Bully Boy Tactics

The launch of the new European Champions Cup brought with it a promise of more competitive groups. Fewer rubbish teams and more talent concentrated into five pools; it would be harder to qualify and more exciting. We were sceptical, but said we would return before the final round of matches and review. So here we are.

To be fair to the Champions Cup, it has more or less made good on its promise. Whether this is by accident or design is hard to parse, but for sure this is the most interesting round six for a good few years; there are plenty of games with a lot at stake and a less than certain outcome. The scrap for the last couple of runners-up places is going to be especially fraught, and could go down to the final minutes of the weekend, which looks set to provide drama by the bucketful.

Things get off to a pretty good start with Wasps vs. Leinster, which has the look of the game of the weekend. An up-and-coming team at home to an established one, with qualification at stake. James Haskell vs. Jamie Heaslip in a battle of the metro men. Forget awesome power and thudding collisions, feel the hipster sandwiches and post-match grooming discussions. It’s set to be a cracker.

Next, Northampton play Racing Metro, and while both should qualify, the winner tops the pool and wins a home quarter-final. Later that evening, Ulster play Leicester. The Nordies are out but they will put it up to Leicester, who need a five-pointer to have any chance at all of going through. The two have had some great ding-dongs in recent years, and this fixture offers a chance for Ulster to salvage something from what has been a miserable campaign.

Sunday afternoon brings us to Pool Four, where any one or two of Bath, Toulouse and Glasgow can go through. Bath vs. Glasgow sees two of the most enterprising teams in the tournament go up against one another. Slammin’ Sam can’t get into the Bath team, and anyone who saw Jonathan Joseph and Kyle Eastmond last week will know why. If Bath win, that takes them to 19 points, and probable qualification. Finally, Clermont take on Saracens. In spite of a decent campaign, Saracens are in a pickle and are odds against to qualify. They’ve already beaten Clermont, did the double over Sale, but may rue a lack of bonus points. They failed to get anything from Thomond Park and should have knocked Sale for four tries at least once, and butchered umpteen opportunities to get a fourth try against Munster last weekend. Even a losing bonus point in Clermont – a fine achievement if you can do it – might not be good enough. They’ll have the advantage of knowing exactly what they need to get and there’s every chance the outcome to be in the balance as the match clock ticks over into the red.

So, how has it all come to pass? None of the factors that were trumped up in the fractious birth of the new format have been relevant. Premiership sides’ supposed battle against the threat of relegation has been non-existent thanks to Bucaresti Welsh, while the usual suspects in the Pro 12 miraculously find themselves on course for qualification again next season without having to divest huge resources to the league campaign.

What has been notable is that the Pro12 teams have had a particularly rubbish campaign. The most likely scenario is that just one of their number, Leinster, will qualify, and that may not even come to pass. Ospreys and Glasgow have still to find a way of bringing their league form to bear against the more physical English and French sides, while the challenge of Ulster and Munster, serial qualifiers over the last few years, has been particularly hopeless this time around for various reasons.

Back in our original analysis, we implored the middle-ranking sides to step up to the mark and put it up to the established teams. The English sides have achieved this more than any other: all of Wasps, Harlequins and Bath have had a bearing on the tournament. Bath have been revelatory, and look set to qualify. Wasps also have a great chance, meaning two teams who lost their first two games might qualify – a first (and second) by our reckoning. Quins dropped the ball in round five, but remain in the hunt, just about. Even Sale, marooned on two points, have been somewhat unlucky in their three home games and could have won all of them. For all the talk of sugar-daddies and bully-boy tactics, many observers have noted that this year’s Aviva Premiership is faster paced and more watchable than previous vintages, with a greater emphasis on running and passing, and less on boshing and kicking. Less Oooooooooohhh! and more Aaaaaaaaaaaahhh! Bath, Northampton, Harlequins and Wasps are all playing with a degree of width and purpose in attack. Even Saracens have widened their game. It looks to be paying dividends on the European stage.

Worth noting as well that the qualification criteria have changed – points obviously first, then results & points difference in the pool, then it’s points difference for the runners up, and not tries – because, it’s y’know, what the fans want. It’s pretty correlated anyway – except for Ulster, who have the 6th best try count and the 16th best points difference. Pity they are gone. Anyroads – here’s the Cordite Predictions for the knockout seedings:

  1. Northampton (23)
  2. Toulon (22) – better points difference
  3. Clermont (22)
  4. Bath (20) – win pool due to better points difference with Toulouse, and better tournament points difference than Wasps
  5. Wasps (20)
  6. Toulouse (20)
  7. Racing Metro (19) – better points difference than Leinster
  8. Leinster (19)

Two all-French quarter finals, and all-English and a trip to Northampton. In truth, Leinster would take that ahead of trips to Toulon or Clermont, but we implore them to go to Wasps and win: for the fans, for Ireland, for the Pro12 and for the foreign markets which are more important than ever nowadays.

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24 Comments

  1. ORiordan

     /  January 22, 2015

    I still think the seeding used isn’t correct and has gone from one extreme to another – 3 years of European form, ignore domestic results, to last season’s domestic form, ignore European results.

    A better system, I think, would be to count both European and Domestic results and go back more than one season.

    However that would require the powers that be getting together to work out a seeding system and according to El Thorninho, the various bodies in European rugby are still barely on speaking terms.

    Which means the chances of the pointless Challenge Cup getting sorted out soon are low.

  2. Roundy

     /  January 22, 2015

    Bath to get a bonus point win against Glasgow? Would be impressed if they did but doubt it will happen. Agree with the rest but still hopeing Leinster can get an away win and a home quarter against Toulouse. For me there are only three teams that have any realistic chance of winning the thing, Toulon, Clermont (hopefully) or at a push, Northmapton. On the new structure, there has to be a place in the Chumps Cup for the winner of the Challenge Cup or else the second string competition is pointless.

  3. Vin Scott

     /  January 22, 2015

    Pool 2 looking very interesting, alright.

    If Wasps get a bonus there’s the carrot of a home QF and in the course of one game Leinster veer from a home tie themselves or nothing with Quins breathing down their necks. Time to step it up.

    • curates_egg

       /  January 22, 2015

      “If Wasps get a bonus”…I am not confident that Leinster will win but I would be fairly confident we will not conceded 4 tries. Our defense is still pretty solid. You would imagine Wasps will approach this game differently to their tie at The Stoop…but so will Leinster.

      • Vin Scott

         /  January 22, 2015

        Agreed, an unlikely scenario. Just a possibility if the game gets dragged into a helter skelter affair, same as being overhauled by Quins is a possibility – even more unlikely IMO.

        Wasps would (and should) be over the moon to qualify but don’t fancy the away team chances in the quarters this year. Looking forward to this one.

  4. Stevo

     /  January 22, 2015

    I’m trying to place what that last sentence about the foreign markets which are more important than ever nowadays is a reference to, but I’m drawing a blank.

    • curates_egg

       /  January 22, 2015

      A reference to attracting non-Irish players and making Irish rugby sellable to them?

      • Joe

         /  January 22, 2015

        Ah come on lads, who amongst us can’t repeat the lines from the Simpson’s Radioactive Man episode verbatim?

        “Up and at them!” 🙂

      • red*razors

         /  January 22, 2015

        sure what would we need non-Irish rugby players for, aren’t we getting tomás o’leary back again? he will fix everything.

        • curates_egg

           /  January 22, 2015

          Be interesting to see if Leinster sign a scrum-half (as some are expecting) and who it would be. Been lots of chatter about Genia…which would be pretty mouth-watering. Reddan is still looking the biz though and McGrath can only get better with game time.

          • red*razors

             /  January 22, 2015

            i despair at the mentality prevailing at munster, wherein the rumours at leinster are about genia, and those in cork and limerick were about… an ageing player who wasn’t especially great even back in the glory days. there’s your return to traditional munster values. foley will retcon us into oblivion.

          • D6W

             /  January 23, 2015

            What would be the point of signing Genia? No doubt he is a class player, but he would be keeping McGrath out of the team just when he should be making the 9 jersey his own, and kicking on for Ireland. That is mistake we made signing Gopperth, who knows where Madigan would be if he was nialed on 10 at Leinster. Maybe we would have 2 10s fighting for the Irish slot, rather than all of them fighting just to be backup.

  5. I still think the best runner up system is flawed. More competitive pools: ie Ulster’s and Munster’s are less likely to qualify than pleb pools: ie Leinster’s. Ideally there would be either 4 or 8 pools with 2 or 1 team going through, respectively. Maybe it would reduce the excitement of pool games, but it would make the knock outs better.

    • Paddy

       /  January 22, 2015

      You’d still have weak pools in both scenarios. That’s something that wouldn’t change(and hasn’t from the previous iteration of the competition.

      I thought it was funny that “League Winners” Saracens got such a tough pool and Northampton the easy one when PRL (presumably at the whinge of Saracens ) decreed that whoever topped the leage was a top seed.

  6. Jaybee985

     /  January 22, 2015

    I think Pool 4 Toulouse at Montpellier looks interesting too. Toulouse lost there back in December and I don’t see Montpellier rolling over for them even if they are thinking about Top 14 next week.

    • The Montpellier selection will be key – if they pick a full strength side, I’d agree that they’ll be tough to beat. If its the seconds, forget it.

  7. I think Leinster have a fair chance of winning in the Ricoh. They will have a step in their stride after the successful return of Leinstertainment to the RDS, while at the same time one has to ask, if any team could put in the Herculean defensive shift two weeks in row, which Wasps had to perform in order to beat Quins at the Stoop. I don’t imagine they could. Following that logic, if Leinster can get a lead or remain within seven points going into the second half, I reckon they should have the stamina, nous, tools, bench etc. etc. to put a wilting Wasps side to the sword. Na Laighiní abú!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    • I think you raise an important factor. Wasps also have a shorter turnaround following their mammoth effort against Quins, while Leinster were able to bring the likes of Heaslip and Moore off halfway through their win over Castres. Could be important.

      • Think it will be. Post-match MO’C himself referred to being able to bring off players early as one of the main positives of the performance/result.

      • curates_egg

         /  January 22, 2015

        Wasn’t Heaslip brought off because he was (still is) injured? Not exactly an ideal reason to be bringing a player off.

        • That’s true. But if he can put in a 40-50 min. shift this week against Wasps like he did last week against Castres, sure mightn’d it suffice?

          • In Joe We Trust

             /  January 24, 2015

            He did that very shift today at the Ricoh, but afterwards got on the coach with a hinged brace on his knee.
            Hopefully precautionary, but not a good omen for the 6N – even for one who alludes to Wolvervine-like immunity to injury.

  8. Henry Honiball Fan Club

     /  January 22, 2015

    Little sympathy for Saracens if they don’t get through.

    They were cruising against Munster, up by ~15/17 points at one stage and kicked a penalty for 3 points instead of going for the corner & looking for a try.

    Whether that was down to being overly conservative, or just not actually doing their homework regarding what was needed in terms of qualification & match points/tries etc I don’t know. Either way, they’ve only themselves to blame.

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