Premiership seven to be plunged into dangerous Heineken pools
Tuesday 07 June 2011
England's leading clubs have spent the last few seasons complaining bitterly about the perceived iniquities of Heineken Cup rugby. The financial muscle of the top French sides, who routinely win the races for the biggest southern-hemisphere signings; the automatic qualification offered to the Scots, who bring precious little to the party; the built-in advantages enjoyed by the Irish and Welsh contenders, who prioritise their European campaigns safe in the knowledge that there is no relegation from the Celtic League ... all these things infuriate the Premiership fraternity, who have secured only two titles in nine years.
When the pool draw for next season's tournament is made at Twickenham today, the Leicesters and Northamptons may find themselves spitting even more feathers than usual. One of the six pools will feature a second English team – by winning the Amlin Challenge Cup last month, Harlequins earned their country a seventh slot in the elite tournament – and as that team will be either Saracens, the newly-crowned Premiership champions, or Gloucester, the most dangerous counter-attacking outfit in the country, the group in question will be no fun at all.
Moreover, the ranking system introduced by the European Rugby Cup board three years ago holds perils for top seeds. The rankings, initially designed to protect the powerful from the powerful, are every bit as complicated as the laws over the tackle area – the official listing quite often has at least one team in the wrong place – but this much is clear: the last of the four six-team seeding blocks contains three French teams who, on current form, are better than three of the top seeds, and possibly four.
Montpellier, narrowly beaten by Toulouse in last weekend's French Championship final, are in the lowest banding, as are the cash-rich Parisians of Racing Metro, who reached the semi-final of their domestic competition, and Castres, who emerged from the regular Top 14 season with an unbeaten home record and reached the play-off phase. Should Leicester, certain to share a pool with either Clermont Auvergne or Ospreys, cop Saracens and Montpellier as well, they will smell a conspiracy.
Still, it could be worse. Those poor English teams competing in the second-tier Challenge Cup, the draw for which will be made later this month, will be mixing it with some of the most celebrated clubs in France, including Perpignan, Toulon and Stade Français. Such was the standard of last season's Top 14, none of these three secured Heineken Cup qualification. Now that's what you call a league.
Meanwhile, one of the sport's more interesting characters, the former Ospreys coach Lyn Jones, is making a welcome return to the British game, having agreed to run things at London Welsh. Jones has kept a low profile in recent years, teaching in Abu Dhabi, but his energetic, innovative approach to high-performance rugby fits well with the Exiles' ambitious plans to secure Premiership status.
* Melbourne Rebels have lifted Danny Cipriani's suspension and have declared the former England fly-half available for selection this weekend.
How the Heineken Cup draw works
* Seven English clubs are involved in today's draw: Leicester, who are in the top seeding bracket; Northampton, Bath, Harlequins and London Irish, who are in the second; and Saracens and Gloucester, who are in the third.
* Each pool will include a team from each of the four ERC ranking bands, with sides from the same country kept separate so far as is possible. Alongside Leicester, the top band features Ireland's strongest provinces, Leinster and Munster, and two French clubs, Toulouse and Biarritz, along with Cardiff Blues.
* The rankings are based on European performances over four seasons, hence the lowly positions of such powerful French clubs as Montpellier, who will be making their first appearance in the Heineken Cup, and Racing Metro, who made their debut last season.
* Next season's tournament will begin on the weekend of 12 November, three weeks after the World Cup final in New Zealand.
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