest he has seen.
But McCafferty pointed to soaring attendance figures as evidence the competition is in rude health.
"It was a pretty cheap shot I thought," McCafferty told BBC Radio 5 Live.
"The fact is attendances are up 17% this year and one particular match - Saracens against Northampton at Wembley - saw more supporters there than in the entire Celtic League."
Peel is the solitary Premiership player in Wales' squad for the autumn Tests but he is set to miss the curtain raiser against the All Blacks on November 7.
The match is being staged outside the recognised International Rugby Board autumn Test window, so Sale are under no obligation to release him.
Peel's probable absence takes on added significance given that Ospreys number nine Mike Phillips is sidelined for around 12 weeks with a serious ankle injury.
"What's going on underneath is that Wales have organised an extra international themselves," added McCafferty.
"They know full well they don't have the ability to call up players from outside of Wales on a compulsory basis so I think maybe there's a bit of feeling about that."
Gatland was emphatic in his dismissal of the Premiership and claimed the poor standard would have repercussions at international level.
"I think the Guinness Premiership, having watched the games, is the weakest Premiership I've seen since I have been up here (in the United Kingdom)," he said.
"It is the weakest in terms of the quality of the teams involved.
"Look at Gloucester. When I was at Wasps you would go down there and know you were going to have a really tough, physical match up front.
"I couldn't believe they just weren't competitive against Wasps on Saturday (Gloucester lost 35-6 at home).
"When the Premiership is strong, it's a good gauge of how players are likely to perform at international level."