Survival Of The Weakest?

I sympathise with English and French clubs who recently fired a warning volley against the qualification system of the Heineken Cup. They see a side like Edinburgh who, safe in the knowledge that they would be back next year for another crack, allowed their focus to shift on to their Heineken Cup run, safe in the knowledge that their league position was irrelevant to the qualification for next year’s competition.

This is not about perceived “big clubs” not wanting perceived “small clubs” – or, to be more precise, regions/franchises – to be involved. It is no longer enough to say, “Well, we’ve got a small budget and you’ve got a large one so we should be let in every year”. This is especially pertinent now one of these “small” clubs have shown that they can compete.

The current set-up has served a purpose. It guaranteed that smaller countries with smaller budgets and therefore weaker teams were not left behind. It gave teams like Edinburgh and Glasgow the opportunity to establish themselves, to get them up to a certain standard and to give them experience year in, year out against the big boys without the crippling uncertainty of whether they’d be around next year. It also allowed a fledgling competition to establish itself as truly Europe-wide and inclusive, guaranteeing all the variety, colour, pageantry that we expect from the Heineken Cup.

The variety and diversity of the Heineken Cup is crucial to the success of the competition, something that a wholly merit-based qualification system would endanger. The competition must include at least one team from each major country.

The compromise is to introduce a watered-down version of a merit based system, one aligned with countries. For Scotland, this would mean forcing the Scottish clubs to compete against each other for one place. This way the breadth of the competition is maintained – Scotland will be represented – and that necessary extra domestic demand will be placed on each club. This, to me, feels like a fair compromise between the status quo and a ruthless, wholly merit-based system.

This system, albeit in the slightly different atmosphere of a multi-national league, is broadly similar to the English and French systems where approximately the top 50% of clubs play in the Heineken and the other in the Challenge Cup.

Like stabilisers on a bike, the status quo gave stability when clubs like Edinburgh and Glasgow were unstable.

Now that Edinburgh have shown that they can compete with the best in Europe, the status quo is no longer fair. They no longer need nor deserve the automatic entry denied to other clubs. This is the time for them to push on and, more importantly, to be pushed.

Each Scottish team has proven this year that it can compete on one front. Now is the time that they are asked and expected to perform on two, if only against each other. It’s time for the stabilisers to come off.

Having captained both Edinburgh and Scotland at age-grade level, Fraser spent 10 months in Paris with Racing Metro 92. He is now at Exeter University.

2 comments on “Survival Of The Weakest?

  1. Donald Peddie on

    I’m sure English and French management will be happy with a system that guarantees English and French representation while letting the smaller nations fight it out for a share of the top level competition. Their wealth will no doubt ensure they succeed.

  2. Alan Macdonald on

    With respect, I believe that there is a lack of imagination being shown by the commentators on this matter, that memories are too short and that it is imperative that we stand up for ourselves and keep our two automatic places for a few years yet.
    In regard to memory, we should remind all what happened to the Borders when it failed to perform in the Celtic league. It did not suffer the fate that would have befallen an English or French club of relegation. No, it ceased to exist, a fate a thousand times worse. The same sword of Damocles hangs over our remaining sides and anyone who believes otherwise is deluding themselves, and it is time someone made this clear to the English and French clubs. Alternatively, ask about Aironi.
    Regarding lack of imagination, rather than take away automatic places from Smaller rugby nations why not create more places in the cup? Adding one more group would create 4 new places without changing the fundamental structure of the cup: the winner from each group and the best runner up would go through to the quarters. English and French representation could be increased from 6 to 8 clubs each, which is probably fairer representation. We then just remind all that how each nation apportion its allocated places is a domestic matter that is no one else’s business. Two places for Scotland is certainly not greedy and it is outrageous for anyone outside our borders to tell us how we allowing allocate them.
    Finally, we should fight for our two automatic places for a few years yet because it will take a while for the new investment in our product sides to bear fruit. Just look at the expectations down south for London Welsh. They are in a similar position to our products sides in that they have recruited a glut of new players but are expected to finish bottom of the English Premiership. It is understood that such expansion takes time to be productive. Why should it be different for us?

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