27 March 2014

Qualification anomalies from the Pro 12 to the new Heineken Cup?

After much turmoil the Heineken Cup battle seems to have reached a resolution and the French and English Clubs can claim victory. It is difficult to argue with that as the LNR and PRL have achieved what they initially set out to do.

The European money will be split three ways between the French, English and the Pro 12 competitions. The new competition will involve a meritocracy for qualification. The Top 14 and Aviva Premiership each guaranteed six teams and a play-off for a 7th team from both leagues.

The Pro 12 will have seven representatives, which on the face of it seems quite fair. But that outcome is not as simple as it looks and will have the potential to cause difficulties for Pro 12 teams qualifying for Europe.

It is a difficulty the French and English Clubs are happy to allow the Pro 12 resolve for themselves as long as they deliver seven teams to the new Heineken twenty-team Tournament.

The difficulty for the Pro 12 is they have always argued that the integrity of a Pan-European Cup should have representatives from all the Tier 1 Rugby Nations in Europe. Under the current Heineken format even Italy are guaranteed two representatives in the tournament.

Under the new format to allow each country to have at least one representative in Europe they will need to ring fence at least one qualification spot for every country represented in the Pro 12.

The ramifications of that is that finishing in one of the top seven spots in the Pro 12 will not automatically guarantee qualification for the Heineken Cup. It is distinctly possible that even a team finishing 6th in the Pro 12 could miss out on European rugby.

Take a scenario where Ireland and Wales dominate the top seven qualifying positions for Europe at the end of the Pro 12. As a Scottish and Italian Side would have to be accommodated the teams placed 6th and 7th in the Pro 12 would not qualify for the Heineken.

That’s a pretty harsh outcome for a team that has had a good solid season in their domestic competition, particularly when you lose out to a team that hasn’t performed as well in the league.

There are currently five rounds remaining in this year’s Pro 12 Tournament, but if you looked at the top seven teams at this point the qualification anomaly would immediately exist.

Currently Connacht sit in 7th position, but there are no teams from Italy represented in the top seven European qualifying spots.

If qualification for Europe were determined at this moment Treviso, in 11th position, would jump past Cardiff, Dragons, Edinburgh and ultimately Connacht to take the final 7th qualifying spot for Europe.

Whatever about Cardiff, Dragons and Edinburgh, Connacht would have every right to feel a little peeved to be replaced in Europe by a team four places below them in the table.

At this moment the Italians are still mulling over the pros and cons of jumping into a new European competition due to the financial burden associated with competing. But should they decline the offer, and given their record in the Pro 12, it would just reduce the risk of the European qualification anomaly occurring almost every year. But even without the Italians the potential anomaly would always exist.

With the new competition structure already in the public domain, BT Sport and Sky reportedly close to a TV deal it would seem the die is cast.

And with it the anomaly of qualifying for the Heineken out of the Pro 12?