Eddie Jones’ side could suffer knock-on effect as Pro14 teams teach wealthier English and French rivals a lesson in the European Rugby Champions Cup
Amid all the myriad European pool permutations and head-scratching arithmetic it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture out on the wintry fields. This has been a Champions Cup season of vivid, gripping contrasts in which the Pro14 sides are teaching their wealthy English and French league counterparts an increasing lesson in humility.
Even if the Premiership sides, in particular, stage a last-gasp resurrection they are already scrabbling for quarter-final crumbs. It could be that England has only one representative – or possibly none – in a last eight that could contain five Pro14 sides. Two years ago there were five Premiership quarter‑finalists and none at all from the then Pro12. The pendulum has swung.
While Exeter and Saracens can still secure an away quarter-final if they win their final pool fixtures against Glasgow and Northampton respectively, they are battling a continental tide that has swept away Saints, Harlequins and Leicester.
Barring a late reprieve, Bath and Wasps are probably heading the same way. If the English decline is entirely a coincidence it is a striking one.
Anyone who watched the Scarlets paint the Recreation Ground red on Friday night will certainly suspect otherwise. Both with ball in hand and around the breakdown, the Welsh region made Bath – a Premiership top-six side, albeit reliably inconsistent – look plodding and mediocre. At scrum‑half Gareth Davies looked every inch a top-class nine, the Irish lock Tadhg Beirne and his second-row partner David Bulbring were colossal and Rhys Patchell and Hadleigh Parkes gave the national selectors a monumental nudge.
The sureness of the handling, the accuracy of the passing and offloading, the support running and defensive steel were also a huge tribute to the coaching of Wayne Pivac, Stephen Jones and Byron Hayward, all of whom must be rising up the queue to take control of Wales when Warren Gatland and his current team step aside. If Gatland’s squad perform half as fluently as the elusive Scarlets in the upcoming Six Nations they will generate a whole lot of love.
It would also further query the received wisdom that European form and Six Nations success are two different things. That cosy assumption is beginning to feel outdated; how can, say, Ireland’s national management be anything other than upbeat when their three competing provinces are so competitive in the Champions Cup and Leinster are positively rampant? Is it entirely a fluke England have won the last two Six Nations titles in the same years that Saracens have scooped successive European crowns?
Which begs the next big question: might the Premiership’s faltering form in Europe and the rising confidence of the Pro14’s leading lights spell trouble for England and Eddie Jones over the next two months? Even if Billy Vunipola recovers swiftly from his fractured forearm, Jones’s side are going to encounter a revitalised bunch of opponents heartened by what they have seen in Europe of late. Even the Europe-conquering Saracens have not won in Wales on their last two visits, while the only English clubs to score a cross-border win away in this season’s Champions Cup have been Exeter in Montpellier and Bath in a deluge in Llanelli.
Privately, leading Premiership coaches continue to argue the relentless nature of their league exacts a mental toll that makes it harder for their teams to get up consistently even for big Europe dates. One illustration: Munster’s outstanding Lions scrum-half Conor Murray has played only five Pro14 games this season while his English counterpart Ben Youngs has already started twice as many Premiership fixtures for Leicester.
The all-consuming nature of England’s training camps, as Jones seeks to drive his squad ever onwards, has also clearly made it tough for certain players to satisfy two masters, with the threat of relegation a constricting factor for some. There is a big difference between being battle-hardened and overplayed, and too many English players still operate on the wrong side of that line.
At the same time, though, there is no disputing the increasing quality of the coaching in the Pro14. Pivac, Jones, Dave Rennie, Stuart Lancaster, Rassie Erasmus, Johann van Graan, Bernard Jackman, Richard Cockerill: all have coached in more than one country and their desire to outwit each other is raising standards across the board.
All of which leaves the Premiership trying to polish something potentially rather nasty, despite Northampton’s brave win against an injury-wracked Clermont and Harlequins’ late showstopper against Wasps. Dai Young’s side will need a bonus-point victory – and deny Ulster a losing bonus point – in Coventry next Sunday to remain mathematically afloat, while Bath’s fate is in others’ hands, even if they win big in Italy against Benetton on Saturday.
Exeter may well also require a bonus-point success in Glasgow, even if their six-try demolition of the French league leaders Montpellier on Saturday again underlined their quality in adversity.
Saracens, meanwhile, could still be stranded even if they conclude with another points landslide against their recent whipping boys Northampton. An Ospreys win in Clermont will slam the door whatever happens.
In that event the English will be staring at their leanest season in Europe since 2011-12, when Saracens were the only Premiership representatives in the last eight and ended up losing 22-3 at home to Clermont. The only previous time England have failed to supply a single quarter-finalist was in 1999, the year they boycotted the competition entirely. John Pullin’s famous line after England’s defeat by Ireland in Dublin in 1973 – “We may not be much good but at least we turn up” – may soon have to be revisited.