Rugby - Heineken Cup action switches from boardroom to pitch

The Heineken Cup swings into action again this week with the on-field action sheepishly emerging as something of a sideshow as the rival national factions continue their public fight over the future of the competition.

Reuters

English and French clubs maintain they are absolutely committed to breaking away next season after repeatedly failing to extricate any concessions from the Celtic nations over a perceived qualification imbalance and how the money pot is shared.

The Irish clubs, who have done so much to lift Europe's Premier tournament to its current levels of quality and world-wide interest, and their Scottish and Welsh companions, seem just as determined to plough on regardless.

Both sides claim to have the support of various governing bodies and insist that the other is breaking this protocol or that TV contract.

Meanwhile, the International Rugby Board is trying desperately to tread a neutral line by saying they would prefer a pan-European competition, while recognising the right of member unions and the clubs to try to maximise their own revenues.

For fans who sat through similar wrangles and boycotts in the competition's early years, it is all depressingly familiar, so a break in the rhetoric that has dominated its five "official launches" in recent weeks is more than welcome.

Somewhat ironically, the opening first-round matches on Friday include Connacht, the "fourth" Irish province whose automatic qualification so irks the English and French, taking on Saracens, the London-based side at the forefront of the fight to recognise and reward the investment made in running clubs as a sustainable business.

Cynics, or Celts, might claim that the English clubs want to change the competition's format only because they have failed so spectacularly to win the thing in recent years. Wasps' success in 2007 is England's sole victory in the last nine seasons following a spell of five wins in seven years.

Ireland, through Munster and Leinster, have won five and France, via Toulouse and last year's champions Toulon, account for the other three winners since Rob Howley snatched that most dramatic triumph against Toulouse at Twickenham nine-and-a-half years ago.

Predicting the winners is never easy, particularly, as in stark contrast to soccer's Champions League, even identifying which eight teams will progress from the six-group pool stage is so difficult.

While it is true that last season's semi-finalists Saracens and four-times winners Toulouse should advance from Pool Three at the expense of Connacht and Italian makeweights Zebre, several other pools will feature some mighty head-to-heads.

French champions Castres, three-times Heineken Cup winners Leinster, 2011 runners-up Northampton and the Ospreys are together in Pool One, while Munster, Gloucester, Perpignan and Edinburgh face off in Pool Six.

Clermont Auvergne, edged by a point by Toulon in last year's Dublin final, start off with another all-French clash against Racing Metro, with Harlequins and the Scarlets completing the stiff Pool Four lineup.

There will not be much between Ulster, Leicester and Montpelier either, with Treviso set for a tough time in Pool Five.

Having won the title in their second season in the competition, Toulon are likely to be among the front-runners again and they should not be extended too much by Pool Two rivals Cardiff, Glasgow and Exeter.

"Winning the Heineken Cup has given us a new status and we would like to retain that," said coach Bernard Laporte. "I saw the trophy at the launch and the trophy said to me: 'The weather is beautiful in Toulon and the girls are beautiful and I don't want to leave'. That's what I am going to say to my players.

"We certainly want to win it again - because it is the Heineken Cup. It is the supreme competition."

In stark contrast to their sustained recent international success, Wales has failed miserably in the Heineken Cup, failing to win it and making the final only once, when Cardiff lost to Toulouse in the inaugural final in 1996 when the competition was boycotted by English and Scottish clubs.

There seems little chance of that changing this season, with several of the nation's top performers now earning their corn for rival French and English clubs, but at least the May 24 final will be in Cardiff.

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