There was a significant sense of déjà vu for the elite Gallagher Premiership clubs in the Heineken Champions Cup this past weekend.
For the second year in a row, it looks like English clubs, with the notable exception of Saracens, will struggle in Europe’s premiere club competition.
Wasps were, for want of a better word, obliterated by reigning champions Leinster in Dublin. Bath failed to hold serve at home against Toulouse in a match they really should have won, arguably with a bonus point. Leicester Tigers fell tamely to a two-score loss to Ulster in Belfast, where the only silver lining may have been the impressive form of Manu Tuilagi.
Even Exeter Chiefs, English rugby’s great hope on a despondent Saturday, were held to a draw by Munster at Sandy Park, and with the province’s away form having been patchy this season, they will be thrilled to take two points away from the south-west. As for Exeter, dreams of making a run on the Champions Cup look significantly more farfetched than they did a few days ago.
The Sunday games brought a measure of relief.
Gloucester got the ball rolling with a home win over a depleted Castres side and Newcastle Falcons wrote their names in history with an away at the Stade Mayol against Toulon. Toulon may be far from the side they once were, but still, Newcastle became the only team, aside from Saracens, to win away at Toulon in Europe in the Champions Cup era.
Both impressive results and worthy of a significant amount of praise, but is there a realistic and balanced argument out there that either of those sides are in contention for the title? Brutally, the answer is probably no, but we will know more about their campaigns once Gloucester travel to Limerick this weekend to take on Munster, and Newcastle try to reinforce their position with a home win over Montpellier, the red-hot favourites to top Pool 5.
It had tries, cards, penalty tries, more cards – but most importantly it was packed to the brim with quality rugby ?
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) October 15, 2018
Then there was Saracens.
It wasn’t pretty, but it was a valuable away win at Scotstoun. Glasgow Warriors are not in the tournament just to make up the numbers, but by Saracens denying them even a losing bonus point on home soil – or home rubber crumb – the Londoners put down a strong marker that they should top Pool 3 and most likely book a home quarter-final.
The story, though, is that Saracens’ fellow big hitters in the Premiership, the likes of Wasps, Exeter and Bath, who have star-studded squads and the salary expenditure to prove it, again face momentous tasks just to qualify from the pools, let alone attempt to make a run on the title itself.
Let’s put the rugby aside for a moment.
Around 6,000 miles away and about 550 years (roughly) before those events across the UK, Ireland and France this weekend, a Japanese potter was (probably) looking on his latest creation with joy and a sense of accomplishment.
This bowl took pride of place in his house and was only ever used for tea with the most important of guests.
Despite the great care he took of it and the sparingly few times he used it, one day, perhaps after one too many sakes, he dropped the vessel that he so adored and a great crack was rent right through the middle of the tea-toting trinket.
After much despair, the potter decided that instead of throwing away the thing which he had laboured so meticulously over, he would save it.
Mixing a lacquer with powdered gold, for he was a rich potter, apparently, he filled the crack in the bowl and realised that, even with the evident imperfection in the item, it had become even more beautiful than it had been before.
And that, with a bit of artistic license, was more or less how the Japanese art of Kintsugi was born.
As a process, it treats the imperfections of an item as part of its history, and the method of repair only adds to the aesthetic value of the object. It seeks not to disguise these flaws, but expose them, solve them and come away with something greater than that which came before it.
In a lot of ways, it’s a philosophy that a number of Premiership rugby clubs need to embrace.
They are, as a group, riddled with flaws and imperfections when it comes to competing in Europe.
Many of these are problems of their own making, such as the top-heavy nature of their playing squads.
This applies less to Exeter, who have done a good job of putting together a squad capable of competing on multiple fronts, but the Wasps, Baths and Leicesters of the league have chased Saracens and Exeter at the top by building XVs that, on paper, look to be a match for anyone. Often, this comes at the expense of the overall strength of the squad.
One agent even described one of those clubs as “not caring who they sign, they just want the cheapest depth they can find.”
It’s true that if everyone at Bath and Wasps were fit, they would have a XV capable of beating anyone on their day, but that’s just not how tournaments are decided, particularly in the attritional northern hemisphere season. It’s also true that finding value for money in cheaper depth options is vital in a salary cap league.
But if this is the path you want to take, you actually have to build a squad. You need to sign players who will still be at the club in four or five years’ time and whom you are happy to rotate into the XV with the more established players, thus giving them the experience they need to thrive and develop. You cannot expect to field your strongest XV for six-straight weeks in the first block of Premiership fixtures, draft in a couple of replacements for guys who have picked up knocks and then go into the Champions Cup and expect to turnover some of the best sides in Europe. It’s folly.
The same old trope comes up every season from fans of the Premiership and that’s that teams can’t rotate in the domestic league because it’s so competitive and you have to worry about relegation.
If the likes of Wasps, Bath and Leicester have sold you the line that they can’t rotate because of fears of relegation, then I have a business proposition for you. We’re going to go and sell sawdust to lumbermills. It’s going to be huge.
The Premiership is competitive, granted, but it certainly isn’t at the top and, in many recent seasons, it hasn’t been overly competitive at the bottom, either. None of those sides have the squads capable of usurping Saracens or Exeter, so realistically, barring dramatic injury crises in Devon or London, they’re shooting for 3rd as their ceiling and ultimately a probably unfruitful trip to Sandy Park or Allianz Park in the semi-finals.
Teams shouldn’t give up on that ambition of chasing the top two spots, but you have to have a plan in place for how you’re going to achieve it. Can you, hand on heart, say that you’ve seen something from Wasps, Bath or Leicester in recent seasons that makes you think they are capable of making that leap anytime soon? My answer would be no.
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Watch: Dai Young comes to terms with Wasps’ record European defeat.
Too good to be relegated and without the squads to consistently compete with Exeter and Saracens, the reasons seem to be dwindling for why these clubs can’t rotate players in the build-up to Europe, thus keeping their front-liners fresher and giving their young, emerging players a valuable opportunity for playing time in the Premiership.
That is, essentially, the system with which the Irish provinces have used to great effect and it is one which is enforced upon them by the IRFU. The RFU may not have a say over the way Premiership clubs are run, but that doesn’t stop the independent clubs and their directors of rugby from making the decision to act similarly of their own volition.
To quote a former Premiership academy manager, the provinces give their players ‘opportunity by design, not default’ and that is something the second tier of Premiership clubs need to look at being more proactive in, if they want to develop the squads that can compete with the likes of Leinster and Saracens.
Embrace the imperfections that are the current top-heavy squads and use your senior academy members to plug the gaps, not journeymen who you might bring in for a season or two before they head off to a Championship club or pick up another spot providing depth in the Premiership.
It’s cheaper, it has a hopefully more positive outcome in the long-term and it can take the reliance, again in the long-term, off of recruiting heavily from the southern hemisphere and Celtic countries, therefore helping to slow the continued rise in salary expectations.
If you give those players their opportunities in the Premiership, where there are more than enough games to bounce back from a loss or two as they get accustomed to the level of competition, you’ll eventually reap the rewards in the much more cutthroat Champions Cup.
It was all summed up rather neatly by Geordan Murphy in the aftermath of his side’s loss to Ulster in Belfast on Saturday, with the Irishman stating that he’d ‘like to be coaching this side of the Irish Sea’, referencing the struggles he has with keeping players fit and fresh, due to the Premiership schedule.
This is the same Geordan Murphy who is currently auditioning to be Tigers’ long-term head coach and it should be pointed out to him that the Premiership schedule has been exactly the same as the Guinness PRO14 schedule so far this season, with six games in six weeks. It is entirely his decision, or has been since the departure of Matt O’Connor, as to who to pick each week and who to rest.
To give Murphy his due, the likes of Jordan Olowofela and Joe Heyes have been featuring since he took the interim head coach role and they will benefit from that in long run, but Leicester are another example of a top-heavy squad. Scratch beneath the surface and they will get found out by teams like Ulster, who are far from a dominant side as things stand.
Leicester, Bath and Wasps are prime examples of clubs that seem to be chasing a short-term dream that is unachievable and, with each passing season, merely delaying the process of building something in the long-term that can ultimately challenge the big boys of European rugby.
It’s not all internal, though, and there are things out of the clubs’ control which do influence their ability to compete in Europe.
Refereeing interpretations are certainly one such area.
The Premiership is lucky to have a good stable of referees who make relatively consistent calls, interpret the game in the same way and are constantly feeding back to one another on performance and areas of improvement. The problem with this, however, is that it is an environment which doesn’t always prompt players to think on their feet and adapt in-game to a referee who is simply not seeing the game as they do.
It’s one thing to do tactical analysis on a referee pre-match, it’s another to deny your muscle memory in split-second decisions at flashpoints like the contact area, maul and scrum. It’s a testing challenge, but not an insurmountable one.
Why not incorporate different laws in training games, as they do at the Wellington U16 Festival each year? Usually the remit of developmental, not performance, coaches, but why not encourage players to keep thinking on their feet and adapting?
It just seems as though every year it is the same old tired excuses being trotted out to defend Premiership sides’ lack of competitiveness in the top tier of club rugby. At this point, the 2015/16 season, which saw five English clubs make it to the quarter-finals, seems like a rather lonely anomaly in the competition’s recent history.
The Premiership can’t keep changing the European goal posts to suit itself and it’s time a number of clubs took a look at themselves and really ask ‘why can’t we mix it at this level, and how do we change that?’
Is it poor recruitment? Ineffective player development and lack of a pathway capable of delivering on the immense potential that comes out of those clubs’ academies? Tactical inflexibility? Running players so ragged they can’t match the intensity of their PRO14 and Top 14 opponents?
Since Wasps unearthed Daly, Wade, Jones and Vunipola in 2011/12, Leinster have successfully brought through Furlong, Porter, Ryan, Conan, Deegan, Leavy, van der Flier, McGrath, R & A Byrne, Ringrose and Larmour. Chalk and cheese.
— Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport) October 13, 2018
For many, it will be a mix of all of those issues and, frustratingly, they are all things which can be dealt with internally and require clubs to embrace a culture shift. There is no great excuse or justifiable ability to blame someone else.
To clarify, that is frustration as a neutral observer. For the majority of issues to be internal and fixable should be a source of great joy to the clubs in question, as it puts their destiny entirely in their own hands, something which even the impressive Irish provinces can’t boast. Of course, if they are simply looking for a scapegoat for their own inadequacies, then they, too, may find this rather frustrating.
The fact the two English sides to win were Gloucester and Newcastle, Saracens aside, shouldn’t be lost on people, either.
Gloucester have developed a true identity under Johan Ackermann and in no game this season has that been more evident than in their win over Castres. Even in driving rain and on an extremely saturated pitch, Gloucester refused to turn away from their high-tempo, keep the phases alive approach.
Sure, they had a couple of knock-on’s, but ultimately, they dealt with the conditions really well and executed the vast majority of their passes and carries without any trouble. They know who they are as a team and they won because of that.
In Newcastle, you have the least funded English club in the Champions Cup, yet they went to Toulon and won in a place that only one other Champions Cup club has done. The caveat is that Toulon are a bit of a hot mess right now, but that’s still some achievement.
Newcastle have managed to build a squad where competition for places is high, yet they don’t have the same advantages that most of their fellow English Champions Cup clubs have, in terms of being a desirable destination for experienced players or recruiting grounds in the academy that boast prestigious rugby institutions.
Both sides still have a testing time ahead of them, trying to make the quarter-final stages of the competition, but at least you can see the growth and the trajectory they could be on, having been firmly entrenched as Challenge Cup sides in recent seasons.
England’s more established Champions Cup clubs either need to face up to their flaws and address them aggressively, if they want to do anything more than make up the numbers among Europe’s elite, or they will consistently face demoralising losses on the biggest stage club rugby has to offer.
In other news: James Lowe reflects on Leinster’s mammoth win over Wasps at the RDS.
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