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The rugby season certainly went out with some fire about it. The Premiership final crackled and spat as Leicester, in their 9th consecutive appearance at Twickenham, predictably ground down Northampton after Saints played the second half a man short.

Dylan Hartley’s punishment for his thoughtness and two ill chosen words is an 11 week suspension and his place on the Lions tour to Australia. Frankly, despite Northampton Director of Rugby Jim Mallender backing Hartley’s argument that the comment was aimed at the Leicester front row – and you would expect him to support his player publicly – Hartley can have no complaints. It’s the same for any broadcaster who swears. The consequences are inevitable.

Plaudits should also go to referee Wayne Barnes for standing firm and issuing the card. Rarely in other sports do we hear the exchanges between players and officials, but it’s a reasonable deduction that it doesn’t happen because the language is, let’s say, peristently industrial.

Barnes, who is 34, has not been free from controversy in a refereeing career which started early but you’re not invited to officiate at two World Cups, at a Heineken Cup final and at the last five Premiership finals unless you have the full respect of your peers. He’s also a qualified barrister. I would love to see other sports introduce live microphones for officials because it would show the stupidity of outbursts like Hartley’s for what they are. However, given the likely response from players’ unions, don’t hold your breath.

Ultimately, despite their defeat, Northampton knew they had hit base camp for the season and qualified for next autumn’s Heineken Cup. Their record in Europe is decent, but whether it will be of any value in a year’s time is open to doubt, as is the competition structure. At the moment there are more questions than answers.

While teams from England and France have to qualify through their domestic league, all the teams from the Pro12 – which covers the celtic nations and Italy – are virtually assured of a direct entry into the competition. The situation is compounded by the seeding system, which covers the European record of each team over the past four seasons.

It’s hardly a wonder that three of the top six sides are Irish, seeing as Leinster, Ulster and Munster have no league pressure. As a result Leicester are only a second tier seed next season, and Gloucester and Exeter are among the “minnows” in the bottom tier, along with Italian teams Benneton Treviso and Zebre, a club that lost 22 out of 22 league games in the campaign which has just finished.

Under these rules, it looks very difficult for the two west country teams to qualify for the quarter finals from a pool stage draw which could come out something like this :

Pool 1 – Leinster. Perpignan, Scarlets, Exeter
Pool 2 – Toulon, Northampton, Ospreys, Racing Metro
Pool 3 – Toulouse, Harlequins, Connacht, Zebre
Pool 4 – Clermont Auvergne, Cardiff, Glasgow, Gloucester
Pool 5 – Munster, Saracens, Montpellier, Benneton Treviso
Pool 6 – Ulster, Leicester, Edinburgh, Castres

Thankfully, this system expires in 2014. Among the proposals on the table are a reduction of teams from 24 to 20, and qualification to be by league positions only from the previous season, with six guaranteed places for England and France, and six places from the Pro12, no matter which nation they come from.

Ideas for the remaining two are still being bounced around. There is also an ongoing debate over the television rights.
One way and another, there is a lot to sort out.

Photograph : Copyright http://www.zimbio.com

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