‘Reverse Brexit’ as three English teams try to remain in Europe
Rugby stats: Provinces set to square off against English clubs in Champions Cup
Owen Williams of Leicester Tigers is tackled by Keith Earls and Jaco Taute of Munster during the European Rugby Champions Cup match at Welford Road in December 2016. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images
This weekend in rugby’s Champions Cup there is something of a “reverse Brexit”, so to speak, taking place in that three English clubs – the Exeter Chiefs, the Leicester Tigers and Harlequins – will be doing their utmost to remain in Europe.
Leinster, Munster and Ulster will in turn be trying to ensure, as Gwyneth Paltrow might say, a conscious uncoupling of their rivals’ primary interests in the elite European tournament, hoping that results over the next fortnight when the provinces and the English clubs square off against one another on consecutive weekends maintain a statistical trend of Irish ascendancy.
The period under consideration is the last 10 seasons and refers specifically to matches between the Irish provinces and English clubs at the pool stages of the Champions Cup and its predecessor in name, the Heineken Cup. The games in the knockout stages are not included given the context of this weekend’s matches.
Munster, the first of the Irish provinces in action this weekend when they host Leicester at Thomond Park in the late kickoff on Saturday night, face the Tigers for the third consecutive season in Europe, all four matches between the sides taking place in the December window.
The Tigers lead the head-to-head 3-1 during that period, beating Munster 31-19 in Limerick and a week later doubling the dose in a 17-6 success at Welford Road during the 2015-2016 season. Last year the honours were shared, the Irish province thrashing Leicester 38-0 at Thomond Park but then succumbing a week later, Owen Williams’s sixth penalty, 52 seconds from the final whistle, sounding the death knell for the visitors.
It was a match Munster should have won, but game imperfections exacerbated by place-kicking issues proved their downfall as much as anything their hosts mustered on the day. Two different coaches – Matt O’Connor is in his second spell with the Tigers and Johann van Graan in the fledgling days of his tenure – are in place but it won’t dilute or diminish a compelling rivalry that has produced some marvellous matches down through the years.
Munster’s record against English clubs in the December double-headers during the 10 seasons in question could do with a bit of buffing, as they have managed just two victories in six attempts, having previously divvied up the spoils with Saracens in the 2012-2013 season, winning at home and losing away.
In the first five years Munster won eight of 10 matches in the pool stages against English clubs, but seven of 12 in the last five seasons, giving them an overall of 15 victories and seven defeats.
Ulster make the journey to The Stoop in London on Sunday lunchtime to renew a rivalry with Harlequins, the last instalment of which took place in the 2008-2009 season when the clubs each won their respective home matches.
As the graphic indicates, the Irish province boasts a marginal advantage in winning 11 of 20 matches against English clubs, but their record in December stands at three victories and one defeat, albeit that a last triumph away from Belfast in that context was against the Leicester Tigers in the 2013-2014 season.
Leinster, who travel to Sandy Park on Sunday evening to take on the reigning English Premiership champions the Exeter Chiefs, have played the most matches under the criteria, as a result of two English clubs in their pool in two of the last three seasons. The 2105-2016 season was an annus horribilis from the Irish province’s perspective: beaten in three of four matches, twice by Wasps, and also losing away to Bath.
Leinster have lost more matches at home (three: London Irish, Northampton Saints and Wasps) against English clubs than any other Irish province in the last 10 seasons of the pool stages, but, when you drill down to the December match records, they have won six of eight.
They did face the Chiefs, edging past them 9-6 at home before travelling to Sunday’s venue and prevailing 29-20 in the 2012-2013 season. The Devon club currently lead the English Premiership, trying to defend a title they won last season.
Overall, Irish provinces have won 40 of 66 matches, a 61 per cent win ratio, coincidentally the exact same figure – 61 per cent – that is reached when comparing the cumulative winning record of the three Irish provinces against English clubs, specifically in the double leader games: played 18, won 11 and lost seven.
A different sort of Brexit negotiations await over the next fortnight.