By Peter Jackson
No Welsh team have reached the knock-out stages of the Champions’ Cup in six of the last seven seasons. In a matter of weeks those figures will almost certainly have deteriorated to seven of the last eight seasons.
No Welsh team have won Europe’s blue-riband club trophy since its creation 22 years ago and only one has got as far as the final – Cardiff in 1996, aided and abetted by an early English Brexit from Europe while the RFU tried to make sense of the new-fangled professionalism.
Its evolution over the last two decades has left the dwindling number of Welsh contenders if not in the poorhouse then in imminent danger of knocking on the door. Hobnobbing with the neuveau riches from the
English Premiership and the French Top 14 has proved a costly business for the only two Welsh teams good enough to qualify.
As PRO14 champions, Scarlets would have expected a more rewarding return than two points out of ten from the opening rounds – a losing bonus from the narrowest of defeats in Toulon followed by another losing bonus from being outplayed at home by Bath.
Ospreys, in the throes of a nightmarish domestic season, gave Clermont’s Michelin Men a run for their company’s lavish money in Swansea and Saracens a closer run for theirs in north London. Gallant performances in Europe count for little other than early elimination.
The vastly superior resources of opponents armed with a financial muscle absent from the relatively impoverished PRO14 meant that the odds were stacked against the Welsh challengers before they started. Those odds have now been stacked higher still, not by their opponents but by their own governing body.
The Welsh Rugby Union’s policy of squeezing a fourth international into stretching their autumn series into winter ensures that the Scarlets and Ospreys go into the critical middle fortnight of the Champions’ Cup in no fit state to make up ground lost in October.
The cumulative effect of four Tests in four weeks has had a brutal effect on both. The battering taken by too many Welsh players over that period has left each region looking like Humpty Dumpty, each trying desperately to stick the broken bits together.
Scarlets limped into last weekend’s home tie against Treviso with gaping holes in their ranks as a result of Jonathan Davies smashing his knee against Australia and Jake Ball his shoulder against New Zealand.
The absence of several other big-hitters ensured the Ospreys headed for Northampton with a suitably ruinous appearance. Injuries on national duty left them without their Lions’ half- backs Dan Biggar and Rhys Webb as well as flankers Justin Tipuric and Sam Cross.
By finishing their Autumn series in the autumn, England, France, Ireland, Italy and Scotland gave their players some respite before plunging back into European club duty. Too many Welsh players have had none.
It goes deeper than that. As if having to compete against heavier investment and larger squads wasn’t sufficient handicap, the underfunded Welsh regions find their thin resources stretched to breaking point by the Anglo-Welsh Cup, a relative non-event if ever there was one.
As a result, they have suffered a series of setbacks consistent only in the demoralising scale of results which, in two cases, proved to be a pointless exercise in every respect. While the Blues were enduring a 57-0 hammering at Newcastle and the Scarlets a 40-0 thrashing at home to Exeter, their Irish and Scottish counterparts could put their feet up in relaxed readiness for the Champions’ Cup.
“We are having to fight on too many fronts and we simply haven’t got the resources to do it,’’ a former head coach said. “Most of the regions are operating on a 25 per cent injury rate which makes life far more difficult than it ought to be. And that’s because we are having to play too many games at a time when others are getting proper rest and recovery.’’
By the time everyone has been paid for last week’s out-of-window match, not least the Springboks themselves, the WRU will be left with a profit of around £2.5m. There is, they say, a price for everything and, barring a few surprises bordering on the miraculous, part of the price will be to sound the death knell over another lame year for the put-upon dragon in the Champions’ Cup.
A tale of woe – the Welsh in Europe’s premier club competition from its inception in 1995:
Cardiff 1996: lost to Toulouse.
Swansea 1995: lost to Toulouse.
Cardiff 1997: lost to Brive.
Llanelli 2000: lost to Northampton.
Llanelli 2002: lost to Leicester
Scarlets 2007: lost to Leicester
Cardiff Blues 2009: lost to Leicester (after extra-time, on drop goals)
2005, 2006, 2011, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017.
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