The European Challenge Cup – very much a target for us at Saracens this season, if not for some other clubs – is throwing up situations that I rarely, if ever, experienced during my coaching career in Australia. The playing conditions we encountered in Bayonne last weekend were pretty new to me; certainly, I don't remember walking on to too many pitches back home and losing a shoe in the mud! But there are more issues affecting this tournament than a ploughed field in the Basque region of France and I'd say some of them are of urgent concern.
We all want to be a part of the elite Heineken Cup competition, which is tightening its grip on the rugby imagination. Unfortunately for some of us, we have to accept that we're not involved. That means making the best of the opportunities offered by the second-tier competition. Or rather, it should mean making the most of those opportunities.
It seems to me that the competition is split between aspirational clubs, who badly want to do well as a means of developing their winning habit and gaining valuable experience at the business end of tournaments, and what you might call "desperational" clubs, who have basically opted out of the Challenge Cup and are effectively using it to give some game time to second-string players.
As a consequence, there is a regrettable imbalance in proceedings. London Irish and Northampton seem to be completely dominant in their groups, despite the presence of the likes of Dax, Montpellier, Toulon and Bristol, all of whom should, on the face of it, be in the thick of it. Two other pools are tight: Brive, champions of Europe 11 years ago, have very definitely come out to play; Bourgoin, not exactly consistent when it comes to cross-border rugby despite their regular appearances at Heineken Cup level, picked up a good win over Worcester last weekend – a success that made their home defeat by the Italians of Padova in the previous round look all the more peculiar. As for our own pool, we're well on target to qualify with three wins from three, although we've found it difficult to secure attacking bonus points.
Some of the aspirational contingent appear to have moved into the desperational category over the first three months or so of the season. Toulon, heavily financed and very ambitious, lost by 50 points at home in their first game and have yet to win a pool fixture, while Bristol went down by more than 60 at Northampton last weekend.
Both sides are struggling domestically. League survival appears to be the name of the game for them.
But I return to the argument I made back in October, when the European campaign started: heavy defeats are always damaging, even in a competition that has effectively been forfeited. I've tasted the odd hammering myself.
When I was coaching Queensland, we lost a Super 14 match against the Bulls by 90 points, having been 3-0 up. To say it didn't do much for morale would be an understatement. It's all too easy for negativity to feed on itself – it can lead to supporter unrest, which is reflected in increased media attention, which creates pressure at board level.
The best way of guarding against this danger is to treat all games on their merits and set out to win every one of them. It's not a particularly sophisticated approach, but it works better than the alternatives. At Saracens, we've had our share of injuries, lost important players to international rugby and made a few optional changes to our starting line-up as and when we felt the need. But our focus has not shifted one little bit.
Which brings me back to our return match with Bayonne at Vicarage Road tomorrow. Last week was a throwback to the old days: a bruiser of a contest, played in bad conditions against a team fielding what looked like three contenders for the French heavyweight title in their front row.
No wonder it was a low-scoring game. This match will be played on a better surface, and that should suit us. If we get it right, a home quarter-final will be more than a possibility.
Eddie Jones is director of rugby at Saracens and you can see his side in European Challenge Cup action against Bayonne at Vicarage Road tomorrow, kick-off 3pm.Reuse content