This weekend’s European Champions Cup quarter-finals saw a conflict of emotions for English fans. Northampton Saints were positively mauled by Clermont Auvergne, Wasps were heroic in defeat against Toulon, and Saracens were left flying solo as English contenders after their last-gasp win over Racing Metro. Some were enamoured by the turbulence of the matches, simply awed by a weekend of outstanding rugby; others saw only statistics which backed up the long-prevailing argument that English clubs are failing to compete successfully in Europe.
Saracens are the only Premiership side left in the Champions Cup, after Saints, Wasps and Bath all fell short this weekend. Late last year I wrote an article for Impact Sport outlining the row over whether the salary cap for English clubs should be increased, and this seventy-five percent defeat margin will be hailed by advocates of that move as proof that the current system is holding teams back. It is difficult to argue that Toulon’s 32-18 win over Wasps was not helped in part by their wealth of international superstars, such as Ali Williams, Matt Giteau and Bakkies Botha. Wasps’ director of rugby, Dai Young, took the opportunity to declare post-match his support for a rethink of the Premiership salary cap. He said:
“There probably needs to be a little bit of a rethink in terms of how important Europe is to English teams…when it comes to playing in Europe against French teams that have pretty much unlimited budgets”
The salary cap argument is nowhere near being concluded, and both sides have merit. As Young conceded, the cap has been successful in producing a crop of talented young English players, and a national side to be reckoned with. Yet there still persists a noticeable divide across the English Channel in terms of club rugby quality. Take, for instance, Northampton Saints. The reigning champions of the Aviva Premiership are ten points clear at the top of the national league and have been a dominant force so far this year. Yet at the weekend they were utterly demolished by a rampant Clermont side, who ran in four tries and ruthlessly punished the error-strewn Saints. How could the crop of English rugby be put aside so easily?
Jim Mallinder, the Saints’ director of rugby, admitted that Saturday’s performance was perhaps his worst ever defeat. Clermont have been impressive thus far in the Top 14, France’s equivalent of the Premiership, but this routing was still unexpected. Does this result strengthen the argument that English teams are struggling on the European stage, or was this a one-off mishap? Mallinder was left in little doubt:
“On this performance it would be hard to argue against it, but we have competed against their top sides in the past”
It’s true that English clubs have indeed been competitive in Europe in the not so distant past; only last year Saracens were in the inaugural Champions Cup Final. However, that match only served to display the difference between English and French rugby; Saracens were comprehensively beaten by a rampant Toulon side, packed with international superstars. Nor is the difference only between these two nations across the water. Bath are another English rugby team who have been impressive this season, filling England’s ranks with some of their most impressive players this last Six Nations campaign. They were beaten 18-15 by Leinster on Saturday, which is not a huge score-line but is another example of both the Irish team’s continuing success on the European stage and of England’s dearth of success there.
Not all hope is lost. Saracens ensured that the English flag still flies in Europe after Marcelo Bosch held his nerve and landed a stoppage time penalty kick. Toulon may have overpowered the Wasps but they did not find the task easy, or at least not as easy as Clermont found beating the Saints. English rugby clearly has some strength left in it, as the national side almost brought home the Six Nations trophy recently and look set to challenge the best come the World Cup at Twickenham in the autumn. Now is not the time to consider a complete overhaul of the structure of the domestic league; not with the greatest prize rugby has to offer available in a matter of months. Beyond that, perhaps. If defeat in Europe is to be a growing trend for English clubs, then some serious rethinking will be needed; but a salary cap scrapping still need not be the only answer.
Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackrhart
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