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Did the Pro14 just prove it's better than the Premiership?

By Alex Shaw

It was a harrowing weekend for English clubs in the Champions Cup.

The six losses suffered by the Premiership clubs – with Saracens set to take on Clermont this evening after their match on Sunday was postponed – marked a new low and it was gleefully received by fans from the other five nations involved in the Champions Cup.


The question is, is this the heralding of a shift in power in the competition?

When the Champions Cup was born from the ashes of the Heineken Cup and the divvying up of financial incentives was rejigged to represent the number of teams competing from each nation, there was a fear that the English and French clubs would go on to dominate the competition.

Admittedly, the tournament has remained exclusively in French and English hands since, with Toulon lifting the inaugural title in 2015, before Saracens went on to secure the last two titles, but this weekend was a wake-up call for anyone who felt the Guinness PRO14 was a diminishing force.

The Irish provinces reasserted their strength in Europe, with Leinster, Munster and Ulster all claiming significant scalps.

It was almost as if they were buoyed by some kind of recent political victory, in which the shackles of imperial England were efficiently cast off and defeated with the aid of European allies.

Or something like that.

Leinster outthought the English champions, Exeter Chiefs, on their own patch of Sandy Park, meeting their one-out runner strategies with solid, uncompromising fringe defence that stymied Exeter for much of the match on Sunday evening.

As for Munster, they bullied Leicester at Thomond Park, playing with a physical force that was highly reminiscent of the 38-0 drubbing Tigers had taken at the stadium, just shy of a year to the day previously. It was brutal, clinical and unrelenting.


Ulster, like Leinster, picked up a win on English soil, defeating Harlequins at the Stoop in a scene that was only missing an undead polar bear and Iain Henderson brandishing a flaming sword. It was a smart display from the visitors who, without question, adapted more effectively to the, admittedly bizarre, conditions.

These felt like the most prominent matches from the weekend, where the English sides were outmuscled, outthought and outplayed, but the pain – or enjoyment, depending on your affiliation – doesn’t end there.

The horrifically out of form Ospreys turned up to Franklin’s Gardens and put a hurt on the slightly-less-but-still-dramatically-out-of-form Northampton Saints and Wasps picked up a bonus point in La Rochelle thanks to the five tries they scored, but they never looked like troubling the French side in terms of the final result.

In fairness, not many would have predicted Northampton as a European force this season, so that result, as painful as it will be to take for Saints fans, can be somewhat swept under the carpet, whilst Wasps faced maybe the toughest challenge of the weekend, against a devastating La Rochelle side at the summit of the Top 14 table.


Bath did their bit to uphold English and Premiership pride, putting in a more than solid shift down at the Stade Mayol and were unlucky to come out on the losing side. Until Anthony Belleau’s late bit of solo magic to grab the winning try, it looked as if Bath were going to escape the Côte d’Azur with a rare win.

The closeness of the result makes the loss even more frustrating, but there’s no doubt they can welcome Toulon to the Rec this weekend with their heads held high.

There will always be ebbs and flows in a competition as competitive as the Champions Cup and just as improving English fortunes over the past two seasons haven’t given them a stranglehold on the competition, neither does this horror weekend mean that their time and has come and gone in it.

In the four Premiership vs PRO14 clashes this weekend, the Irish and Welsh sides looked savvier, more powerful and that there was a Plan B to resort to if required, something which the English sides seemed absent of.

The task at hand for the Premiership clubs this weekend, to reverse those trends, is an unenviable one, particularly in those Anglo-Irish and Anglo-Welsh encounters.

Harlequins and Northampton have both run their races in the competition for this season and with just one point apiece, it’s time to put the focus squarely back on the Premiership.

Leicester are still alive in Pool 4, but given the magnitude of the beating they took at Thomond Park, they will need something special this coming weekend to turn it around at Welford Road. In fairness, Tigers did do just that last season, so the ability to bounce back is in there.

Wasps look out of the Pool 1 race, with La Rochelle sitting nine points ahead of them, but a best runners-up spot is not of the question. The Ricoh Arena will hold no fear for La Rochelle, though, and unless Wasps sharpen up defensively, the French side could well head into that game as favourites.

(A French side not named Toulon or Clermont on the road as favourites. Is this why we’re Brexiting?)

Can Exeter overturn Leinster in Dublin? Not with a performance like the one they showed on Sunday evening. Throw into the mix that they are already six points behind the Irish province and their hopes of topping the group look slim.

Bath go into the weekend in the best mood, pending Saracens’ match with Clermont tonight, having shown they have what it takes to best Toulon and if they can do that on home soil, they will jump back above Toulon and take control of Pool 5 once again, with two winnable fixtures to come in January.

There is no need to overplay the significance of this past weekend in the grand scheme of things, but it has certainly shifted the balance of power in favour of the PRO14 and Top 14 in this season’s competition.

La Rochelle and Leinster both look like home quarter-finalists in waiting, Munster are hitting form at just the right time and Clermont and Toulon are still capable of delivering hammer blows to the hopes of Saracens and Bath respectively.

Ulster are alive. Scarlets are alive. God, even the Ospreys are alive.

Amid the PRO14 love-in, spare a thought for Glasgow Warriors who, like Quins and Northampton, have run their race for this season. At least they go back to a competition that they currently top and have yet to taste defeat in. The brains trusts in Northampton and south-west London could only dream of such silver linings.

If anything, this past weekend has shown that the magic of European rugby still permeates every fixture in this competition.

Whether you’re English and celebrate the reallocation of funds the competition has brought, Irish and bemoan the death of the Heineken Cup, Welsh and trying to figure out how it can bring about an Anglo-Welsh Premiership or just French and tutting consistently at the distraction from the Top 14, the Champions Cup delivers.

It’s not just about the money.

It’s game plans and rugby intelligence.

It’s power.

It’s playing with emotion and desire.

It is executing those skills that players spend hours and hours refining on cold, wet days in training.

This past weekend, the PRO14 and Top 14 showed all of that and pulled down the Premiership’s pants in very public fashion.

The ball is now in the English clubs’ court as they look to respond this coming weekend.


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William 1 hours ago
All Blacks vs England takeaways: Richie Who? Time for Cortez

Correct analysis of Perofeta’s bungling of the try opportunity Ben. Never ‘fixed’ Steward as he came across in defence and passed too early. Steward didn’t have to break his stride and simply moved on to pressure Telea. Never scanned the easier option of passing to the two supporting players on the inside. Beauden Barrett showed how it is done when he put Telea in for his try. Another point from the game is that the rush defence is hard to maintain as the number of phases increases. From scrums the defensive line only contains backs who all have roughly the same pace. Once forwards are involved, the defence has players with variable speeds often leading to a jagged line. It also tends to lose pace overall giving the attack more time and space. Beauden Barrett’s break to set up Telea’s try came because Baxter went in to tackle McKenzie and Steward went out to cover Telea. Barrett has a massive hole to run through, then commits Steward by passing as late as possible and Telea scores untouched. Another comment I would make is that Ben Earl is a good player and generally an excellent defender but he made three significant misses in the series, two of which led to All Black tries. Got stepped by Perofeta in Dunedin for Savea’s try, missed McKenzie in Auckland leading to what should have been a certain try being set up by Perofeta and was one of the tacklers who couldn’t stop Savea in the leadup to Telea’s first try. Perhaps he should contact Owen Farrell to pick up a few tips from ‘tackle school’.

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