Celtic tigers show shift in balance of power

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Heineken: Guinness 0, Magners 4. No, not stock-taking in an Irish off-licence but a shift in the balance – or at least perceptions – of power in European club rugby.

It means there will be particular interest in two Heineken Cup fixtures this weekend. Northampton play Scottish Borders on Saturday, while Cardiff entertain Leicester at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday.

These contests between members of England’s Guinness Premiership and the Magner’s Celtic League follow the opening weekend’s 4-0 clean sweep in head-to-heads by the Celts.

Following on from the vicissitudes of the national team, club failures are a further blow to the confidence and self-esteem of English rugby.

They cannot be explained away, as some tried after the Welsh regions won six out of eight matches in the EDF Energy Anglo-Welsh Cup, by understrength or under-motivated English teams. That simply does not happen in the opening rounds of the Heineken.

But should we really be so surprised? BBC Radio Five Live evidently thought so, talking of the “shock defeat” of Premiership champions Sale by Ospreys. But is it really such a shock when anyone loses to a team with five British Lions, 12 players in the latest Wales squad, an All-Black scrum-half and a supporting crowd of more than 13,000, particularly when English clubs had won only eight out of 23 pool-stage visits to Wales over the past five years?

London Irish’s loss at home to Llanelli was the latest evidence that the Exiles are – suitably, given some shared cultural heritage – the Premiership’s equivalent of Everton, prone to swinging directly between famine and feast.

Gloucester lost at Leinster but so might any club team in the world. Finally came Leicester’s home defeat by Munster and further proof that, for all the talk of Welford Road as a fortress unpenetrated for a couple of Premiership seasons, the Tigers can no longer quite cope with Europe’s very best. Munster (twice), Stade Francais and Biarritz have all won there in the four years since Leicester’s last Heineken title.

It all suggests that the Premiership, which recently proclaimed itself the strongest, most competitive, skilled and exciting club league in the world, might not be
as good as it thinks it
is – and, conversely, that
the sometimes-derided and often-ignored Celtic League is stronger than some assume.

There was evidence before last week, for those who wanted to notice. There have been two Irish Triple Crowns and a Welsh Grand Slam in the three seasons since the last World Cup. Over the past five seasons, English clubs have won 52 and lost 43 pool stage matches against the Celts in the Heineken pool stage – clear but hardly overwhelming superiority.

The record against the Irish is won 10, lost 20. Now Wales appears to be stirring, even if the odds remain against any of its trio making the last eight.

There is no God-given English right to superiority. The past decade was probably the first in a century when their top clubs were better than their Welsh counterparts. Some in England have perceived an opportunity in this, noting that the Celtic League has no promotion and relegation and adding this argument to their unending campaign for turning the Premiership into a gated community.

But, as Sale’s forwards coach Kingsley Jones pointed out this week, his club is unconcerned by relegation. No more are Leicester, Wasps – England’s one winner last week but in manner as disappointing as anyone – or Gloucester.

The Celtic regions, with Llanelli the latest in crisis, have had to live with threats to their survival, putting worries about status firmly into context.

Better perhaps to look at styles of play, refereeing interpretations and mental outlook.

The breakdown is refereed as a serious contest for possession in the Celtic League, encouraging the sort of counter-attack from turn-over ball epitomised in the Ospreys’ first try against Sale.

The English champions, unusually for them, were made to look pedestrian and predictable while the Ospreys’ match-winning try was a model of control leavened with creativity.

Imitating the Celtic League’s structures won’t put English rugby back on top but incorporating some of its capacity for calculated risk-taking just might.

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