THE Pro12 isn't getting the credit it deserves, according to Leinster and Ireland star Jamie Heaslip.
Heineken Cup form suggests that the Pro12 is the most competitive league in Europe, with five of the eight quarter-finalists playing their domestic rugby in the Celtic league.
The Top 14 (two) and the English Premiership (one) take up the remaining spots in the last eight.
"People who don't respect the teams in it -- as we have seen -- have been punished," Heaslip said.
"One of the pundits commented after (the Edinburgh-London Irish game) that they were a little bit surprised that Edinburgh had come through and topped their group.
"It is a little bit disrespectful of teams to have that attitude. From the get-go they are not given the kudos they deserve. Edinburgh have beaten us a few times.
"They are a bloody good side that play a really expansive game and have some really good players.
"Same with a lot of these teams. Glasgow were in our group and they are a tough team to go up against, so if people want to write them off then write them off, but it speaks volumes that five of the eight teams left are Pro12 teams. I think there's only one English team."
Despite the drama European rugby has provided in recent weeks, Heaslip insisted that international rugby remains the pinnacle of any player's career as he prepared to gather with the rest of the Irish squad in Limerick last night.
"International rugby -- you can't beat it," he said. "But European Cup rugby is getting closer and closer.
"I remember playing against Leicester and Toulouse last year in the quarter-finals and semi-finals and you might as well have been playing an international. The gap is getting smaller and smaller, the quality is getting better.
"I've heard guys saying there's not much of a difference anymore and it's true. It's filtering down as well into the Pro12 with the standard. Everything has a knock-on effect.
"But the one thing that you do notice is that in international rugby mistakes get punished way more easily than club rugby."
Elsewhere, the ERC have announced that over 35,000 tickets have already been sold for the Heineken Cup final in Twickenham on May 19.
Matt Banahan and Delon Armitage feature in the England Saxons' 25-man training squad named for Saturday's clash with Irish Wolfhounds in Exeter.
Winger Banahan and full-back Armitage both played in last year's World Cup, but must be content with a place among the second string, along with winger Ugo Monye and back-rower Thomas Waldrom.
squad in factfile