With Northampton Saints facing the possibility of an EPCR investigation into the team they fielded against Leinster on Saturday evening, the issue of selecting perceived ‘weaker’ sides in Champions Cup fixtures has reared its head again, but is it right that teams should be forced to select their ‘best’ players?
On the one hand for many outfits in the Champions Cup the fixtures offer bumper crowds and much needed ticket sales and TV funding that are central to their survival. In particular, the Pro 12 teams rely on the pool fixtures and knock out stages as a pivotal source of revenue.
Fans who are paying through the nose for a ticket should expect to see some entertaining rugby but also a competitive contest. Whilst many Leinster fans will have enjoyed their 60 – 13 rout of 2011 finalists Northampton, for some it will irk that the likes of Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Louis Picamoles and Luther Burrell were being rested for the fixture.
However, with virtually no chance of making it through to the knock-out stages and the Saints already struggling in the Premiership this season, surely it made sense for under pressure head coach Jim Mallinder to rest a few of his players struggling with injuries and for some coming off the back of a particularly gruelling Autumn Internationals campaign?
Even though Saints used some of their extended squad in the match, they still included the likes of the Pisi brothers, Stephen Myler, Kieran Brookes, Jamie Gibson, Calum Clark and Teimana Harrison, all normally crucial players for the club.
From the club’s own perspective it made perfect sense to make the changes, but from a tournament organisers’ point of view you want the best teams available at all times in all games to make sure fixtures don’t end up becoming one-sided farces.
Plenty of French teams in the past have utilised their enormous star-studded squads to ensure plenty of rotation between the Top 14 and Europe, but where does their ‘best’ team stop and their second stringers begin?
If you take the case of Saracens, does having Will Skelton in the team instead of Maro Itoje or George Kruis weaken them? How exactly do you define a ‘best’ team?
It’s an issue that has dogged top flight football for years; back in 2011 the Premier League clubs voted to change their rules on ‘weakened teams’ so that any combination of players from their 25 man squads can be played without any form of sanction. This came after both Blackpool and Wolves made wholesale changes to their teams as a form of both rotation and player development.
The rules in the case of the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup are not clear, but the tournaments’ organisers EPCR will review all the teams selected for last weekend on Monday and make a decision about whether to continue with an investigation into Northampton’s team selection or not.
For Premiership clubs, their league provides at least 22 highly competitive games with little chance to experiment or try out depth. Whilst the developmental tournament the LV= Cup has returned this year after a hiatus during the World Cup in 2015, it’s possible to understand why teams may want to use almost dead rubber games in European competitions to rest, rotate and develop players.
Ultimately, there are compelling and convincing arguments on both sides of this issue, but some compromise is needed in order to avoid damaging the already flimsy reputation of the relaunched Heineken Cup in its current form.
Paul Wassell, Pundit Arena
Heineken Rugby Club celebrates and rewards real supporters who make the game what it is.
Read More About: 60 - 13, champions cup, Courtney Lawes, EPCR, european rugby, France, george kruis, jim mallinder, Leinster, louis picamoles, luther burrell, lv cup, Maro Itoje, northampton saints, premiership, rugby world cup, saracens, tom wood, Top 14, will skelton, World Cup