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Scottish clubs isolated by continental drift . . .

Tradition has long since established the Heineken Cup's final round of pool games as perhaps the most compelling weekend on the rugby calendar, but this year you suspect the tournament's title sponsors must feel a niggling sense of embarrassment about their association with a product that has apparently lost its fizz.

OFF AND RUNNING: Alex Dunbar escapes the attentions of an Exeter Chiefs player last weekend but Warriors have not managed a win against either of the other sides in their pool. Picture:  Scott Heavey/Getty Sport
OFF AND RUNNING: Alex Dunbar escapes the attentions of an Exeter Chiefs player last weekend but Warriors have not managed a win against either of the other sides in their pool. Picture: Scott Heavey/Getty Sport

There is still scope, of course, for a twist in the tail, but the fact that six of the quarter-finalists had already been determined by results over the first five rounds means that the European rugby landscape looks a great deal flatter this year than it has in seasons past.

Last weekend's games produced some pulsating rugby, but nothing that could accurately be described as a shock result. As a consequence, Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont Auvergne, Leicester Tigers, Ulster and Munster all took their places in the competition's knockout stages. Leinster's predictable win over Ospreys in Dublin last night added them to the quarter-final mix as well. If, as expected, Saracens beat Connacht at the Allianz Park today, then the set will be completed.

So no representatives from Italy, Wales or Scotland. And no surprise there either, for last season's tournament produced exactly the same scenario. So, too, did the 2010/11 season. When it comes to playing a big part in Europe, the Welsh, Scots and Italians have an enthusiasm for the concept that is matched only by Nigel Farage.

Economists might fret about a two-speed Europe, but the fault lines in rugby are much clearer. Since the turn of the century, France has produced 39 Heineken Cup quarter-finalists, England 32, Ireland 25, Wales 14, Scotland two and Italy none. Of course, exact comparisons are misleading as the participating countries have had an unequal number of representatives, but even a fag-packet mathematician could figure out that Ireland has been comfortably the most successful Heineken Cup nation over the past 14 seasons. France hold a respectable second place, with England in the bronze medal position.

But if you do not happen to have a fag packet to hand, then just consider this. Since Cardiff's loss to Toulouse in 1996 (the inaugural year, when teams from Scotland and England were not even involved) no team from outside the English/French/Irish troika has even reached the Heineken Cup final, far less won the thing.

In light of which it becomes easy to understand, if not fully support, the stance of the English and French clubs over the division of European revenues. It is understood that European competitions produced around €46m last year, half of which was divided among the four RaboDirect PRO12 countries, the other half being split between England and France. As most of that money comes from broadcasters, and as most of what television pays is a function of population, they clearly feel that they put a heck of a lot more into the pot than they ever take out.

Indeed, the credibility of the Celtic/Italian group rests almost entirely on the success of the Irish. While the Welsh sides still proclaim themselves to be the equals of the best in Europe - despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary - their income streams owe more to the achievements of their mates across the Irish Sea than anything else.

There is a whiff of desperation about the stated ambitions of the Welsh regional sides to throw in their lot with their English counterparts - whether in an expanded Aviva Premiership or as part of the Rugby Champions Cup - but they are always bound to be the junior partners in any such arrangement.

But who are we to gloat? As modest as the achievements of Welsh sides in Europe have been, they still outstrip that of their counterparts in Scotland by a considerable distance. It is worth recalling that one of the aims behind the creation of regionalised Scottish professional sides in the 1990s was that only they, as opposed to the country's long-established clubs, could challenge the best in Europe.

As the sum total of that challenge can measured by Edinburgh having reached the knockout stages just twice - in 2004 and 2012 - it has to be admitted that things have not quite worked out as planned.

It is also rather easy to contain one's excitement about the fact that both Glasgow and Edinburgh are still in with a chance of gaining a place in the last eight of the Amlin Cup. The second-tier competition is not without its merits, but it would be absurd to overstate its significance in the wider scheme of things. Were either side to earn that consolation slot in the Amlin they would be well advised not to hail it as a triumph. When Leinster did that last year- and won the thing - their supporters considered it a disaster.

Most rugby geeks can reel off the names of recent winners of the Heineken Cup. Only the smartest - or possibly the saddest - could do the same for the Amlin. This is not to pour scorn on the tournament, simply to place it in context. It would be a notable achievement for Glasgow to get the better of Toulon at Scotstoun this afternoon, or for Edinburgh to overturn Munster at Thomond Park tomorrow, but the two Scottish teams would probably take more from a decent finish to their PRO12 campaigns than an extended involvement in the Amlin.

Of course, neither will go out with that in mind. Nor can it be assumed that Toulon and Munster, both desperate to secure home advantage for their quarter-final ties, will be taking things easy either. Two thunderous European games lie in store for the Scottish teams this weekend.

But these matches with the Heineken Cup big boys mostly serve as reminders of the level the Scottish teams have yet to reach. As commendable as it would be for either team to have any further involvement in Europe this season, let's not forget they are only in the market for the consolation prizes.

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