English Rugby
Premiership Rugby chief calls for euro re-think
ESPNscrum Staff
January 22, 2012
Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby press briefing, Copthorne Hotel, Auckland, New Zealand, October 14, 2011
Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty believes the current Heinekne Cup qualification criteria is flawed © Getty Images
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Teams: England

Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty has suggested that a flawed qualification system is largely to blame for English rugby's failure to make a significant impression on this season's Heineken Cup.

England's leading clubs have struggled to keep pace with their European rivals in recent seasons with only one side - Premiership champions Saracens - likely to make the quarter-finals this term. The Premiership provided just one quarter-finalist two seasons ago in the shape of Northampton and the Saints, beaten finalists last year, were one of only two teams alongside Leicester to make the knock-out stages in that competition.

McCafferty believes that the Premiership's leading sides and their French Top 14 counterparts are treated unfairly by qualifying arrangements that he claims favour those teams competing in the RaboDirect PRO12. The Celtic-Italian league provides 10 teams for the Heineken Cup with the three highest placed sides from Ireland and Wales and the two sides from Scotland and Italy guaranteed qualification. Additional places are available depending on the destiny of the previous season's Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup.

McCafferty argues that the battle to claim one of the six automatic spots open to the 12-team Premiership and the Top 14 is a much tougher task - a point that he is set to put to tournament organisers European Rugby Cup Ltd.

"At the moment pretty much everyone in the PRO12 knows they've qualified for next year's Heineken, whereas French and English sides are still fighting tooth and nail and will be doing so in the middle of the Heineken Cup next season to ensure qualification for the season after," he told the Sunday Telegraph. "Make it more meritocratic and everyone will have to take their leagues seriously."

McCafferty went on to explain how he believes the process should work. "Our view is that Heineken Cup qualification should be based on league form," he said. "There are three of those - the Aviva Premiership, the Top 14 Orange in France and the Pro 12 - and you should take the qualifying teams from the best sides in those leagues. Then it's a completely meritocratic system."

This season the 24 teams in the six Heineken Cup pools are made up of 11 from the PRO12, six from the Top 14 and seven from the Premiership. McCafferty believes it should be eight across the board.

"We've put that proposal on the table but we know there will be a huge amount of resistance to it because it means countries in the PRO12, a league which currently has 10 places allocated to it, might go down to eight. There will be concerns that it could lead to one or two countries not being represented in the Heineken Cup. But the price you pay for that inclusivity is not necessarily having the best against the best."

McCafferty also highlighted what he sees as the Irish sides' ability to prioritise the Heineken Cup over domestic matters. "The real change over the past four or five years," McCafferty added, "is that the Irish sides have become more successful in Europe because of the priority they have put on it.

"After round four of this season's tournament I looked at the starting line-ups of Ulster, Leinster and Munster [all through to the quarter-finals] and only four of the 45 starters in the Heineken Cup were retained for their PRO12 league games the next weekend. Take a model where the top eight clubs qualify from each league and they wouldn't be able to take as many risks. That's the issue our clubs have.

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