The Last Supper

And so, for possibly the last time ever, we write a preview for a tournament that has expanded the fan base and earning power of Northern Hemipshere rugby like no other. This time next year, we could be scrawling a few half-hearted lines on Pool 3 of the Rugby Champions Cup where “champions” Bath, Exeter, Stade Francais and the Saracns Globo Gym bosh it out for the right to get hockeyed by Toulon B in the Super Sixes stage. Ooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh!!

Its quite obviously a complete fool’s errand to pick winners this far out, with so many variables between now and April, so we’re going to pick who gets through to the knock-out stages.

Pool 1: Castres, Leinster, Northampton, Ospreys

Very tough pool this for Leinster – they’ll need to win at least one away game to get through, and they have three tough ones. Leinster have started the season sluggishly and are missing Johnny Sexton badly – Ian Madigan has the talent to take the step up, but winning dirty away games in Europe is extremely tough, and this might be a year to chalk to experience. Leinster, Saints and Ospreys will all fancy winning their home games, and it could come down to who nicks what in Castres, and bonus points. Leinster have the advantage  of going to Castres late in the pool, when Castres have traditionally given up – this could end up the decisive factor. We’ll take Leinster to squeak through on their own, to an away quarter final, drawing on all their experience. The lurking Saints, replete with Kahn Fotuali’i and George North should not be underestimated, though they continue to look a top-class 10 away from being a really good team.  Brian O’Driscoll is, again, the key man for Leinster.

Pool 2: Cardiff, Exeter, Glasgow, Toulon

A gimme for the boshtastic champions here – the only game you can envisage sweat breaking is in Scotstoun, where Glasgae are a tough nut to crack. Problem is, the likes of Bakkies will only love stomping on the dreams of the brave Scots. Hard to see Toulon slipping up – they should have a home quarter final with plenty of tries in the bag. If Glasgae give this a lash, and there is no guarantee of that – the Pro12 has been their target in recent years – there is a potential lucky loser berth up for grabs here – Cardiff are dire and hemorrhaging players, and while Exeter are doughty and tough, they don’t have the class of Matawalu or Maitland in their ranks. But probably not. Toulon on their own.

Pool 3: Connacht, Saracens, Toulouse, Zebre

Exhibit A for the mouth-frothing McCafferty types – Connacht in the back door and Zebre permanent residents of the servant’s quarters. In previous seasons, Connacht have punched above their weight, but they are struggling so far this year – this could be less pleasant than previous years. Globo Gym have world dominating ambitions, but play a rank brand of rugby (albeit that in the Premiership they have shown a desire to expand their previously zero-dimensional style). If they didn’t give up home games for wads of cash, they might actually be contenders to win the pot itself – the agony if this lot took home the last ever HEC would be too much to bear. Toulouse are in re-building mode, and have had some moments of complete ineptitude in Europe in the last few years, but this really is an easy pool – Globo Gym and Toulouse to go through.

Pool 4: Clermont, Harlequins, Racing Metro, Scarlets

Four imperfect teams here – Clermont have the class and desire in Europe, but are ageing in Vern Cotter’s last year and are creaking at the seams a little. Quins seem to have hit a glass ceiling and were bitterly disappointing in their loss to Munster last season. Racing Metro can’t buy a try right now, and the Scarlets can’t scrummage. Seems like the Welshies might get beaten up a little here, and it will come down to one of the others getting a big win on the road. Clermont have the experience of this type of assignment, and that usually pays off in this tournament. This will be a fascinating pool – Racing Metro have no HEC pedigree to speak of, but they have outhalves (players and coaches) with five winners medals and immense experience. If Sexton gets the platform he needs, don’t rule out the Parisian toffs, but it’s the serial chokers from Montferrand who are the safer bet. On their own probably.

Pool 5: Leicester, Montpellier, Treviso, Ulster

Stinker of a draw for Ulster here, and very similar to that of two years ago, when they got through on the back of a memorable 41-7 thumping of the Tigers at Ravers. That was Palla’s first taste of the Friday Night Ravers Experience, and he almost turned Ulster as Paddy Wallace dumped Tom Croft on his backside. The difference then was they had Aironi to fill their boots against – here it’s Treviso who stand in their way, a much tougher prospect. Montpellier have the meanest pack in Europe, and look pretty well built for a pool like this – if they give it priority they have the tools to win it. Last year, they gave Europe a lash, but they were in with some Frenchies who they will never lie down against, and two bunnies (Cardiff and Sale) who are worse than all four teams here. This is Ulster’s last year with Afoa on board, but even with him, do they have the ballast up front to get points away from Ravers? The backs are immensely talented, probably the best in the pool, but we think Leicester have the class, the experience in assignments like this, and the memory of two years ago to come through this one. Montpellier are the next best bet, and Ulster are seriously unlucky.

Pool 6: Embra, Gloucester, Munster, Perpignan

This looked like a bye to the quarter final when the draw was made, and it still looks eminently do-able for Munster. A weakling Embra unit, a re-run of that game, and a bunch of flaky Frenchies piloted by James Hook look like easy meat. The flip side of that is that, if Gloucester get parity up front, their electric backs can beat anyone, Perpignan are formidable in their own ground, and Camille Lopez is pushing Hook for the USAP starting 10 berth. Much will depend on two people – Paul O’Connell and Ian Keatley. When O’Connell is available, Munster are 50% better, and if Keatley can manage a passable Rog impression, Munster will be home and hosed, replete with the usual Saturday evening tear-soaked home win. If USAP are interested, they could come through in a lucky losers slot built on two hammerings of Embra.

Our safe quarter-finalists: Clermont Auvergne, Leicester, Leinster, Munster, Perpignan, Saracens, Toulon, Toulouse

If we stuck our necks out: Montpellier, Munster, Northampton, Perpignan, Racing Metro, Saracens, Toulon, Toulouse

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13 Comments

  1. Lop12

     /  October 10, 2013

    Nice preview. Toulon & Clermont certs in my eyes. Munster probably the next safest with a reasonable pool.

    Think Sarries have “the mental” to win that pool, will be dogged enough IMO to “win” the head to head with Toulouse which should decide the pool. Also far less likely to slip up in Galway than Toulouse (by slip up unfortunately I fear that means picking up 4 instead of 5 points). Sarries will also be delighted with the forecast for this weekend!!

    You have hit the nail on the head with Leinster, need BOD fit and ready to go to come out of the pool I think. Really is a stinker of a draw. I cant see them getting the win this weekend against the bogey team; heading to the Liberty wont hold the same fear for Northampton though, especially with Fohtalui (sop!!) in tow and they will probably target three home wins and a result in Wales to get through. I am picking Northampton here albeit would agree that Myler doesn’t fit the profile of a ten you will win the cup with. His goal kicking is solid though and he has two excellent nines to take the pressure off inside him.

    Ulster group the best of the lot (for a neutral!!). Montpellier have the tools to win it out and potentially adding some serious quality to the squad after the pool stages in Ranger et al; might be too late for them by then though and I am not convinced they will give the competition their full attention if things dont go their own way from the outset. Very good point you made about their pool last year, Id add that they were fortunate to have Toulon in their last game when they were already qualified. Don’t share your view on Tigers who have been decidedly average so far this season. Very short of out half cover also with Lamb both suspended and injured and Flood is somewhat injury prone. If Ulster can pick up 5 points this weekend, which is a huge ask to be fair, they will be worthy favourites to win this pool.

    Cant wait, once again, for this to start. Sickening to think it might be the last as we know it.

  2. Might get lambasted for saying this but I can’t see Leinster getting out of their pool…

    Ospreys could well turn Leinster over home and away – their brand of rugby just “works” against Leinster and they always seem to find time and space for their backs, no matter who is in the Leinster line-up.

    Northampton are a pretty decent side, I’d expect a home win for both teams.

    It’s great that Leinster have Castre at home second game rather than the other way round, I’d expect a home win and then hopefully they will be out of the competition by the time Leinster have to travel to them.

    So, rather than it all depending on Castre, I actually think this weekend is “the” game of the group from a Leinster perspective. Obviously a win would be magical, and a losing bonus acceptable but I have a real fear that Ospreys might put 10 points on us – which will hit the confidence of Leinster hard.

    The Munster loss has been marked down as a poor performance, but not critical and no harm that it happened the week before the HEC. Suppose the proof of that will be in Saturday nights’ game. The forwards especially have to show some leadership, grit and a real attitude this weekend. We seem to be missing a bit of dog/niggle in our pack – I’m not saying Healy should do a Cole-gate again but I’d love to see a bit of handbags in the first 5 minutes especially with AW Jones on the other side. Allow him to impose himself and it’ll be game over, such a class player who also has that abilty to get under the skin.

    I hope I’m proved wrong but that fear is nagging at me.

    • I think we are all in agreement, that Leinster face a hugely important
      match this weekend against the Ospreys and that in order to have any
      chance of winning and/or coming away with a bonus point loss, our
      front five will have to put in massive performance, the likes of which
      we haven’t seen yet this season. That being said, I personally believe
      the absolute last thing we need to see is Cian Healy indulging in
      handbags under the glare of the TMO – thereby perhaps picking up a
      yellow or a red card. It would be better for himself, Cronin and Ross
      to take on and get the better of the hair bears in the scrum. If that
      requires a bit of front row “dark arts” so be it. But in ainm Dé keep
      it under wraps, lads!!!

      • I wasn’t suggesting Cian (or anyone for that matter) indulging in something that would warrant a yellow or red, more making sure that Osprey’s know they won’t be bullied up front and will contest everything.

        AW Jones is so similar to Hines in respect of being a brilliant lock but one who constantly niggles/gets in the way. I would love to see him getting put on his backside with a (perfectly legal) clear-out or tackle and a friendly (!) bit of handbags/pushing/shoving to show they mean business.

        As you say we haven’t seen a big performance from the forwards so far, and in my opinion this is completely due to attitude rather than lacking in skillset/strength, etc. so I’m just hoping they show up with that “I’m not taking a backward step” attitiude

  3. Yossarian

     /  October 10, 2013

    Leinster not getting out of the group is a distinct possibility, thinking of a few seasons back when we had Toulouse, Leicster and Edinburgh(before they were rubish) and Toulouse went through by beating Edinburgh in Edinburgh in an awful game. Reckon this group will be similarly tight. What Leinster have going for them is the fixture list. Castres away in second last game is a good time to get them and The Ospreys at home in the final day in a winner takes all scenario is doable. If Leinster can pick up a losing bonus point/score tries something to give them an advantage in the head to head at the end they might just sneak it.
    too tight to call!

    • Yeah, very tight to call. We plumbed for Leinster to get through, but we won’t be betting the house on it. Northampton have a bit of the unknown about them, they’ve changed a lot from last year. George North is obviously crucial, but can they get him the ball he needs to thrive? I’ve always found that rather than the 10 unleashing the backs, it’s Ben Foden running from deep that is the most creative outlet for them. If Foden can be back to his best and if North can get on his wavelength the way Ashton used to, he will murder teams.

  4. Nice review. Certainly spot on with Pool 1, what a stinker of a draw for Leinster. It might sound obvious but I think its key for Leinster to get a win in the Liberty Stadium (no mean feat) this Saturday, Castres night be Top14 champions but they can’t buy a win away from home and have taken some real thumping’s, including a 34-0 hammering by Brive. So in that regard having Castres second up and at home with the return fixture not until January might be an advantage. If Leinster can win on Saturday, I’d back them to make it out of the group, lose and its going to be a struggle.

    Connacht I would agree seem to have gone backwards from last year, their league form thus far has been poor and I can’t see them matching the 3 wins they got in the Pool stages last year

    Munster looks like a shoe in the 1/4s given the quality (or lack thereof) of the other teams in the group. They’ll be justifiably disappointed if they don’t get a home 1/4

    Ulster’s group is certainly intriguing and is harder to call, 3 wins in Ravenhill are a must, first up being the Tigers tomorrow night, lose that and their hopes of a 1/4 final will already be in trouble as the away ties all look tricky.

    Pool2 is as you’ve said a no brainer, Toulon all the way and a home 1/4 final.

    Pool 4 has to be Clermont, even with all the money Racing have spent this summer and the acquisition of JS can’t see them making the 1/4s, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they don’t even make the Amlin, that might seem harsh but in the past they have consistently thrown in the towel when things don’t go their way, can JS make a difference to the team psychology…we’ll see

  5. One little correction: Camille Lopez isn’t pushing Hook for the 10 spot, the debate is well and truly over, Lopez having started at 10 in all 8 games (and finished 5) so far this season.

  6. Bowe Gathers

     /  October 11, 2013

    Gents,

    I’ve been giving pool 5 some thought, and at the risk of adding to the “sometimes excessive hype which accompanies them locally” (copyright some bloke called Gerry), I really do feel Ulster are more in the running than you allow them credit for. Sure, we’re not as heavy up front, but our back line, scrum and experience have never really been better.

    I do feel that if they don’t do it now they can consign themselves to nearly being nearlymen. If we can’t win all three at home, and two of three away, then we don’t deserve any hype at all – I just feel our trajectory (from nothing to open rugby, thumped in the HC final by leinster, then nearly doing one in the RDS last year) shows ever decreasing margins of error, and we have the gumption to see group 5 down. Excessive hype/ excessive hope maybe, but I thought I’d nail my colours to the mast. Either side, SUFTUM for Friday night at Ravers – let the games commence.

  7. Have you seen Myler this season? He is playing very well by all accounts. Wouldn’t be so blase about Northampton. If Ospreys target the Heineken instead of the Rabo, it could be very, very tough. Hard to see more than one coming out of this group for sure.

    We will know more after round two but I wonder what O’Connor has been given as a target for this year. Leinster don’t have the squad for a tilt at the Heineken Cup this year, so what would he have been given as a benchmark?

  8. Yossarian

     /  October 11, 2013

    Olding looked good again tonight in his cameo. Might be a little small as a centre but reckon he has the makings of a quality 10. Good result for Ulster but reckon Leicster will look back and be happy with a losing bonus and even try count.

    • He could be a great 5/8th, wonderful skill set but a touch too small. Where have I heard that about an Ulsterman before? LBP for Leicster could be crucial. Let’s hope Treviso do us a favour next week by shutting up shop

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