Peter Jackson, ercrugby.com's columnist, takes a look at how the balance of English and French teams has shifted in the 15th Heineken Cup season
At this stage of the competition time last year, the French were getting it in the neck because only one of their clubs had made it to the last eight of the Heineken and then all too briefly. Toulouse having found Cardiff at the Millennium Stadium beyond them, the semi-finals went ahead without anyone from the richest club tournament in the game, Le Championnat.
By the time the last four identify themselves in mid-April, three of them could be French. The Ospreys will fancy their chances against Biarritz across the Spanish border in San Sebastian and Leinster will have home advantage against the multi-dimensional Clermont Auvergne but the potential is there for a Gallic monopoly strong enough to guarantee French presence on the pitch for the sell-out final in Paris on May 22.
But for Biarritz's late bonus try against Glasgow in the last pool round, Toulouse-Stade Francais would not have been the only all-French quarter-final. The Basque club's five-pointer raised them above Leinster to second in the seedings which meant Clermont being diverted to face the holders in Dublin instead of a collision with Biarritz whose erratic domestic form has pushed them a long way out of contention for a top-four finish.
France have never had so many clubs in the last eight since Toulouse, Perpignan, Stade Francais and Colomiers (remember them?) got that far eleven years ago. England, by contrast, have never had so few than since the same season when their clubs' feud with the Rugby Football Union spilled over into a boycott of Europe which left Bath in the preposterous
position of being unable to defend the trophy they had won the previous season.
This time, there can be no excuses, political or otherwise for the fact that of their seven starters, only one, Northampton, is still there and then by the skin of their teeth as the second of the two best runners-up. Leicester, unlucky enough to have been drawn alongside two potential Heineken champions in Clermont and the Ospreys, were ultimately undone by their inability to get anything from the Michelin Men in France and subsequent failure to prevent them prising a priceless losing bonus point from their trip to Welford Road seven days later.
Bath and Harlequins managed one win between them from twelve matches. That both had endured a damaging summer off the field, Bath over drug allegations, Quins over the fake blood capsule in last season's quarter-final against Leinster, has been trotted out in their defence but it hardly excuses the recurring failure of both.
The Londoners will not wish to be reminded that they finished up losing six out of six, a run matched only by Brive and Viadana. Gloucester at least found salvation, their winning finish ensuring a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup alongside Cardiff and the Scarlets whose response to being submerged by Leinster's veritable avalanche of tries makes theirs an outstanding recovery.
Apart from giving the secondary competition new prestige, the decision to reward the three best runners-up not to qualify for the main event a European alternative ensured that every match had real meaning until the last kick of the last pool competition.
Until this season, Guinness Premiership clubs had a record of consistent achievement in Europe second to none. Their collective failure, something which this column highlighted halfway through the pool competition, may be just a blip or it maybe a sign that the Premiership is no longer all it's cracked up to be. Where, then, have all the English
A season-by-season guide to their quarter-final qualifiers underlines a sharp decline in numbers.
2009-10: One (Northampton). Non-qualifiers: Leicester, London Irish,
Bath, Sale, Gloucester, Harlequins.
2008-9: Three (Leicester, Bath, Harlequins). Non-qualifiers: Sale, Wasps,
2007-8: Three (London Irish, Saracens, Gloucester).
Non-qualifiers:Leicester, Bristol, Wasps.
2006-7: Three (Wasps, Leicester, Northampton). Non-qualifiers:
Northampton, Gloucester, Sale, London Irish.
2005-6: Three (Leicester, Bath, Sale). Non-qualifiers: Sale, Leeds,
2004-5: Three (Northampton, Newcastle, Leicestere). Non-qualifiers: Bath,
2003-4: Two (Wasps, Gloucester). Non-qualifiers: Leicester, Northampton,
2002-3: Two (Northampton, Leicester). Non-qualifiers: Gloucester,
Bristol, London Irish, Sale.
2001-2: Two (Bath, Leicester). Non-qualifiers: Wasps, Harlequins,
2000-1: Two (Gloucester, Leicester). Non-qualifiers: Wasps, Saracens,
1999-0: Two (Northampton, Wasps). Non-qualifiers: Leicester, Bath,
2007-8: One (Leicester).
2006-7: Two (London Irish, Saracens).
2005-6: One (Bath).
2004-5: One (Leicester).
2003-4: One (Wasps).
2001-2: One (Leicester).
2000-1: Two (Leicester, Gloucester).
1999-0: One (Northampton).
1998-9: English boycott.
1997-8: One (Bath).
1996-7: One (Leicester).