The Heineken Champions Cup was revamped from 24 teams, down to 20 meritocratically chosen teams for a reason. The desire to see increased competition and intensity has seen ‘domestically strong sides’ struggle. Round Three results have seen the likes of Wasps, Exeter Chiefs and the Scarlets all but knocked out.
Fans may be asking why, although the reasons for big name players ‘struggling’ are varied.
Whilst the Gallagher Premiership is seeking to close itself against competition via ringfencing, the European Professional Rugby Clubs Champions Cup league demonstrates one feature so far in the 2018/19 season. It shows that more unfancied teams can cause upsets given the chance.
Domestic form doesn’t always translate into Europe
The most obvious struggler this week was the Exeter Chiefs. Their 19-27 defeat at home to Gloucester has sent out the biggest signals yet that the Chiefs don’t yet have the ability to tackle Europe; as they have done the Premiership.
Rob Baxter. Credit to Gloucester: individually and as a team they outplayed us.
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) December 8, 2018
In their past five Champions Cup seasons, they haven’t posted more than three pool wins, and their sole qualification in 2015/16 came via points difference in a ‘freak of a pool group’ where all four teams were separated by one point.
BT Sport pundit Lawrence Dallaglio perhaps nailed the issue when he highlighted Exeter’s relative lack of European experience within their squad, was probably the issue. The Chiefs’ core strength of being a team that is greater than each individual part could be their downfall at a higher level.
Yet still, against Premiership opposition as they were at the weekend, why would the competition affect the team’s performance to such an extent?
Another team that seems to fall foul of this phenomenon is French champions Castres. They operate on a much smaller budget than most in France and have a relatively small squad. But as with the Exeter Chiefs, they base success on team strength rather than individual big names. With the Top 14 offering more financially than Europe, Castres compete accordingly. Result? No qualifications for the knockout stages since 2002.
Money can’t buy everything in Heineken Champions Cup
So if you have a small, inexperienced squad, the solution must be to ‘splash the cash’ and get in some old heads. Apparently not; in the case of Montpellier at least.
Despite their lacklustre form in the French Top14 where they sit ninth, they clearly do have an experienced and well-remunerated squad able to compete in Europe. Drawn in Pool Three with Exeter last season, they finished third with two wins. This year, joint third in a favourable Pool, with one win is another poor return.
Matching this performance are three-time winners Toulon who are also struggling domestically. Now without taking anything away from Newcastle or Edinburgh in Pool Five, these two would have been the favourites for qualifications on paper. But, because these two later clubs have fought and earned their places in the competition, they are primed for these big match days, they are ready to cause a shock.
Over the channel, two other star-studded squads in the same pool are struggling as well. Wasps and Bath have zero wins between them, and their only points come from a draw against each other, and bonus points.
🇫🇷 @StadeToulousain remain unbeaten to maintain their position at the top of Pool 1 🇫🇷
— Heineken Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) December 9, 2018
It is true that Pool One is perhaps the toughest of the lot, certainly by pedigree. But Bath, full of British and Irish Lions, and Wasps – with their global superstars – should be able to compete better in the Heineken Champions Cup.
This raises the age-old question of ‘whether the English Premiership is so competitive and attritional’ that it becomes very difficult to compete on two fronts. Particularly from mid-table, where teams are often fighting for their survival, and must prioritize a long, long season. In saying that, both Wasps and Bath can point to injuries as evidence of this Premiership battle.
Heineken Champions Cup big names are struggling
Of course, there are exceptions to this analysis. Saracens have continued their unbeaten league form into Europe, despite a wobble against Cardiff Blues at halftime.
Toulouse; returning to the competition, have seemingly spent their large budget well this season. They hold a good position, and are also showing form on home soil in the Top14 – so teams can perform, yet the reasons why are varied, and being discussed across the rugby world.
Is this down to using homegrown talent, who really care about the result? Is it paying the right players enough? Or is it simply finding a group with a shared desire for success?
Clearly, there is no one formula for success. And indeed, no obvious formula for failure.
That is what makes this tournament fascinating and also brutal, event for the biggest and most fancied sides.
Main image credit: Embed from Getty Images