Could Pro12 'Weakness' Lead To Celtic Strength?

07/10/2013 11:24 BST | Updated 04/12/2013 10:12 GMT

It's an oft-repeated claim from supporters of the English and French clubs looking to set up their new version of the Heineken Cup that the RaboDirect Pro12 is too weak.

What was once the Celtic League (before the addition of the Italian regions), the Pro12 is perceived as being a mere distraction for the top teams. The issue stems from the nature of the Heineken Cup qualification system and the demands - or lack of - that it places on the Irish, Italian, Scottish and Welsh clubs.

Under the current model (which Premiership Rugby and its French counterpart are keen to abolish), at least three Welsh and three Irish teams are given places in the Heineken Cup, as are two sides apiece from Italy and Scotland. As the latter two nations only have two teams (Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, Treviso and Zebre in Italy), they're automatically gifted a full complement in Europe's leading club competition.

What's more, the previous season's Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cup winners qualify for the 24-team Heineken Cup and earn an extra spot for their countries. That means the 23rd side in the 2013/14 tournament come from Ireland, thanks to Leinster's success in last season's Challenge Cup.

So what's the problem here?

The argument is that poorly performing teams from the Pro12 are unfairly qualifying for the Heineken Cup, at the expense of more capable outfits from the Top 14 and Aviva Premiership: for instance, Zebre lost every league match last season, yet still find themselves dining at European club rugby's top table.

An even greater bone of contention for the English and French brigade, however, is that the likes of Leinster, Munster and Ulster are able to regularly rest their best players, safe in the knowledge that they're practically guaranteed their Heineken Cup places. That means their biggest stars are fresh for the top European matches - a luxury not available to Premiership and Top 14 clubs.

There's almost certainly some truth in those claims. But far from hurting the future of Celtic rugby, this tendency to rest and rotate for Pro12 fixtures could be of major benefit, as it's giving more homegrown players a chance to shine.

Pro12 beats Premiership and Top 14 on home-qualified player numbers

Over the past three weekends of matches in Europe's three top leagues, the Pro12 has had by far and away the highest proportion of homegrown talent on display. With the likes of Munster's South African prop BJ Botha, Glasgow Warriors' Fijian scrum-half Nikola Matawalu and Ulster's Springbok half-back Ruan Pienaar unavailable for various reasons, the path has been cleared for home-qualified players to take centre stage.

Figures published by the Rugby Paper show Leinster fielded a staggering 94.2 per cent of homegrown players during their last three league games - the highest proportion of any club in the Premiership, Pro12 or Top 14. Munster came second on the list with 92.7 per cent of their match-day squad home-qualified, followed by Glasgow (91.3 per cent) and Ulster (88.4 per cent).

The only non-Celtic team to make the top five were Harlequins, who included an average of 86.9 per cent homegrown players in their first three match-day squads of the season. Four other Pro12 teams - Treviso (86.5 per cent), Newport-Gwent Dragons (85.5 per cent), Scarlets (85.5 per cent) and Ospreys (84.1 per cent) occupy places six to nine on the list, followed by Premiership outfit Wasps with 84 per cent.

Highlighting the problems facing French national coach Philippe Saint-Andre, just a solitary Top 14 side - Toulouse - managed to award three-quarters of spots in their match-day squads to homegrown players. Racing Metro (68.1 per cent), the second highest ranked Top 14 club on the list, still selected a lower proportion of home-qualified players than the worst performing Celtic side (Edinburgh, with 73.9 per cent).

An interesting trend - but what does it all mean?

These figures show Celtic clubs are giving more opportunities to homegrown stars than those from any other top European league. So while the Premiership and Top 14 are eager to draw attention to their fierce competitiveness, it could be the Irish, Scottish and Welsh national teams that come out on top in the long run.

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