Do the English clubs now have a mental block in Europe?
For the second year running, will Saracens be the only English club in the last eight?
Bath’s Sam Underhill breaks away from Leinster’s Garry Ringrose at The Recreation Ground. Photograph: PA
Walking through the riot-scarred streets of Paris on Sunday evening was to be reminded Europe has more pressing issues than the Heineken Champions Cup pool stages. With due respect to Leicester and Racing 92 the shattered cashpoint machines, smashed windows of multi-national companies and gun-toting security forces roaming around Châtelet Les Halles felt slightly more urgent than the Pool 4 qualification scenario.
Amid all the continuing Brexit uncertainty it is equally true Europe has more vital matters to discuss than whether Saracens, for the second year running, will be the only English club left standing in the last eight of the continent’s premier rugby tournament. That said, the halfway pool standings are beginning to look almost depressing from a Premiership perspective. After three rounds Wasps, Bath and Exeter have not yet mustered a win between them and the chances of Leicester qualifying look distinctly slim. Even the early pacesetters Newcastle have had a wobble, with Edinburgh now topping Pool 5.
With the notable exception of Sale things are not significantly brighter in the Challenge Cup. Harlequins and Bristol are third in their respective pools, trailing Italian opponents. Neither Worcester nor Northampton look set to secure a home knockout draw; if the English clubs miss out on the title it will be the fourth year in succession the silverware has gone elsewhere.
It is also worth underlining that, Saracens aside, no Premiership team have won the European Cup since Wasps in 2007. No one remotely disputes the advances made by Ireland ’s leading sides, nor the signs of improvement among France’s Top 14 giants, but it is still a remarkable stat.
The reasons for this downturn are, as ever, varied. There is no question Europe grows ever tougher to conquer. Unless you have a squad with unusual depth, a star-studded roster, an extremely shrewd coaching team and the requisite character to win away from home, the chances of muscling past Leinster, Saracens or Racing are going to be remote.
The view from the front line supports that view. Leicester’s George Ford was suitably complimentary about some of the dazzling rugby Racing played in the first half on Sunday. “I definitely think European teams are getting better,” the England outhalf said. “It’s an incredibly hard competition now.” Leicester have certainly found it tougher and tougher: since they last reached the final in 2009 they have been unable to escape their pool in five of their last nine attempts.
Which begs an interesting question: are English teams, Saracens aside, starting to develop a mental block in Europe? Exeter are certainly flirting with that description, despite being reliably hard to beat domestically. Let’s be honest: if a French side like Castres or Montpellier had not reached the last eight (as the Chiefs look set to do) five times out of six they would be widely accused of prioritising the Top 14 and caring little about Europe.
That is absolutely not the case with the Chiefs: they were stressing the precise opposite a couple of months ago and view Europe as a tool that can improve them in all areas. Maybe they are trying too hard; for whatever reason, on hostile windy days at home against Munster and now Gloucester they have conspicuously failed to deliver. Having beaten the latter in the league just a fortnight earlier there was no question of being intimidated. They simply could not produce when it counted to the point where some of the explanation must lie in the mind. One Exeter player told me he could not remember performing so poorly for years.
Confidence, as ever, is key. Did Bath and Wasps, in a horribly tough pool, really believe deep down they could qualify ahead of Leinster and Toulouse? Perhaps not. There is also evidence some Premiership sides are getting less good at flitting between one competition and another, possibly because the Premiership has become so tight and intense it is now harder to flick a switch and snap into a Euro mindset than it used to be.
Refereeing interpretations should also not be overlooked; Leicester were awarded only two penalties in 80 minutes by Nigel Owens on Sunday, conceding almost five times as many and having two men sin-binned. Evidence is mounting that English clubs are less adept at problem-solving on the hoof than they once were, which has been an issue at national level in the not-too-recent past as well.
Thank goodness (from an English perspective), then, for Saracens. They deserve massive credit for their consistency and may yet go all the way again. Below them, though, a harsh conclusion is taking shape: what works in the Premiership will only take you so far in Europe. All the Irish provinces, by contrast, are in the top halves of their pools; they have also produced two semi-finalists in the past two years. English rugby, not for the first time in recent years, has plenty to ponder.
And another thing …
It will interesting to see how many Bath supporters show up with flags before their club’s game against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium this weekend – and whether they will be permitted to bring them in. Last Saturday’s heavy-handed decision to ban Leinster fans from bringing flags into the Recreation Ground on health and safety grounds was not a conspicuous PR success; sometimes rugby clubs forget they are a branch of the entertainment industry. Stand by for visiting supporters being supplied with white flags to wave in the event of Bath losing heavily in Dublin and bowing out of Europe before Christmas.