European rugby success in Champions Cup – Last Word On Rugby

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The European Champions Cup has been dominated in the last decade by three teams: Leinster, Toulon, and Saracens. This ruthless domination offers up a common question: is there a specific blueprint to achieve European rugby success?

Three key principles from that question stand-alone to assist a side to win a European Champions Cup. However, not every team will ever have the capability to tick all the required boxes. In turn, this begs certain questions: will we ever have a surprise team win this competition? How can you develop these key components over time? Or, is money, money, and even more money the real answer to success?

There are keys to success. Steps to being in the position to be able to reach the final 16, the semi-finals, and then ultimately the pinnacle game in Europe; the Heineken Champions Cup final [May 22]. Teams that follow that route can put all their success down to some measurable qualities yet, there is one fundamental that has not changed; no matter the winning side.

Key to European rugby success: Winning culture

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To begin, the first key component is having a culture of winning in Europe. For example, Munster is a team that cultivates this European winning culture. They won the competition in 2006 and 2008 as both respective squads had the winning mentality to create a legacy. It is the same with Leinster, winning the competition three times over a four year period from 2009–2012. Winning became a habit and, just as the players before them did it, a new crop of players naturally buy into the European winning mentality which the club is based upon.

The hardest thing is starting to build this culture. As seen with Saracens, Leinster, and Munster, they all lost huge finals before they dominated on the European stage. This learning curve occurred for Munster when they lost in 2000 to Northampton and Leicester in 2002. Similarly, Saracens lost to Toulon in 2014. As a result, culture can be developed but takes a lot of resilience, which many teams can’t seem to crack.

There are teams currently on the brink of winning their first European cup. For example, Clermont and Racing are coming close consistently. Unless they learn from those final defeats, they won’t develop a European culture centred on winning. It is not a coincidence that both sides have just been knocked out at the last eight as once again they have not changed within playing style or mentality. Exeter broke this curse in their first final – a simply incredible achievement. However, would they have done this in a ‘normal’ season? Or if they played a side in the final who had European success?

European rugby success stands with an ‘International Spine’

Conversely, many will argue that Toulon doesn’t have a European Culture and just spent millions on building the rugby galacticos resulting in: they came, they saw, and they conquered Europe (for three years in a row!). However, Toulon bought players in their prime who were proven winners. This in turn provided a winning culture without having to develop it.

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The spine of this team was international class with Johnny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau – who played in two finals together (having played in four RWC finals between them). This roster screams winning culture.

Jonny Wilkinson smiles with teammate Matt Giteau as they leave the field after the Amlin Challenge Cup semifinal match. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Once Wilkinson left, they got Leigh Halfpenny in for 2014–2015, showing how British and Irish Lions were replaced with more Lions. The likes of Drew Mitchell, Bryan Habana, Bakkies Botha, and Ali Williams, all winners in their own right, are the perfect example of Toulon having key international players in their prime for one or two seasons just to conquer Europe. However, it is critical to acknowledge that Toulon has faded in recent years as this model isn’t sustainable.

In contrast, an international spine within Leinster and Saracens in the last decade has been apparent.

For example, the Leinster spine who won the European Champions Cup and the spine of the Irish Grand Slam winning team in 2018 was the same. With the odd exception of Best and Stander, the majority of the Irish squad (in fact 14/23 of the matchday squad for the decider at Twickenham) were and are, Leinster.

When England won the Grand Slam in 2016, a lot of the key players were Sarries men. The likes of George Kruis, Maro Itoje, Vunipola brothers, and Farrell all played key roles in domestic and European rugby success. Guess who won the European Cup in 2016? Saracens.

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It is clear: if you have an international winning spine, that usually translates to club level.

Having a consistent European side

Consistency in selection is a key fundamental trait for any side but in Europe it is vital with doubleheader group games and knock-out spectacles. You must have your core key players playing back to back.

If you take newly crowned champions Exeter in 2020 as an example, they only had one change with the starting team from the quarter-final right through to the final. That change was due to Vermeulen being injured. Amazingly, the whole front row and backs replacements also never changed.

Obviously, you need luck and not lose big-game players to injury. Once big European knock-out games come around the players playing should be pulling on the jerseys automatically.

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Clermont is a great example of doing everything right but coming up short. In 2015 their name had to be on trophy after such a convincing run. However, they played Brock James in both quarter-final and semi-final before Camille Lopez started in the final. Consistency, especially in core positions, must remain across knock-out stages. You do need luck (something Clermont lacked) but if you have a consistent run with a strong spine of a few top-class internationals you will be in the mixer come cup final day.

This season; who will hold the ‘right stuff’

The European powerhouses in Leinster and Toulouse are the favourites to meet each other in this year’s final. Is this a surprise looking at their history and squads? Although Ronan O’Gara will bring his own European winning culture to La Rochelle, they have never been in this position.

Similarly, with Bordeaux-Bègles, it feels like reaching a semi-final is an incredible achievement to these players. If you tell that to Toulouse or Leinster players, they will laugh in your face. Only European success is acceptable for them.

Exeter crashed out in style to Leinster, proving how last year’s freak season offered the perfect opportunity to become European Champions. The salary cap saga along with no crowds granted the perfect opportunity for a new champion and Exeter took it with both hands. Although it was inevitable with what has been built at Exeter for European success. It seemed, however, to come a few seasons earlier than expected.

However, there are levels in the European game, and Leinster proved that at the weekend. Not many dine as European royalty but they are one of them. Likewise, Toulouse winning away matches at Thomond Park [33-40] and at Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin [12-21] proves how investing in their youth a few years ago and going back to the European blueprint from the 2000s, is exactly the answer.

Antoine Dupont dives to score during the Heineken Champions Cup Round of 16 match between Munster and Toulouse at Thomond Park. (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Note: while several rounds of European rugby were cancelled, the playoff series has again shown how popular the Round of 16 is, and should continue with this format in the future.

La Rochelle and Bordeaux-Bègles will take inspiration from Exeter’s win last season. Yet, the issue isn’t performing on one single game. The trouble comes in beating two European giants in consecutive games – is it possible? Yes. But, is it likely? No! Exeter got lucky last season with an under-strength Saracens XV unable to allow them the opportunity to beat two giants in a row. However, if it is to happen this year, then it will go down as one of the greatest European Cup wins. Very much against the blueprint. If anyone is to tear up a script though for European success, surely it is Ronan O’Gara?

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