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.

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5 Comments

  1. I wouldn’t be too hard on Glasgow, for two games now they’ve gone with 6-2 splits on the replacement bench, not because of tactics, but because they are suffering with injuries and can barely field a side. Their opening HEC match against Northampton ended with two scrum halves on the pitch and a flanker on the wing, which made the match reports that they blew the game a bit unfair.

    Their front rows are mostly out of action and they’ve had to sign cover at short notice. DTH is out, Cusiter, Low, Weir… every team goes through this kind of patch, but I think the Warriors are having a perfect injury storm right now.

  2. John C

     /  October 22, 2012

    In Gerry’s defence, I think his sub editor does him no favours today. The main piece is standard blurb, it’s the headline that takes it over the top. Not coincidentally, it’s the most popular story on the IT website this morning. The ordinary punter loves the munster magic myth.

    • Hmmm, I’m not so sure John – here’s an excerpt: “This was Munster in Thomond Park after all, and as the home pack mauled their way toward the line to complete a flurry of three tries in the final 10 minutes and secure a bonus point in a 33-0 win over Edinburgh, it was like the old days. Feeding time in the zoo and all that, and the old Thomond roar was back.”

      It’s Gerry that loves the Munster magic. Most punters we talked to after the game were very sanguine after the win and under no illusions whatsoever.

  3. This is my favourite part of that Gerry piece; ‘ the thought occurred that maybe the Heineken Cup was losing a little of its magic. Ha! This was Munster in Thomond Park after all’ That ‘Ha!’ is junior cert essay writing magic, wonderful stuff Gerry.

  4. That the 3 top French teams are delivering is no surprise with their squads – the H-Cup remains theirs to lose IMO. Toulon also seem to want to do well in Europe this year.

    Was at the Sarries-Racing match on Saturday and Racing were atrocious for large parts of the match – one or two attacking moves apart. Tackling was like a lepper – something to be avoided. When you consider that this was as much a home game for them as for Sarries – they had almost as many fans – it really makes you wonder about this group. I mean Munster lost to this Racing side and Sarries could not put them away. Schalk Brits is – however – everything he is hyped up to be. December will tell I guess.

    Leinster are still in it, even if not inspiring confidence. At least they have shored up the defensive problems from earlier in the season and the scrum looks solid. The high level of errors with ball in hand is a worry but you would think this is the type of problem that can be ironed out with more team familiarity. Big performance needed in Clermont though – I am really looking forward to my trip there.

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