What are we to make of the lack of English teams qualifying – crisis or not? Before we ruminate too deeply on the meaning of this and relative strengths and weaknesses of the different leagues it is worth noting a couple of points. To win the Champions Cup requires an almost single minded determination and focus that both the French and English teams lack en masse. We know it is Saracens’ focus and it has seen them be spectacularly successful in Europe. I am not sure any Tigers, Bath, Gloucester or Wasps fans got too busy booking up accommodation in Newcastle for the final.. The tightness of this year’s Premiership has also muddied the waters with no nice easy games to relax a bit and build for a big Euro game.
The Welsh regions are another country who seem to punch below their weight in Europe. It seems a collective belief that they are not good enough to win but all it needs is a decent cup run and you can change that. But unfortunately if as a player you don’t in your heart believe you have a chance to win and also have a wary eye on your league position it does impact on the intensity of effort. Rugby players can only smash down the door so many times in a season and if they also have internationals then sometimes it is a case of one or the other. I heard the other day on the splendid Eggchasers Rugby Podcast a question that struck me as a good one. If Leinster moved over to the Premiership would their players be able to challenge on all three fronts – league, Europe and Internationals or would something have to give?
Back to England and the Gallagher Premiership where we should have at least 3 teams who could win the Euro Cup and therefore there is a sense of underachievement. We know it has not always been like this and whilst currently the only country who are currently dominating in Europe are Ireland England will with their strength in depth throw up more 4 quarter finalists in the future.
Exeter are one team I believe will break their duck in Europe soon and start making the knock out stages. They are too good a side not to and with their last few years of sitting so comfortably atop the Premiership they will badly want to move on to the next big club challenge. They have given themselves a fighting chance with their masterful bonus point win against Castre who were still in the mix when they arrived at Sandy Park. Exeter looked good. Their attack clicked and one of my favourite players Jack Nowell was up to all kinds of mesmerising stuff with his dazzling footwork.
With one round to go we still have some incredible face offs to look forward to. I just love the story of Edinburgh rugby with my old mucker Richard Cockerill bouncing back from his sacking from Leicester Tigers by turning around the weaker of the two Scotland clubs. What a tale of redemption! Edinburgh have become a very good side with the natural talent now bolstered by more steeliness in the pack. If they win next week against the moneyed and monster sized Montpellier they bag a home quarter final plus open the door for their Scottish ‘brothers’ Glasgow to also snatch a knock out place.
Another big one is the Saracens v Glasgow game itself. Even though Saracens are the only side unbeaten they still go into next weekend needing to beat Glasgow to secure a home quarter final. Glasgow win with a bonus or deny Sarries and Saracens sink to 6th seed. I am pretty sure Mark McCall and his men will have the steely eyed focus they need to make sure there are no slip ups however what a prize for Glasgow if they can pull off the win. Two Scottish sides with home quarters would be heady stuff indeed for the folk north of the border.
My final game I just can’t wait for is out in Ireland at the eye wateringly, deafening bearpit known as Thomond Park. Exeter will be underdogs alright but cup upsets do happen and a nervous Munster versus a Chiefs side with nothing to lose could present us with one of those. However if Munster play like they did against Gloucester with their remarkably tenacious defence then Exeter will struggle to get over the try line.
So my friends it is one more plunge into crisp and invigorating European waters before we head towards what is likely to be a thunderous and pulsating Six Nations tournament.