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