Oval Talk

Premiership’s European woes

Oval Talk

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The likelihood of no English team reaching the knock-out stages of the Heineken Cup for the first time has led Oval Talk to question the make-up and coaching in the Guinness Premiership.

First things first: Leicester, Northampton and London Irish are still in with a shout, though it will take a special effort from all three if they are to make progress.

But English clubs have won six of the 14 Heineken Cups to-date and featured in a further two finals, so to not have any representatives in the last eight, if it happens, will surely raise a few eyebrows.

What has been apparent in the Heineken Cup so far this season is the quality of rugby on display. In a nutshell, it has been far superior to the mostly turgid fare offered up and down England every weekend.

Yes, English clubs have played their part in Europe, and in particular Northampton, but it has been the form of the Irish and French clubs that have really caught the eye.

Okay, so Welsh clubs are not faring much better, but they did at least have the pleasure of beating two English sides at the weekend, which will cause some concern for England boss Martin Johnson ahead of the England-Wales Six Nations clash next month.

France already have two sides through, with Stade Francais and Clermont likely to join Biarritz and Toulouse after the final round of matches next weekend, while Munster and Leinster are hot favourites to take their usual place among the last eight.

And who knows, a Stephen Ferris-inspired Ulster could yet join them if they pick up a bonus-point in an away win at misfiring Bath on Saturday.

A team from Wales has never won Europe's premier club competition - indeed, only one has reached the final and that was Cardiff in the inaugural 1995-96 year, back when no-one took it seriously - so their possible absence is not uncommon.

But if the challenge of English clubs comes to an abrupt end after the final group games, then it will support the view that OT has held for most of the season: that Premiership rugby is way too attritional and the coaches have yet to figure out the breakdown.

Irish provinces are able to target Europe because of the less-demanding challenges of the Celtic League, while French clubs have no salary cap and therefore have squads large enough to rotate comfortably throughout the season - not to mention their ability to attract the very best players with promises of riches.

However, that hasn't prevented English clubs having a huge say in the destination of the Heineken trophy in previous years, which leaves OT to make the assumption that coaching in the Premiership has fallen behind its Celtic and French cousins.

One only has to look at the way numbers one to 15 in the two main Irish provinces cope with the breakdown to notice a difference, while French clubs still prefer to look for space rather than the contact that seems to obsess English clubs.

Even London Irish, who arguably have had the most attacking mind-set in the Premiership for the past few seasons, were shown up by a depleted Scarlets team at the weekend. When it mattered, the Welsh players - many of them second string - had the footballing skills to make the most of limited possession. It may come naturally to the Welsh, but nor is it coached out ot them.

Premiership clubs have a tougher season, no doubt, and perhaps the rigours of the 12-team league is having more of an impact than usual in a campaign that followed a tough Lions tour. Just look at Johnson's injury list during the November internationals for proof.

But until they reassess their approach and come to terms with the breakdown, English clubs may find it increasingly difficult to live with the best in Europe. Maybe it should start at the top Mr Johnson.

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