The first round of HEC matches is over. How was it for you? We, needless to say, loved it, but who are this season’s Wright brothers, and who is Icarus?
Good start for:
The Big Guns
Clermont have been the best team in the competition, and Toulon and Toulouse are also 2 from 2. Sarries and Quins top their pools and look like they have the tools to go far, and Leicester spectacularly woke up in the lat 15 against the Ospreys. Ulster are 100%, and compatriots Leinster may be 2 points behind Clermont, but they are gathering momentum, and, the group looks liable to produce two qualifiers. These are probably the eight best teams in Europe, and all are playing like it – the standard this season is high, lets hope it stays that way.
We all expected Clermont and Toulon to be among the front-runners, and Toulouse have looked strong too. Biarritz have an easy pool, but, as per tradition, are giving Europe a decent lash. But it’s heartening to see Racing Metro and Castres putting cats amongst pigeons. Racing Metro’s victory over Munster and denying of Saracens a bonus point are keeping both sides honest, and the sheer ineptitude of Embra means that two wins are not impossible in the double-header, meaning Racing could actually go into January in first place in Pool 1, meaning five Frenchies are likely to be in the mix after Christmas. Castres are the odd ones out of course, but at least they are trying a little – their win over Saints have put Ulster in the driving seat.
Bad starts for:
The Welsh regions
Three teams, six games, one win. Llanelli are the very definition of ‘flattering to deceive’, and while they can point to some rough luck at times, until they have a set piece they can rely on, all their back play will be in vain. A more relible fly-half is also a requirement, as Priestland’s beguiling World Cup form seems a distant memory at this stage. Cardiff have also lost twice, even coming out second to English basement dwellers Sale. They look a mess, and it can’t be doing wonders for their best players, Jamie Roberts and Sam Warburton. More on the Ospreys later.
Michael Bradley’s Embra have been shockingly inept, with low skill levels, poor handling and an inability to even get on the scoreboard. How a side coached by Neil Back can be so embarrassingly poor at the breakdown, we are still trying to figure out. Glasgow have been better, taking the game to Northampton early on, but their was something inevitible about their defeat. Scottish rugby’s descent continues apace.
We are singling out the Spreys due to their being part of the Group of Death with Leicester and Toulouse. If you consider that, for each of these 3 teams, the base case scenario is this: 2 wins over Treviso (one with a bonus point), 2 home wins and 2 losing bonus points away from home. Anything better than that, and they will be aiming to qualify, anything less and they are up against it. Leicester “lost” an away bonus point in Toulouse, but made it up by winning one yesterday. Toulouse are on track. But the Ospreys failed to stay with Leicester in the home straight and are now effectively on -1 points – they will need more than 5 points from their double header against Toulouse if they are to avoid starting the January games under pressure.
There is more to the HEC than Ronan O’Gara and the magic of Thomond Park. Even Frankie thinks so. But not Gerry. His sickly-sweet schoolgirl love letter to Rog on Saturday was followed by a ludicrously optimistic reading of what happened at Thomond on Monday morning. Our favourite was this “Penney is a brave coach, for sure, and while there was a better mix to their game here, it understandably pleased him no end that his players evidently share his sense of conviction about the type of rugby they are trying to play.”, simply because it’s completely untrue – the players seemed far more comfortable in the second half when playing Axel-ball.
Stuck in the middle:
After 60 minutes of yesterday’s game, it was looking like a really bad start, but after finally waking up and getting a try bonus point against as inept a team as we have seen, this constitutes a decent start for Munster. Factor in Sarries missing a bonus point of their own, and the much better shape of the forwards when Donnacha Ryan moved into the second row and POM to blindside after Paddy Butler came in for Stakhanov, and Munster might just have stumbled upon their best configuration in time for the pool-deciding double header. Make no mistake though, there is lots of work to be done – Munster have played hesitant rugby in Europe ever since Toulon, and the brainless wide-wide shuttling of the first half was no exception, If they play like they did in the last half hour, they could trouble the globetrotting Englishmen, but probably still have to beat them twice to top the pool, or hope for an unlikely favour from Racing.
Northampton were the only one of our five big fish to lose on the road this week, going down to Castres. In previous years, losing one out of your opening two games would not be seen as a disaster, but it looks like the big teams are pulling away from the middle rank, and it’s becoming essential to be able to win in venues like Castres, Glasgow and Llanelli. It leaves them with an uphill battle to qualify; like Munster, they probably have to do the double over their rival in the December back-to-back rounds.