Last-gasp Pri­est­land proves de­ci­sive in bat­tle of the also-rans

The Sunday Telegraph - Sport - - Rugby Union - By Gavin Mairs at the Re­cre­ation Ground

Todd Black­ad­der, Bath’s di­rec­tor of rugby, claimed last night that the “tribal na­ture” of the Premier­ship is hand­i­cap­ping the English clubs in Eu­rope as his side nar­rowly edged a dead­rub­ber con­test against Wasps thanks to a late penalty by Rhys Pri­est­land.

Only Premier­ship cham­pi­ons Sara­cens are cer­tain to qual­ify for the knock­out stages of the Heineken Cham­pi­ons Cup and the fact that both Bath and Wasps were al­ready out of con­tention ahead of the fi­nal round of pool matches next week­end was symp­to­matic of the at­tri­tional na­ture of the English top flight, Black­ad­der said.

“The way the Premier­ship is, it’s so tribal, you smash the hell out of each other and are then al­most too tired to go and have a crack when it comes to the Cham­pi­ons Cup,” said Black­ad­der, whose side can at least in­flu­ence who wins Pool One when they travel to sec­ond-placed Toulouse next Sun­day.

“You see a lot of teams un­der pres­sure. There’s not a lot of points be­tween any­one, be­tween top four and be­ing rel­e­gated at the mo­ment, so you just have to say that pri­or­ity has to go to sur­vival, doesn’t it?

“We’ve just come through a mas­sive Premier­ship block – three mas­sive games – where we were los­ing five or six play­ers a week and then you go into Cham­pi­ons Cup. Our boys are just tired. If you’re play­ing a mas­sive game with ev­ery­thing on the line, you have to say that the last five or six weeks have been huge, haven’t they?

“I think it [rel­e­ga­tion] puts a lot of pres­sure on. There are own­ers and there is pres­sure on them. They put pres­sure on di­rec­tors and then the pres­sure goes on to the play­ers. It is al­ways about try­ing to make the top four, you want to be top six, and ob­vi­ously you don’t want to be rel­e­gated. And it cre­ates dif­fer­ent stresses. If you didn’t have those things then you would just be able to crack on.”

Premier­ship own­ers will de­bate next month whether to en­dorse a plan to end pro­mo­tion and rel­e­ga­tion, which they believe is hindering the abil­ity to plan long term and com­pete with the Pro14 sides, par­tic­u­larly the Ir­ish prov­inces, who do not face rel­e­ga­tion.

Dai Young, the Wasps di­rec­tor of rugby, who has ex­pe­ri­ence of coach­ing in both leagues, said it was also the fi­nan­cial strength of sides like Le­in­ster.

“Le­in­ster had five Bri­tish Lions out in­jured and they still had 15 in­ter­na­tion­als on the field,” said Young. “They have got that strength in depth.”

The match it­self was largely for­get­table, with the stand­out points be­ing the re­turn of Wales back row for­ward Taulupe Fale­tau af­ter 13 weeks on the side­lines with a frac­tured fore­arm.

A break by Fale­tau cre­ated the open­ing try for Max Green while there was good news for Eng­land head coach Ed­die Jones too, with Nathan Hughes mak­ing his re­turn af­ter a month out with a hip in­jury by cross­ing for his first try since Septem­ber.

Bath’s Eng­land No 8, Zach Mercer, also scored, tak­ing a pass from in­side cen­tre Max Wright to race over from 30 me­tres to score a won­der­ful try. Wasps ap­peared to have done enough to edge it af­ter weath­er­ing pres­sure while Lima Sopoaga, who kicked two penal­ties, was in the sin bin for a noarms tackle on Jack­son Wil­li­son in the sec­ond half and Rob Miller landed a penalty. Yet the twist came at the death, when, de­spite Wasps’ dom­i­nance at the scrum, they were pe­nalised and Pri­est­land was able to land his sec­ond penalty.

De­cider: Rhys Pri­est­land kicks vi­tal penalty

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