An exciting final round of European group fixtures reached a dramatic conclusion on Sunday with Exeter Chiefs beating the Ospreys at Sandy Park and qualifying for last eight of the Champions Cup on points difference. It’s a result that compounds the Swansea-based regions’ frankly awful run of seasons in the premier European competition. I’m really disappointed, because I felt the Ospreys had produced some eye-catching performances recently. They are Wales’ strongest regional team at present, and, irrespective of what league standings suggest, I believe they are the team most capable of winning some silverware this term. It would be foolish to believe they will not be in the running for Pro12 honours at the business end of the season. Given their pedigree on the domestic front, it’s difficult to see why they continuously come up short in Europe. For the sake of Welsh rugby, I hope to see an upturn in their fortunes soon.
Cardiff Blues posted a hefty score line in a one-sided affair against Calvisano that was ultimately in vain, as Montpelliar overcame Harlequins to qualify ahead of the Welsh capital outfit. I am increasingly pleased with Blues’ progress. They almost managed a remarkable comeback against Harlequins in round 5, and are showing real fight and resilience. A European exit will now allow efforts to be concentrated on climbing the league table. On recent form, I’d back Blues to finish the year in the top six, and see a much awaited return to the Champions Cup.
Speaking of the Pro12, it’s very disappointing to see that so few teams have made it from this league into the last eight of the European competitions. Indeed, the Champions Cup quarter-finalists are exclusively from the English and French leagues, with only Newport Gwent Dragons and Connacht representing the Celtic league in the second-tier competition. The signs are ominous. Is the gap widening between the Pro12 and the premier leagues from England and France? If so, is it all down to money? Or is there an intrinsic problem with the Pro12?
I must say, I am envious of the English of French leagues for one reason in particular – the threat of relegation. It’s so important to sport. It gives teams something to fight for. The Pro12, however admittedly entertaining, holds no such threat to its participants. The recent introduction of meritocratic qualification to the European competitions from within the Pro12 has definitely helped improve the standard of rugby and the intensity of the games. However, I would propose this idea should go a step further: only the top six teams should qualify for the Champions Cup. Just look at Treviso’s record in Europe this season – they’ve been hammered in every game, outrageously outclassed by every team in their group. Wouldn’t it actually be more productive for Treviso to be in the second-tier competition until they actually improve enough to compete with the heavyweights from England and France?
I wish the Dragons all the best for their quarter-final tie against Challenge Cup holders Gloucester.