The third and fourth rounds of European competition are now upon us and with arguably the most competitive relegation battle in the professional era, is it time for certain Gallagher Premiership clubs to cash in their chips and turn away from Europe for the season?
Despite rumours being rife that the Premiership could ringfence as soon as the end of this season, which has now become an almost annual tradition, there will be significant concern at a number of clubs, with just four points separating the bottom seven sides.
Saracens and Exeter Chiefs are safe, as, it would seem, are Gloucester, and although only nine points separate Wasps and Harlequins from the bottom, they are probably, as stands, comfortable with that level of breathing room. From Bath down, however, it is a very different story.
Bath, Bristol Bears, Leicester Tigers, Worcester Warriors, Northampton Saints, Sale Sharks and Newcastle Falcons all have some very interesting selection decisions to make over the next two weeks, before they head back into a three-week block of Premiership fixtures.
In the Heineken Champions Cup, Bath are winless from their opening two fixtures and face a more than testing back-to-back with reigning champions Leinster. They have just registered James Wilson and Ruaridh McConnochie to their squad, so there are no signs they are looking to take their foot off the pedal, but if they lose the first match, which is at the Rec, it could prompt some squad rotation in Dublin, before they head back to the Premiership to meet Wasps.
Leicester picked up a win and a try bonus point in their opening two fixtures, leaving them with five points and still a solid shot at topping the group or picking up a best runners-up spot. Their back-to-back is with Racing 92 and starts in Paris on Sunday. The club’s Premiership form has been poor, but it would be a shame to see a side of their stature give up on Europe so quickly, especially with a decent shot of still qualifying and a comprehensive victory over the Scarlets already in the bag.
Newcastle are the final side of that bottom seven to be in the Champions Cup and having won their two opening games, away in Toulon and at home to Montpellier, there really is no case to be argued here. Their lowly Premiership position is a combination of a gruelling fixture list to start the season, as well as the club being off the boil, but now that they are picking up points and results in the Premiership, this Champions Cup position is too good to pass up. Their back-to-back versus Edinburgh will not be easy, but it could leave them with very little left to do to qualify come January, should they go well over the next two weeks.
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That said, both clubs recorded two wins from their opening two games and showing faith in younger players has really paid off for them in Europe. There’s no reason to change that approach now and another couple of impressive performances in the Challenge Cup could have these youngsters really pushing for a spot in the Premiership towards the end of the month.
The story isn’t quite so clear cut for Northampton or Bristol, though.
Saints were handed the unenviable task of facing off against Clermont Auvergne in their group and there are realistic questions to be asked of how much value do they put on trying to push for one of the best runners-up spots? They went with recognised, strong line-ups versus Clermont and Dragons to start the tournament and they now have the opportunity to rotate against Timisoara Saracens, give some of the front-liners a week or two off, and still stay in contention, whereupon they can re-evaluate their position in January.
As for Bristol, it’s tough to definitively say what is a ‘full-strength’ line-up for the club, as they’ve been very effective and proactive in rotating their squad so far this season. Having split the games with Zebre and now facing the difficult challenge of La Rochelle home and away, it could be time to give some more minutes to guys that they’re not necessarily going to be relying on come the return of the Premiership. That return sees them take on Sale away and Newcastle at home, games that could well be viewed as the cliched eight-pointers come the end of the season.
Bath, Northampton and Bristol certainly shouldn’t consign themselves to European exits, but given the challenges they face, a slight adjustment of strategy could be the right path as we head into rounds three and four.
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