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English clubs will bounce back from worst ever weekend in Europe – Andy Goode

By Andy Goode

Saracens’ record European Cup defeat in their controversially rearranged fixture against Clermont may have capped off the worst weekend in the history of the competition for English clubs, but they’ll still be a force in the knockout stages.

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It’s the first time ever that every single English club has lost in a round of the pool stages in the top tier of European competition, a statistical first in 22 years of European rugby history.

One bad weekend doesn’t mean the Premiership clubs are no longer a force, though. Far from it. Saracens, Wasps, Exeter, Bath and even Leicester are all well-placed to make the quarter-finals and it is only Harlequins and Northampton letting the side down.

It was a good few days for the PRO14 teams with them winning all four games they had against English sides but, realistically, it is Leinster and Munster flying the flag for the league again.

They benefit from resting their big names for PRO14 games, which makes the league a poorer product, and are then fresher for the big games and look like they will be competitive in the Champions Cup once more.

Munster were strong against a surprisingly lacklustre Leicester and Leinster incredibly impressive in storming fortress Sandy Park but the Premiership is still a better league. It’s more intense and there is better quality on show week in, week out. European competition is a different beast, though, and it certainly brings the best out of those two Irish provinces.

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And, if it was a good weekend for the PRO14 sides, it was an even better one for the Top 14 teams with Racing the only one of them to lose and that at the hands of fellow Frenchmen Castres.

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I was in France to witness the best performance I’ve seen in Europe attacking-wise for a very long time as La Rochelle took Wasps apart. They were phenomenal. Their power, accuracy and offloading game was just incredible.

They sent big runner after big runner and Wasps just couldn’t live with them. I don’t think any other team in Europe would’ve beaten them yesterday, though. That’s how good they were.

La Rochelle have produced the goods in every game they’ve played in the top tier of European competition so far. They went to Quins and won with a bonus point, did the same at home to Ulster and have now earned maximum points against Wasps as well.

It’s only the fourth time ever that a side has got 15 points out of 15 at the end of the opening three rounds of the Champions Cup, following in the footsteps of Munster last year, Racing the year before and Biarritz back in 2006/07, so that’s a measure of their achievement and in their debut season as well.

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They’ve lost just one of their last 25 games at home now over the course of the past 18 months and are nailed on for a home quarter-final, so that looks like an impossible task for whoever has to go there in the last eight.

Wasps might well turn the tables on them at the Ricoh Arena this weekend because that’s the nature of these back-to-back fixtures but La Rochelle can afford to lose it after their stellar performances in the opening three rounds and still remain very much in control of the pool.

And, while Wasps falling away at the Top 14 leaders is understandable, Saracens’ capitulation at home to Clermont is harder to explain. As good as Franck Azema’s men were, it was the most un-Saracens-like performance I can remember seeing from them as they missed 37 tackles on their way to the biggest defeat they’ve ever suffered in Europe.

The fact that it was played in front of a largely empty stadium and over 24 hours later than scheduled didn’t help them but it’s the same for both teams and there was only one of them that handled it well.

You could have been forgiven for thinking that Clermont weren’t going to be up for it after their complaints about the game’s postponement.

They even went as far as describing the situation as “an episode of amateurism that can sometimes be seen in our sport” and issued a statement saying that they “had to adapt to the incompetence of the public authorities and Saracens to organise this major sporting event”.

They probably think that they deal with these adverse weather conditions better in France and are more used to it as they get a lot of snow in the Massif Central but Allianz Park isn’t the most accessible ground and you don’t want to put people at risk.

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Those comments are really poor form from Clermont. There are certainly things that could’ve been handled differently, as is always the case, but ultimately the game was delayed to look after the health and safety of spectators because of hazardous conditions on the approach roads to Allianz Park and it’s unfortunate but that’s life.

Saracens lost up to £300,000 because of the postponement and have their own issue with European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR), whose statement about the game being played behind closed doors was described by owner Nigel Wray as “unilateral” and “outrageous”.

EPCR don’t come out of the whole episode smelling of roses but it was an independent health and safety officer who made the decision to postpone the match, so Saracens didn’t deserve to bear the brunt of the anger in Clermont’s statement.

It wasn’t a good advert for the sport off the pitch but Clermont took out their frustrations on the double European champions on the pitch in a performance that was certainly a good advert for rugby and for their chances of finally lifting the trophy.

The result put the final nail in the coffin of the worst ever weekend for English clubs in Europe but don’t be surprised if we still see the Premiership contributing half of the quarter-finalists and maybe even one of those raising silverware aloft in Bilbao in May.

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