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.