Amid all the myriad European pool permutations and head-scratching arithmetic it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture out on the wintry fields. This has been a Champions Cup season of vivid, gripping contrasts in which the
Even if the Premiership sides, in particular, stage a last-gasp resurrection they are already scrabbling for quarter-final crumbs. It could be that England has only one representative – or possibly none – in a last eight that could contain five Pro14 sides. Two years ago there were five
While Exeter and Saracens can still secure an away quarter-final if they win their final pool fixtures against Glasgow and Northampton respectively, they are battling a continental tide that has swept away Saints, Harlequins and Leicester.
Barring a late reprieve, Bath and Wasps are probably heading the same way. If the English decline is entirely a coincidence it is a striking one.
Anyone who watched the Scarlets
The sureness of the handling, the accuracy of the passing and offloading, the support running and defensive steel were also a huge tribute to the coaching of Wayne Pivac, Stephen Jones and Byron Hayward, all of whom must be rising up the queue to take control of Wales when Warren Gatland and his current team step aside. If Gatland’s squad perform half as fluently as the elusive Scarlets in the upcoming Six Nations they will generate a whole lot of love.
It would also further query the received wisdom that European form and Six Nations success are two different things. That cosy assumption is beginning to feel outdated; how can, say, Ireland’s national management be anything other than upbeat when their three competing provinces are so competitive in the Champions Cup and Leinster are positively rampant? Is it entirely a fluke England have
Which begs the next big question: might the Premiership’s faltering form in Europe and the rising confidence of the Pro14’s leading lights spell trouble for England and Eddie Jones over the next two months? Even if Billy Vunipola recovers swiftly from his fractured forearm, Jones’s side are going to encounter a revitalised bunch of opponents heartened by what they have seen in Europe of late. Even the Europe-conquering Saracens have not won in Wales on their last two visits, while the only English clubs to score a cross-border win away in this season’s Champions Cup have been
Privately, leading Premiership coaches continue to argue the relentless nature of their league exacts a mental toll that makes it harder for their teams to get up consistently even for big Europe dates. One illustration: Munster’s outstanding Lions scrum-half Conor Murray has played only five Pro14 games this season while his English counterpart Ben Youngs has already started twice as many Premiership fixtures for Leicester.
The all-consuming nature of England’s training camps, as Jones seeks to drive his squad ever onwards, has also clearly made it tough for certain players to satisfy two masters, with the threat of relegation a constricting factor for some. There is a big difference between being battle-hardened and overplayed, and too many English players still operate on the wrong side of that line.
At the same time, though, there is no disputing the increasing quality of the coaching in the Pro14. Pivac, Jones, Dave Rennie, Stuart Lancaster, Rassie Erasmus, Johann van Graan, Bernard Jackman, Richard Cockerill: all have coached in more than one country and their desire to outwit each other is raising standards across the board.
All of which leaves the Premiership trying to polish something potentially rather nasty, despite
Exeter may well also require a bonus-point success in Glasgow, even if their six-try demolition of the French league leaders Montpellier on Saturday again underlined their quality in adversity.
Saracens, meanwhile, could still be stranded even if they conclude with another points landslide against their recent whipping boys Northampton. An Ospreys win in Clermont will slam the door whatever happens.
In that event the English will be staring at their leanest season in Europe since 2011-12, when Saracens were the only Premiership representatives in the last eight and ended up