The Rugby Paper
Maybe clubs are reason England failed, not Eddie
The European Champions Cup has reached the quarter-final stage last weekend with a mixed bag of teams from the three leagues involved. The five French sides – La Rochelle, Toulouse, Racing 92, Bordeaux Begles and ASM Clermont Auvergne – made up the biggest contingent followed by the Premiership with Sale and Exeter and just one, Leinster, from the PRO14.
Although we have had a strange season this year, teams have been playing more or less regular fixtures and so should be considered well prepared for this elite competition, particularly as all the clubs that qualified for the quarter-finals are currently at or near the top of their respective leagues
However, the failure of the Premiership to get none through to the semi-finals is an alarm bell that should be ringing loudly at the RFU.
With just two teams making the quarters and, for only the second time in the history of the Cup, the Premiership failing to have a team in the semi-finals, coupled with England’s performance in the Six Nations, it would seem to indicate that the standard of the Premiership is beginning to decline.
Many of the games in the Premiership this season have been high scoring, ‘crowd pleasing’ results that seem to show an improvement in the strength of the competition – but it now appears that may be wrong.
The dominance of the French clubs is matched by the improvement in their national side as French coach Galthie has been provided with a wealth of players to build an impressive squad.
England’s failure in the Six Nations was in part blamed on Eddie Jones picking players from Saracens who had not been playing and may therefore have not been match fit.
Yet looking at Premiership results in the European Cup appears to show that perhaps Jones wasn’t to blame after all and a decline in the standard of the club game had impacted on all the squad members’ performances.
In particular Sale’s dsiplay last week against La Rochelle can only be described as woeful, lacking a platform and being totally demolished up front, conceding ground and penalties at virtually every scrum or maul.
The old saying ‘it’s forwards that win games while the backs dictate by how many points’ remains true to this day. Simply because as a back it doesn’t matter how well you kick or how fast you run, you can’t score if you don’t have the ball.
Interestingly, the selection of the Lions’ coaches without a single English coach tells a story of its own, which would not have been anything to do with the Six Nations result as Warren Gatland would have been planning his Lions team (management and players) since he agreed to take charge.
The same is true for the players.
Although a few may have played themselves out of contention, they will not be judged solely on their SixNations performances but also on club form.
Gatland would have watched countless games, club and internationals, in preparing his plans and chosing his coaches with the hope that they will inspire the squad to play in the style he believes will produce a winning series.
The only thorn in his plans is the usual Premiership stumbling block of getting players released which, despite rumours and protestations to the contrary, is down once again to money.
When the Lions paid the Premiership clubs £70,000 per player for release in 2017 there were no problems despite the potential disruption to end-of-season games.
So whatever is said by either side, if the money was on the table an agreement would soon appear with the logical conclusion that any selected players involved in the Premiership final would join the Lions squad after that match.
One thing that should help the Lions’ selection is the fact that a percentage of England players who are likely to be picked should be free to join the squad as soon as the Lions want – and they are the Saracens contingent.
As Saracens are not in the Premiership at this time and therefore are not involved in the protracted end-of-season games, they are free to release their players more or less as soon as they are selected should they want to.
Those players will also be in prime condition having played in the Six Nations, then had a break, before playing in the Championship. That makes Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Jamie George and the Vunipola brothers potentially some of the first names on Gatland’s squad sheet.
Although I believe it is in the best interests of the Premiership to release players for no fee for the Lions – as they are one of the greatest adverts for the game helping increase interest in the whole UK game – one thing that has puzzled me is why the Lions are said to be suffering financially so can’t offer the Premiership any money for player release at this time.
The team only comes together every four years, they have no home ground and they employ no team manager, coaches or players until a tour takes place and they are run by only a small administration. Yet they earn a vast sum of money, not just for the nation they are touring but also the Unions that supply the players.
The money the Lions earn is divided between the Home Unions, so it is in those Unions’ interests to make sure the Lions have an inclusive squad attracting fans and sponsors from all parts of the UK particularly the biggest part, England.
“The failure of the Premiership to get a club into the Euro Cup semis is alarm bell for the RFU”