There has been a lot of talk about the resurgence of English club rugby after its dominance of the Champions Cup, says Adam Hathaway, but it won’t always be like this
When the dust had settled after last weekend’s Champions Cup quarter-finals, there were three English clubs and one French outfit left standing.
The representation from the Premiership hasn’t been so heavy in the last four since 2006-07. That was the last time an English side – Lawrence Dallaglio’s Wasps – won the title, in an all-Anglo final against Leicester.
This year there was no Irish side in the last eight, for the first time since 1997-98, and Scotland and Wales have only had two sides between them in the quarter-finals in the past six years. Right, so England fans can look forward to a period of having things their own way on the European front?
As another antidote to the shambles of the World Cup, it has topped up the feel-good factor of England’s Grand Slam. But anyone who thinks this is a return to the earlier days of the tournament when Bath, Northampton, Leicester and Wasps won six titles between them in a decade should probably have a rethink.
There have been a few moans about the new format, how the richest clubs are going to dominate, and the richest clubs are in England and France, and how this is the deathknell for the Celtic nations in competing in Europe – but that is probably cobblers.
As with anything in this game, it’s portrayed as black and white but there are more than a few shades of grey in between and if you don’t believe me listen to Dai Young, director of rugby at Wasps.
His side won a group that contained Toulon, Leinster and Bath – European champions all of them – and edged through a pulsating quarter-final against Exeter, which is a candidate for game of the season so far, and they did this less than three years after nearly going to the wall. But Young says English fans should make the most of it while they can.
“It’s a big call to sit here and say this is going to be a regular thing but I was just as dismissive two or three years ago when we said we weren’t getting any English teams there,” says the former Wales and Lions prop. “Over the last year or two Saracens have been the team that have been fighting for England. I never thought we were as bad then as it was portrayed and we are probably not as good now as it looks either.
“English teams are strong and they closing the gap on some of the French teams. That points to evidence that the Premiership is a strong league.
“Getting a regular five through is probably not going to happen, but we will get two or three on a regular basis.”
The Irish provinces supplied five winners of Europe’s elite competition in the seven years up to Leinster’s last win in 2012 and after a little run like that, the retirement of some of the world’s top performers and a slip in finances they were due a dip.
English clubs have got their signings right this time. The Piutau brothers and Frank Halai haven’t done Wasps’ cause any harm, alongside George Smith, and Telusa Veainu and Peter Betham at Leicester have led the charge for the Tigers. Saracens aren’t as loaded with foreigners as their reputation suggests but Schalk Brits, Neil de Kock, Marcelo Bosch and Titi Lamositele are all proven performers.
It could just be a perfect storm for English clubs and there is no guarantee that it will last. As well as the influx of top-notch foreign signings, the Premiership clubs are feeling the benefit of a glut of decent English-qualified youngsters coming through.
From the 2011 U20 vintage that reached the Junior World Cup final and gave them Joe Launchbury, Owen Farrell, George Ford and Mako Vunipola, through to the 2013 crop, which won the title, with Jack Nowell, Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dom Barrow, Anthony Watson and Jack Clifford on board to Maro Itoje’s 2014 crew, there are plenty of players in their early 20s with a couple of seasons of league rugby under their belts and more than a few caps between them.
But as the results of this year’s U20 Six Nations showed, the production line has the odd hiccup – this season England’s youngsters were beaten by France, Wales, Ireland and Scotland.
And the Champions Cup is getting more difficult to win. Young adds: “It has got harder and you won’t have situations where teams go through groups without losing a game.”
Recommended videos for you
So if you are English, savour it while you can; if you are Celtic, you must know the slump cannot last; and if you are French you’ve got the second favourites for this year’s title still running for you.