Saturday 17 March 2018

England's finest eye redemption

Premiership clubs can atone for last year's European meltdown, writes Paul Rees

Steve Borthwick's absence from the British leg of the Heineken Cup launch in Cardiff last week was fittingly symbolic: the English went missing in Europe last season, failing to provide a semi-finalist for only the second time in the 13 years they had taken part in the tournament.

England do not have a team in the top three of the European rankings and only two, Leicester and Wasps, are in the leading 10. The Premiership clubs are envious of the spending power of their French rivals, as well as the regions in Wales and the provinces in Ireland, while Italy's two teams in the Magners League, Treviso and Aironi, have playing budgets of €8m.

Leicester's opening game this Saturday is in Treviso. "A few years ago you would have expected to win there comfortably, but they are no longer the poor relations," says Richard Cockerill, the Tigers' director of rugby. "They have already beaten Scarlets and Leinster at home in the league and you have to treat them with a huge amount of respect. When you first looked at the pool you thought it was better than others, but it will come down to form.

"Last season was a disappointing one for the English clubs in the Heineken Cup, but France only had one quarter-finalist the year before. If it happens again this campaign you would worry that it would become the start of a trend, but given the sides representing the Premiership I would expect at least two or three to make the knock-out stages. There are always reasons why things happen and when you look at our group last season we were in with the clubs that won the Top 14 and Magners titles. We narrowly missed out but that is not good enough for Leicester: we want to be at the top table."

Northampton were the one English side to make the last eight but they went out in Munster. "We fell a bit short in our away games and it is no good coming close," says Jim Mallinder, the Saints director of rugby. "The Heineken Cup is a big learning experience: we are in a tough group again, but we know that we are potentially good enough to go through. We are previous winners and the interest and intensity in the town definitely pick up when it comes around."

Bath and Wasps are also previous winners while London Irish and Saracens, both of whom are in this season's competition, made the semi-finals in 2008. "It is important that we do well in the Heineken Cup," says Bath head coach Steve Meehan.

"Our campaign last season was over before it had begun: the timing was not great with all that had gone on, but the prestige of our club and the competition itself demands that we do well. We are hugely motivated to improve our performance and I would expect all the other Premiership sides feel the same.

"You need things to go for you, such as having your best players available. The Premiership is a more intense tournament than the Top 14, but French clubs are able to afford bigger squads and are able to manage their players better. That does give them an advantage: we prepare for the worst and hope for the best."

Saracens, as usual, are the contrary voice. "The main thing about the Heineken Cup is the financial benefits it brings," says their South African director of rugby, Brendan Venter, whose side are away to the French champions Clermont Auvergne on Saturday. "If you have ambition you need to play in the tournament." Is the Premiership more important to him? "We have developed our squad to win every game, not prioritise," he replies.

London Irish won at the then holders Leinster in last season's opening round only to lose at home to Magners League strugglers Scarlets the following week although Toby Booth, their director of rugby, says this was less due to complacency, more to what he refers to as the emotional hangover from having won in Dublin. This season, Booth's side are in one of the two toughest groups, coming up against the Ospreys, Toulon and Munster.

Wasps, meanwhile, start at Toulouse, with whom they have a history in the Heineken Cup, a week today. "They beat us in the 2004 final, a bad day for us but it was memorable as well because it was a beautiful match between two good sides," says Toulouse out-half Frederic Michalak.

"England will be stronger for last season when their sides did not play very well. It will be different this time and there is already more rugby being played in the Premiership. Money is not a difference between France and England: Toulouse may have it, but not the players. Trophies are our reward."

The Ospreys' head coach, Sean Holley, also expects more from the English. "I have been pleasantly surprised watching Premiership matches this season," he says. "All their teams in the Heineken Cup are playing some good stuff and I expect them to really push for it. It is an incredibly strong tournament: we have avoided Leicester this season, but we are in another exacting pool and I expect only one of us to make the knockout stage; that means picking up something away."


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