Champions Cup: English teams are off their game – Tom Youngs | Rugby Union | Sport

2 months ago

Only home wins against French opposition for Bath and Wasps at the weekend prevented a double wipeout in the back-to-back games which have given them a head-to-headache in the tournament.

As things stand, Bath are the sole English club in position to qualify for the knockout stages.

That bleak scenario can change over the course of the final two group games in January but the Premiership sides have left themselves with a lot to do. At a time when the national side is riding high, it looks a contradictory state of affairs but there may be a link between the two.

Eddie Jones makes no secret of the fact that he works his England players extremely hard. He takes pride in pushing them physically because he believes that they need to be the fittest side in the world to win the World Cup in 2019.

He used last month’s international period as part Test match window, part training block.

Once it was over the players returned to their clubs and were immediately thrust back into a Premiership week.

Contrast that with Ireland’s internationals who were given the equivalent Pro 14 week off on the orders of the Joe Schmidt. The Ireland coach did so with the national side in mind but the benefits were felt by the Irish provinces.

Energised by rested and restored star players, they wiped out their English rivals 6-0 over the past fortnight.

Schmidt was also to issue such a decree because his players are on IRFU contracts. If Jones had issued the same directive, he would have been ignored by the English clubs because the players belong to them outside the Test window.

Leicester, beaten on successive weekends by Munster, had four of the England side in their line-up but you would have been hard pressed to tell. “A lot of teams have lost, and lost the double. It is very strange how every English team seems off their game a little bit,” said Tigers’ captain Tom Youngs.

“The England boys come off a very intense camp with Eddie and they are a bit weary. I don’t know how you manage that as Premiership Rugby but that probably needs looking at.

“To come straight back from an international back playing is tough for those guys. You go from playing at a massive stadium to coming back to playing in a park. The drive is not quite there, it’s different. It takes a while to adjust back, and to adjust back to family life. 

“Mentally, you freshen up a little bit and you become a little bit more hungry after a week off. Your body gets a little bit of a rest but, more than that, your mind gets a rest.

“The reality of it, as players, we’re not going to ask for a game off. I love playing for Leicester and any opportunity I will get, I’ll take it. It’s the way it is here but the game is getting more physical and the expectation is more and more.” 

There is a cumulative effect at work here too. Ireland’s Lions did not start their seasons until October, their other Test players mid-September. England’s summer tourists were, by and large, pressed straight into club service at the start of September. This weekend they will go back into a run of Premiership games while Ireland’s players are restricted to two appearances in the three Pro14 games over the Festive period.

If they want to prioritise Europe, it is up to the English clubs to see the bigger picture. If they want the best out of their star assets, they are going to have to be smarter about when they use them. Less could well bring more.