Getting The Job Done

Next weekend’s final round of Heineken Cup matches have relatively little at stake.  Most of the groups have been tied up by now, with the favourites comfortably through.  Toulon, Munster, Toulouse, Leinster and Clermont Auvergne will top their groups, without doubt.  All are qualified, save for Leinster who need a losing bonus point at home to Ospreys, who are bottom of the pool.  The only pool with something real to be resolved is Ulster’s, where the Nordies face Leicester in a winner takes almost all battle to top the pool.  Ulster, though, can lose and still qualify.

By our reckoning, it’s the third year in a row in which there hasn’t been all that much to get excited about in Round Six.  Time was almost everything was up for grabs in the final round of fixtures.  Sky’s ‘as it stands’ top eight would fluctuate by the minute as the action played out across twelve cities in Europe.  The Leinster half of WoC has happy-ish memories of getting soaked to the skin in the RDS watching Leinster labour to a 12-3 win over Edinburgh, while nervously receiving reports from the south of France where Castres were hanging on to a lead against Wasps, before drying out in Crowe’s watching (Mud-)Bath draw 3-3 with Toulouse on a pudding of a pitch at the Rec.  The other half recalls Biarritz trying to stick it up the jumper to close out the game in Ravers, only to give iHumph a last opportunity to put Ulster through to the knockouts for the first time in 12 years, in the 79th minute of the final pool game – he delivered.

The final shakedown of the pools akways seemed to go down to the wire.  And, while we can’t quite confirm, we have heard rumour that some of Munster’s pools down the years occasionally went into the final round unresolved.

But in this season, and the two before it, most of the major issues have been decided before the final denoument.  Last year, once Saracens beat Racing Metro in the fifth round, the make-up of the eight qualifiers was more or less set in stone, and in the previous year, once Connacht beat Harlequins on the final friday night, the remaining games had little import.

So why the lack of drama this year, and in the last couple of seasons?  It appears that the middle order teams have fallen away from the big boys, for whatever reason. If we think about the consistently competitive teams of the noughties, Wasps and Stade have fallen away (almost for good) as the big boys retired, Biarritz’ and Perpignan’s power game doesn’t quite cut the moutarde any more, Ospreys’ Galacticos have buggered off and the Scarlets team of the early noughties faded away. That’s six tough pool draws who are much easier meat these days … if they are even in the tournament at all. It takes a while to build up the muscle memory to get the HEC knockout stage level, but when you get there, you become good at knowing what it takes to stay there.

This year, none of the new breed of middleweights really put it up to top seeds, at least not in terms of accumulating points across the five rounds.

  • Harlequins were beaten home and away by Clermont, and threw in a careless defeat to Scarlets
  • Saracens talk big but when it came down to it, Toulouse swatted them away at home, and held on for a win away.  They are likely to qualify as runners-up though.
  • Gloucester were easily dealt with by Munster in both ties, and somehow lost at home to Edinburgh
  • Perpignan took a French approach to the tournament.  They almost beat Munster which might have changed things but couldn’t see it out when victory beckoned
  • Northampton had a typically see-sawing campaign, winning admirably in Dublin after a hammering at home.  But losing in Castres sealed their fate
  • Big things were expected of Montpellier, but they were tactically outmanoeuvred by Ulster, and with that they gave up
  • Castres were never likely to accumulate many away wins, but they did put it up to Leinster in the RDS

One team that did man up and perform above their level was Cardiff.  They beat Toulon at home and performed creditably in the away match, a touch unlucky to give up a bonus point to three penalty tries when they had players in the bin.  They also managed a hard-earned win away to Glasgow and if they can finish off with a win at home to Exeter, they could qualify for the Amlin.  But for all that, they were never likely to contend the leadership of the group with Toulon.  Another is Connacht, who won their two games against the mighty Zebre, put it up to Saracens at home and of course, won famously in Toulouse.

This year’s pool winners will all, almost certainly, do so with five wins in the bag.  It looks likely that Munster will finish with a whopping 23 points and yet have to make do with an away quarter-final.  Holy smokes!  Five wins used to almost guarantee a home quarter-final, and four wins and enough bonus points would get you through the pool as winners.

The strange thing about it all is that none of the pool winners have played especially well in spite of the huge match-points totals.  They’ve almost qualified in second gear.  On the face of it, Toulouse, Leicester, Munster and Leinster look a pale shadow of former vintages.  Ulster have huffed and uffed through most of their games.  Toulon have squad depth to beat the band, but they happy to rely on their pack’s gargantuan hugeness and take few risks.  Clermont, once again, look like the best team in the tourney, but even they threw in a silly defeat to a hopeless Racing Metro side.

It looks to us as if where the big sides are superior is in managing to do just enough, knowing how to get the job done, ekeing out the win in a clutch game.  Resilience and composure in the white heat of battle count for an awful lot these days.  Munster are masters at it this season, and indeed, pretty much every season.  Indeed, in the match on Saturday, after an hour’s play we tweeted to the effect that Munster had Gloucester’s number, and now just needed to get the necessary scores to put them away.  To the surprise of nobody, within the next ten minutes they did exactly that, putting another 10 points on the board to pull away.  Put simply, they know how to win matches.

Leicester have saved match-points in the dying minutes of two of their away games: a vital losing bonus point in Ravenhill and a last-ditch winning try in Montpellier.  Leinster found themselves in a right old pickle in Castres, but experience counts for a lot and in the end they were able to get themselves back in the match and pull away to win.  Would, say, Northampton or Harlequins – two good teams with aspirations of joining the elite – have had the composure and self-belief to claw their way back in such a position?  Doubtful.

The old cliches about every point being crucial and maximum intensity being required haven’t even applied.  Almost all the pool winners have thrown in one daft defeat to a team vastly inferior to them.  It hasn’t stopped them having their quarter final place wrapped up by week 5.

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  1. Shelflife68

     /  January 14, 2014

    Cleary not a Connacht fan if you think that there is no excitement left in the 6th round, While unlikely we are in with a mathemathical chance of a HC qtr final and a good chance of an Amlin place.

    It may not be exciting for those already qualified, but for those of us still in the mix we have our hopes and our deams and we travel to globo gym HQ with hope in our hearts.

    • Same for Ulster, of course. We may be the only group leaders at risk of falling at the final hurdle (which may be counting chickens when it comes to Leinster facing Ospreys, given their history), but getting that home quarter final would be huge. No one wants to run into Clermont or Toulon in their own back yard.

      • We mentioned that Ulster’s group is the one exception. Clearly, there’s a lot at stake in that game.

        As for Connacht, well, you’ll have to forgive us but it’s imossible to see it as anything other than academic; a Saracens win, which should see them qualify as the second runner-up.

        • Shelflife68

           /  January 14, 2014

          Thats true, on paper we should be on the end of a hammering, but as Toulouse know rugby isnt played on paper. As I said its unlikely and we travel in hope.
          Who would have said that we would be in the shake up for a qtr final place on week 6??
          And would SJ head explode if we did ??

          For that alone you should join us in our hopes and dreams.

          Believe !!

  2. Patrick O'Riordan

     /  January 14, 2014

    Assuming Leinster qualify, this year will be the first time all 6 first seeds will have qualified for the quarter finals in the 6 years the current seeding system has been in place.

    Maybe this had more to do with the vagaries of the ERC seeding system as it is based upon the last 4 years of European performance so it was too easy for some teams to have a high ranking based upon past glories.

    However I don’t think there would be much argument that the 3 Irish *sters, Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont are the best 6 in Europe.

    Next tier down are a bunch of much-of-a-muchness English teams with Leicester and Saracens benefiting from having an Italian team in their group.

    The tier below this are the Scots and Welsh Pro12 teams who haven’t been able to make the leap to be consistently competitive in Europe.

    Then at the bottom are the Italians, the French teams who don’t give a toss about Europe and the worst of the English.

    Of course, in a PRL meritocracy, the French and English deserve to be there…

    • Mike

       /  January 14, 2014

      Good job Saracens had Connacht and Zebre in their pool. I think everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the draw came out….

      • We were a little surprised to be drawn against the only 2 teams in the competition with lower attendances than ourselves, truth be told 😉

        • Leinsterlion

           /  January 14, 2014

          Ha, and there you have the reason why McCaffery and his minions want all the monies, empty, small or not their own stadia means crap attendance, no corporate box monies, no stadium advertising monies etc. But its all Connachts fault for being crap and not being relegated to the AIL………

          • I believe Allianz Park fulfills all 3 of your criteria, LeinsterLion.

          • Leinsterlion

             /  January 14, 2014

            Its owned by the local council, and it only has 10,000 capacity, compare that to any of the big euro teams or even Leicester. that stadium is hardly a ringing endorsement that Sarries are a “Big club”.

  3. Thomas

     /  January 14, 2014

    Its worrying that the Castres game in Ravenhill almost set the template, for how any team with a good pack can beat, if not hammer Ulster.

    A quick press defense made Ulster look a little bit average against a team short their most talented payers. Only the poor kicking and fielding of kicks made Ulster look good. Hope I’m wrong, but I’ve got the sinking feeling.

  4. Paddy

     /  January 14, 2014

    The knockouts looks like a who’s who of Winners and Runners up. With the exception of Saracens it’s fairly elite. I think you’re right about the middle order falling away, in particular Quins and Montpellier who’ve swapped with Leinster and Toulouse this year.
    Kind of surprising that it’s so ho-hum given the upsets in the first round. Scarlets bt Quins, Edinburgh bt Munster, Racing bt Clermont. Also throw in Ulster surprise crushing of Montpellier in France in the second and Cardiff beating Toulon in Cardiff. Maybe the early surprises means there’s less at the end of the pool stages.

    My money is on at least 1 French finalist as they seem likely to get at least 3 of the home Qfs after that it’s a toss up. Leicester still seem to have a big injury crisis and aren’t the power they were last year and Saracens are still quite limited without forward domination. I think there’ll be at least 1 Irish semi finalist if not finalist.

  5. abitofshoepie

     /  January 14, 2014

    It pains me to think it, but I think the PRL reps are correct when they talk about the need to make the Cup more ‘elite’. It can’t be good for the competition in the long term that every year there are a few groups that have 10 pointer bankers in them (Zebras, Treviso, usually one of the welsh). Hence big point totals for very little quality. Cut it to 16 teams, top 2 go through, that would keep all groups alive on weeks 5 and 6. The Ambling (sic) Cup would be better as well.

  6. patch

     /  January 14, 2014

    there was plenty of tension in the last game of Munsters pool last year when we had to score a certain amoutnof tries to make sure we qualifiied ahead of Leinster

    • montigol

       /  January 15, 2014

      Indeed there was for at least 3/4 of the game anyway. Would have been maximum excitement if the games had been played simultaneously!

    • Come off it. All I can remember is a sense of inevitability about Munster getting the required four tries.

      • Even more inevitable after Racing had a player sent off, that and after the second Munster try had gone in Racing had effectively mentally packed up and gone home to Paris.

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