English in Europe, what did we learn?

The culmination of the fourth round of Champions Cup action has highlighted a handful of telling narratives for Premiership sides in Europe. The English in Europe, what did we learn?

By Alistair Stokes
17th December 2018
By Alistair Stokes
17th December 2018

The culmination of Europe’s second block has produced widespread disappointment for the English, with one side alone looking set to guarantee a spot in the playoffs. The degradation of a number of sides has continued while some remain treading water, equally as likely to fall from the competition in disgrace or pull together to secure knockout rugby.

Without further ado, we delve into each of the six Premiership teams’ failure or success - spoiler alert, predominantly the latter - over the last fortnight of European action and how it pertains to the hotly contested Premiership.

Exeter Chiefs: Struggling

Yet again the 2017 Premiership champions are in a European skirmish, battling to stay afloat in the middle-lower end of pool 2. Despite sitting at the top end of their domestic competition, Exeter suffer a persistent mental block in Europe.

Back-to-back arm-wrestles with fellow countrymen Gloucester garnered away victories all round for the West County pair. On eight points apiece, both sides sit behind Castre (9 points) and pool leaders Munster (12 points) with two games in hand.

Exeter’s unceasing, self-imposed psychological block in Europe stands as a persistent concern for Director of Rugby Rob Baxter, although, if the much-loved coach is to be believed, Exeter may have found the secret formula during their mid-week preparations. Teasingly, Baxter played his cards close to his chest, unwilling to unveil specifics.

This mystery factor - that according to Baxter had little correlation to their style of play – combined with the disappointing loss to Harlequins in round nine will serve the Chiefs in good stead ahead of their hosting of fellow league powerhouses Saracens this Saturday.

Paired with the boost of allegedly cracking their European hoodoo and the scorn of tasting bitter defeat at Harlequins hands, Sandy Park should be a particularly inhospitable environment for Sarries.

However, injuries to Henry Slade, Nic White, Stu Townsend and Jack Maunder will put considerable pressure on Exeter’s starting line-up, leaving Saracens with the prospect of pressurising potential weak links and extend their current two point lead at the top of the table.

Top performer: Santiago Cordero

Fantasy salary: £319k

Form: 7.6

Newcastle Falcons: Struggling

As it stands Newcastle find themselves in a delicate position across both leagues, stuck in a bottom of the league Premiership tussle and a challenging third place in pool 5.

Compounding Newcastle’s already hefty injury list are the first-half withdrawals of Fijian backrow Nemani Nagusa and breakthrough player of the season, so far, Johnny Williams. The Falcons injury list already boasts Mickey Young, Josh Matavesi, Sean Robinson, Will Witty, Logovi’I Mulipola, Joel Hodgson, Will Welch, Jon Welsh and Craig Mitchell, leaving director of rugby Dean Richards with unwelcome issues to contend whilst battling for domestic survival.

While, technically, a slim glimmer of hope remains for the Falcons in Europe, Richards is sure to be shifting his full focus on the Premiership. We are yet to hit the halfway mark this season, but the Falcons’ fall from semi-finalists to potential relegation contenders is an irksome fact and one that will surely be playing on Richards’ mind.

It will be a busy week for the Newcastle medical team this week, with third-placed Gloucester visiting the league’s most northern stronghold this Sunday - who themselves barely have a treatment bed to spare – in a prime opportunity to shift the flow of momentum in their favour.

Top performer: Sinoti Sinoti

Fantasy salary: £288k

Form: 7.2

Gloucester: Struggling

Danny Cipriani, Henry Trinder, James Hanson, Val Rapava Ruskin, Tom Savage, Jaco Kriel, Mark Atkinson, Lewis Ludlow, Ruan Ackermann, Ruan Dreyer.

The above list could double as both two-thirds of Gloucester’s first-choice XV and their current injury list and unfortunately extends to a further seven players.

Johan Ackermann has made an instant impact with the Cherry and Whites since taking up the head coach role last September, taking the West Country outfit from mid-table nearly men to, arguably, playoff certainties in just 16 months.

The frustration of Friday night’s Kingsholm defeat will be an ever-present throughout training this week, the fuel that will surely prove evident against Newcastle.

As with Exeter, Gloucester require full five-point victories against Munster and Castre to cling to furthering their European season, but they will first have to return to their season-long battle with their extensive injury list.

Either way, Gloucester’s and Ackermann’s stocks have skyrocketed so far this season and will likely continue this trend over the ensuing weeks, with Welshman Owen Williams finally permitted the opportunity to enjoy a run at ten in Cipriani’s absence.

Top performer: Ollie Thorley

Fantasy Salary: £117k

Form: 8.5

Bath: Out

Pushing the reigning Champions Cup and Pro14 champions close a fortnight ago and exhibiting the odd glimpse of brilliance in defeat in Dublin on Saturday does little to take away from the fact that Todd Blackadder seems to be at a loss when it comes to solving his side’s persistent oscillation of form.

The Blue, Black and White are bobbing to and fro more viciously than five-foot rowboat in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and are in a repetitive cycle of seeing their rudder broken and substituted with a jarring replacement.

Welshman Rhys Priestland plays the role of the controlled older head, Freddie Burns presents himself as the true definition of a mercurial standoff and New Zealander James Wilson is the all-purpose utility man, filling a passable role at fly-half whilst plainly lacking the experience of an out-and-out standoff.

They may not have exited Europe with a substantial increase in injuries, and if anything have seen plenty of names return, but Bath’s return to the bread and butter of the Premiership will likely be far from smooth.

Bath and Wasps are the only two English sides to be truly ruled out of making it out of the pool stages after failing to claim a single victory from four fixtures and will look to take out their Champions Cup frustrations upon one another at the Ricoh this Sunday.

Top performer: Cooper Vuna

Fantasy Salary: £211k

Form: 7.1

Wasps: Out

Dai Young’s men will find some comfort in the form displayed against Toulouse the last two weekends. Take into consideration that Wasps are one of, if not the most, disrupted sides with injuries and international call-ups this season, their residence at the top end of the Premiership table is somewhat striking.

Jake Coopery-Woolley, Matt Mullen, Tommy Taylor, Joe Launchbury, Dan Robson, Jimmy Gopperth, Brad Shields and Nathan Hughes have been the most notable absentees for the Coventry men, leaving gaping chasms in their starting XV.

Although, such gaps have afforded minutes for some of the side’s most promising youth and Young’s most canny Championship acquisitions. Michael le Bourgeois and Ross Neal have been standout performers after taking the step up from England’s second tier to the largest stage, while 22-year-old tighthead Will Stuart and 19-year-old backrow Tom Willis have stepped up to the mark.

Wasps may be in the midst of contract controversy, alleged financial turmoil and a team of physios worked to exhaustion, but we should see a steady increase in on-field performances as key players return. On the Brightside for Wasps followers, such hardships had established priceless depth.

Top performer: Ross Neal

Fantasy salary: £145k

Form: 8.3

Saracens: On the rampage

Once again the Wolfpack are England’s standard bearers in Europe, trampling all challengers in sight to claim a healthy 18 points from a potential 20 in their first four fixtures. 

The reigning Premiership champs have surely sewn a handful of seeds of concern in the minds of Leinster, Toulouse, Edinburgh and Racing 92, with Mark McCall’s men plainly discontented with their showings so far. An ominous omen.

The rotation policy paying dividends and staggering strength in depth across the park has set Sarries on the perfect path to continue their season in their current manner and are yet to lose a game in either the 22-game winning streak, having last tasted defeat in a Champions Cup semi-final away to eventual winners Leinster.

However, they face a stern challenge at Sandy Park this weekend in an Exeter side ready to make up for defeat in their last league outing and buoyed by a 29-17 victory at Kingsholm.

Top performer: Sean Maitland

Fantasy salary: £249k

Form: 7.3

Leicester Tigers: Need a miracle

A sour note to finish on, but the current situation at Welford Road is far from exultant. Interim head coach Geordan Murphy may be a favourite of the players and fans, but there is a rot within the Leicester setup; a rot that is proving impervious to all attempts of eradication.

Murphy possesses one of the most star-studded first XVs in the league, but for the all the firepower at his disposal, defensive lapses and deflating performances are in excessive supply. Surprisingly, Leicester still hold a minimal chance of making it out of their group, although it would require a St Nicholas-sized miracle to come to fruition.

Going forward and taking the fight to their opposition, Tigers finally resemble a side worthy of their quality. The Midlands side have caused the Racing defence countless headaches over the last two weeks, most of which revolved around the once again fit and in-form England duo of Manu Tuilagi and Ellis Genge.

The phrase “too big to go down” was made for Leicester and it would be more surprising than not to see them languishing any lower than tenth by the end of the regular season. However, a wily defence specialist and perchance an experienced senior coach will be on the top of Leicester’s Christmas list.

Tigers host Harlequins at Welford Road this weekend and could be set for yet another hefty loss. Under the charge of former England defence coach Paul Gustard, the West London-men will be ready to reproduce the heroics put on display against Exeter earlier this month.

Top performer: Manu Tuilagi

Fantasy Salary: £340k

Form: 7.4

Be sure to check your fantasy line-ups this week as we return to Premiership action, kicking off with two of the aforementioned teams at the Recreation Ground, where Bath and Leicester Tigers will look to head up the chasing pack in a fascinating middle-lower table melee.

The Rugby Magazine

Filed under: Champions Cup, Gallagher Premiership
Written by: Alistair Stokes
Follow: @alistokesrugby · @therugbymag

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