Heineken Cup kicks off as money squabbles cast doubt over its future
THE depressing reality of the 2012-13 Heineken Cup is that whatever happens on the pitch will be overshadowed by the acrimony that threatens the very existence of the tournament.
In a row so typical of a sport relentlessly stalked by political in-fighting, the stakeholders in Europe's greatest rugby competition are at loggerheads over structural reform and money.
The format that has captivated supporters across the continent since its inception in 1995 will continue until the end of next season when the existing accord expires.
Beyond that, England's clubs are demanding an end to a qualification process that undoubtedly aids Celtic and Italian teams from the RaboDirect Pro12 in favour of a three-tier system.
Under their proposal, six sides each from the English Premiership, French Top 14 and Celtic league will battle it out among Europe's elite.
Muddying the waters is their new £152million television deal agreed with BT Vision that is designed to entice rival stakeholders away from European Rugby Cup, who run the Heineken Cup, and their broadcast partners Sky.
The RaboDirect teams object, seeking to preserve a status quo that guarantees the inclusion of even the weakest among them barring the odd exception.
Both factions - and it is uncertain just how closely aligned the English and French really are - hold valid arguments.
The Celts are gifted passage into the Heineken Cup and are able to prioritise Europe in a way their rivals could only dream of, giving them an unfair advantage.
Leinster and Munster have been winners of the tournament in five of the last seven editions, a monopoly broken up only by Wasps and Toulouse, and are enormous draws.
In its current guise, the Heineken Cup is truly representative of European club rugby, even if it is not necessarily composed of the continent's finest 24 teams.
England have threatened to form a breakaway competition and to this end have been in discussions with South Africa's provinces, though the appetite for such a competition is surely minimal.
A resolution to the dispute will be agreed by Christmas at the earliest, and could continue well beyond that with summer 2014 the deadline.
Players and coaches will publicly dismiss the row as merely background noise, but the reality is that it will prove a frustrating distraction throughout the season.
Six months ago the demise of the Heineken Cup, a competition of high intensity played out in colourful arenas full of partisan fans, would have been unthinkable.
Now supporters will be compelled to enjoy the event like never before, knowing it could be nearing its end.
On the pitch the key question mark of 2012-13 will hang over Leinster's ability to become the first team to clinch three successive titles. Only Leicester - in 2001 and 2002 - had previously mounted a successful defence of their crown.
Such an achievement would identify them as the greatest side in Heineken Cup history and put them level with Toulouse as four-time winners.
The performance of England's clubs will be heavily scrutinised as they seek to supply a first winner since Wasps in 2007.
Leicester and Northampton were finalists in 2009 and 2011, but visits to the knockout stages have now become a rarity rather than a certainty for the Premiership's top clubs, who are hamstrung by a salary cap and attritional domestic league.
The French have fared little better - although champions Toulouse and Biarritz contested the 2010 showpiece - fuelling their drive for reform.
Last season Edinburgh became Scotland's first representative in the semi-finals, giving their nation's aspirations a timely shot in the arm.
The conundrum of why the talent-packed Welsh regions continue to fail year after year remains unsolved, a situation unlikely to change this season.
Equally doubtful is whether Treviso and Zebre can prove Italian sides can become more than easy meat for Europe's heavyweights.
As ever in the Heineken Cup, fascinating talking points and questions abound but this time there may well be only two seasons left to find answers.