England's elite clubs love the Heineken Cup, but they do not always like it. They are exasperated by the lack of money generated by a competition of such stature, infuriated by a seeding system that gives the winners of the Italian league the same advantages as the Premiership champions and deeply suspicious of at least 50 per cent of the referees. And the thing that most gets their collective goat? The Celtic contingent and their VIP treatment.
Munster, Leinster, Ospreys and Llanelli Scarlets to name but four have to try seriously hard not to qualify for the tournament through the low-grade Magners League, while such heavyweight contenders as Wasps and Leicester, both two-time winners, must spend nine long months sweating blood in their own weapons-grade domestic championship in pursuit of a place.
Their mood is unlikely to be lightened by news from Scotland suggesting that the two remaining professional teams in the country, Edinburgh and Glasgow, have negotiated guaranteed slots in the Heineken draw. In recent seasons, there has been a consistent Scottish presence in the unpopular European Challenge Cup competition rugby's answer to football's Uefa Cup, loosely speaking. But the decision by the national union to scrap the Borders team at the end of last season knocked cross-border union out of kilter.
If the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd, the body set up to run the two tournaments, has sanctioned an arrangement under which Edinburgh and Glasgow will qualify for the main competition come what may there will be no formal declaration on the issue until next month both the Challenge Cup and the Magners League will be affected. The former is without a Scottish or Welsh entrant this season and is struggling to retain its status as a genuine pan-European concern. Meanwhile, the latter could find itself in the position of seeing the two Scottish sides in its bottom places, while a Welsh region finishing higher up the table plays off against an Italian side for the final Heineken qualification spot.
A glance at the current Premiership and French Top 14 tables reveals the extent to which major English clubs, and their close political allies across the Channel, are disadvantaged. Wasps, the reigning champions, are struggling in 10th place, well adrift in terms of automatic qualification. They were badly affected by World Cup call-ups, have won only two league games as a result and are at severe risk of not making the cut for 2008-09. In Tricolore country, three familiar Heineken contestants Stade Franais, Perpignan and Bourgoin are outside the top six and therefore vulnerable.
While members of the Scottish hierarchy argue, not unreasonably, that without two places in the Heineken Cup, their leading players will leave the country in greater numbers and the domestic game will continue to unravel, some English clubs fail to see why they should carry the can for another rugby nation's inability to develop a sustainable professional infrastructure. Last spring, the threat of an Anglo-French boycott was narrowly averted. The political atmosphere may be less fractious now, but harmony remains elusive.
Cardiff Blues, strong contenders for a place in the Heineken quarter-finals for the first time since 2001, are keen to retain their captain, the former All Black No 8 Xavier Rush, for another couple of seasons. The 30-year-old is out of contract at the end of the campaign, but his recent form has been exceptional and those in control of the finances at the Arms Park are more than willing to throw some more money in his direction.
Saracens have made a fistful of changes for the home game with Newcastle on Sunday. Ben Skirving is injured; Kameli Ratuvou and Glen Jackson drop to the bench; Andy Farrell, Nick Lloyd and Richard Hill have a weekend off. Rodd Penney, Adam Powell and Gordon Ross start in the back division; Kevin Yates, Paul Gustard and Dave Seymour are involved up front. Newcastle have introduced James Grindal at scrum-half and Brent Wilson on the blind-side flank.
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