Time to Front Up

With all the Heineken Cup wrangling so prominent, it feels almost as if the tournament itself will be a mere background event this year.  How’s about Ulster vs. Leicester on Friday night at Ravenhill to kick off proceedings?  Sounds great, but first tell us about the latest cloak-and-dagger statement to come out from Ligue National de Rugby.

While the Celtalian provinces/regions/franchises don’t come to the negotiating table speciafically, being represented by their umbrella unions, they can do themselves a service by showing strongly and putting out a message to the English sides that they are worthy of being here, regardless of what rule changes may exclude them in the future.

Leinster, Munster and Ulster we know will be competitive – they always are.  It’s time for a handful of Pro12 teams outside the Irish Big Three to show that Anglo-French perceptions of the Pro12 as a sort of joke tournament are wide of the mark.

First on that list has to be Glasgow, increasingly impressive in the Pro12 but seemingly unable to translate their form into wins against the more physically imposing sides in Europe.  Last season they won just one pool game in a group with Ulster, Northampton and Castres, but finished third in the Pro12 and were deeply unfortunate not to beat Leinster in the semi-final.  Spearheaded by the magnificent Josh Strauss at 8 and with great attacking players like Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland in the backline, it’s high time they brought their A-game to the next level.  A lot appears to hinge on which Ruaraidh Jackson shows up for them; more often than not it’s the patchy, flaky, indecisive one.  With Exeter, Cardiff and Toulon in their pool, winning it outright looks difficult, but they should be targeting second place.

Another who can impose themselves in their pool are the fast-improving Treviso.  The premier Italian franchise remain formidable at home, and racked up wins in the second half of last season’s league to finish a creditable 7th.  Their season has been slow to start, but in beating Munster on Friday night they are up and running.  They have signed Matt Berquist to play 10, and it could be a shrewd bit of business, as they have been crying out for a controlling fly-half.  They’re in a pickle of a pool, with Ulster, Leicester and Montpellier, but two home wins is a realistic target.  French sides can take a lackadaisical attitude to such games and are ripe for taking by surprise, and only last season, Leicester only beat Treviso through a somewhat dubious penalty try minutes from the end.  Ulster have yet to hit their stride, and are eminently beatable if they have an off-day.

Ireland’s ‘fourth province’ Connacht have been a soft target for the likes of Stephen Jones, who has said they are not ‘elite’ whatever that means, but they have given a great account of themselves in the big league so far and are back again this year (thanks again to Leinster).  Their group contains Saracens and Toulouse, as well as Zebre.  Toulouse have been to the Sportsground before, and won comfortably, but they are ageing and dull these days.  Connacht will be targeting that game in a big way, and a win would put out a huge signal of the Pro12’s strength.

Finally, what about the Welsh?  As usual, the Ospreys are their best hope.  For all the brickbats they receive, they usually make a big contribution to the tournament. Last year their 15-15 draw with Leicester was the best match of the season, but they have a habit of coming out on the losing side of thrilling games.  They join Leinster, Saints and Castres in what should be a white knuckle-ride of a pool.  Even if they don’t come out of the pool, their results may define it.

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12 Comments

  1. Sam

     /  September 24, 2013

    Glasgow and Ospreys maybe, though I’m not quite sure if their success in the Rabo is down to weaker 15s playing for the stronger teams or not. When I think of them coming up against the likes of Leicester and Toulouse though I can imagine them winning.

  2. Robrich

     /  September 24, 2013

    Couldn’t agree more. The Ospreys will fancy their chances but they seem to be picked in the ‘group if death’ more or less every year. In saying that though, it would seem that they need to improve their away form as they have only lost once at home in 6 years of this tournament.
    Connacht will always put up a good account of themselves at home but it is again their away form which will ultimately decide if they can cause a major upset. Glasgow are a quality side and will present a real problem for any team.
    I sincerely hope that the Pro12 teams do raise their game even further. I doubt they’ll need any motivation

  3. Mary Hinge

     /  September 24, 2013

    Connacht won’t be troubling the judges in their HEC group if their performance against Ulster in Galway last Saturday evening is anything to go by. They were poor……….

    • Not their best for sure, Mary, but Connacht don’t tend to be a team where the form guide means too much, in my experience. They can be rubbish one week and rouse themselevs for something completely different the next.

      • Reality check, Whiff: The next three games for Connacht are Ospreys, Treviso, and Saracens.
        Connacht fans are more worried about the season deteriorating into a “West’s Awake” losing streak, than they are about putting down a marker in a tournament whose doors we may never darken again.
        Beating Toulouse would be nice, but if I had to pick a game to win in out last appearance (for a while) in the Nigel Wray Invitational Trophy, you can guess who it’d be.

  4. Whilst I appreciate the overall point of this post I can’t help but feel that even if this year’s HEC ended with four Pro 12 teams in the semi’s it wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference to the opinions of the English and French clubs.

    Purely because they don’t really give a monkeys about who wins the competition, only who controls the competition, and it’s purse-strings.

    Regarding what happens on the pitch though, I was very impressed by Ospreys showing against Leinster 2 weeks ago – admittedly Leinster didn’t have their Lions/Ireland players and Ospreys were much closer to full strength, but they played a really good brand of rugby.

    I, for one, would have much preferred to avoid them in the pool stages & am quite concerned (again) that Leinster are going to really struggle to get out of their group. This player welfare programme has such a negative impact on Leinster and whilst the squad is strong, it seems they really struggle to bed back into shape this side of November.

    That combined with, yet again, a number of injuries in the back-line could really hamstring Leinster again this year.

    Hopefully I’m wrong but Leinster won’t get away with a slow start with such a strong pool.

  5. Leinsterlion

     /  September 24, 2013

    Spot on, but for your Toulouse characterisation as “aging and dull”?, have a look at their form this year, they are on the way up and if their offloads stick will hammer anyone in Europe.

  6. Mike

     /  September 24, 2013

    I thought it was the success of the Rabo teams that got us into this mess…

    If Nigel Wray had been carried aloft from the pitch after a famous Saracens Heineken Cup win (perish the thought), I doubt we would be having this conversation. Maybe we should let them win for a season or two to keep them happy.

    On second thoughts, feck that…

    • Michael Robinson

       /  September 25, 2013

      Nah, I think the PRL teams would have engineered a split whatever.

      If the English teams had been doing well, the reason would have been “we’re too good for the likes of you” but as they haven’t been doing well, it is “waah, waah, it’s not fair, we’re going to play with our own ball

  7. I have an idea, stick with me, it’s genius. Two European cups.

    We can have two competitions, as well as the leagues, and there can be multiple European Champions at any one time. Or one team can be the undisputed European Champion. And meritocracy will be decided by a committee that will ordain a certain team as being the number 1 challenger to the champion.

    And belts. For some reason I think there should be belts, not cups.

    Yeah, this’ll work.

  8. Paddy o

     /  September 25, 2013

    Go Glasgow, Treviso, Connacht, Ospreys. Save us all from the Coupe de Coup……although from the rationale i’ve heard from the premiership’s many press releases……don’t be too good or you will force the premiership clubs to breakaway because of the injustice of it all. In short be plucky losers and give us our money or else we will have to save you with a gerrymandered competition.

    But hearts won’t be as much in this Coupe de Coup – where in the words of that dude who gets read at weddings: you can laugh, but not all of your laughter. Cry, but not all of your tears. And where every future…ahem…champion, has an asterisk after their name.

    *won with help/despite attempts to make this kind of thing impossible from the boardroom. Delete as appropriate.

  9. zdm

     /  September 25, 2013

    Superficially, the Premiership Money Cabal have got their knickers in a twist over the lack of meritocratic qualification for the HC by Pro12 teams and keep harping on about the impact lack of relegation has on the performance of Celtalian teams in the competition.

    Any rugby fan (or half intelligent person who actually thinks about it) can see through this facade quite quickly, however, it seems the English rugby public do not so, superficially at least, the Pro12 teams have to put on a show this year.

    With that in mind, the performance of Treviso, Glasgow and the Cardiff Blues will be all important I think.
    Not even the most ardent defender of the Pro12 can argue that Zebre add more to the HC than Bath or Biarritz but if Treviso manage mid-table with 2HC wins, then that might stop the whining a little bit.

    Having started well, I’d like to see Glasgow keep up their Pro12 form when the HC starts and with Cardiff serving up dross so far, if their performance suddenly becomes good in the HC, the whispering will start again. Cardiff seem to get much more coverage than any other Pro12 team in the English media so I’d imagine the Premiership bosses will be watching closely. Glasgow to a Pro12 play off/HC quarter and Cardiff to a decent run in the Amlin plus a top 6 Pro12 finish would be ideal but with both in the same, very tough, HC group, one or the other would suffice.

    As for the future, a meritocratic qualification wouldn’t worry Ulster, Munster or Leinster too much but I fear for Connacht – the Westies have improved rapidly for their participation in the HC but will never be funded sufficiently by the IRFU to develop a squad deep enough to compete on both fronts.

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