Ou Est Le Boeuf?

Ireland’s November tour is starting to take on a nightmarish hue.  News broke yesterday afternoon that Rory Best and Brian O’Driscoll are out of the series.  It robs the team of two of its core leadership group, two of its best players and, crucially, two of its most physical assets ahead of what’s going to be an unflinchingly bruising round of games.  At the end of last summer we said that Kidney needed three wins out of three to declare a successful series.  He can be cut a bit of slack on that requirement, because the task just got a whole lot tougher.

To compete against the Springboks (and the Pumas), at a very minimum, you need a mean, bruising, beefy pack. Without this, you’ll be shunted aside like a Scarlets scrum [Exhibit A: First Lions Test 2009]. And with that in mind, Ireland are worryingly short of the necessary grizzled brawn in advance of next weekend’s Test, especially after yesterday’s injury news. Rory Best and Brian O’Driscoll join a treatment table already populated by Rob Kearney and Sean O’Brien.  Stephen Ferris must be a major doubt at this stage, too.  That’s five of Ireland’s best players right there; and five – mancrush alert – supreme physical specimens to boot.  Given that Ireland don’t naturally produce gentlemen of a Bok-like carriage, we simply don’t have the replacements.

In the front-row, hardman Nordie farmer Besty is a grievous loss. His deputy Risteard O’Ostrais can slot in to an all-Leinster front row, but the reason he has become Irish in the first place is due to the lack of Seth Efrican respect for non-chunky hookers – he’s a fabulous player, but we’re down some major grunt.

Taking the second row, while Paul O’Connell is peerless and as influential as ever in full flow, he is effectively just back from injury – it’s asking a lot to expect the kind of towering match-bending performance that we have become used to.  But given it’s Paulie, Ireland will expect.

Alongside him, Ireland have a selection issue. Donnacha Ryan has started the season in lacklustre and anonymous fashion… and on the blindside. Matches seem to be passing him by, and he is playing out of his favoured position, and even if he is selected, he has always been short of Bakkies/Shawsie-type oof in the tight.

It’s Stakhanov who has partnered POC in the Heineken Cup, and he has looked somewhat revitalised after last season’s sustained mediocrity.  But again, he was never quite at the highest level physically in any case – his main asset was his always his nuisance factor rather than his bulk. That said, his experience is in his favour given the absentee list.  Dan Tuohy is coming to the boil nicely, but hasn’t reached the performance level that got him selected in New Zealand last year.  We’d like to see Mike McCarthy get the nod for this assignment – he’s a tough and abrasive natural 4 and might be the horse for the Springbok course.  O’Callaghan is probably favourite to get the nod.  But whatever way you look at it, it’s a four-horse race and all of the options are a little bit ho-hum.

The picture doesn’t improve much on the flanks – of the first-choice pair, Fez is surely out of consideration now after sitting out three games, and SOB is still weeks from a comeback. It’s the same problem as in the second row: there are decent players available, but are they of the necessary physicality to face the Bok monsters?

POM has been first deputy of late, but he is another who hasn’t started the season that well.  He has been shunted back and forth across the row and, skilful player though he is, isn’t quite of the required bulk at this stage in his career.  Kevin McLoughlin is probably the most natural fit for the role, but – recurring theme! – has started the season at such a fairly sluggish pace.

Chris Henry should be locked down at 7, and is in splendid form, but he is another who’s not a particularly beefy build and is more of a ‘nuisance value’ player.  Perhaps his provincial team-mate, NWJMB Iain Henderson should be considered on the blindside.  He is the one option you’d trust to have the physicality for the task. Huge step-up, sure, and maybe he isn’t ready, but he has passed every test with flying colours to date.  It’s a wild card worth giving some serious thought to.

At the back of the scrum, thankfully, Jamie Heaslip looks like he is approaching something like his best form.  The four men in front of him are likely to be low on the type of prime beef that South Africa trade on, so he’ll need to show some serious leadership – it’s time to audition for that Lion No.8 jersey.  Without him playing well, we cannot see Ireland coming close to breaking even up front.

Whatever way you slice up the back-five, the team sheet is not going to put the frighteners up South Africa, or Argentina for that matter.  Kidney’s first task in camp should be to kindly ask his three remaining world class forwards, Paul O’Connell, Jamie Heaslip and Cian Healy to perform with the ferocity of rabid wolves.  Forget the plush environs of Carton House; lock them into a cage together for the next week and throw them bits of raw horsemeat to fight over, then let them loose on the Boks…

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PJ, Hold This Tackle Bag Would You?

Late last week and over the weekend, Deccie caught up on his provincial rugby for the last three months and reached some disturbing conclusions, and has made some additions to the Irish squad to reflect the newsflow.

Firstly, it would appear that the news from Frankie and Gerry wasn’t entirely accurate – it turns out it’s Ulster who have won every game this season and who are playing the best rugby. Secondly, there have been injuries to a few of the apostles – notably Rory Best and Drico. On the plus side, Ireland’s Tighthead Crisis showed signs of resolution with Deccie Fitz managed to go an hour without getting injured, and Michael Bent’s plane touching down without incident in Dublin airport. So, to give credit where it is due, even belatedly, the additions to Ireland’s squad give it a much fresher and more form-based look.

In the half backs, Paul Marshall and Paddy Jackson come into the squad. Marshall has been inventive and snappy from the base this year and his call-up is well-deserved. With Murray and Reddan both playing well, it’s unlikely he will start a game, but he does offer something genuinely different off the bench.  Plus, he knows Ruan Pienaar inside out, so a bench slot isn’t completely out of the question, though the Fiji game looks his best chance. One out, Paddy Jackson is the form 10 in Ireland, the peerless Sexton aside, and has 16 years on Rog – a no-brainer for a cap would you say? Clearly, but placating the once-great O’Gara is as important to the coaching set up now as it was three years ago when Johnny Sexton made his debut – if that takes precedence over success at RWC15, Rog will continue as first reserve.

Two exciting young wings get the nod – Tiarnan O’Halloran and Craig Gilroy. Both have started the season well, though Gilroy has had to make do with a role as first reserve to Tommy Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble. However, with the afore-mentioned pair, plus  Simon Zebo, Ferg and explosive up-and-coming wing Donncha O’Callaghan ahead on the pecking order, starts for the Ireland XV against Fiji are probably the best they can hope for.

At hooker, Sean Cronin is in to cover Rory Best and his provincial team-mate, Risteard O’Strauss; but it’s the position next to him that has created the most heat. A mere 24 months on from a 4-game series where the starting tightheads were John Hayes, Mushy and Tom Court, Ireland have had to resort to calling up a guy who said last Thursday:

They are not saying that [a callup] is going to happen, I’ve just to get over there and play a bit of footy for Leinster first before they can even look at me. It does sound pretty positive, but obviously I’ve got to prove myself first before they can look at me seriously.

Obviously, indeed. Or not. Let’s just hope he’s no Peter Borlase. By means of comparison, Bent comes over after 11 Super Rugby appearances (5 starts) for the Hurricanes, with a reputation for being slightly ambi-propsterous and a solid scrummager. Tom Court came over at the same age after three Super Rugby appearances for the Reds and a similar ability to play both sides. Court has since specialised as a loose-head, and, to be truthful, if we have resorted to poaching players from New Zealand club rugby, we’d take Test-able substitutes as an outcome. Bent comes straight off the back of a productive ITM Cup, so he is at least battle hardened and match-ready  It’s a remarkable call-up, but not necessarily in a bad way; a little creative thinking never hurt.  Some commentators may argue that it’s a kick in the teeth to the likes of Jamie Hagan or Stephen Archer, but neither player is anywhere close to the level required for test rugby.

Deccie Fitzpatrick is the other tighthead selected – there has never been any issue with his technical abilities, but staying injury-free has proved a challenge. His stints in New Zealand this summer were solid, and he’s likely to be the bench tighthead for the Springbok game.

Ian Madigan heads the list of those unlucky not to get the call.  Earlier this season he seemed to be on the cusp of an international breakthrough, but has been pressed into action at 15, where he’s mixed the good with the bad.  It’s not his best position, and it’s allowed Paddy Jackson to get the jump on him.  We’ve already posted on the tough decisions that lie ahead for Madigan, and it will be interesting to see how he responds to this non-call.  Felix Jones returned to action and must be in the management’s thoughts, but perhaps the South Africa game comes just too soon for him.  It would be no surprise to see him later in the series.

Oh Captain, My Captain

Brian O’Driscoll was announced as Ireland captain for the November series yesterday.  But, at the risk of commiting heresy, we must ask: is he the right man for the job?  The answer is still a ‘yes’, but it’s worth taking some time to think through.

Time waits for no man, as they say, and just as the clock has ticked past the point where Ronan O’Gara should be an international selection, so too it will reach the point where BOD is no longer the best 13 in the country.  That day may not necessarily coincide with the day the great man retires, and could even precede it.  At some point the time may come when BOD has to be left out of the Ireland team.

It’s worth casting an eye over the form-book.  BOD has played poorly in Leinster’s two Heineken Cup games this season.  Against Exeter he was guilty of taking insufficient care of the ball, while against Scarlets he showed a rare moment of hesitancy in defence to allow Gareth Maule to skate in for a try.  Going further back, he had a fairly indistinguished summer tour in a green shirt.  Casting back slightly further, he did have a stellar Heineken Cup final, with his memorable break and offload to Sean O’Brien the highlight of the match.  The old magic has not disappeared.

The alternatives for the position are Ulster’s Darren Cave and in particular Keith Earls, who played well there in the Six Nations and has made little secret of his desire to play in the 13 shirt and not on the wing.  The pity of it is that Earls has been injured over the past fortnight, and has missed an opportunity to put huge pressure on O’Driscoll.  He had started the season with great gusto.

Any pressure is further diluted by Rob Kearney’s absence, which is likely to see Earls deployed at full-back in any case.  Kearney is close to irreplaceable (particularly keeping in mind the nature of Ireland’s opponents in this series), so taking another of Ireland’s totems out of the backline would leave Ireland looking a bit callow in that division.

BOD is the greatest player ever to pull on the green jersey, and his experience, leadership, class and nose for the tryline should not be discarded lightly.  He still has much to bring to test rugby, so long as his legs are functioning.  Peter O’Reilly wrote that even dead, you could strap him to his horse and send him into the ranks of the enemy.  But even the greatest of men should not be picked based on what they have achieved in the past.  We endorse his selection as captain for this series, but he should not be considered an automatic selection.  Thirteenwatch has not gone away just yet.

Deccie Announces Squad!

At noon today Deccie announced a 31-man squad for the upcoming November internationals.  It’s become customary for these affairs to be followed by gnashing of teeth and wild gesticulations.  Truth be told, there isn’t a whole lot to say about this one that we haven’t said before.

Four uncapped players are included; Ulster’s Iain Henderson and Luke Marshall, newly Irish-ised Richardt Strauss and Munster prop David Kilcoyne.  We can only presume that Kilcoyne’s Mr. 15%, Frankie Sheahan will be using his media platform to talk about him an awful lot.  Strauss will debut from the bench, and 23-man squads will help Kilcoyne’s chances of a test cap.  Marshall and Henderson will be familiar with tackle bags by the end of the month.

Strauss’ call-up will excite a few purists.  He’s the first ‘project-player’ to make the international grade, and is certainly the second-best hooker in the country, but of course, has only qualified through residency.  Other nations, in particular England, have shown little angst about this approach, and perhaps as a nation we should not be too precious about it.  The rules are the rules and we may as well benefit.  Strauss’ quality as a player is not in doubt.

Luke Marshall represents something of a wild card, given he is not a starter in the Ulster team.  Deccie cited the reason for his selcetion as being that Ireland’s three best centres are all of a similar age profile, so some succession planning is in order.  It’s a pity the same logic didn’t extend to other positions, such as fly half, where ROG continues to be very much first reserve and there’s no place for any of the young battalion of 10s currently making waves.  Last we checked ROG was pushing 36, injured and not really that good any more.  Ireland will be left with only one experienced fly-half in the near future, but investigating a new one is kicked down the road again.

Kidney noted that he would probably add another prop and a back to the panel and is presumably waiting on Declan Fitzpatrick and Felix Jones to come through this weekend’s action with some game-time under their belts.  Rob Kearney’s injury leaves Ireland desperately short of specialist full-backs, but throwing an injury-prone and inexperienced player into the test environment before giving him aple opportunity to find his form would be a major risk; Keith Earls would be our preference for full-back, with Jones given a chance to prove himself with his province.  Earls’ positional switch would create room for the in-form Simon Zebo on the wing.

In the forwards, there is the usual super-abundance of second rows and blindsides.  The trio of Munster locks take their spots and are joined by Mike McCarthy and Dan Tuohy.  In the backrow all of Ferris, Henderson, McLoughlin, Muldoon and O’Mahony make the panel, but the only backrow with any experience at openside this season is Chris Henry.  He has a good shot at making the test team in O’Brien’s absence, but don’t discount the chance that Kidney will try to shoe-horn O’Mahony in at 7, despite not playing there this season.

Perhaps of more note than the players named was the news that Axel Foley will take over as defence coach, while Kiss will move to attack, but only for this series.  Greg Feek will also join the coaching team, again just for the series.  It has a cobbled together look, and does little to disprove the theory that this panel trundle from series to series with little forward planning or grand vision.  These are the perils of trying to appoint staff when the coaching ticket is in its final year.  Kiss was praised for his innovation in improving Ireland’s defence, but now finds himself removed from that role entirely.  There’s no new voice in the team, which they seem to be crying out for, as Foley has helped out in the past.  Still, it’s something, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that the players demanded one coach to specialise in attack, with Brian O’Driscoll recently highlighting the issue in public.

The announcement does little to suggest this series will see anything hugely different from Team Ireland.

Deccie – Get Out There And Sell Some Tickets!

Tomorrow, Deccie names his 30 man squad for the November Internationals against the Boks and the Pumas, plus a Wolfhounds-type panel for the “Ireland XV” against Fiji in Thomond Park. He’ll be holding a press conference, which doesn’t normally happen for a mere squad announcement, but the IRFU is keen to promote the games to boost sluggish ticket sales.  Quite what sort of a boost a Deccie squad announcement will provide we’re still trying to figure out, but as far as we know tickets already purchased before the announcmement are non-refundable, so that’s something.

He isn’t one for surprises, so expect plenty of Munster players famliar names and faces. But outside of Ireland’s key key men (e.g. the front row, POC, Fez, SOB, Heaslip, Sexton, Earls, BOD, Tommy Bowe, Bob), there is actually quite a bit of jockeying for position.

On the one hand you have the familiar Murray/Reddan or Dorce/Ferg debates, but below that, the last 8 or so squad names are still in flux. Here’s five players who have put their hand up this season, and five who have struggled to get teacher’s attention.

Hands up:

Iain Henderson: New Willie John McBride indeed. Henderson was a revelation at last years U-20 World Cup and looked to have the tools to make it. We thought he would get some gametime at blindside this year, but in the Rabo, certainly not in the Heiny. But it’s tantamount ot the impact he has had that Fez has not been missed one iota – Hendo has been a MOTM contender in both games and looks to the manor born. Of course, he is a second row by trade, so some of the names beneath him here should be watching out. He surely isn’t ready for the ‘unforgiving environment of test rugby, but we can’t be sure about that – no harm in bringing him along for the ride, and he might get on the pitch against Fiji.

Chris Henry: Sean O’Brien is still injured, Shane Jennings is not a friend of Deccie and Peter O’Mahony is patently not an openside (more of which anon) – by process of elimination, Chris Henry is the man. More importantly, he was our MOTM against Glasgow and has picked up where he left off in Thomond Park last season (he wasn’t fully fit after that). He only got about five minutes in New Zealand, where his most notable (and funniest) act was to barge over Romain Poite. He’s been the most consistent 7 in Ireland for a year now evne if he is not built in the classic openside mould – in O’Brien’s absence it’s time he got a shot at the green jersey.

Paddy Jackson: Jacko was like a rabbit in the headlights in the HEC final, but it turns out he was staring at Johnny Sexton and learning oodles. It was the type of experience that can haunt a fellow, but his recovery has been impressively swift.  He looks like a proper player now, not a youngster out of his depth. He has solid defence and has done a decent job of igniting Ulster’s backs. At his age, he is still one for the future, but as the second best 10 in Ireland right now (Madigan has been playing 15 for the last month) and one who is only going to improve, we think he makes the cut.

Paul Marshall: Eoin Reddan is going strongly for Leinster and despite his costly nightmare in Paris, Conor Murray has in fact started the season well.  That leaves the test jerseys more or less locked away, but Marshall should be in line to play against Fiji.  His form is terrific, and his only competition for the jersey is Isaac Boss, who is just back from injury.  Kidney has been reticent to pick Marshall up to now, but with Tomas O’Leary exiled, the time has come.

Simon Zebo: Still tucks the ball under one arm to carry it, but Simon Zebo looks like the most threatening runner in the Munster backline, perhaps even more so than Earls.  The try-count was eye-catching last season, but this year he looks a better all round footballer.  Wingers are best picked when young, fast and in form, and Zebo ticks all the boxes.  With Keith Earls still injured, Zebo has a real chance of squeezing into the test 11 jersey.

Hands Down:

Kevin McLaughlin: Ireland’s Tom Wood finished last season strongly, impressing in the Heineken Cup final and the second test in New Zealand, but he’s yet to get into his stride this season, which has been characterised so far by powder-puff carries and knock-ons in the opposition 22.  With Ferris back in contention and any number of potential blindsides in the mix, Locky is likely to have to settle for Ireland XV action.

Peter O’Mahony: We said last season the over-hype from certain corners about O’Mahony would do him no favours, and now his versatility may be working aginst him. After starting his first three games for Ireland in three different positions, he has merely had his flaws highlighted by very tough opponents. He has played 6 and 8 this season, but with Ferris and Heaslip around, he is unlikely to barge his way into the test team.  Openside is the position with the word ‘Vacant’ outside the parking lot in neon letters, but not having played there this season hasn’t helped his chances of being picked there.  Besides, he hasn’t stamped his authority on the season just yet – though he played well against Embra, Munster looked much more effective with a natural No.8 (Paddy Butler) there.

Ronan O’Gara (WoC ducks for cover): It’s honesty time. An intervention is needed. Despite what Gerry says, the heroic Rog has been largely ineffective this season. He’s also injured.  Father Time can’t tick backwards, and not only is Paddy Jackson a better option (see above), but so are Ian Madigan and (whisper it) Ian Keatley. Deccie might like an easy life as much as anyone, but O’Gara simply no longer justifies selection – it’s time to move on.

Donnacha Ryan: Not a criticism of Ryan as such, but he is not playing in his favoured position, as Rob Penney has stuck Stakhanov in the team, apparently for his play on the wing, and is using Ryan to beef up his light-ish back row. If any of the rest of Ireland’s myriad of ok-but-not-amazing second rows were putting their hands up, he might be under pressure for his test place. As it is, with Dan Tuohy more concerned about Lewis Stevenson, Mike McCarthy playing for Connacht (a major negative it seems) and Devin Toner struggling (see below), he should start – but it’s disappointing he hasn’t been able to persuade the coach he is an indispensable member of the Munster second row.

Devin Toner: Huge strides made last season, but still can’t get into the starting team of the provincewith arguably the weakest second row of the four.  His work at restarts is excellent, but there are still concerns over his lack of power.  Time is still on his side, and Leo Cullen’s legs will eventually grind to a halt, but cannot expect to be in the squad until he finally nails down a place in the Leinster team.  Ireland XV action at best.

First Trimester

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.

French Euro-patsies

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.

Scottish Rugby

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.

The Ospreys

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.

Gerry

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:

Munster

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 Saints

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.

Medium Sized Fish Hosts Big Fish

This weekend we count five potentially defining games among the twelve, all along a similar theme: one of the tournament contenders must travel to one of the mid-ranking teams.  They’re the sort of games that if they were held in the reciprocal ground, they would be home bankers.  But such is the home-away swing-o-meter in rugger, that they take on a huge defining quality; any win on the road is to be prized in the Heineken Cup.

Indeed, these sort of tough away days against the makeweight division are exactly the sort of games that are the making of champions, or genuine contenders anyway.  They’re rarely all that memorable, the good teams are usually made to look pretty ordinary, but if any of the five can get the win and move onto somewhere between eight and ten points after two rounds, it sets them up for the all-important December head-to-head.  Think back to Munster beating Sale away in 2009, or Leinster toughing it out in Glasgow last season.  Can you remember too many of the finer details of the matches?  Probably not, but both wins were pivotal in ensuring not only qualification, but a home draw for the quarter final.

All five of the big fish won their opening games at home, as one would have expected.  This week will teach us a whole lot more about their title credentials.  For the medium-sized fish, this is already last chance saloon stuff.  With one defeat already on the board, defeat at home in round two and it’s more or less thanks and goodbye.  But win, and suddenly the picture is completely altered, and all sorts of possibilities open up.

And just who are these famous five?  Leinster, Ulster, Northampton, Clermont and Harlequins.  Here’s a look at what they can expect.

Llanelli v Leinster

In our preview we’ve already identified this as the key weekend in Leinster’s pool.  Last week’s decidedly uninspiring victory over Exeter has only served to ratchet up the importance of this game, and also the sense of trepidation among Leinster fans.  It’s looking like a tougher match by the minute.  Gordon D’arcy is likely to be in contention for selection, but Rob Kearney’s return appears uncertain.  The Louth man is badly missed at the moment, as he’s the only back who gives them real muscle, and the Scarlets backline is big on… bigness.  With Leinster yet to click, this one’s all about hanging in there and coming out with any sort of a win.

Leinster will win if: their front five is almost feral.  Scarlets are weak in the tight and Leinster can cut off supply at source, but only if Cian Healy is back on top of his game and Leinster get their second row selection right, and that could mean putting Cullen on the bench.

Scarlets will win if: Priestland keeps his cool.  Just what is this fellow all about?  We can’t make him out at all.  If he can keep the scoreboard working, Scarlets should have enough firepower outside him to finish the job.

Glasgow v Ulster

This is the very sort of game that would have scuppered the campaign of the Ulster of three or four years ago.  The onus is on the new teak-tough and increasingly impressive model to show they are no longer susceptible to such tawdry away days.  Last year’s defeat in Leicester was one such moribund performance, but they atoned in the Auvergne and, of course, Limerick.  Glasgow were in contention in Northampton until the last few minutes and led 15-0 after half an hour.  They’re no mugs.

Ulster will win if: they hold on to the ball.  They have the forward power to beat Glasgow, but away from home, they can’t afford the sort of sloppiness they displayed against Connacht and Castres.  More incision in their back play is the order of the day.

Glasgow will win if: they can hold their own at the set piece.  Ulster’s set piece is formidable, both in lineout and scrum.  If Glasgow can neutralise Ulster in this facet of the game, they’re halfway there.

Connacht v Harlequins

Surely Quins won’t be caught cold a second time?  We all remember what happened last year, when Connacht held out for a 9-8 win in horizontal rain to end a 14-game losing streak.  Last season, every time we felt Quins had run out of puff they seemed to find an extra reserve somewhere, and ended up English champions.  They look like bona-fide contenders in Europe this year.  Having already come out 5-0 at home to Biarritz, and with Zebre in the double-header, only a loss in Galway stands between them and topping the pool.  They’ll surely be too well prepared this time around for an ambush.

Quins will win if: they prepare correctly.  They have no excuses ans should know what to expect in Galway this time.

Connacht will win if: they can conjure up the spirit of last season, when they somehow held a one-point lead playing into a 10-point gale.

Exeter v Clermont

A most intriguing fixture.  In truth, the two halves of WoC aren’t seeing eye to eye on this at all.  Egg Chaser does not believe Exeter have the stuff to worry Clermont, and sees Les Jaunards pulling away in the second half.  But Palla Ovale, fresh from last weekend’s nerve-shredder, reckons Exeter at Sandy Park to be more than capable of beating a team which – let’s face it – doesn’t have a good away record.  Can Exeter back up their performance last week?  Do they have the power to match Clermont’s pack?  And do Clermont have the appetite to go to one of Europe’s more obscure corners and come away with the win?

Clermont will win if: they bring the same intensity as they do at the Marcel Michelin.

Exeter will win if: they can give the crowd something to shout about early on.  The Chiefs fans are a raucous bunch, and if their team can get their noses in front, it could be a long way back for the Bananamen.

Castres v Northampton

Saints gave themselves a fair bit of work to do last week by giving Glasgow a 15-point start.  They finished in credit though, and it was their cool heads in a crisis that impressed the most.  Now they must back it up with a win on the road.  Castres rested their first team in Ravenhill last week, but will be a different proposition at home.  More than any other French club, they are schizophrenic.  It’s back to back games with Ulster in December, so the onus is on them to at least match what Ulster accomplish in Glasgow.

Northampton will win if: their half-backs have a good day.  They have great power upfront and in the Pisi brothers, enough flair in the backline to make up for Foden’s absence, but at out-half they must pick the flaky, but occasionally brilliant Ryan Lamb, and hope he has one of his better matches.

Castres will win if: they get a sniff of a result.  Like Racing Metro, they’re not that worked up about the H-Cup.  But you can make the French interested by letting them into the game, just as Munster did last week.  If Castres get the feeling they can take a scalp, they’ll dial up the intensity.

We were tempted to include Cardiff v Toulon, but decided Cardiff were too rubbish to be taken seriously.  They even lost to Sale, for goodness sake!

Decisions, Decisions

The first weekend of the HEC have left our trio of Kiwi provincial coaches with a range of interesting selection dilemmas (dilemmae?) – more than one of which will have a knock-on effect on Ireland, as Deccie’s November squad is announced next week. Let’s look at some shirts.

Ulster Scrummie

This one is intriguing. On the one hand you have a Springbok multi-talented RWC winner, Ulster’s best player of the last two years. On the other hand you have an electric young Irishman, developing at pace, and man of the match in Week 1. Who do you pick? Pienaar isn’t going to sit on the bench for long, but how can you drop Marshall after that performance? An away-day trip to Glasgae is probably, on paper, one for the more experienced man, but Marshall might be the smarter choice. Realistically, Pienaar is going to be the man in May, so why not give Marshall high-pressure exposure when you can? Also, it sends the wrong message to drop the incumbent when Mr Big Shot comes back. Pienaar will be off again from next week with the Boks – Ulster will need him in December, let him rest his weary bones now before South Africa’s high intensity (and Irish) test assigments.

Leinster second row

Leinster’s second row, as currently configured, looks for the knackers yard. Leo Cullen (2012 version) and Damian Browne is not a combination to strike fear into anyone really – Tom Hayes dealt with them with ease. Looking at the potential replacement, one name springs to mind – the lad on the bench with 100 Leinster caps, Devin Toner. If Toner cannot step up and claim a shirt now, he’s just not going to – if you see Schmidt stick with last week’s pair, or promote Denton or Roux into the starting XV ahead of Toner, for a game against the only Welsh region without one Lions contender in the engine room, that might be that for Devin Toner at this level. As much as we think that he has done enough, or justified some faith, it’s Joe Schmidt who sees him every day, and we have yet to see Schmidt give him a vote of confidence.

Munster 6/8

Without James Cawlin, Munster look chronically short of ball-carrying heft in the back row. Last week, they picked POM at 8 and Donnacha Ryan at 6 – this seemed designed to beef up the pack for an away-day assignment, and keep your best back rower in the side – no harm there. But it isn’t a viable plan going forward really – Ryan is needed in the second row, and POM isn’t a HEC-level 8. What are the options? How about move O’Mahony back to 6, where he should get a run of games, and bring in young Paddy Butler at the back of the scrum for some better carrying. Sure, it’s callow, but so is any combination we can think of, such as Dave O’Callaghan at 6 and POM at 8. Netani Talei could start for Embra, and, to be truthful, we don’t think POM could deal with him – we would chance Butler.

Ulster 6/8

Pre-season, we had highlighted this line as one of Ulster’s weak spots – beyond Fez/Henry/Wilson, we didn’t see any depth. Well, without 2 of the 3, they did ok on Friday, and Nick Williams has been their best player this season. New Willie John McBride (henceforth NWJMB) Iain Henderson was a revelation, but if Ferris can start, and with Wilson and Williams back, it’s unlikely he will keep his place, or even get a bench slot. Henderson, of course, is a second row by trade. Should you throw him a bench slot there in Lewis Stevenson (himself starting the season well)? Hard to manage, but he is tomorrow’s man, and there is no need to tear the hole out of him. We’d go Fez-Henry-Williams with Wilson on the bench. We’ll see NWJMB captain the 2021 Lions – no need to see him Friday.

Leinster 12

We have talked recently about how Ferg finally looks like getting a firm grip on the inside centre shirt in D4, but he might need to compromise this weekend. The word is that Dorce will be back, and if that happens, given the patched-up nature of Leinster’s outside backs, you’d think he’ll come in and take the 12 shirt with Fads moving to the wing to act as George North’s speedbump again try and stop George North. It’s a tough break for McFadden – if Leinster had a full deck, we think Schmidt would keep Ferg in the shirt. The ballsier call, of course, would be put Dorce on the bench and keep Andrew Conway on the wing – but Joe tends to be conservative for HEC away days.

Munster 10

Here is a bullet dodged by Rob Penney. Rog picking up a hamstring has reduced the number of O’Gara-supporting pieces in this weeks Irish media to zero – better to put them in the cupboard and dust them down for the Sarries double-headers. We suspected Keatley was always going to start this game, but now he gets to start it without Chief Ligind warming up on the sideline for the first 60 minutes. In a way, that would be better for Keatley – he needs to be able to deal with the unique pressure that challenging Ronan O’Gara for his shirt generates, but don’t worry – that pressure will come.

Good Week, Bad Week

We feel like Gerry when discussing the Ireland side – is there ever a dull weekend in the HEC? This weekend’s action was unmissable from first to last – from the new Willie John McBride, Iain Henderson, to the two Sunday games in la sud de France, it never stopped. What do we think?

McCafferty Gets it Wrong

Quelle surprise, one might say. McCafferty’s argument that the uncompetitive nature of the Pro12 allows the Celts to target the HEC games,which (naturally) disadvantages the English was hilariously undermined by his own clients. Saracens absolutely thrashed last years semi-finalists Embra on their own turf, while the Saints came back from what looked like the dead to beat Glasgow, also with a bonus point. Quins overcame the loss of Nuck Ivans to get their own 5-pointer against boring bosh-merchants Biarritz, putting them firmly in control of their pool (and it’s only Round One!). Even Sale, winless domestically, managed to win a game.  But the Premiership performance of the weekend was arguably Exeter Chiefs, who went to the RDS and did everything but beat double champions Leinster – they were desperately unlucky to come away empty-handed.

Over Before It Begins?

This weekend saw the flattest pair of Leinster and Munster displays in Europe in a very long time. And now both are up against the wall, facing must-win games next week. If Leinster lose to the Scarlets and get a bonus point, they will have 5 points. With the maximum realistic achievable points tally against Clermont another 5, that would leave them needing 10 from their last two games to give themselves a shot at qualification – a tall order even if they are back at their best. But that assumes Clermont will win in Exeter, and that won’t be easy.  We said it already; Round Two in this pool is going to be defining.

In Munster’s case, not only did they let Racing back into the game – twice – but Saracens full tally in Embra means Munster simply cannot lose when the Scots come to town.

Leinster badly need some oomph, a bit of wallop.  They’re not an especially big team and nor are they especially quick.  They don’t have a Nick Williams type figure that they can repeatedly go to for big carries.  Nor do they have a Timbo Visser they can work the ball to in wide channels to wreak havoc.  They’re all about accuracy – both at the breakdown and in their passing.  When they get it right, they reach a pace and skill level that no team can live with, but when they’re off their game they don’t have much else to fall back on.  They just have to keep trying.  On this occasion, their performance was reminiscent of the last season under Cheika, and eerily similar to the defeat to London Irish, and almost had a similar outcome.

Allez Les Big French Trois

Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont.  Les grandes French teams cest up and running.  Clermont and Toulon got themselves le bonus point wins at home, while Toulouse, without being particularly brilliant, ground Leicester into the dirt in manky conditions.  They lack the flair of past vintages, but they remain a credible force.  And they’ve an 18 year old kiddo (Gael Fickou) at centre who announced himself emphatically with a memorable try.  All three are going to be big threats.  As pour le reste, Castres et Montpellier offered up their usual resistance, but Racing Metro somehow sneaked a win.  We’ve always suspected Olly Barkley was a better player than he’s given credit for, and he was the coolest man in the ground, and the matchwinner, if not quite playing in the style to which he has become known.

Ulster on the march… just about

They did their best not to deliver a bonus point, but ultimately, Castres let Ulster have one with one of the silliest pieces of play we’ve ever seen.  Those who can remember back as far as the 2007/08 season might recall a fairly frazzled Leinster doing precisely the same thing against Toulouse.  All that said, it wasn’t a bad effort considering they had a stitched together back row, with only Chris Henry close to being a first team regular.  The match was notable for a couple of performances.  Paul Marshall is an absolute livewire.  Can they leave him out?  And Iain Henderson had a Heineken Cup debut to remember.  Big carries, big hits, bags of pace and all while out of position and at just 20 years old.  We don’t want to overhype him, but… dude is going to be some player.

It’s Open

Last year Clermont were the only credible challengers to Leinster.  Too many others were out of sorts, bedevilled by injury or in a ‘transitional period’.  Not this season.  For a start, Leinster look a notch below last season’s level, but there are plenty of sides who could go on to win it.  We’ll know a bit more next week, but right now Harlequins, Saracens, Ulster, Northampton, Toulon, Toulouse, Clermont and perhaps Ospreys all look capable of going the distance.  Leicester and Munster won’t rule themselves out despite poor starts.  It could be the best Heineken Cup in years.

Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 6

Teams: Toulon, Cardiff Blues, Sale Sharks, Montpellier

McCafferty Unfairness Factor: Medium. Cardiff made a mockery of the structure of European rugby by sacrificing the Pro12, where they finished 7th, for a limp pool effort quarter final in the HEC, where Leinster thrashed them. That’s what McCafferty said anyway. The rest are genuinely elite, especially Sale.

Preview: The group of dearth.   Is this the weakest pool ever drawn in the Heineken Cup? The only challenger would be Cardiff’s pool last season. It’s certainly an advert for changing the seeding structure. Remarkably, Cardiff are still somehow a top seed, but they look set for a dreadful season.  They lost seven tries at home to Ulster two weeks ago.  Similarly, Sale appear a lot worse than anybody (well, us anyway) could have expected.  They’re winless (and useless) in the Premiership and staring down a season of fighting relegation.  Europe will hardly be a priority.

Nor will it be for the two French boys, but Montpellier gave it a better go than their results suggested last season.  They were on the end of a number of very tight results, be they draws or defeats.  Had they held on for a deserved win against Leinster in round one it might all have been different.  If the get some early momentum they might be a threat, and don’t underestimate how good Gorgodzilla is – he nearly dragged Georgia to victory over Scotland – a rudderless Cardiff should be a cinch.

For all that, though, this is Toulon’s to lose.  They boast the sort of mega-squad that can be kept fresh for a dual challenge and have world class forwards in Steffon Armitage, Fernandez Lobbe and Khizarashvili, to name but three. And while they wouldn’t be the most  likeable set-up, at least there’s the likes of Bakkies Botha Simon Shaw and Johnny Wilkinson knocking around to provide a bit of common decency.  Equally, they won’t be Castres Euro-bunnies – they want to rule the world. They made the knock-out stages in their first season (albeit at the expense of Top14 form), and are even better equipped this year.

Verdict: Hard to see any other outcome than Toulon to qualify, and they will target a home quarter-final; the other three to drown in a sea of mush.