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Alex Spink: Saracens offer England’s best hope of avoiding away-day whitewash

02 Apr | BY Betway | MIN READ TIME |
Alex Spink: Saracens offer England’s best hope of avoiding away-day whitewash

Premiership quartet have it all to do to avoid same fate as befell English football's Champion League qualifiers.

English football failed its European test, now is the turn of Premiership rugby to see if it can fare any better.

No Premier League team made it through the first knockout round of matches in this season’s Champions League. Now, if the formbook holds, the same fate awaits English rugby, despite boasting a team in each of the four Champions Cup quarter-finals.

Saracens, beaten finalists last year, go to Racing Metro, the wealthy Parisien outfit that boast Wales duo Jamie Roberts and Mike Phillips and many more besides. Sarries are nobody’s fools and showed with their demolition of Harlequins at Wembley last weekend that their form is decent. But Racing went to Northampton in January and won easily – and Saints are runaway leaders of England’s top flight.

What then of Bath’s prospects of continuing to surf their wave of momentum which came with making history by becoming the first side to lose its first two matches yet qualify as pool winners? Mike Ford’s swashbuckling team go to Leinster, champions in 2009, 2011 and 2012. A mission impossible it certainly is not, but returning to Dublin so soon after Ireland hammered England in the Six Nations is a significant mental hurdle for a good few of the West Country side to overcome.

Perhaps the other two ties offer more hope for the English? Not really. Not now. Not after the episode involving Northampton wing George North and Wasps No.8 Nathan Hughes last Friday that has dominated this week’s rugby news agenda.

Hughes, a hugely influential cog in the Wasps machine, was shown a red card after his knee collided  – it appeared accidentally – with the head of North during a league game at Franklin’s Gardens. One was left with concussion, the other a three-week ban. The upshot is that neither is available this weekend.

Given that Wasps play Toulon, champions for the past two years, in the Cote d’Azur fortress that is Stade Mayol, they are about as likely to win through to the last four as Shergar is of winning at Plumpton on Monday.

Northampton, the English champions, rightly fear few club sides these days. Alas Clermont away are one of the few. The French club last lost a European tie at Stade Marcel Michelin seven years ago when Sale Sharks were in town.

The head says that come Monday morning the same fate that befell the Barclay’s Premier League elite in Europe will visit the oval-ball code. Unlike with the football, these are not even two-leg affairs to offer hope on another day. Moreover history shows that 75 per cent of European Rugby Cup quarter-finals are lost by the travelling team.

For my money Northampton have a better chance than Bath and Wasps but I suspect all three will lose. Saracens, though, have the quality to prove the exception to the rule. For the sake of England’s battered reputation in European rugby and football competition this year, let’s hope so.