The last two weekends gave us some absorbing rugby in back-to-back Champions Cup matches. However, things are not quite going to plan for the Premiership teams – now two-thirds of the way through the group stages and Saracens are the only side that look like they will be competing for the grandest of prizes in European rugby.
The 2015-16 and 2016-17 winners have eased through so far; they sit on four wins from four, topping their group with 18 points having done the double on Cardiff Blues. Their 51-25 and 26-14 victories over the Welsh side mean they have so far scored an impressive 119 points, the third highest behind only Racing 92 and Leinster, with the second highest points difference – again behind only Leinster, although the Irish side and current champions have only won three of their four games.
Having one of the softer groups, with Glasgow Warriors, the Blues and Lyon, means they have not been tested too stringently, however they have still looked in imperious form and it is telling that they have been very unhappy with their performances, despite recording relatively comfortable wins. This latest victory extended their unbeaten run to 22 games in all competitions and you would have to put them in a bracket with last year’s winner and runner up, Leinster and Racing 92, as well as the impressive Toulouse, as the frontrunners for the title.
Outside of Saracens and there has been little to smile about for Premiership teams. Over the last two weekends we have had seven English sides in action in 12 games, and only four wins for the Premiership teams. Given two of those games were Gloucester versus Exeter Chiefs, so an English winner was inevitable, that leaves Saracens’ two victories over the Blues as the only wins over Pro14 or Top14 opposition.
Excluding those four games, the average margin of defeat was over 15 points. It is fair to say the Premiership sides look off the pace in Europe.
As it stands, Exeter, Gloucester and Newcastle Falcons are still in with a shot at progressing – although it would likely take two bonus point victories to make that possible, as well as a few other results going their way. Wasps, Bath and Leicester are dead and buried (although as I understand it there is still a small mathematical possibility of Tigers making it through).
If things play out as most expect, it would be the second year in a row that Premiership sides have only provided one quarter-finalist – Saracens (again) being the lone representative in the 2017-18 competition. Given the Premiership again have seven sides in the competition (thanks to qualification via the Challenge Cup), two from fourteen in two years is a pretty poor return by any measure.
So where has it gone wrong for the English sides? Does it go beyond them and to small differences in the refereeing and interpretation of the laws? Pro14 teams being able to rest their best players more regularly and target European matches?
To be fair, Bath and Leicester have both come into the competition in fairly abject form – hardly shining domestically in the Premiership and, despite their array of talent, never really looked like making the grade. Sunday’s game against Racing 92 was the eighth time this season Leicester have shipped more than four tries, Tigers head coach Geordan Murphy describing it as probably ‘the lowest ebb that I can remember in my history at the club’.
Newcastle have struggled too – although they seemed to be getting their season back on track after famous victories over Toulon and Montpellier earlier in the competition. That is what makes their double-loss to Edinburgh so disappointing, although injuries certainly played a part in that. Such was the crisis at tighthead, they were forced to go into the first game against Edinburgh without a specialist tighthead, having had three injuries in that position in the run up to the game and European Rugby denying them special dispensation to register another player.
Falcons director of rugby Dean Richards called the decision disappointing and labelled it a safety issue: ‘It is not like playing a left wing on the right wing.’ So maybe the Falcons deserve a little slack.
Wasps, Gloucester and, in particular, Exeter, have all been seriously underwhelming, however.
Wasps have perhaps flattered to deceive so far this season – and, although they sit reasonably comfortably in fourth place in the Premiership, you get the sense all is not quite right for the Coventry club. On field, and having swapped Danny Cipriani for Lima Sopoaga, the Kiwi is not yet performing with the same consistent class as the man he replaced. Added to the injury of star man Jimmy Gopperth and Wasps lack of synchronicity is understandable. What is more worrying is the rumour mill about a possible exodus at the end of season. Christian Wade has already raised eyebrows by departing just a couple of months in, to chase his dream of playing American Football, while supposedly three of their biggest stars in Willie Le Roux, Nathan Hughes and Elliot Daly look set to leave (for Japan club rugby, Bristol Bears and Saracens respectively). A certain amount of player churn is to be expected, and all will have their individual reasons, but the extent and calibre of players leaving suggests of a deeper malaise.
Gloucester are another who have blown a little hot and cold this season, and still have the feeling of a side coming together and finding its rhythm. For all the strides they have made with their game, perhaps this was a step too far.
Exeter have definitely been the biggest let down of all the English contingent. Although they picked up their first win of the competition on Friday, the Premiership heavyweights have rather disappointed. Something which is all the more frustratingly because of their good domestic form (just the one loss so far) and specific ambition to target Europe this season.
Their results by themselves have not been too bad – a draw against Munster and a narrow loss away to Castres are hardly epic disasters, but given the Chiefs recent success and ambition it is not enough. They progressed year-on-year in the Premiership, but in Europe they have stagnated.
Perhaps it is that their style just does not transpose into the European game as well as others – Exeter rely on stringing a large number of phases together in attack, utilising their hard runners and the power of attrition to tire the defence and create space. However, we have seen that referees are often more lenient at the breakdown in European matches and this allows teams to compete more aggressively at the contact area against Exeter, disrupting their flow and gameplan more effectively than Premiership opposition manage. Leinster did it to them last season, and Munster did it to them this year.
If Exeter are to progress in Europe – whether this year or next – they may need to tweak their approach. Given their Premiership success you would think it does not require a dramatic overhaul, but whatever the solution, they are not quite getting it right at the moment.
If Exeter truly want to be regarded as a heavyweight of English rugby in the same way as Saracens (despite their similar recent domestic success), then they need to target progress in Europe. That would be the icing on the remarkable cake that is Exeter Chiefs’ story.
By Henry Ker