With the excitement of the Heineken Cup reaching boiling point, it's a sad backdrop to think this competition is threatened with the English and French clubs wanting change.
Those clubs are challenging the rights of the Italian and Scottish teams that automatically qualify for the Heineken Cup and who get more money per team than the English and French teams who they maintain bring all the money to the competition. All of which makes 100% sense.
However, some of their suggestions for reform are too drastic, too unfair in the other direction, and are designed to losing some of the magic of the Heineken Cup.
And there are things about the Heineken Cup that make it the best competition in all of sport. There are few competitions that generate a huge amount of excitement with each match day One of the main reasons for this is the way nothing is decided about qualifying from pools until every game is played.
This comes about from two reasons; 1. The top placed winner plays the 8th seed in the quarters at the home of the top seed, and so on. This ensures that even if a team has qualified from their pool, that they still put out strong teams and keep going in every game. Personally, I think this is a great idea, and should be incorporated into other competitions, like the Rugby World Cup, and other sports, like the Champions League. Think how much more exciting it would be if the Champions League had the top teams playing their best team for 6 group games and not just 4 and 2 with reserves.
The second bit of magic about the Heineken Cup is the state of second place teams in the competition. Not having a number of pools to allow for just winners, or both winners and second place, means that more teams are watching every pool. Which means fans are more interested in all games, and not just games that concern their team. Having 6 pools, with 2 second place qualifying and 3 going to the Amlin, is great for both competitions.
In any re-structuring of the competition, I believe these are key components that need to be kept.
Therefore, the proposition of reducing the competition from 24 to 20 teams will mean it won't be 6 pools of 4 anymore. Putting one of those components at risk. It could be 4 pools of 5, which means all second place qualify, which is a disaster, or 5 pools of 4. This would mean, 3 second place teams qualify, and potentially the top 3rd team qualify for the Amlin, which might be a bit much, but isn't a disaster. It's not as good as 6 pools, so my preference would be to keep 24 teams.
Qualification as it happens now is as follows (from wikipedia) :
22 places are awarded by country, with each country deciding how to allocate their allotted places:
England: six teams (selected by performance in Aviva Premiership and Anglo-Welsh Cup)
France: six teams (selected by performance in Top 14 Championship)
Ireland: three teams (selected by performance in Pro 12)
Wales: three teams (selected by performance in Pro 12)
Scotland: two teams (selected by participation in Pro 12)
Italy: two teams (selected by participation in Pro 12)
Starting with the 2009–10 season, the remaining two places in the 24-team tournament for the following season are filled by the winners of the Heineken Cup and European Challenge Cup. If a trophy winner has already qualified for the Heineken Cup by virtue of its league position, that country will receive an extra Heineken Cup place (assuming that the country has an extra team that can take up a place; Scotland has only two top-level professional teams, as does Italy since the 2010–11 season). However, England and France are capped at seven Heineken Cup places each. If either country produces the winners of both European cups, the last place will be filled by the highest ERC-ranked club not of that nation to not have otherwise qualified. The latter rule also applies if one of Scotland's two Pro 12 teams wins a European trophy.
The problem with this is that is allows Pro 12 teams a free ride in, and means their proportion of money is heavily in their favour.
There is room for manoeuvre in this aspect. If the English and French teams got an extra team each, with potential for more, and the Pro12 got 7 teams total, with 1 from each country guaranteed and the rest from the highest place finish. Guaranteeing more of a competitive Pro 12, while still having teams from different countries, which is important.
This has 21 spots, with an extra two based on before with winners from the Heineken and Amlin Cups, and potentially pick the best team from outside these countries in an attempt to widen the rugby horizon. Which is what rugby is all about.