As the dust is settling on rugby pitches across Europe, we can take a deep breath and start to see the potential quarter finalists coming into view. Sadly it looks as though Wasps and Leicester have nothing to play for and Exeter, Gloucester and Newcastle will need big, big round 5 and 6 performances to go through.
So, it appears English Premiership teams are facing another season with potentially just one side nailing a quarter final spot. It’s hard to define just why the English sides are where they are but I suspect it is cyclical and our time will come again. The truth is total domination by one country is not good for the competition and we really don’t want a return to the year when the quarter finals were mostly made up of English sides and resulted in quarters and one semi being all English affairs.
Maybe clutching a bit here for an explanation but with Bath and Wasps plus Exeter and Glos in the same pools we have Prem sides taking points off each other which does not help in getting a bit more representation in the final stages. Wasps and Bath also can quite rightly claim ‘pool of death’ status with Irish supersede Leister and high-flying Toulouse strutting their stuff in Pool 1.
My old club Gloucester were unable to back up their fabulous away win against Exeter and that will teach me to be so confident that they would get the back to back victories! Exeter to their credit went back to their outstanding basics and were able to use their solid set piece to control the game and deliver a highly valuable 5 points. Out of the two sides who both facing Munster in the final rounds Gloucester has it slightly easier by facing them at Kingsholm, but you can never, ever rule out the scenario of Exeter travelling to a hostile Thomond Park, rolling up their sleeves and out muscling Munster to a 5-point win. Whatever happens it is a pool that is going to be one to watch avidly as unbelievably all four sides can mathematically top the pool.
Another team unable to back up a big performance was Bath which I think highlights how hard it is to string two high intensity games together. Players can ratchet up the emotional and physical intensity for any game at all- which is why we see surprise wins. The eternal challenge is doing it game after game after game. Even Leinster and Saracens can’t do it – albeit they have enough star quality and belief that even playing badly they can still do the business. Leinster were not great at The Rec and Bath could/should have won but back in Dublin the Irish energy went up several notches and Bath were totally outplayed. Saracens similarly are struggling for a full 80 performance with their back to backs against Cardiff Blues rather startlingly, for the ex Champions, leaving them trialling at half time in both games.
Poor old Leicester Tigers losing streak continues but it was quite a fight they put up against the slick Parisians - Racing 92. Some of the talent Racing has in their ranks is astonishing and they look like they have two feet in the quarters already. The Tigers attack was a thing of beauty with George Ford and Toomua combing beautifully. Defence yet again was the optional skill for the Tigers team with some soft old tries being let in. It looks like it is individual errors rather than a system failure which I would guess means a lack of confidence and not trusting the player outside of you. Maybe Tigers need to follow the Saracens model of just taking the boys away from rugby for a few days to let their hair down and enjoy each other’s company again. Whatever they do at Welford Road you are left feeling they really, really need a re-boot.
Another pool which looks hugely entertaining features the team propping up the Premiership table Newcastle Falcons. Their back to back losses against Edinburgh certainly does not rule them out but I think it is safe to assume after the surprise opening round wins that head honcho Dean Richards thinks getting off the bottom of the table is a wee bit more important. How marvellous to see how Leicester reject Richard Cockerill has taken Edinburgh by the scruff of the neck and fashioned a side with a hard edge balanced by some wonderful running talent. It now looks like a bit of a shootout between Edinburgh and big spending Montpellier to top the pool. Should Edinburgh come through there should be an historic two Scottish teams in the quarter finals.
It was immensely entertaining at the Ricoh and the Wasps attack was sublime at times and at one point I really thought Wasps could sneak a win against the unbeaten Toulouse but with a still understrength side they did not have quite enough to give themselves an outside chance of qualifying,
Last season Wasps were beaten by a Quins in their pool when Quins were already out and had nothing at stake. Will Wasps decide they do the same to Leinster and keep fighting? We can but hope for the sake of the competition that they decide to make a game of it. The final rounds have a bit too many dead rubbers for my liking, so I would love to see some fight from those teams who have nothing to lose. Otherwise the order in which you play teams can give you either a huge advantage or disadvantage. If your team has a really tight game in the opening rounds against a good side and scrapes 4 points it seems not quite right if that same team rolls over in Round 6 to your closest rival in the pool handing them 5 points.
We are now heading back to the Premiership for a delicious round of Christmas fixtures where we will be able to see who has picked up momentum from Europe and who is stalled in the slow lane.