Defending champions Saracens descend on Limerick this weekend with doubts lingering about the extent of their appetite for European competition this year. 

They currently sit on a rather bothersome -18 points in the Premiership table, 22 points behind the second-last placed team, Leicester Tigers. 

The absolute need to avoid relegation from the Premiership trumps all, and while most of the sages and the tipsters are expecting Saracens to do enough, there is an obvious assumption that Europe will be downgraded in importance. 

The three-time winners have already taken a severe pasting in Paris against Racing 92, when director of rugby Mark McCall opted to rest their sizable England World Cup contingent.

"Our job, if the appeal is unsuccessful, is to stay up. We have to plan for a worst-case scenario which will affect our strategy around the Champions Cup," McCall confirmed in November, before the club abandoned its appeal. 

The Daily Telegraph reported this week that Owen Farrell, the Vunipola brothers and Jamie George are likely to "sit out" the first leg of the upcoming double header. 

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall

It's a reminder again of the centrality and importance of the English Premiership - a competition with which casual Irish rugby fans are only on nodding terms. 

In contrast to the priorities of Irish provinces, where the Pro 14 games feel like throwaway snacks between big meals, in England, the Premiership stands at least equal in importance to the Champions Cup. 

There is another sense in which Saracens' allegedly perfunctory approach to the 2019-20 Champions Cup campaign, their conspicuous failure to provide any representatives to the tournament launch, echoes previous scraps between English clubs and the European rugby hierarchy. 

In Ireland, the Heineken Cup is a source of endless romance, heroic DVDs, etc, etc.

In England, it often seems like a troublesome affair and an entirely unsatisfactory construct, one which the hidebound Celtic nations are preventing from reaching its full 'potential'.

The bolshie Premiership chairman are forever grumbling about the format, lamenting that they're not getting a fair cut. They seem to ponder a boycott roughly once a fortnight. 

Their machinations are eyed warily by Irish fans protective of the status quo. Indeed, the notion that the Irish, in particular, have a fairly sweet deal was often adverted to by the more rebellious English owners and their friends among the UK rugby press. 

The uneasy relationship between the Premiership big boys and the European rugby authorities was evident from the off. 

Before Nigel Farage was ever heard of, English rugby clubs were either threatening to pull out of, or even actually pulling out of, Europe. 

The rinky dink inaugural tournament in 1995-96 proceeded without the English or Scottish clubs. 12 teams entered, with France, Ireland, Wales, Italy and Romania represented. Leinster and Munster made their European Cup debuts on an inconspicuous Wednesday afternoon, the former sneaking a hard-fought win in Milan of all places, while the latter edged out Swansea in front of a half-full Thomond. 

Bath players celebrate after winning the 1997-98 Heineken Cup

Perhaps as a reminder of the state of flux rugby was in at the time - the game having turned professional only three months earlier - several players who were already contracted to English clubs played for the Irish provinces that winter. Leinster's first try in the Heineken Cup was scored by Conor O'Shea, who was already playing for London Irish in the Premiership at the time.  

The following year, it became harder to juggle membership of Premiership teams and Irish provincial sides as the English clubs decided to grace the Heineken Cup with their presence.  

Soon they were out again. 

Ulster's only Heineken Cup victory in 1998-99 has certainly suffered in the eyes of posterity due to the absence of English clubs that season (though one could also argue southern partitionism is also in play here). 

They had threatened a boycott of the previous campaign, moaning about - usual stuff - the distribution of TV money. The 1997-98 competition was eventually won by Bath. Even as Jon Callard, Jeremy Guscott and co celebrated in Bordeaux, they knew the club were intent on boycotting the following year's competition and would not get a chance to defend their title. 

Disagreements about the fixture schedule were central in triggering the 1998-99 boycott. The tournament limped along and the long-suffering sponsors Heineken opted to remain on board. English clubs returned in 1999-00, their quibbles evidently satisfied to some degree. 

Northampton Saints won the 1999-00 tournament, the first of a three-in-a-row for English clubs. It was probably that 1999-00 competition when Irish interest in Europe moved into another stratosphere. 

And it was two home and away games against Saracens that were key in the development of the Munster legend. 

From the beginning, English clubs could never win in Thomond Park. Wasps were humbled 49-22 in 1996, their London rivals Harlequins were beaten 32-16 the following year. 

Not that Munster got very far at that time. As Mick Galwey observed before, in the late 90s, Munster won practically every home game they played and lost every away game.

But it was a pair of wins over Saracens in 1999, both one-point victories, that saw the Munster bandwagon really quicken its hitherto trundling pace. It hit breakneck speed the following summer when the aristocrats of Toulouse were downed in the heat of Bordeaux.

Peter Clohessy celebrates after Munster's win over Saracens in late 1999

With our teams competitive, the Heineken Cup became a beloved competition in Ireland. 

The provincial sides, which despite all the bluster and mythology, only ever drew paltry crowds to the old inter-provincial championships, suddenly became popular attractions. 

It was all very different for the resentful, killjoy English clubs, who notwithstanding their occasional success, never seemed satisfied and perennially threatened to pull the plug on the whole shebang. 

The English and French clubs jointly threatened a boycott in 2007, which was eventually averted and then there was another big push for change in 2013.

The Premiership clubs showed greater resolve in that dispute and achieved many of their aims, securing more slots for their own clubs and trimming the Pro 12 representation by removing 'country of origin' as a basis for qualification. 

Saracens' Nigel Wray was to the fore then in that protracted dispute, urging the English clubs to stand firm on their threat to boycott unless the European authorities yielded. 

It is perhaps not surprising that his club has won three of the five European Cups under the format. And it's less surprising again when you consider how he's been paying his players. 

It would still be unwise to think we've seen the last of the disputes between the wealthy owners in England and the European rugby authorities. No doubt the next skirmish is in the post. 

Saracens' current issues are perhaps different in that their primary beef is with their rivals within English rugby.

But the defending champions' have made plain that the domestic scene is their priority this year and Europe is, if not an afterthought, then certainly secondary in its importance. The contrast with Munster, a team whose reputation and following was built on European adventure, couldn't be greater.   


Listen to live commentary of Ulster v Harlequins (3.15pm) & Munster v Saracens (5.30pm) on RTÉ Radio 1's Saturday Sport