Gerry Thornley: Soul searching needed in England after European failings

Strength of Irish provinces bodes well with the start of the Six Nations fast approaching

Munster’s Tadhg Beirne blocks a kick by Exeter Chiefs Nic White during the clash at Thomond Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Munster’s Tadhg Beirne blocks a kick by Exeter Chiefs Nic White during the clash at Thomond Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Typical.

Iain Henderson and Tadhg Beirne are both named Heineken man of the match after their respective wins with Ulster and Munster, whereupon both are ruled out of Ireland’s opening Six Nations matches.

The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.

Their injuries apart, it was another encouraging weekend in Europe for the Irish teams as they backed up the four-timer in the penultimate round by repeating the feat to ensure all four have advanced to the knock-out stages of the two competitions for the first time ever.

Those losing 90s are indeed so last century.

The 82 per cent winning ratio in the pool stages of the Champions Cup would have been unthinkable then, and is extraordinary now.

Granted, the 14 wins and a draw in 18 games falls short of the 16 wins five seasons ago and 15 in 2011-12; the two previous seasons when Leinster, Munster and Ulster all qualified for the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup.

Just as eye-catchingly, the Scots had a 75 per cent winning return, followed by the French on 50 per cent, the English clubs on 33 per cent and the Welsh on 25 per cent. Amazing really, when you think of the wealth divide. Thankfully, money doesn’t always buy success.

Given how the provinces and Team Ireland are so umbilically linked, that every single member of the 38-man Irish squad has come off successful campaigns can also only be of benefit for the Six Nations.

In 2011-12, after Ireland finished a slightly disappointing third in the Six Nations, Leinster went on to beat Ulster in the final at Twickenham. But in 2013-14, it led to Ireland winning their first Six Nations title since the 2009 Grand Slam, albeit only Munster reached the semi-finals, at which point they were beaten by Toulon.

As in 2011-12, an all-Irish quarter-final at least ensures the presence of one Irish team in the semi-finals. Likewise Racing-Toulouse ensures one French side, with the possibility of three and even four countries being represented in the semi-finals.

In that, and other respects, the way the final Sunday panned out pretty much suited everybody it could suit at that stage, not least EPCR and the television companies. After the Six Nations comes four quarter-finals in four capital cities. It’s almost like a continuation.

Toulouse’s failure to claim a bonus point at home against Bath meant they avoided facing Leinster in Dublin and instead set up a shorter trip up to Paris. This in turn meant Ulster also had a shorter trip to Dublin which would also better suit their supporters.

Bonus point

The suspicion lurks that Toulouse deliberately held back in the second half after scoring two tries to build a 17-3 lead by the interval when, on another day, had they needed to, they might have gone on to secure the bonus point.

Maybe. But maybe not.

Twice in the third quarter they kicked penalties into the right corner through Maxime Medard and went for the try rather than take on a three-pointer that would have put them three scorers clear.

Twice they went through the phases in the opposition 22, but in teeming rain and on a gluey pitch, Bath defended well. Yoann Huget was also not far away from an intercept and a walk-in third try.

But perhaps the most revealing decision came from the Toulouse coaches when removing Cheslin Kolbe in the 59th minute. When Bath then made it 17-10 and a one-score game, Toulouse could be excused for taking three points 10 minutes from time. After all, had Toulouse drawn or lost, they’d have faced Saracens away.

Overall then, the Irish are happy, the Scots have never had it so good at this juncture and the French are probably content (Lyon and Castres won’t be that bothered, while Edinburgh’s brighter, more inventive game made the heavy spending, heavyweight Toulon and Montpellier look lumbering and dated).

Of course there will again be soul searching in England, and there certainly should be in Wales as well.

Saracens must be weary of carrying the English load, except that England seems farthest from their minds. The sight of Maro Ioje and Billy Vunipola playing 80 minutes last Saturday against Glasgow, and Jamie George all of 76 and Mako Vunipola 70, despite top spot long since being secured, and just two weeks out from England playing Ireland, was instructive.

It also underlined how poorly aligned England and their clubs are compared to Ireland and their provinces.

Instead, every time the Premiership clubs underperform, the removal of relegation is presented as the panacea for all ills, or at any rate the only solution they can come up with.

True, more than ever this season, the Premiership almost has 10 teams fighting for two away defeats in the semi-finals, while avoiding one relegation spot. And as Lawrence Dallaglio highlighted on BT, the threat of relegation did affect one Newcastle selection.

Self-serving elite

But, c’mon, that’s it. It didn’t affect Leicester, Wasps, Bath or Gloucester, any more than it affected Exeter and Saracens. One of England’s great strengths is their numbers, and their expansive playing pool.

If Connacht can locate a Tom Farrell at Bedford in the English Championship, how many hidden English gems are there? Never mind that they under-utilise a bigger stream of Under-20 internationals than anyone.

Furthermore, there would be no future ‘Exeters’. Scrap relegation, and that door will close for ever.

It’s funny how the self-serving elite in the English clubs who advocate scrapping relegation never cite their sometime French friends.

By contrast, the two-up/two-down promotion/relegation system between the Top 14 and the ProD2 has ensured far more fluidity in the French club game. And this has given it more vibrancy.

Ala the English, the French have the advantage of huge playing numbers, and don’t intend undermining this strength.

Relegation is not a factor in how the French clubs perform in Europe. Never has been, never will be. This season’s six entrants never looked like France’s strongest hand in the history of the competition, but as is usually the case, none of the six are in the remotest danger of being relegated.

The threat, or not, of relegation never prevented Toulouse from winning the Heineken Cup four times. It didn’t prevent Toulon from winning it three times in a row. It is not the reason Clermont have never conquered Europe.

Relegation is a red herring but, hey, if they want to delude themselves, so be it.

gthornley@irishtimes.com

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