English clubs fear eclipse in Europe as Irish stock rises
As the Heineken Cup pool stage concludes, Chris Hewett considers why Premiership teams are struggling to reach the last eight
The Heineken Cup is essentially an Irish production – it is run from Dublin, by an Irish-dominated staff. Increasingly, those English clubs who measure themselves against the yardstick of European success are wondering whether anyone other than the Irish can conceivably win the damned thing.
Between them, Leinster and Munster have won four of the last six tournaments and show every sign of elbowing everyone else aside when the 2012 prizes are handed out in the spring, although it is possible they will be out-elbowed by... Ulster. Compare this happy situation with the experiences of two champions from Premiership land, Bath and Leicester, both of whom crossed the water recently and suffered pummellings of record proportions.
When European matters are discussed by the owners and chairmen of the 12 Aviva Premiership clubs, which is pretty much all the time, there are dark mutterings about financial imbalances and lopsided playing fields.
This is nothing new: in the seasons following the high water mark of 2002, when English performance at Heineken Cup level fell into a steep decline, the French were the bogeymen. Toulouse, Stade Français, Perpignan and Biarritz spoke of plans to dominate cross-border rugby in the northern hemisphere, and backed up their fine words with mountains of cash. More often than not, their free-market approach trumped England's heavily regulated salary-cap system.
Things have changed in the land of Les Bleus: if Toulouse and Biarritz are still driven by Heineken Cup desire, together with the new and fast-developing financial powerhouse, Clermont Auvergne, Stade and Perpignan have hit hard times and have been replaced at the top end of the domestic structure by Castres, Montpellier and Racing Métro, none of whom prioritise Europe.
But from the English perspective it is a case of same song, different tune. The Irish provinces, who wield greater financial muscle than ever before (all those South Africans are not living in Belfast on peanuts) and are underpinned by a structure that has Europe as its centrepiece, are threatening to dominate the tournament in the way the Premiership dominated it in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
During England's supremacy – leaving aside the boycott season of 1998-99, there was a Premiership club in every final between 1997 and 2002, with four hoistings of the trophy – the pool stages yielded a victory rate in excess of 60 per cent. In the last five years, that has dropped to 53 per cent. The Irish graph is heading in the opposite direction, rising from 50 per cent in the years of red-rose hegemony to 63 per cent.
Qualification for the knockout stage tells a similar story. Ireland produced only four quarter-finalists in the first of the periods under discussion (six if the boycott year is included) as opposed to nine over the more recent stretch. That will become 10 if Ulster, improving faster than any side in Europe, find a way through this weekend.
What is to be done? Toby Booth, the head coach of London Irish, is one of the sharpest thinkers in the English game, but not even he can come up with a workable short-term solution.
"The Heineken Cup is becoming very, very difficult for us and I don't see it getting easier any time soon," he said this week, as he prepared his side for their final group game, against Edinburgh at Murrayfield – a game that means nothing to the Exiles, who dropped out of knockout contention seven days ago.
"Look at the obstacles the English clubs face before they set foot on the field: the wage cap under which they operate; the massive physicality of the Premiership compared with other domestic tournaments; the fact that relegation is built into the Premiership structure, which raises the stakes and drastically reduces the opportunity to rest players for European games; the fact that in some Heineken Cup nations, the players are to all intents and purposes centrally contracted and therefore have their seasons managed quite differently.
"These aren't excuses and I'm not complaining. I'm just giving you the reality – the hard facts of life. The way I see it, success in Europe depends on three things: the quality and depth of your squad, which ultimately comes down to financial resources; the freshness of players going into big Heineken Cup games; and the technical and tactical strengths you take on to the field. A coach can control one of those things, the last. The others, he can't. Not here in England, at least.
"Elsewhere in Europe, those running the big teams have more influence and control over squad-building and player management."
London Irish have qualified for the Heineken Cup five times in six seasons, were within a score of making the 2008 final and are among the half-dozen or so English clubs who can consider themselves a part of the tournament's fabric. But their campaign this season has been badly undermined by injury and according to the coach, treatment-room problems are every bit as significant as financial imbalances and domestic structures in leaving the Premiership contingent at a disadvantage.
"Freshness is hugely underestimated as a Heineken Cup factor," he said. "The Irish find it far easier to protect their leading players against over-exposure because – let's be honest here – they don't have to pick them for league rugby week in, week out.
"If you're coaching in the Pro12 competition [the relegation-free tournament featuring the Irish provinces, the Welsh regions, the big-city Scottish sides and the two Italian super-clubs] you can base your planning around the European dates, both in terms of experimenting tactically and in getting your players to peak at the right time. It doesn't work like that in England, where every game is a do-or-die struggle and the injury fall-out is so great.
"I suppose we could have rushed our injured players back for Heineken Cup games this season, but they wouldn't have been tournament-ready. You can't just rock up on a Saturday and play at that level, because if you're not found out in the first game, you'll be found out in the second. I draw the analogy with golf. You might have a long break from the game, come back, hit a couple of good shots and think everything's fine. The next round, you crash. Why? Because you go in with a different set of expectations and you fall way short of them. It's the same in rugby. If it wasn't, we wouldn't play pre-season games, would we?"
As thing stood going into this final round of pool matches – the group involving Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester and Connacht was decided last night – there was a distinct possibility that five knockout places would go to clubs playing in the RaboDirect Pro12. This would be a first: the previous best delivered by the Celts was in 2008-09, when Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys from Wales joined Leinster and Munster from Ireland in finding a route out of the round-robin phase.
Such a situation would also set alarm bells ringing at deafening volume, in France as well as in England.
"In some ways, especially when you're talking about sustainable strength of a country's rugby, the number of teams reaching the quarter-finals is a better measure than the number winning the trophy," Booth said. "Knockout rugby is a different beast entirely: you're throwing a lot of energy at, and preparing very specifically for, a single game over a longish period of time. The difficulty for English teams now is getting out of the group. That's a real challenge and it goes back to a form of prioritisation that is easier for teams elsewhere, for the reasons I've given.
"It's not all doom and gloom: there are always exceptions to rules and I'm quite sure that now and again, one of the Premiership clubs will push all the way to the final, as Northampton did last season. But let's be frank here. In the world we inhabit now, Heineken Cup success for an English team will be in spite of the way our rugby is constructed, not because of it."
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