If the Rugby Football Union and its troublesome professional clubs are not bound together in an advanced state of consternation at the collapse of English fortunes in the sport's most compelling annual tournament, they are even crazier than they have appeared over the last nine months of fractious political point-scoring. The only red rose types who play a part in the Heineken Cup final these days are the referees, and while the sight of Chris White doing himself a mischief in a futile attempt to outsprint as rapid a wing as Vincent Clerc, or the sound of Tony Spreadbury choking on his own Franglais, may be highly entertaining, it is not quite Twickenham's idea of setting the agenda for the European game.
The last Premiership side to win the Heineken title were Wasps, who somehow prevailed over Toulouse in the 2004 final in London despite having only a fleeting acquaintance with the ball. Twelve months previously, Toulouse and Perpignan had contested the trophy in Dublin. Last year, Toulouse met Stade Français in Edinburgh. This afternoon's final between Biarritz and Munster at least breaks the competition's habit of Tricolore exclusivity, but the English will still be on the outside looking in. Apart, that is, from the ubiquitous Mr White, who is scheduled to perform the whistling duties for the third year in four.
As the English clubs routinely describe their domestic league as the best in world rugby, their record at European level reveals some uncomfortable truths. Between 1997-98 and 2001-02, three teams - Bath, Northampton and Leicester - shared four titles between them. The French kept pace deep into the knock-out stages, but could not lay a hand on the silverware. Yet since Martin Johnson's peerless Tigers squeezed out Munster in the 2002 final at the Millennium Stadium (a memorable occasion, marked by a Red Arrows fly-past rendered invisible by the closed roof and Neil Back's chicanery at a late defensive scrum), there has been little to recommend the Premiership to those beyond its borders: three semi-final spots out of 16, compared to Ireland's five and France's eight.
England are very good indeed when it comes to rugby's equivalent of the Uefa Cup - the second-string, resolutely unsponsored European Challenge Cup tournament - but this is small fry by comparison: an anchovy swimming alongside a sperm whale, hoping someone notices it. Indeed, there are clear indications that the French are no longer much interested in participating in the competition. In the early years, they dominated to an embarrassing degree, claiming 29 of the first 40 knock-out places and contesting four all-French finals on the bounce. Now, they barely fire a shot in anger. This season, the last four were Gloucester, London Irish, Newcastle and Worcester.
These statistics illustrate the divergent paths taken by the English and French championships. There is a good deal of liberty in the Tricolore land - the big boys can spend as much as they like in pursuit of success - but precious little equality, let alone fraternity. Hence the class system prevalent in their domestic game, with Toulouse, Stade Français, Biarritz and Perpignan operating in a different world to Bayonne, Narbonne and Montpellier. In England, the old democratic spirit still rages. Everyone beats everyone in the Premiership, thanks to the salary cap.
But the fact remains: the English are underperforming in Europe, and underperforming badly. "The Premiership is not a comfort zone - God, it's anything but," said one senior club coach this week. "However, there is an overwhelming sense of the familiar about it, notwithstanding the ambition and adventure we've seen from some sides recently. Teams and players know and understand everything about each other, and that is too often reflected in the rugby. When we come up against the unfamiliar and we're asked to do something different, we frequently find it beyond us. The other reality about the Premiership is its overriding importance in the great scheme of things. For an English club, the avoidance of relegation is the single most essential aspect of the season. Only when that is sorted does European qualification and European performance command the attention."
Put simply, the English contingent look jealously on their rivals for two reasons. They covet the spending power of the French, who frequently name seven capped players on the replacements' bench, and they envy the cushy lives led by the Celtic teams - the Scottish districts, the Welsh regions and, in particular, the Irish provinces. In the Premiership, qualification for the Heineken Cup is earned over the course of 22 ultra-physical league games played between September and May. The Celts, on the other hand, have to perform spectacularly badly to miss the cut via their own 11-team league, which is as soft as putty by comparison. As Lawrence Dallaglio, the Wasps captain, once put it: "While we sweat blood to get into Europe, they don't sweat at all."
This widespread dissatisfaction with the lopsided playing field on which the tournament is run can be set alongside far deeper concerns about its commercial future. The competition is currently administered under the terms of the Paris Accord, negotiated after the English boycott of 1998-99. That agreement expires at the end of next season. Unless there is meaningful progress towards a fresh deal in the near future - a meeting is scheduled for 6 June - the chances of another walk-out led by the French, possibly with support from the Premiership clubs, will be significantly enhanced.
Not unreasonably, the independent clubs - as opposed to the union-financed Celtic teams with their centrally contracted players - want some explanation as to why the Heineken Cup, one of the great success stories of the professional era, carries less prize-money than the Powergen Cup, and why the Challenge Cup remains unsponsored. They believe European rugby, a stone-cold winner with an ever-growing public, generates only a fraction of the money it is worth, and is therefore being mismanaged. As a consequence, they want a stronger voice on the board.
"Essentially, we feel the people most capable of pushing these competitions hardest in the commercial sense are the participants themselves," said Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby and one of the few non-union delegates on the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd. "This is our lifeblood. It's not the lifeblood of the unions. Human nature dictates that the people with most at stake are the ones likeliest to drive the tournaments forward and maximise their potential. Yes, we believe there should be change of voting structure. The meeting next month will be critical. If we find ourselves well into next season without agreement, it would be a dereliction of my duty to the Premiership clubs if I didn't say: 'Look, we need to look at fundamental alternatives here'."
Fundamental alternatives? It sounds serious, and is. McCafferty is at pains to point out that a consensus may be possible; that those alternatives were not currently under discussion, in England at least. But the French, led by the National Ligue de Rugby chairman, Serge Blanco, are close to manning the barricades, and if the balloon goes up across the Channel, the English clubs will be in no hurry to side with ERC.
"We need to know where we stand," McCafferty said. "Are we really deriving full value from a Heineken Cup tournament that attracts more attention by the season? Are we doing all we can in respect of the Challenge Cup? We need to step up to the mark and start delivering. I've been open with the board. It is now up to the unions to tell us what it is they fear in our proposals. Contrary to what some people would have you believe, we don't want a bigger slice of the pie. What we want is as big a pie as possible."
All of which casts a darker shadow over England's relationship with the Heineken Cup than the mere failure of the best Premiership teams. Should Munster, the Irish province who have been chasing this title with ever-increasing passion since they reached the first of their six semi-finals in 2000, beat the heavily financed Basques of Biarritz in Cardiff today, those RFU backwoodsmen who felt threatened by the onset of the professional club game, and find it difficult to accept even now, will inevitably point to the Irish model and call for Twickenham to climb aboard the central contracts bandwagon. That in turn will lead to more bad feeling in rugby's body politic.
"Central contracts are a red herring," McCafferty said. "We don't relish the fact that we've failed to feature in the major European final for the last two years, but it doesn't mean to say the Premiership clubs will keep on failing. Central contracts suit the Irish because they have a four-team provincial structure. They really aren't relevant to rugby nations the size of England and France. And remember: the French play more games than us and have a longer season, yet still managed to deliver a Six Nations title this year and get a club to the Heineken final. They don't have central contracts. Neither do they want them." McCafferty may be right. The likes of Sale and Leicester may mature sufficiently to challenge for this title sooner rather than later. But they had better shift themselves. After next season, there is no guarantee they will get the chance.
Heineken Cup finals 1996-2005
* 1995-96 Toulouse (Fr) bt Cardiff (Wal) (aet) 21-18
* 1996-97 Brive (Fr) bt Leicester (Eng) 28-9
* 1997-98 Bath (Eng) bt Brive (Fr) 19-18
* 1998-99 Ulster (Ire) bt Colomiers (Fr) 21-6
* 1999-00 Northampton (Eng) bt Munster (Irl) 9-8
* 2000-01 Leicester (Eng) bt Stade Français (Fr) 34-30
* 2001-02 Leicester (Eng) bt Munster (Irl) 15-9
* 2002-03 Toulouse (Fr) bt Perpignan (Fr) 22-17
* 2003-04 Wasps (Eng) bt Toulouse (Fr) 27-20
* 2004-05 Toulouse (Fr) bt Stade Français (Fr) (aet) 18-12Reuse content