The second-tier Challenge Cup will “drift away” unless changes are made to European rugby’s knockout competitions, according to Ireland hooker Rory Best.
Ulster front-rower Best believes teams across Europe will not take the Challenge Cup seriously unless lifting the title guarantees qualification to the top-tier Champions Cup.
Best has called on European bosses to restore the system of teams failing to qualify for Champions Cup quarter-finals dropping into the second-tier knockout stages.
Ulster could yet finish second in pool three of the Champions Cup, but still find themselves dumped out of European competition altogether this term.
“There’s a real worry certainly from players I’ve talked to that the second-tier competition could drift away, and that the gap between the two tournaments becomes wider rather than it narrowing,” Ulster captain Best said.
“I think it’s wrong not to have teams dropping down from the Champions Cup to the second-tier competition for the knockout stages.
“And another glaring error in the revamp of the competitions is not to have included the winners of the Challenge Cup as an automatic qualifier for the next season’s Champions Cup.”
The new-look Champions Cup replaced the Heineken Cup this season following two years of continent-wide stand-offs over television revenue and qualification processes.
In the old set-up, second-tier Challenge Cup winners earned qualification for the top-tier tournament, but that berth has now been handed to the winners of a play-off system.
The seventh-placed finishers in the English and French leagues will compete with the eighth-placed Pro12 outfit for the final Champions Cup spot for next season.
Teams also no longer drop down from the Champions Cup into the Challenge Cup quarter-finals.
Grenoble boss Bernard Jackman labelled the new-look Challenge Cup “pointless” in December, backing up the general French decision not to prioritise the competition.
French clubs have won just 11 of 28 games in the second-string European tournament so far this term, with many fielding weakened line-ups to protect frontline players for league action.
The five pool winners and three best-placed runners will qualify for this term’s Champions Cup quarter-finals, so two sides finishing second in their pools will be out of European action altogether.
Ulster could finish second in a pool also comprising Leicester Tigers, the Scarlets and reigning European champions Toulon but find themselves out of the competition.
Neil Doak’s side face pivotal clashes at Toulon and in Belfast against Leicester to complete their pool schedule in the next fortnight.
Best believes whoever finishes second in pool three will have done enough to merit a quarter-final in at least one of Europe’s two club competitions.
“If you happen to finish second in a group containing the Scarlets, Leicester and Toulon, that’s still one heck of an achievement,” said Best.
“There probably won’t be a best runner-up to come out of our group because everyone will probably beat each other at home, bar obviously us already failing to beat Toulon.
“But to win all your home games, lose away games against top teams, finish second in that group and have no knockout rugby at all, I think that’s harsh.
“It would be harsh on whoever it could happen to in that group.”