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