The ten-team Premiership has transformed English fortunes in Europe

Former London Irish member Will Joseph now impressing for Harlequins on the European stage – Getty Images/Patrick Khachfe

Picking out the positives from the 2022/23 Premiership campaign is a bit like searching for lost keys down a particularly dirty drain. Losing three clubs, albeit in different circumstances, was an indelible and shameful blight on the sport that threw hundreds of people into uncertainty and unemployment. Jersey’s fall underlined how tense rugby has become.

Fortunately, however, many players expelled from Worcester Warriors, Wasps and London Irish managed to stay in England. In some cases, subsequent destinations were achieved through a stay abroad. In others, opportunistic and flexible management of the salary cap forced individuals to form squads.

Despite many notable departures from the league, such as Jack Willis and Joe Marchant, talent should have been concentrated with the reduction of the Premiership from a 13-team competition to one comprising 10 teams. The Champions Cup results are a good way to examine the theory. And early form has been encouraging.

In the two rounds starting this season, Premiership clubs have participated in 16 Champions Cup matches and won 12 for an impressive 75 per cent success rate. Bath, Exeter Chiefs, Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints are all unbeaten, while Bristol Bears, Harlequins, Sale Sharks and Saracens have won one of two.

Of course, context must be added. The Stormers, the Cape Town franchise, had plenty of rotations for their trip to Welford Road and there have been very close affairs, such as the Chiefs’ siege at Stade Mayol, nervelessly sealed by Henry Slade, and Leicester’s tenacious triumph over the Stade Français. An aggressive and fighting Harry Wells was the heroic super submarine of Paris.

On the other hand, why apologize? Even the losses have had redeeming aspects. Sale was ridiculed for sending a young line-up to Leinster, but he produced a precise and tenacious first half and led at the break. Their hosts gained a foothold before a consolation shout, finished off by Tom Curtis, made the final score 37-27.

In the previous four Champions Cup campaigns, between 2019-20 and 2022-23, Premiership clubs won just 68 of their 156 matches; a much bleaker success rate, just below 44 percent. Exeter won it all in 2020, but since then there has been only one Premiership semi-finalist, Chiefs last year.

For that reason, it’s obviously premature to judge this season. Getting past the quarter-finals, with the South Africans settling ominously, would be a huge achievement for an English team. However, if any do, it is certain that their squad will have been strengthened by the disappearance of at least one of them: Worcester, Wasps or London Irish. We can now review a non-exhaustive list of stories.

Alfie Barbeary and Ollie Lawrence are now two of Bath’s main weapons, thriving alongside Finn Russell, and Elliott Stooke has bolstered a tight, muscular five. Even before his hamstring operation in October, Ted Hill was becoming a favorite at The Rec. Bristol Bears have Benhard Janse van Rensburg in midfield with Josh Caulfield and Joe Batley behind Gabriel Oghre, the ferocious hooker. Former Wasps colleagues Greg Fisilau and Immanuel Feyi-Waboso are among Exeter’s most eye-catching upstarts. Will Joseph shone for Harlequins in the captivating defeat of Racing 92, a win in which Chandler Cunningham-South also shone. Matt Rogerson, the former Irish captain, is the type of inventive full-back Leicester love.

Northampton has benefited more than most. They picked Tom Pearson and Tarek Haffar, the 22-year-old who is believed to have attended England’s preliminary camp this week, and performed superbly against Glasgow Warriors and Toulon. Let us remember that Fin Smith arrived from Worcester last October, and was in charge of taking the reins from Dan Biggar when the Welsh centurion achieved an abrupt transfer to the Côte d’Azur. Curtis Langdon, who made a stopover in Montpellier when things went sour at Sixways, is probably England’s in-form hooker.

Asher Opoku-Fordjour, the former Wasps prop who Sale accelerated into tighthead, posed serious problems at set-pieces for Andrew Porter. Olly Hartley, a big center, bagged two tries for Saracens against Connacht. While Tom Willis recovers from knee surgery, Julian Martín González is producing video game performances. A reminder that Saracens signed him and Lucio Cinti for a combined sum of around £150,000 for this season. He won’t find a better offer, although the inconsistency of Mark McCall’s men, due in part to injuries, means reaching the home Champions Cup final at Tottenham will require a radical change.

If their frontline players stay fit, Bath could be the Premiership’s best chance to win the European title. Sunday’s delightful encounter with Racing 92, Russell’s former employers, will be telling. Northampton should now be at home in the last 16 and Exeter will have a useful spot if they eliminate Glasgow Warriors this weekend. Leicester, who have won 12 of their most recent 15 Champions Cup appearances, appear to be enjoying the competition. The difficulty for the Tigers is that their next two matches will be against La Rochelle and Leinster, who eliminated them in 2022 and 2023, respectively.

As silly as it is that eight out of 10 Premiership clubs have qualified for the top-tier tournament – a quirk that will surely be rectified with another format change – they are more than making up the numbers so far. Salary cap increases next season will also allow big spenders to add more quality. Smart recruitment by the affected clubs has not been limited to players. Former Wasps boss Lee Blackett is coordinating Bath’s attack. Meanwhile, Exeter appointed Irishman Ross McMillan to mastermind a scrum overhaul.

There is a long way to go but, at least when it comes to the Champions Cup, a smaller Premiership has a big impact.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *