CHARLIE Little has spoken out against the current set-up of the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups, throwing his support behind Premiership Rugby’s plans for an overhaul of the competitions.
The Warriors managing director believes the existing structure, which each year sees Worcester trouncing a couple of European minnows in the ACC group stages to set up a winner-takes-all clash with one of the French sides, is flawed — both in terms of qualification and funding.
It is unfair, Little says, the vast majority of teams playing in the Rabo Direct Pro 12 automatically qualify for the Heineken Cup, whereas the English and French clubs — the two most commercially important unions — have to reach the top-six of their domestic leagues to earn their spot.
Failure to hit the top-half leaves clubs lumped in with various sides from rugby outposts across the continent and Little feels there should be a third tier competition to allow the emerging nations to improve.
He advocates a system that would see the top-six teams from the Aviva Premiership, French Top 14 and, crucially, the Rabo Direct Pro 12, all qualifying for the Heineken Cup, alongside the previous year’s winner and runner-up to make 20 teams.
That would leave the remaining 18 sides from those three competitions, plus two of the top-ranked sides from tier three, to battle it out in a much more competitive Amlin Challenge Cup.
Little explained: “The Heineken Cup is Europe’s premium rugby product, so surely you want the best teams in the competition?
“You don’t want to have a team that has only been in existence for a couple of months having automatic entry.
“So, where we are at the moment is that if you are in the Rabo Direct you get automatic qualification for the Heineken Cup — that means teams are resting players for their domestic games to keep them fit and fresh for Europe. How many games has Brian O’Driscoll played for Leinster in the Rabo Direct compared to the Heineken Cup, for example?
“Meanwhile, the English and French sides are having to play in a competitive tournament one week, then go into the Heineken Cup the next — there are a number of different reasons that makes it an unfair competition.
“We feel you shouldn’t be guaranteed a spot, you should earn it, so we could say ‘these are Europe’s very best teams’.
“Playing sides such as Gernika in the pool stages means the ACC has no real merit to it. Past the pool stages, it becomes more exciting with teams entering from the Heineken Cup, but there should be a tiered structure so sides can develop at level three and possibly progress over time into tier two.”
In terms of how the finance is distributed across the competitions, Little says England and France are not on a level playing field with the Celtic sides.
He explained: “At the moment, the English and the French put 12 and 14 clubs respectively into the European competitions and the broadcasting and spectator levels are heavily behind them too.
“However, the financial distribution means the English and French only get 24 per cent each, but the Rabo Direct league gets 52 per cent.
“We put in the same amount of clubs, but get less than half the revenue than the Rabo Direct. That doesn’t seem quite right from a financial point of view.”
He added: “The new Premiership Rugby proposal sees the money split a third, a third, a third between the three competitions.
“The BT Vision deal means the money can be split fairly, but not to the detriment of the Celtic clubs and unions — they will still get more money through the deal Premiership Rugby have negotiated with BT Vision than they would under the current deal with the ERC and BSkyB.”