English clubs struggle in the Champions Cup
IN THE SPOTLIGHT: If you’ve been watching the last five weekends of rugby, you could be forgiven for thinking someone changed the northern hemisphere’s premier club tournament from the European Champions Cup, to the Franco-Irish Champions Cup.
After four rounds of pool play, the French and Irish sides have dominated the competition, with the notable exception of Exeter Chiefs, as last season’s runners-up in the Premiership have won all four of their games so far and look a very strong bet to wrap up a home quarter-final come January.
Exeter currently boast the second seed, only surpassed by Leinster thanks to the Irish province’s slightly better points difference following their 93-37 aggregate back-to-back victories over Northampton Saints. Toulouse then sit third and Racing 92 fourth, with those four teams currently in line for home quarter-finals.
Ulster would be the final pool winner and they would be joined by Clermont, Munster and Gloucester in away trips during the knockout rounds, the latter of whom sneaks in on points difference ahead of Northampton and Glasgow Warriors.
There is still plenty of scope for all of that to change in the final two rounds. Clermont have yet to host Ulster and will fancy their chances of securing a more favourable seeding as pool winners, whilst domestically-challenged Saracens breathed fresh life into their title defence with a win over Munster on Saturday. They already have more points than current 8th seed Gloucester, though European Professional Club Rugby’s (EPCR) rules do not allow for a team in third in a pool to qualify as a best runner-up.
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In Anglo-Irish encounters this season, the Irish provinces have won six of eight games, whilst French clubs have beaten English opposition in six of the nine games they have taken part in so far. Given England boasts more clubs in the competition this year than any other nation, it’s not a particularly good look.
It’s not so much that other clubs outside of France and Ireland aren’t in the mix for qualification, as Saracens, Northampton and Gloucester could all yet push for that, it’s that they have, for the most part, looked significantly inferior to the French and Irish opposition they have come up against and/or simply do not look to have what it takes to challenge them in the business end of the competition.
The same troubles against the Irish and French also extend to the individual contingents put forth by Scotland, Wales and Italy, although with England boasting a seven-team representation, there is understandably more expected from them. With the Top 14 looking set to put three teams through to the knockouts from their group of six teams and Ireland in line to qualify at least two of their four sides, with a potential, even, for all four of their sides to advance, it makes the Gallagher Premiership’s return of one, or perhaps two, from seven, look very poor.
There are some valid excuses for the English clubs’ inconsistent showings this season.
Saracens’ salary cap scandal and docking of 35 league points in the Premiership has meant that they, as English rugby’s standard-bearer over the last five or so years, have prioritised domestic matters in their opening three European fixtures. The fact they are still in the mix for qualification tells you a lot about the strength of their squad, though the self-inflicted wound of Premiership punishment makes their desire to secure their place in that competition an understandable priority. You still wouldn’t rule them out from defending their European title, either.
Across the board, England internationals are on a stricter match count this season due to the recent Rugby World Cup. With Saracens eyeing domestic safety and other Premiership clubs keen to take advantage of the void at the top of the table, it seems as though a lot of England players are being rotated and tactically rested in European competition. Again, this is an unusual situation and perhaps one that is understandable. After all, the PRO14 clubs struggled incredibly in the 2015/16 season after the previous RWC, before bouncing back significantly over the past three campaigns.
For a long time, too, the spectre of relegation has been held up as a reason why English clubs can’t focus their attentions as keenly on the Champions Cup and why they cannot prepare for the tournament by resting players domestically and keeping them fresh. In the past, this was a poor excuse, as Champions Cup teams were very rarely in a position in the league to consider relegation a realistic threat, but times are beginning to change.
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The old order has been shaken up somewhat of late in the Premiership and the gap between the bottom half of the table and the teams outside of Saracens and Exeter at the top, has been closed significantly. This has made the Premiership a fascinating spectacle, as teams such as Leicester Tigers, Wasps and Bath get sucked into relegation battles that previously it would have been unthought of that they could be a part of. As the bottom half of the Premiership has closed in on the final two playoff berths and the Champions Cup qualification spots, due to a combination of more money to recruit players and diminishing fortunes of some traditionally strong sides, the competition has become more compelling, albeit tougher to survive in.
These factors all go a long way to explaining some of the more interesting team selections made so far in the Champions Cup, with Harlequins, Sale Sharks and Bath in particular, having all seemingly quickly lost interest in the competition and instead devoted their resources to the Premiership. Gloucester, too, have made some surprising selection calls of late and even as early as the second round trip to Montpellier, when they were coming off the back of a home defeat to Toulouse in their tournament opener.
Let’s not forget the role the English clubs had in bringing about major reform in European rugby, killing off the old Heineken Cup and replacing it with the, err, Champions Cup. It was a bold move that did not sit well with a number of fans, though there were understandable reasons why they pushed for it, the chief of which was distribution of funding. Under the old format, funding was divvied up a on a nation-by-nation basis, rather than on a club-by-club basis, which, given that England and France provided a larger amount of clubs to the competition, seemed a fair demand.
That said, if you’ve got teams from those two nations, with particular focus on England here, losing interest in the competition and rotating players as early as the second or third round of pool play, due to disappointing opening results, then it largely makes a mockery of that move to secure a larger proportion of funding. This is the premier competition in European club rugby and if you don’t treat it as such, the whole argument that they put forth for this current format and current funding distribution, is lessened.
The poor performances haven’t all been about tactical selections and other priorities, either, with one or two of the clubs simply looking out of their depth at this level. You can live with that, to a certain degree, as clubs will always progress or regress from season to season, as well as having to deal with injury issues, something which affects rugby more than most other sports. Being a competitive side one season is no guarantee you will be again the next campaign, particularly if there has been a lot of offseason player movement.
Quins would be a good example of this. They have not started the season in the same vein of form they finished the last one in and that is due to a complex mix of factors, and though it’s disappointing to see them quickly rest a number of key players in the competition once qualification looked unlikely, they just don’t have the squad yet to compete on two fronts at the highest level.
Given that Gloucester currently hold the 8th seed with only one win from four games, thanks to five bonus points and a remarkable points difference of just -2 despite those three losses, goes to show how disappointing it is that certain teams have seemingly given up on the competition so quickly. The whole point of cutting the tournament from 24 to 20 teams was to make the pool stage more competitive and hopefully create more opportunities for good teams to beat one another.
The final two rounds of pool play in January could yet change this perception of the English clubs. Northampton have now met their obligations against Leinster and have winnable games against Lyon and Benetton to come. They only currently miss out on the 8th seed by virtue of points difference and if they can chalk up two wins in January, they could well be in the quarter-finals.
Gloucester are also alive, though with a trip to Toulouse beckoning, it will be a challenge for the Cherry and Whites to keep hold of that 8th seed. There will be minor moments in the game against Toulouse and the trips to Connacht and Montpellier they will want back, including some selection decisions they may have made differently in retrospect, but in fairness to them, they have been competitive throughout. Three losing bonus points and two try bonus points accurately tell that story.
And then you have Saracens, with a dark cloud hanging over them that is as ominous for them as it is for the other teams about to face them. That pool is set up beautifully, with Racing in firm control right now, though Saracens and Munster will be going hammer and tongs to try and secure a best runners-up spot in January. If both sides can upset Racing, as well as hold serve in their games against the Ospreys, it’s not inconceivable Racing could miss out, though that looks like a long shot at this point in time.
Just as the PRO14 sides bounced back from their annus horribilis in 2015/16, so can the Premiership sides in January and/or next season. It’s never wise to put too much stock in a post-RWC campaign, but these concerns have been amplified this year due to a similar lack of interest from English clubs last season, which causes some worry that this is the beginning of a trend, rather than an anomaly.
We should all hope that it’s the latter and simply a result of a confluence of events in international and domestic rugby that is unlikely to ever be repeated again. It will be worth keeping an eye on going into next season and is hopefully a fear that can be then put to bed, whereupon attention can be turned to why English clubs, Saracens aside, are unable to be consistently competitive at the knockout stage of this tournament.
As for right now, Exeter have to solely bear the burden frequently shouldered by Saracens of being the Premiership’s posterboy among the European elite, a group which is dominated by potential French and Irish champions this year. If English fans can put aside their own affiliations, the Franco-Irish Champions Cup is shaping up nicely for some highly entertaining knockout rugby in 2020.
By Alex Shaw, Rugbypass