Away We Go

The Heineken Cup quarter finals are imminent. It’s always hard to see past the home sides in these games, and traditionally home advantage holds a big sway, but there’s usually one team able to overturn expectations and pull off a win on the road. Last year it was Munster, who were unfancied going to Harlequins but raised their intensity to levels Quins couldn’t deal with. The year before that it was Ulster, who went and sacked the Thomond Park fortress in a remarkable game. Which of the four look the most likely this time?

  1. Toulouse, at Munster. It’s increasingly hard to see Toulouse pulling off a result in this match. Their away form has been dismal all season and there are doubts over Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga and Dusatoir is still injured. With the likes of Medard, Fickou, Huget and Poitrenaud in their backline they should be one of the most exciting teams around, but it never really comes to fruition. If you’re wondering why, the clue might be in their half-backs. Jean-Marc Doussain is a scrum half in the Tomas O’Leary mould – picked for his physicality, he lacks mobility and intuition. Simply put, he’s a poor player for a club of this stature. Luke McAllister is a great footballer, but not a great 10 or a great place-kicker. Ulster showed that you can still win in Thomond Park even if your 10 plays rubbish, but only if your nine makes up for him. Can’t see that happening here, with the caveat that Toulouse’ bruising pack ground down Globo Gym once they were let into the game. If Munster whack and bag them early, tears will flow.
  2. Leicester Tigers, at Clermont. Nobody wins at the Stade Marcel Michelin, and Leicester, for all their undoubted awkward toughness and never-say-die attitude, do not look quite good enough to break what has been an incredible winning streak at home. Clermont are just too good, and their annual choke doesn’t usually get started until later. Leicester came up short in both games against Ulster, despite throwing everything at them and a similar outcome here feels inevitable. Having Tuilagi back in the fold is great news for them, and don’t expect Leicester to give Clermont anything cheap, but even if it’s tight, Clermont will pull through in the end.
  3. Saracens, at Ulster. The new Ravenhill is ready. Are Ulster? They look to have gone the old Munster route, throwing in a careless Pro12 defeat the week before the game, which gives Anscombe plenty of scope to kick them up the rear and get minds focused on the game ahead. Assuming Pienaar is fit, they’ve a pretty full deck to choose from. Even Ferris could feature, presumably as part of a double-whammy with Iain Henderson with 20 minutes to go. But what of Saracens? Never the most likeable of clubs, with the odious chairman Nigel Wray spearheading the European rugby governance coup, they have at least tried to broaden their game this season. They always looked to have the players capable of playing a bit more footie than they did, especially the superbly balanced Alex Goode, and it’s working well for them; they’re top of the Premiership and top try-scorers too, averaging almost three a match. This will be a hard game for Ulster and Saracens have a reasonable chance of pulling out an away win; in truth if the away win comes from anywhere it is most likely to be here. Ulster have shown enough toughness in this competition to deserve the tip, but Saracens are confident and in good form.
  4. Leinster, at Toulon. If timing is everything, Leinster have got this one wrong. Before the Six Nations, Bernard Jackman, the resident expert on all things French rugby, saw no reason why Leinster couldn’t win, citing Toulon’s shoddy morale, poor coaching, infighting and mediocre results as evidence. Roll on a few weeks and Toulon have put together five wins out of six in the Top 14 and the juggernaut appears to be pointing in the right direction. Heck, they’ve even won an away game! In the Top 14! Sacre bleu! As for Leinster, they’re just not playing well enough to be confident of getting what would be a remarkable win. Their greatest wins have been based on the twin pillars of accurate passing and near-feral clear-out; neither have been in much supply this season. Doubts remain over who will play at fly-half and whether the selected player can deliver. We’d have guessed Jimmy Gopperth was favourite, but it looks like O’Connor may feel his best chance is to approach this game as he would a home tie and play at as high a tempo as possible against what is a huge, but not overly mobile Toulon pack. So we’re expecting Jennings, Reddan and Madigan all to be in the starting team. Leinster still look to be dining out on their performance in Northampton this year and something of the same order is required here. Being Leinster, they can’t be ruled out but it’s a tall order. A home win looks the more likely.

Forgive the blandness of the opinion, but four home wins looks the most probable outcome, which would give us a semi-final line-up of Ulster-Clermont and Toulon-Munster. Both have met in recent years, with Ulster likely to look back with fonder memories. Clermont’s flakiness under pressure and poor record in Ireland would lead you to hesitate picking Clermont, but still, a repeat of last years final is a distinct possibility, and any winner other than Toulon would be a mild surprise.  The winner of Toulon-Leinster becomes tournament favourite.

Time to Get a Move On

For all the jolliness around Irish rugby right now, for a handful of players this season has been one frustration after another. And things could be about to get more frustrating for some of them when the teams are announced for the Heineken Cup knockouts this weekend.

Despite knocking Paddy Jackson off the bench for the final round of the Six Nations, this has not been a campaign to remember for Ian Madigan. After two years of huge gains, the departure of Jonny Sexton looked set to hand him the breakthrough he needed, but instead Madigan has found himself struggling to oust the less heralded Jimmy Gopperth. Gopperth is a fine player and has numerous strengths, but if Madigan was playing like he did last season he’d be starting all the big matches. He just hasn’t got going yet. Every time we see him inked into the starting team for a home game we get the feeling his season is about to spark, but so far it hasn’t really happened. He played well enough against Munster, but his kicking game remains loose and his superb gainline passing hasn’t been in as much evidence this year, with O’Connor appearing to play him deeper behind the gainline. For the Toulon game, Jimmy Gopperth is probably slight favourite to get picked.

Another who has only played in fits and starts this season is Kevin McLaughlin. Injury hasn’t helped, but his form since returning has been spotty to say the least. He was a weak-ish link against Munster, and the memory of his explosive 20 minutes against New Zealand has receded somewhat. He wasn’t involved in even the training squads for the Six Nations, and now has to contend with a new sheriff in town at Leinster in Rhys Ruddock. Ruddock is a 6 in the Simon Easterby mould, a good lineout catcher who gets on with the ‘unseen work’ of carrying slow ball and clearing out rucks, and if fit is likely to be selected ahead of McLaughlin. With Jordi Murphy and Shane Jennings vying for the No.7 shirt, McLaughlin could find himself outside the 23 altogether.

Meanwhile, up in Ulster, they have their backline all fit (apart from Olding) for the first time in a long time. Bowe and Trimble are undroppable and Marshall plays 12. One has to miss out between Craig Gilroy and Darren Cave, with Jared Payne able to switch between 15 and 13. This weekend, it was Cave who got selected. He’s been one of Ulster’s most consistent players this season and while the clamour to get Payne into the 13 shirt has some, shall we say, external motivators, Ulster are still best served by him playing 15. It means Gilroy loses his starting place. It’s been a difficult year for Gilroy, who, like Madigan, just hasn’t really sparked into life. His exceptional performance against Argentina in 2012 underlined his explosive talent, but he hasn’t been able to replicate it since then. And where has the scoring nous gone?  He scored eight tries in 14 appearances in his first season, but the well has dried up. He managed just one last year and three this, last scoring in mid-December.

Down south, Donnacha Ryan could do with catching a break. He was one of the best players in the country in 2012, but has since then gone from injury to injury. A lacklustre 2013 Six Nations which he appeared to play through an injury scuppered his Lions chances and since then he’s had a pretty stop-start time of it. Now he’s once again doubtful for the game against Toulouse. He’d be a big loss to Munster, because Donncha O’Callaghan is no longer at this level and it’s a sizeable step down to Dave Foley. In the meantime, Devin Toner has cemented his place in the Ireland team, and next year should be a breakthrough for Iain Henderson, with Muller retiring. The heat is on. Schmidt’s singling of Ryan out for his work on the training paddock was a reminder of how highly he is regarded, and rightly so, but he needs an unbroken run of games to build some momentum.