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It's put up or shut up time for Premiership clubs in Champions Cup

After the Gallagher Premiership clubs excelled in the Heineken Champions Cup during the 2015/16 season, many predicted it foreshadowed an era of English dominance in the top tier European competition.

Although Saracens have done their best to confirm those assertions, winning three of the four titles in the period since then, the successes of the other entrants from the Premiership have been few and far between, with the majority even struggling to make it out of their pools.

In the 2015/16 season, English clubs accounted for five of the eight quarter-finalists, with Saracens, Wasps, Exeter Chiefs, Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers all emerging from their pools. Leicester and Wasps both made it to the semi-final stage before Saracens went all the way to the final and beat Racing 92. The complete absence of Guinness PRO14 teams from the knockout stage was a concern.

However, the tables have turned since, with the Celtic provinces, regions and clubs bouncing back extremely well after their struggles in a post-World Cup season. The following campaign, only Saracens and Wasps made it to the quarter-final stage, with three PRO14 and three French clubs making up the rest of the field. For the last two seasons, only Saracens have made it out of their pool from the Premiership.

Given the resources at their disposal, it’s been an embarrassing run of below-par displays from the other Premiership clubs and if they cannot up their games this season, making the most of the larger core of internationals that will have their workloads managed post-RWC at teams such as Leinster, Munster and Glasgow Warriors, their European stock is only going to fall further.

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The reigning champions, Saracens, have already stated that they will not be focusing on European competition, as they seek to battle back from the potential 35-point Premiership deduction that they will face should their review of salary cap sanctions not be successful. We will get our first indication of how committed they are to that plan when they announce on Friday their team to play Racing 92 in the opening round.

Assuming they stick to their word, that would leave Bath, Exeter, Gloucester, Harlequins, Northampton and Sale Sharks to carry the torch for the Premiership. Saracens’ rotated squad is no easy win, either, although even their enviable depth is unlikely to see them out of a pool also boasting Racing, Munster and the Ospreys.

The obvious candidate to throw their hat into the mix for the title would be Exeter. They have been incredibly consistent and competitive at the very top of the Premiership in recent seasons, as well as firing some shots in Europe, although they have yet to make the leap from domestic powerhouse to European contender.

They have the talent in their starting XV and the depth in the squad to survive injuries. In tighter games, when the December and January weather proves influential, they have the set-piece and control to win games, while the likes of Sam Simmonds, Henry Slade and Stuart Hogg can excel on firmer grounds and clear days. They don’t have a track record of qualifying in Europe, although a pool of La Rochelle, Glasgow and Sale is winnable, if not straightforward.

Sale bolstered prodigiously over the summer, Harlequins further stamped Paul Gustard’s influence on their squad and Bath added quality and depth to their front row. They are all capable of upsetting teams on their day, although their starts to the season have been far from electrifying. You certainly wouldn’t write any of them off from potentially sneaking out of their pools, though none of the trio look like genuine contenders at this point in time.

That leaves Gloucester and Northampton as torchbearers alongside Exeter. The Kingsholm-based outfit sit in Pool 5 alongside Toulouse, Montpellier and Connacht, while Saints face off with Leinster, Lyon and Benetton in Pool 1. Even with a plethora of World Cup call-ups, Toulouse and Leinster will be favourites to top those pools and probably secure home quarter-finals. Their spots aren’t unassailable, however, not to mention the three best runners-up spots that are also available across the five pools.

 

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For the Cherry and Whites, their campaign could hinge on the opening round. They take on Toulouse at Kingsholm on Friday night and qualification so often revolves around being able to hold serve at home and then pick up what points on the road that you can. If Gloucester can knock off the French champions in the opening game of the tournament, their path to the quarter-finals suddenly looks a lot more realistic.

They have been improving under Johan Ackermann’s tutelage and given the fact they have limited international call-ups compared to some of the other big teams in the Premiership and Europe, they are a candidate to compete on two fronts this season. They put a lot on that midfield of Danny Cipriani, Mark Atkinson and Billy Twelvetrees and the trio will be key to their chances of success.

As for Northampton, they seemingly look more and more like the Hurricanes with each passing week, as Chris Boyd develops the team in the image of his former side. For the Franklin’s Gardens faithful and neutrals alike, that is exciting, and they are one of the most enjoyable sides to watch in Europe currently. Stylistically, it matches up quite nicely with their pool opponents, in what could prove to be compelling affairs.

If they can avoid being bullied upfront, particularly by Leinster and Lyon, Saints have a shot of qualification. There are understandable concerns over how they will manage in deeper winter, but if they can beat Lyon in Northampton on Sunday, their chances of qualification begin to look much better, even if only as a best runner-up. At the worst, this will be a valuable learning experience for Saints’ cadre of young talents in and on the cusp of the starting XV, as they are arguably a year behind Gloucester in their development as a club, and a further two or three behind Exeter.

Slow starts to the Champions Cup have dogged English clubs in recent years and often left them with holes too deep to dig their way out of, despite some encouraging December and January performances. If the Premiership is to rebuild its European reputation, Gloucester and Northampton will need to start fast, while Exeter have to become comfortable with the tag of favourites and European heavyweights.

It really does have the feeling of a make-or-break season for Exeter in Europe. Their nemesis is facing a points deduction so severe as to likely rule them out of the Premiership playoffs, potentially allowing the Devon-based side to really attack Europe with gusto this season and still be in a healthy position in the Premiership title race. Another year of not even qualifying for the knockout rounds will prompt significant criticism and with increased experience of the competition among their squad, the excuses are running out.

Returning to briefly to that nemesis and everything related to Saracens at the moment seems to carry an asterisk. Although there is no salary cap in European competition, the top seeding they secured themselves going into those European campaigns was, per the independent body that investigated it, done so illegally in domestic competition.

Their players’ performances, the coaching and the development of talent remains undiminished in those seasons, though English rugby, for integrity’s sake, is in dire need of an additional flagbearer. To put it frankly, the 2019/20 season is a case of put up or shut up for the Premiership clubs in the Champions Cup.

WATCH: Former Saracens player Jim Hamilton discusses the salary cap scandal surrounding his old club

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It's put up or shut up time for Premiership clubs in Champions Cup
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