Crashball Rugby review four things the Aviva Premiership sides learnt following the culmination of the Champions Cup pool stages.
Psychology might be the cause of Bath and Harlequins' inconsistency.
Bath and Harlequins have shown this season that they can go blow-for-blow with the best. Bath put Saracens and Toulon to the sword earlier this season in convincing performances that saw the likes of England and Lions wing Anthony Watson, Wales fly-half Rhys Priestland and Springbok openside Francois Louw at their imperious best.
Much to the frustration of director of rugby Todd Blackadder, the highs of their season have been followed by some major lows. In particular, the West Country sides' away loss to Sale Sharks sticks in the memory, comfortably put away 32-9 by the team that finished last season in 10th place in the Premiership.
Harlequins have suffered a similar fate so far this season. The West London side has had some outstanding results so far this season, earning hard-fought yet convincing victories over top four sides Wasps, Gloucester and Saracens. They have also put in runaway performances against sixth-placed Newcastle Falcons, who are enjoying their most successful season in a decade, recently defeating reigning champions Exeter Chiefs.
Despite their success, the sporadic nature of their performances has resulted in Harlequins sitting in ninth place in the Premiership, ahead of only London Irish, Worcester Warriors and Northampton Saints.
The biggest disappointment for Bath and Harlequins will be the manner in which their form dips from week-to-week. Both sides have shown they have the potential to be title contenders when on song, but if they continue to lack consistency they may end the season in a battle to stay in Europe.
When teams with such quality continue in such roller-coaster fashion, it's often the mentality of the side that is the root cause. Whether it's a lack of cohesion between the player group, lack of true leadership or a disconnection between players and coaches, the quality of players or game plan certainly doesn't seem to be the issue.
John Kingston (Harlequins' Director of Rugby) and Blackadder should take inspiration from Saracens' mid-season team-building trips abroad. Since 2010 Saracens have sunned themselves in the Italian resort of Rimini, hung out in Miami, hit the ski slopes in Switzerland, visited Munich for a merry few days at Oktoberfest and spent a weekend in Barcelona.
Considering Saracens' success over the last four years and their well-publicised hive-like mentality, Bath and Harlequins should follow suit in their ambitions for Premiership glory.
Saracens on their way back to their best, but must endure international window and injuries.
The reigning European Champions seem to have come out the other side of a rather uncharacteristic run over the last two months. Losses to Gloucester, Harlequins, Bath twice to Clermont Auvergne and a draw with Ospreys have been far from the Saracens we have come to expect over the last few seasons.
The London based side have dealt with some significant injuries this season. Schalk Brits, Maro Itoje, Michael Rhodes, Billy Vunipola, Richard Wigglesworth, Brad Barritt and Liam Williams have all spent significant periods of time with their physiotherapists.
Their defeat of Northampton Saints 62-14 at Allianz Park on Saturday seems to have signalled a return to form, with Owen Farrell steering the ship at his excellent best.
The difficult part for McCall and his men will be continuing in Saturday's fashion whilst their England contingent are away for the Six Nations. Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe, George Kruis, Owen Farrell, Alex Lozowski and Nathan Earle have all been named in England's squad ahead of their Six Nations clash with Italy on February 4th. The absence of both their first and second choice fly-halves will be significant, with former England u20's man Max Malins destined to take the reigns.
Exeter fail to take next step up to European powerhouse.
Chiefs have been a cut above the rest thus far this season, sitting comfortably in first place and looking unlikely to be knocked off their perch any time soon. Their impressive run last season saw the Devon-based side earn 17 wins in consecutive fashion in their run-up to lifting the Premiership trophy.
Despite their domestic dominance, Exeter's struggle to impose themselves in Europe will come as a huge disappointment for Director of Rugby Rob Baxter, who had set his stall on European glory this season.
Last Saturday, the Chiefs headed to their Champions Cup clash at Scotstoun as favourites, with home side Glasgow officially out of the competition following five losses from five in pool three.
Exeter were buoyant following their convincing victory over Montpellier the previous week, but failed to execute the same level of accuracy against the Scots. Time and time again, the Chiefs shot themselves in the foot, coughing up possession close to the Warriors' try line, four times in the first half alone. The side we have come to know over the last two years seemed absent, unable to show the same level of mental steel they demonstrate week-in-week-out in the Premiership.
Exeter seemed to have struggled to recover from their loss to Newcastle Falcons earlier this month. The travelling Chiefs side seemed to have underestimated the Falcons, knocking the Champions from their usual confident selves. Rob Baxter's next step should be working towards cementing his side's mentality to one befitting their title and should take inspiration from the likes of Toulon, Leicester Tigers and Saracens when in their pomp.
Chiefs will likely go on to reach the final of the Premiership again this season, but any success will be tainted with the sour taste left by a pool stage exit in Europe.
Wasps back up their skills in the mud.
For the last three years, Wasps have become renowned for their star-studded backline, playing with a level of attacking intent unrivalled by any other English side. The Coventry side has had their struggles with injuries this season. At one point, Director of Rugby Dai Young had 24 players to choose from for a match-day-23.
Despite their attacking brand of rugby, Wasps have not been held to the same heights of Saracens and Exeter Chiefs. A strong yet non-dominant forward pack seems to be the most common train of thought.
Using this reasoning, a match in the mud could be the worst case scenario for last season's table toppers, however, last weekend they welcomed Pro14 side Ulster to the Ricoh Arena in the Champions Cup. Wasps put the Irish side away in a convincing 26-7 victory that saw Guy Thompson, Tom Cruse, Jake Cooper-Woolley and Willie Le Roux, the latter of whom stood alone as the only back to cross the whitewash, well, as white as you could call it at the muddy Midlands affair.
Dai Young's men will have put a dampener on the criticism of their pack, whilst their ability to execute their usual attacking flair in the mud must be commended.
With more players returning from injury, Wasps may be in for a stronger challenge for the Premiership title than last year, despite the lack of success this year compared to last.
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