Rugby: John Houston warns against tourney revamp

Richie Rees and John Houston

Richie Rees and John Houston

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Heineken European Cup hero John Houston has urged organisers to stand their ground in the face of English and French calls to change the format of the world’s premier club rugby competition.

As officials were preparing to make a 2012-13 Euro draw which paired Edinburgh with Munster, Saracens and Racing Metro, 29-year-old centre Houston, who played in the victory over London Irish last season which clinched Edinburgh’s qualification from the group stage, hit back at arguments suggesting the Rabo Direct Pro 12 should be limited to six places, a situation which could put Scottish participation hopes in the balance.

The current agreement expires in 2014 and notice has been served by the English and French that they are seeking alterations to the status quo based on 20 teams instead of 24 – six from their Premierships and the Rabo Direct, plus winners of the Heineken Cup and second tier Amlin Trophy.

They argue that while half of the Aviva Premiership sides, and fewer than 50 per cent of those in France’s Top 14, are guaranteed to qualify for the tournament, up to 91 per cent of those in the RaboDirect Pro 12 are. But Houston, whose 82 appearances for Edinburgh include 20 in the Heineken Cup, insisted: “Having as many different nations competing as possible helps to grow the brand. I don’t know what qualification would be in any alternative proposal. But it is a huge thing for Scottish Rugby to have two teams in the Heineken Cup every year.”

The message from A cap Houston is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and as well as noting how Edinburgh had set a British crowd record with 38,000 attending the quarter-final victory over Toulouse at Murrayfield in April he sees scope for expanding the current format.

“A Heineken Cup winner versus a Super 15 winner would be good to watch. I guess it would be hard to fit in the way the seasons work, but what if one of the teams was from the previous year?”

Mention of Toulouse recalled a try scored by Houston against the four times winners at Murrayfield in 2007-08 just before he began to be hampered by a knee injury which restricted progress for a spell.

Now, thanks to surgery, the one-time Heriot’s and Hawick ace is restored to full fitness and says: “I’m fit and really looking forward to getting a full pre-season’s training under my belt. I’m aiming to hit the ground running rather than play catch up, fitness-wise. My knee began to cause problems just after representing Scotland in sevens at Murrayfield a couple of years ago and it turned out that the fat pad which sits under the knee cap was damaged through wear and tear. The only previous rugby player at Murrayfield who’d had the injury was Martin Leslie (ex-Scotland) but I took a bit longer to heal than hoped.

“I kept banging the knee causing a swelling due to meshed fibres. Every time I moved I was pulling against it.”

As well as preparing for a campaign which could see him go on to take total Edinburgh appearances to over 100, the ‘A’ internationalist, who has two years left to run on his present contract, has been spending part of the summer contributing to the Olympic movement.

It is lesser known fact that the Olympics also contain an artistic element and construction project management student Houston – he also holds a sports science degree – has been assisting his brother’s timber construction company as they build a full size football pitch, visible only from the air, in a Borders forest.

The work of art is the brainchild of Edinburgh artist Craig Coulthard and Houston says: “Trees have been felled to make space for the pitch and they are to be used to create goalposts, a shelter and other parts of the site infrastructure.

“The Olympic torch is visiting the pitch tomorrow. The pitch will be used for two games and then trees will be planted on the halfway line. Another project has been the construction of 25 picnic benches for the McLaren Formula One headquarters in Woking.”

Now back in rugby training, Houston, who was speaking as he waved off a convoy of 70 taxis on the annual children’s outing which left from Murrayfield, left no doubt where his priorities lie. “We have two pre-season games against Newcastle and Northampton ahead after which it is about trying to make up for letting a few people down last year in the league.

“It was tough in a World Cup year with so many players away but the upside of that is the number of good youngsters who have come through.

“As for Europe, we have set a high benchmark and having had a season’s highlight by playing in the London Irish match I’m obviously keen for as much involvement as possible in aiming to at least maintain our standards as a club.”