Home Rugby Ignore The Champions Cup – English Rugby Is In Great Shape

Ignore The Champions Cup – English Rugby Is In Great Shape

It has been a season to forget for the English teams in the Champions Cup. Only two-time winners Saracens have managed to proceed to the knock-out stages, and even they were only able to qualify as one of the three best runners-up.

The claim that the English game, both domestic and international, has never been healthier seems highly contentious.

In fact, given such a poor set of results in Europe, one could be forgiven for thinking that English rugby is in crisis. An assessment unthinkable only four months ago.

The last two years have been memorable ones for English rugby fans.

The national team has been in imperious form, winning 22 of their 23 matches and landing two Six Nations titles and a 3-0 series whitewash in Australia in the process.

Meanwhile, club rugby has been going from strength to strength.

The giant television deal signed in March 2015 has seen a significant injection of cash into the Premiership coffers.

As a result, a plethora of high-profile foreign names have joined the league – Schalk Burger, Piri Weepu, James Horwill, Jamie Roberts, Willie Le Roux, Taulupe Faletau, Louis Picamoles and Kurtley Beale to name but a few.

This has led to an increasingly competitive and entertaining domestic league which in turn has resulted in more people through the turnstiles.

Over two million attended matches (an average of over 15,000 per game) during the 2016-17 Aviva Premiership. All this was capped off by Exeter’s thrilling 23-20 win in extra-time of the Premiership final over Wasps – a fitting end to the season.

And of course, the Champions Cup over the last couple of seasons has been a happy hunting ground for English clubs, chiefly Saracens.

Back-to-back European crowns have seen them emerge as the premier club side in Europe.

While, other English sides have themselves reached the business end of the tournament – three of the four semi-finalists in 2016 were Aviva Premiership sides.

So what has gone wrong this season? Is it the first signs of deeper lying problems in the English game?

In short, no. It is nothing more than a blip. A result of specific troubles within particular clubs. As a whole, English rugby remains in rude health.

Leicester, Harlequins and Northampton are cases in point.

Their European campaigns have been pitiful – managing three wins between them.

Leicester were “nilled” by Castres last weekend, Harlequins shipped 52 points away to Ulster in December, while Northampton were on the receiving end of thrashings from Saracens (twice) and Ospreys.

These struggles are also reflected in their league form.

They lie eighth, ninth and tenth respectively in the Aviva Premiership table.

It is telling that Newcastle and Gloucester – both of whom have progressed to the quarter-finals of the lesser Challenge Cup – sit above these sides in the league.

Injuries have hit the Tigers and ‘Quins particularly hard.

Manu Tuilagi has been a massive loss at Welford Road. While the big summer signing at the Twickenham Stoop, Francis Saili has played less than an hour of rugby all season. In fact, for their trip to Ulster – Quins had only 24 players available.

Meanwhile, Northampton have been in disarray.

The sacking of long-time Director of Rugby Jim Mallinder has failed to revive their fortunes.

The issues facing these sides are real and long-term – but are club-specific – not signs of deeper troubles within the English game as a whole.

Bath, Wasps and Exeter have fared much better. Bath can hold their heads high, competing valiantly in a tough pool which featured PRO14 champions Scarlets, as well as the galacticos of Toulon.

Their failure to progress ultimately came to being blown away at home last weekend against a very impressive Scarlets – that aside they have had a strong European campaign.

Wasps are another side who haven’t quite hit their straps this year. Their first home Premiership defeat in 21 months at the hands of Harlequins marked the beginning of a five-game winless run in all competitions.

Since then, they have shown flickers of their potential, notably impressive home victories against La Rochelle and Ulster, but haven’t kicked on.

This poor form was enough to consign them to third place in a competitive pool.

Finally, Exeter – the Premiership’s form side. They, along with Montpellier and Glasgow, were outclassed by a highly impressive Leinster side – there is no shame in that.

Their wins over Montpellier confirmed that they belong among Europe’s elite. It was just a shame that they couldn’t follow up last weekend’s dominant victory with another up in Scotland on Saturday.

All in all, it has been a disappointing European campaign from an English point of view. But one shouldn’t read too much into it.

The Aviva Premiership remains both competitive and high-quality, while England rightly sit second in the World Rugby rankings.

English struggles in Europe must be diagnosed on a case-by-case basis. None of their struggles are symptoms of any issues within English rugby itself.

This season has been a blip, nothing more. Next season, the English sides will be back with a vengeance.

And in the meantime, any notion that English rugby is ailing will be swiftly dispelled when Eddie Jones’ men secure a third Six Nations title in succession.

Rob Stileman, Pundit Arena

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