Why Saints and their Premiership counterparts are having to pick their battles in the Champions Cup this season

There have been some who have stuck the boot into Premiership clubs this week.

Monday, 16th December 2019, 12:52 pm
Updated Monday, 16th December 2019, 1:02 pm
Saints boss Chris Boyd had to make some tough selection decisions for the trip to Dublin
Saints boss Chris Boyd had to make some tough selection decisions for the trip to Dublin

The criticism surrounds the team selections of those English outfits lucky enough to be part of the Champions Cup elite this season.

Some teams decided to rest and rotate for Champions Cup round four last weekend, as Saints did in Dublin on Saturday evening.

With a laundry list of injuries for the second leg of their December double-header against Leinster, Saints also opted to leave out some available stars.

Mike Haywood, Teimana Harrison, Rory Hutchinson and Tom Collins were all given the weekend off.

It frustrated some travelling fans who expected to see the strongest travelling side at the Aviva Stadium.

But while you can totally understand paying supporters wanting to see their side at its strongest, you also have to understand the demands this season is bringing.

Saints and their Premiership counterparts are involved in the most relentless Premiership campaign in recent memory.

The World Cup, which has taken its toll on many Premiership players, didn't end until November 2, meaning the Premiership Rugby Cup weeks were put in a block at the start of the season.

Many clubs used it as a warm-up for the more serious stuff to come.

And what it has meant is that there is a massive backlog of big games.

Clubs would previously use Premiership Rugby Cup weeks as a time to give their frontline stars a chance to rest.

Take last season for example.

Saints played their first two games in Europe and then had three successive Premiership Rugby Cup matches before the Premiership returned.

Had they been one of the teams in the Champions Cup - Saints were in the Challenge Cup, giving them even more chances to stay fresh - they would have been able to rest players and then throw them back into the Premiership.

But because the Premiership Rugby Cup pool stages have already been and gone this season, every week from the middle of October to the end of January is now a Premiership or Champions Cup battle.

It is absolutely relentless and unbelievably brutal.

Week after week, players are being asked to go to the well.

And with a salary cap restricting the strength and depth English clubs are able to possess, they simply don't have the same options as the French and Irish teams they come up against in the top tier competition.

And in the past, even French teams who have lost their chance to make the Champions Cup quarter-finals have chosen to rest key men.

Take Lyon last season, who lost all six of their Champions Cup pool matches without picking up so much as a single bonus point.

That is not to say the Premiership salary cap level should be increased because that would lead to trouble for clubs who do things the right way.

The income for many already doesn't meet the demands from supporters to spend right up to the cap, so lifting it even higher would not be wise.

Instead, clubs just have to cut their cloth accordingly, and part of that is cherry-picking certain fixtures at this time of the year.

Let's use Saints as an example again.

Having picked their strongest team possible and won their opening two Champions Cup pool matches, against Lyon and Benetton, they put themselves right in the hunt for a quarter-final place.

They then went full on against Leinster at home as they sought to claim a win that would give them a chance to top the group.

When that went awry, with Saints losing a 16-14 first-half lead before suffering a 43-16 defeat, they had to weigh up their options in Dublin.

Could they, with so many injuries to players such as Owen Franks, Courtney Lawes, David Ribbans and Cobus Reinach, realistically beat Leinster on their own turf and keep hopes of finishing top of Pool 1 alive?

Or could they rest players who have been involved in epic battles every week since the start of the season and still hope to finish as one of three best runners-up to make the last eight?

They worked out, understandably, that the latter option was far more likely.

"We didn't think the result here was going to have an influence on our position in the tournament," said Saints boss Chris Boyd after the 50-21 defeat in Dublin.

So, Boyd took his chances, sent out a mix of senior players and youngsters who he had plenty of faith in, and they did everything they could to deliver something in Dublin.

As it was, they almost grabbed a try bonus point that would have been a real bonus, but Leinster's defence held firm late on to deny them the fourth score they desperately wanted.

Leinster were always in control with their squad saturated with Ireland internationals who can be managed more carefully due to the strength, or weakness, of the opposition they face in the Guinness PRO14.

Teams like the Dragons, Ospreys and Zebre operate on far lower budgets than any Premiership club.

That means Leinster can go full bore for the Champions Cup, knowing their squad depth will also allow them to deliver in their domestic competition.

Saints do not have that luxury.

Before their Leinster double, they hosted Leicester Tigers in a huge east midlands derby.

And now they must go to the AJ Bell Stadium to take on Sale Sharks this weekend.

Gloucester and Wasps are also coming up over Christmas and New Year, and Saints simply couldn't ask for even more big minutes at the highest possible intensity from players such as Haywood and Harrison.

Elsewhere, the likes of Harlequins and Bath have been criticised for fielding weakened teams against Ulster and Clermont Auvergne.

But let's take a closer look at that.

Ulster put the cat amongst the pigeons in that pool by beating Clermont in Belfast in round two.

With Clermont always likely to come back strong, it meant Quins and Bath needed to get something in their first game against Ulster.

Bath were edged out by them at The Rec in round one and Quins, who had beaten Bath in round two, suffered the same fate in Belfast in round three.

That meant Quins were already behind the eight ball, and so were Bath ahead of their trip to Clermont last weekend.

Why would Bath then send out every single star man at Stade Marcel Michelin in a match they, realistically, had little chance of winning, especially with the Premiership returning the week after?

In a Champions Cup with little margin for error, if you lose your opening two matches and other teams in your pool pick up bonus points, you are always staring down the barrel.

Quins and Bath knew that their hopes of even securing a best runners-up spot were slim at best and with big Premiership fixtures also on their horizon, you can understand if they wanted to freshen things up and prioritise domestic life.

Gloucester, who went full on for their curtain-raiser against Toulouse, which they lost, then mixed things up at Montpellier, and pushed the French team all the way.

Even if they hadn't, they most likely calculated that they could still win their next three games, two against Connacht, and one at home to Montpellier before setting up a key game at a probably already qualified Toulouse in round six.

Even Saracens, who have the deepest squad in the Premiership, have worked out that they can prioritise to meet their aims.

They rotated for tough games at Racing 92 and Munster, summarising that if they fielded their strongest possible side in home games against them and the two matches against Ospreys, they could get enough points to get through.

Clubs simply have to take risks, use common sense and can't just be expected to field their best possible team every week to preserve the integrity of the competition.

They have to preserve their own players' welfare and the ambitions of the club first and foremost.

And that is exactly what teams have been doing.

Fair play to Exeter, who have won all of their pool matches.

They are an example of how to build a squad within the salary cap to compete.

But let's not forget that in previous years, they too have had a tough time balancing Premiership demands with Europe.

They have found themselves in a pool that they feel they have a real chance in, and they have gone at it with real vigour.

But they are far further ahead on their journey than some clubs thanks to their long-serving coaching staff and the all-court game they have been able to build over a number of years.

Saints are in their infancy in their development under a new set of coaches, but they are getting there.

And if they can squeeze through, you just never know what they could achieve if they have their strongest team available for the quarter-finals.

You can guarantee they wouldn't rest and rotate for a last-eight fixture because they know it is all or nothing.

Put simply, the Premiership clubs' sensible approach to the pool stages should be applauded not criticised.

They would soon be shot down if they kept playing the same tired bodies and broke them, especially those stars who mean so much to their national teams.

In an age of player welfare during a compact season that makes it difficult to blend that with success, clubs are doing what they can to strike an extremely difficult balance.

And they are doing it the best way they know.