Wasps should be feeling pleased with themselves as they prepare for the first step of their Heineken Cup title defence against Biarritz this weekend. Positively flying in the Premiership, the European champions will have the England wing Josh Lewsey back on Sunday if he makes it through this evening's second-string game against Oxford University. Instead, they are muttering dark words about inequality, injustice and the glaring absence of a level playing field in the competition that has pushed back the frontiers of professional rugby in the northern hemisphere.
Warren Gatland, their director of rugby, took advantage of yesterday's tournament gathering in West London to express his disappointment at landing in a group containing Leicester - no mean European campaigners themselves - as well as the brilliant Basques, who look seriously threatening after signing Damien Traille and Imanol Harinordoquy from Pau. Gatland thought he and his men might have been rewarded with an even break after their breathtaking triumph over Toulouse in last season's final at Twickenham. In the event, they have been well and truly suckered.
But the real gripe concerned the disparity between clubs from England, France and Italy, all of whom qualify for the tournament from their domestic leagues, and the provincial, regional and district sides from the three Celtic countries, some of whom do not have to qualify at all. The most pointed comments were aimed at Ireland, where the national union nominates the country's participants irrespective of performance.
"There is still a discrepancy over qualification, and it should be addressed," said Wasps' captain, Lawrence Dallaglio. "Every year, the English clubs find themselves in a dilemma. In revenue terms, the most important thing for any club is to secure a place in the Heineken for the following season - something that is largely achieved through performance in the Premiership. That means the domestic championship is every bit as important as Europe, with teams having to win week-in, week-out. It is very difficult to target a Heineken Cup campaign in isolation.
"Yet some other teams are able to do precisely that, to put all their resources and efforts into winning the European title. Why? Because they know at the start of each tournament that they will be back again the following season. The likes of Munster are in this position every year. The only advantage from our perspective is that the standard of rugby in the Premiership prepares us well for the challenges of playing in Europe."
Wales, with three places each season, and the Scots with two, at least accept the principle that teams should qualify through the Celtic League. Much to the frustration of the Heineken Cup's administrative body, European Rugby Cup Ltd, the Irish hold firm. They regard one of their four provincial teams, Connacht, as a developmental side, and have no intention of sanctioning their entry into the elite competition, however well they might play. As far as the Irish Rugby Football Union are concerned, the die is cast: Leinster, Munster and Ulster in the Heineken Cup, Connacht in the Challenge Cup.
"We would prefer it if everyone had to qualify," admitted Derek McGrath, the chief executive of ERC. "We have asked the Celtic League to report back to us on this, but they are having their own struggle." The fun and games will begin if Connacht win the Challenge Cup, for they would then qualify for the following season's Heineken as of right, leaving the IRFU to dump one of their favoured provinces.
¿ Steve Thompson, the Northampton hooker, is expected to be out for at least three weeks after damaging his ribs on Saturday.
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