The English and French clubs have long been irked by the relative ease of qualification for the Heineken Cup from the Pro12 (formerly Celtic League and Magners League). This has been to the fore particularly given the success of the Irish provinces in the Heineken Cup, winning 5 out of the last 8 titles. The source of the English and French gripe is that Irish and Welsh provinces can rest players in their 'domestic' competitions as qualification for the following season is generally easier, while they have to keep their best players on the field longer and more often to ensure they finish high enough in their own leagues to qualify for the big money tournament.
This holds up in a (not quite scientific) review of some player appearances in last year's tournaments. Taking a look at three clubs vying for honours domestically and in Europe from each league, there is a clear disparity in how they used a critical resource at flyhalf. Jonny Wilkinson appeared in 24 of Toulon's 28 Top 14 matches (86%) (including play-offs) and all 9 of their Heineken Cup matches on their way to lifting the trophy. Nick Evans played in 20 of Harlequin's 23 Aviva Premiership matches (87%) and 6 of their 7 Heineken Cup matches. Ronan O'Gara played in 50% of Munster's 22 Pro12 games but was available for 6 out of 8 (75%) of Heineken Cup games.
Of course Ronan O'Gara is the only one of those players who would have been called up to international duty, though he appeared rarely for Ireland last season and would have been available to Munster for games between Ireland matches.
There is also a tension between what is good for the clubs and what is good for the league and the respective power of these will shape the outcome. A more competitive Pro12 with the best players in action is likely to boost interest and attendances. There are also likely to fewer 'dead rubbers' or inconsequential games when clubs are fighting for qualification that is available to only half of them. On the other hand, the clubs will not want to reduce the chance of playing in Europe.
This is likely to drag on and may not be resolved before the end of the current Pro12 season. This means the only way clubs can be sure of qualification is to get into the top 6. Cue a very interesting and more competitive season, on and off the pitch.