English teams have been tumbling out of Europe all weekend, victims of a Brexit-in-reverse foisted on them without a backstop in sight, never mind a 585-page withdrawal agreement, writes Peter Jackson
Four Premiership clubs with a total of 25 English and European titles between them have either been counted out or about to be after one more defeat, if not this coming weekend then in the New Year.
Bath, Wasps and Exeter are all suffering this morning from being knocked out before the knock-out stage, a fate usually reserved for the token Italian qualifier and the occasional French susceptibility to a dose of travel-sickness.
To rejig a Churchillian phrase, never can so many have disappeared so quickly for so little, the penalty for reaching the halfway stage of the six pool rounds without a win. Each, therefore, has been eliminated in such an indecent haste that it would have been impossible to do it any quicker.
That Bath and Wasps happened to be ushered towards the exit by Irish and French opponents added an ironic twist to their fate, closing the door on famous clubs desperate to remain in Europe after slogging through a nine-month obstacle course to get there in the first place.
Bath at least went down fighting, forcing Leinster to grind it out until salvation dropped out of a weeping sky straight into Jordan Larmour’s hands. A floating pass flung out by Bath’s stand-in stand-off Jack Wilson could have come with an instructional kit on the seven-point catch.
The inevitable converted try made all the difference in putting the holders back on course for the last eight and their opponents on the road to nowhere.
Toulouse did the same to Wasps by which time Exeter had beaten them to the departure lounge, shoved there not by the Irish or French but one of their own.
Gloucester’s feat as the first club this season to venture into the Sandy Park reservation and come away with the Chiefs’ scalp increases the significance of Munster’s arrival at Kingsholm in the New Year. Even from this distance it has the potential to offer the winner a home quarter-final.
A fourth of England’s six-club contingent is likely to fall by the wayside next weekend.
Leicester’s wounded Tigers are still alive, barely so despite requiring barely half an hour in Paris yesterday to maintain their season average of shipping four tries per game.
Having got nothing more out of Racing yesterday than a solitary point, they must confront them again in the home leg on Sunday at Welford Road, less the forbidding fortress of old, more a come-and-help-yourself bargain store.
The major casualties are not confined to England. Wales witnessed the first of the weekend at the Parc y Scarlets where the locals have lost count of calculating the cost of trying to fill the holes left by Tadhg Beirne, John Barclay and Aaron Shingler.
Beaten twice by Leinster in Dublin in the European semi-final and PRO14 final, they return to Belfast on Friday hot on the heels of a pointless trip there three weeks ago.
Ireland’s big three are on course to reach the last eight of Europe’s major event for the third time in ten seasons.
With a bit of luck, they could all make it as they have never made it before, with home quarter-finals all round.
Their status as holders and the team to beat decrees that Leinster will stay in Dublin. Whether Munster’s qualification comes wrapped around Thomond Park will hinge on surviving the Gloucester experience at Kingsholm just as they did to secure a home quarter-final in 2014.
Ulster face a more hazardous route despite their terrific win on a wild night in West Wales and the juicy prospect of home comforts for the next two rounds.
Remaining in Belfast when the really serious stuff begins post-Six Nations will require the double over Scarlets and, more crucially, showing Racing the way home in the penultimate pool round.
Runners-up last season, the Parisians are one of only four teams to negotiate the first three rounds without losing along with Saracens, Toulouse and Munster. The other pool leader, Edinburgh, is the most surprising one given that they are swimming in the same water as clubs pumped up by a pair of Chequebook Charlies, Toulon and Montpellier.
No round of European rugby is ever truly complete these days without something almost too absurd for words.
Just when it appeared as though the wind would blow the nonsense away and the rain would wash the last traces down the drain, Bath came up with a stunt that defied belief.
They banned the Leinster Supporters’ Association from doling out 1,500 flags to the members who defied the weather for a day out in the splendour of a Georgian city where the Romans probably taught the locals the art of rucking. Bath said they were ‘really sorry but they (the flags, presumably) were tested against three safety criteria and failed all three including fire.’
Fire? On a day when the rain came down by the bucketful on the uncovered stand at ‘The Rec’,
Fire? On a day when the city would have been in more danger from the river Avon bursting its banks?
Bath, of course, have form when it comes to Europe and something they don’t care much for, like losing at home. After doing just that to Toulouse in October by two points, their multi-millionaire owner, Bruce Craig, called for the match to be replayed.
He claimed that the referee, Ireland’s Andrew Brace, had blown for full-time three seconds early, a complaint which the organisers, European Professional Club Rugby, dismissed as without foundation.