Thursday 19 April 2018

Best of Britain aim to remain in Europe

Saracens boss Mark McCall
Saracens boss Mark McCall

Paul Rees

There is no debate over Europe in rugby union. Everyone wants to be in and for the British teams who fail to make the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup, the tournament will end in Brexit tears. The debate over exit strategies will revolve around how to get out of trouble against Saracens, who are aiming to emulate Toulon by winning the tournament for a third successive season.

Mark McCall's side start next Sunday against Northampton at Franklin's Gardens, a ground where they have not lost in the Premiership since 2013, and they will arrive armed with the boost of a 55-point haul against the Saints at Twickenham last month .

In the first round last season Saracens stunned Toulon with their pace, power and precision at the Stade Félix Mayol and inflicted a first home defeat in the competition on the team they had succeeded as champions the season before. For all the talk at the tournament launches about the need to win at home and pick up at least a bonus point away, Saracens have learned the value of a fast start.

It has not been lost on the Premiership champions, Exeter, as they prepare for their fifth European Cup campaign. They have won their opening match only once and their record in the second round is the same. A year ago they suffered a humbling 35-8 defeat by Clermont Auvergne at Sandy Park, a reverse that came in the middle of a run of five matches in all competitions without a win and proved defining.

Rob Baxter, now the Chiefs' director of rugby, says: "What I hope we have learned from previous European experiences and playing in big games in the last couple of seasons is that we have to make it about ourselves in the early rounds and play the way we play, not think we have to change something massively.

"Our opening-round defeat at Ospreys two seasons ago, when we ended up not getting a point from a game we should have won, was down to us thinking we had to do things differently in Europe. If we had played Exeter rugby, we would have won.

"In earlier times there was an element of putting the Premiership before Europe but we are now at the point where, if what we do is good enough to beat Wasps and Saracens in the Premiership play-offs, it should be pretty successful in Europe. We do not need to find a miracle offload or chip and chase to create something. We have to do what we do and do it very well. A great marker of that are Saracens. They have an innate confidence and they are effective across competitions. We will talk about what we want to achieve in the first round and then the second. After that what will be will be."

Exeter's first match is at home to Glasgow, the Guinness Pro14 side who, after the opening month of the season, were the only unbeaten side in Europe's three major leagues, and their second is at Montpellier, the free-spending Top 14 leaders who have scored 182 points in their four home league matches this season.

If the Champions Cup this decade has been about teams defending the title - Leinster and Saracens once and Toulon twice since 2009-'10 - teams such as Glasgow, Exeter, Montpellier and Scarlets, who have never reached the final, have been made stronger by failure in a tournament that offers little in the way of refuge.

Italy's flag has flown at half-mast in the tournament's 22 years but from next season the 20 contenders will be decided on league position, not nationality. As the Pro14's two conferences stood at the start of this weekend, Zebre would qualify; they, like Treviso - who are in a group with Bath, Toulon and Scarlets - have won two of their first five matches.

The two Italian sides are made up largely of home players, with journeymen foreigners having been told to look for a pay packet elsewhere. It is part of Conor O'Shea's revolution in the country: Treviso last month ended Richard Cockerill's Scottish honeymoon by winning in Edinburgh, and Zebre last weekend halted Ulster's unbeaten start to the campaign. The stirrings are hardly enough to suggest European conquest but Bath would be rash to be writing out a slip for a winning bonus before they face Treviso at The Rec next Saturday, six days before a Friday night trip to Llanelli.

"Consistency comes down to the mental side," says Matt Garvey, Bath captain. "It is easy getting up for Saracens and as individuals we have to prepare the same way for every game, spending hours on analysis. Against what you perceive as a lesser club, not that there are any, did you spend the same amount of time or leave it to someone else to tell you what they did? On paper you cannot compare Treviso and Toulon but the challenge for us as players is not to look at where Treviso have been recently but to remember there are no easy games and that we cannot afford to slip up on Saturday."

Bath are one of 11 former winners of the cup and one of five English clubs to prevail, along with three from France and three from Ireland. Scotland has barely made a ripple and neither has Wales since regional rugby was introduced in 2003. But, with the New Zealander Dave Rennie following Gregor Townsend at Glasgow and Scarlets flourishing under the New Zealander Wayne Pivac, the knockout stage is an attainable target, although Ospreys are struggling.

If Exeter's pool, which includes Leinster, looks the most competitive with all four teams going into the weekend in play-off positions, Saracens' group contains the French champions, Clermont - who slumped to ninth in the Top 14 last weekend after losing at Castres - and Ospreys, who went into Saturday night's derby against Scarlets joint bottom of their Pro14 conference, with Cardiff Blues.

Europe, though, is about more than league form. It is for some a step into the unknown, although Leicester are grouped with Racing 92, the 2016 finalists who are showing signs of wear and tear, and Munster. Analysis goes only so far and so does money, with the European club with the biggest playing budget, Toulouse, in the Challenge Cup. It is, as Saracens have found and Exeter are striving for, about being who you are, not what you perceive you ought to be. Observer

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