Ollie Phillips: Premiership sides are dishing up humble pie in Investec Champions Cup

NANTERRE, FRANCE - DECEMBER 10: Marcus Smith of Harlequins in action during the Investec Champions Cup match between Racing 92 and Harlequins at Paris La Defense Arena on December 10, 2023 in Nanterre near Paris, France. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Premiership teams shone in the Investec Champions Cup last week, including Quins at Racing 92
Premiership teams shone in the Investec Champions Cup last week, including Quins at Racing 92

I was really surprised to see seven out of eight Premiership teams begin their Investec Champions Cup campaigns with wins last week.

All the talk has been of doom and gloom – losing homegrown talent to other leagues and financial struggles – so English clubs will be chuffed to bits with their European performances. Fair play to them.

Harlequins winning at Racing 92 was massive, Leicester Tigers looked pretty special against the Stormers, while Exeter, Bath and Sale also notched up very impressive displays. Even though Saracens lost at the Bulls, they denied them a bonus point and weren’t that far away from taking more from a tough trip.

Of course, many of these teams have European pedigree and it was never beyond the realms of possibility that they would produce a result. The question now is: can the Premiership sides back it up this weekend?

If they can, they could have one foot in the knockout rounds as a purple patch can carry you through this condensed pool stage.

Quins face another difficult assignment at home to Toulouse on Sunday in what is an enormous fixture in Pool 2. After the euphoria of last weekend, it could be hard to repeat against a team who blitzed Cardiff and have more experience than Racing. But if they do, they’ll have beaten two of the biggest sides in Europe.

Marcus Smith showed what he can do in Paris. He may not fit England’s current playing style as well as Owen Farrell but he remains a world-class fly-half who reads the game incredibly well and has become talismanic for Quins. When he, Danny Care and Alex Dombrandt are on form, that team really hums. 

Confidence and momentum are huge in sport and Quins have plenty of both. The spine of the first XV is very strong, they know how to play rugby and have won the Premiership title. The key could be depth. English clubs don’t have the resources to rotate players like the French and South African teams, so by April or May they could be down to bare bones.

Saracens should beat Connacht on Saturday – and they really have to in order to keep their Champions Cup ambitions alive. Two defeats will make it very challenging to get out of the pool, so the pressure is on. Quality runs through this Sarries side, although they’re another one who could suffer if they get a few injuries in certain positions. 

Holders La Rochelle also can’t afford another slip, after Leinster got a monkey off their back by avenging their defeat in last season’s final. It means La Rochelle probably need to win two away games, starting with a tough one on Saturday against the Stormers in Cape Town. 

I was really impressed by Sale’s win over Stade Francais. They dominated possession but will need to be more clinical at Leinster on Saturday. It could be a pivotal week for the Irish, with Munster and Ulster both needing to get a win on the board, at Exeter and at home to Racing respectively.

Stade Francais had European aspirations so will need to beat Leicester to kick-start their campaign. Northampton Saints were surprisingly good in their win at Glasgow Warriors but now face a Toulon team smarting from their narrow defeat by Exeter.

Another good week could put English clubs in a really strong position over the festive period. And after rubbishing their chances last week, I might have to eat some humble pie with my Christmas dinner.

Former England Sevens captain Ollie Phillips recently swam the English Channel to raise money for Head for Change, a charity aspiring to achieve positive change for brain health in sport. Follow Ollie on Twitter to donate.

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