Stuttering on the European stage: Why have Premiership sides underwhelmed?

Rob Baxter

The final group standings have been confirmed for this season’s European Champions Cup and they have only darkened the cloud that hangs over English rugby. As was the case last year, Saracens are the sole Premiership representatives in the knockout phase of Europe’s elite competition, where they are joined by a hat-trick of Irish provinces, and two each from France and Scotland. What, then, underlies this English failure on the international battleground?

Some have suggested that there is a bruising competitiveness in Premiership that leaves players fatigued once Europe rolls around. Supporting evidence for this can be found in the fact that France’s notoriously-abrasive Top 14 has produced only a marginally-better result in Toulouse and Racing qualifying for the next round.

However, this does a huge disservice to the Pro14. Apart from table-toppers Leinster and the stragglers of Dragons, Zebre, and Southern Kings, the league is compact and hotly-contested. Moreover, recent years have seen many Celtic stars return from stints abroad; Johnny Sexton, Dan Lydiate, and Ross Moriarty are but a few of numerous travellers who have made their way home of late. The class that such names add invariably increases the demands of the league.

The threat of relegation is another explanation that has been proposed for the deficiency of Premiership clubs in Europe. This certainly impacted Newcastle Falcons’ performance, as they slipped away after making a stirring start in Pool 5. Their focus was understandably placed on their perilous position at the foot of the league table. For the rest, though, the same cannot be said. Exeter Chiefs, Gloucester, and Wasps all stand well-clear of the trapdoor, whilst Bath and Leicester Tigers have sufficient quality to keep their heads above water.

What reasons are left for this collective collapse? I believe the density of international players within some Pro14 squads sheds light on the issue. Cast your eye over this week’s Six Nations squad announcements and it becomes clear that Scotland and Ireland players predominantly come from a handful of sides. Comparatively, England’s are lightly-distributed across numerous clubs. Twenty-seven of those selected by Joe Schmidt are contracted to Munster or Leinster, with his counterpart Gregor Townsend assembling thirty Scotsmen currently plying their trade at Edinburgh or Glasgow Warriors.

This clearly demonstrates that all four are teeming with talent. Nevertheless, so are most Premiership and Top 14 sides, given their greater financial capabilities. However, the Scots and Irish will be accustomed to playing with each under the increased demand of international rugby. With the demands of European competition above those of domestic action, familiarity at superior levels is significant.

A couple of anomalies may be spotted here. Firstly, Ulster progress whilst providing only six of Ireland’s players this time around. Yet, this ignores other factors at play, such as the ominous power of Ravenhill, as well as countless other intangibles. This point about the role of lesser factors also solves the second anomaly, which is that the Scarlets flopped despite possessing twelve of the Welsh squad members.

My argument regarding the effect of familiarity at the highest-levels is a general one. Exceptions to the rule – like Scarlets and Ulster – are always likely. Of course, feel free to disagree with me and provide your own explanation.

By Ed Alexander

15 thoughts on “Stuttering on the European stage: Why have Premiership sides underwhelmed?

  1. I think that looking at the Premiership table this year supports your hypothesis. If you consider the Premiership this season, Exeter and Saracens are so far away from the rest of the competition: all the other 10 sides are fairly evenly matched. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see any of those 10 sides struggle in the Champions cup but thrive if they’re in the Challenge cup (note that all English teams qualified in the challenge cup).

    I think that this is such a random year in the Premiership, where the third best side in the league has a 50% win rate, that it shouldn’t be a worry to see all of those mid table sides getting knocked out of the Champions cup. In my opinion, the only surprise is that Exeter didn’t qualify, but that’s one anomaly caused by a bit of bad luck in their home game against Munster and one really poor performance against Gloucester: it happens.

  2. Ed – I think I both agree and disagree with the proposed theory here.
    I definitely agree that the number of internationals playing in a team can make a huge difference, as the current Scottish and Irish teams show – they are obviously benefiting from the added coaching value from Townsend and Schmidt, and this adds a very useful extension onto the club’s coaching and game. They can bring a very high level of play to the European pitch.

    I disagree not because it’s wrong, but because I don’t think it is the complete picture. A negative to a huge number of internationals in a squad is it can keep developing and emerging talent suppressed, leading to deep problems with strength-in-depth – which still affects the Scots to a degree, and used to be a hallmark of Irish sides too. Still, you could argue that, if you are able to keep your best players fresh for the European games, then there should be few worries here.
    The reason I disagree is because the Irish teams in particular DO have strength in depth, contrary to what you would expect to see from a squad with loads of internationals in it (Leinster vs Toulouse in Round 5, for example). Obviously this comes from good squad rotation. I am NOT going to argue that this is because the Pro14 isn’t a competitive enough league (that old chestnut). Instead, I am going to point to the IRFU, their central contracts, and their control over those players. It is not that the Irish clubs feel they can risk developing players without the threat of relegation, it is the fact that they have NO CHOICE but to do so; if the IRFU says a player like Sexton on Murray must be rested for a weekend or two in preparation for Europe or International Tests, the club HAS to comply. At which point, not only are they forced to blood other players, they also would be mad not to give them more game-time, as they may have to rely on them in crunch games.

    What I am getting at is: central contracts (and also the limits on foreign stars – whole different debate there but still relevant here) force the clubs to look to their own academies and develop home talent. This in turn means more confidence in player rotation, both IRFU-enforced and otherwise. This means better-rested players not suffering from burn-out (Ireland didn’t suffer a Lions hang-over last time out), fresher players for the crunch games, and comparatively far more players to choose from in case of injury, both at national and international level. In essence, I feel that the answer to why Ireland is doing so well at present is because of the control of the IRFU over players, and the enforced rotation that brings (and yes, it does help that Schmidt both endorses and drives this policy). And because the RFU doesn’t have that control over the Prem clubs, I can’t see England getting the same beneficial model installed. But with people pointing fingers incorrectly at lack of relegation being the secret, and saying that that will be the answer, I can certainly see England taking the wrong road – and suffering for it.

  3. Saracens and Exeter aside, the GP teams just havent been very good.
    But they havent been very good all season. European competition has simply reinforced this.
    Yes, the Irish sides prepare far better, rest their top players more and clearly target Europe in a way that is difficult for the English teams, who do operate in a very competitive league with relegation a threat and where the playing talent is spread a little thin in places.
    But our top teams need to be better. We need far more rotation, far more investment in bringing through home produced talent and far more squad stability.
    That does require a bit more long term thinking than what we see at most clubs, but that has to be the way to go.

    1. Mike. Long way of stating that Ireland (& Scotland?), are following the Kiwi model. Funny that, with Joe
      Schmidt in charge.

      1. Think that was my post you were commenting on, given the context.
        Yes, wordier than I would have preferred, but as it seems never to get highlighted as a reason as to why Ireland are doing well (whereas the ‘Pro14 isn’t competitive’ and ‘no relegation is comfortable living’ chestnuts get wheeled out time and again), I wanted to be methodical in outlining it.
        I think the model in Ireland pre-dated Schmidt’s tenure, but he has definitely been highly instrumental in making it work to its potential.
        (The other facet – the limit on foreign players plying their trade in Ireland – is, to my knowledge, still unique (and does need work, given the back door to residency qualifications that is currently being used in savvy fashion by the clubs)).

    2. Well, Exeter are out Steve, but what has changed since only 3 yrs ago, when English clubs were prominent in Europe? What has really changed in English rugby since teams like Bath or Wasps were prevalent in Euro?

    1. Just a thought, but having a league becoming more similar to France in which each team consists of lots of foreign players, that despite individual brilliance may not gel. Compared to say Leinster were not only the majority of there players native, but a product of their own academy and are much more cohesive and have a shared ethos and pride in the club which makes a huge difference imo.

      1. Alex. Just to clarify, you ain’t AlexD are you? Doesn’t seem like it, but in the interests of objectivity, be useful to know! Anyway, @ face value, Leinster, apart from yr comments about ‘natives’ etc, are part of an Irish set up in which their national union controls the game. Therefore, unlike in England, but as in NZ e.g., there is no conflict of interest between club & country. They have, for instance, moved Carbery to Munster, where he gets meaningful game time. This couldn’t happen in England.

    2. MJR, so when did it all fundamentally change in English rugger? Didn’t used to be that way. Still got more players, dosh etc than any other country!

  4. I am not sure I ring fencing the premiership is the answer. It’s a convenient excuse for failings but perhaps not the answer.

    Alternatively fewer teams in the GP would be a good start and I’d be in favour of abolishing the money spinner that is the play-offs and grand final. It will never happen but going back to a first past the post competition (why do we call it a league when it all ultimately hinges on one game in May!?) will see those teams who aren’t in the hunt for the GP title perhaps testing their players for a better tilt at the Champions Cup.

    An increase in salary cap will only result in star players being paid higher wages and as I understand that Exeter are the only club running at a ‘profit’ (main sponsor is also the benefactor, Tony Rowe’s, company) we would be driving the clubs to financial ruin by doing so…

    I think the Celts have benefitted from being able to focus their efforts through 2-3 teams but we must be mindful that it hasn’t exactly worked for Wales so just trying to replicate what they have done probably isn’t the answer.

    In an era when sponsors don’t understand that less is sometimes more, all my suggestions above are futile. As we march towards an 11 month (!) season I can only see injuries becoming more frequent, player burnout (as much, if not more, mentally) being the norm and an ever increasing club vs country dischord!

  5. In my opinion there are a few things premeirship clubs could do to help themselves in Europe rather then blame the system. (Which some head coaches and seem fans do)
    1. Play better. Bit obvious but had Exeter played better at home against Glouster (co considering the reverse fixture result) they would have had a better chance in getting through. Will take time.
    2. Spend less money on chasing stars and more on home grown academies and grass roots. Leinster have shown that you don’t need big foreign stars to win. Bear in mind only two of the ‘french galactico teams have made it through. All the millions Toulon spend to get knocked out of the group.
    3. Reduce the work load.
    Spending less on big names should ‘In theory leave more cash to grow squad sizes and increase rotation.
    That being said the best move could be to just have two, home competions say the premeirship and some form of mid week/evening cup competions for 2nd teams/academies and maybe championship teams. This in theory may help include depth of talent and let clubs save their best players for the bigger games.
    Place maximum game time of 100mins per player per week.
    Anyway just a thought.

  6. Personally think that the only way for English clubs to be more effective is for a maximum playing time to be introduced per player per season, including premiership, England and Lions (to count against the season afterwards).

    However, I can see the problems with this when a club gets an injury crisis at a certain position. In Gloucester’s case this was in the front row, with Balmain and Hohneck playing virtually every match with the only cover being academy players, and short term cover. Both the academy players and the short term cover have struggled (Visagie at hooker being the exception). If Balmain and Hohneck hadn’t been able to play all of the games, then Glaws would have been beaten up front in every game, and fundamentally it is my opinion that this is where we have struggled over the last two months. So, as stated, I can see some problems with this, but it really is the only way that the Premiership and England are going to be able to realistically compete moving forwards.

    1. Agree that this is probably the most likely way for the clubs to accept any form of enforced rotation (see my post on Irish rotation, above). If players were only allowed to play, say, 5 matches from every 6, it would lead to a lot more recuperation time and a minimum of 4 games where other players can stake a claim even to an established position. More strength in depth, more fresh players, better player welfare (all things relative).
      Downside is I can only see the clubs screaming blue murder about it – all their answers tend to be the money element, given they are companies in their own right, and so the boards are completely obsessed with profit margins and little else. Raising the salary cap wont ease that. So you have to tie their hands completely. It would need to be a World Rugby-imposed system, too, as the clubs have already muttered about their being happy to break away if the RFU isn’t constructive in the relegation talks.
      Certainly not an easy one to sort out.

    2. *Re your comments on injury crises affecting this, as long as there was a recognized dispensation system (and players rest time was accumulated rather than lost), and/or a fund to assist with emergency cover, the enforced rotation system would still be perfectly viable in principle. Would take some wrangling but not insurmountable.


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