HEC Draw: It’s Bath Time

Whiff of Cordite warned in its preview that getting an Italian team was not the golden ticket it’s made out to be for the Irish teams, as it was guaranteed to be accompanied by a big French and English side.  So it has  proved for Ulster, who in spite of drawing Aironi, have a hell of a job to repeat last year’s feats.  Here’s a quick immediate reaction to the groups.
Pool 1: Munster, Northampton, Scarlets, Castres
Not ideal for Munster, who are defending 11 ranking points this year and simply must get out of their group after last year’s debacle, or there will be blood on the streets.  Northampton are a team with genuine pedigree and no little hunger after this year’s tournament, and qulification will most likely come down to two almighty scraps between the big guns.  Both going through is not inconceivable, but they will need to win home and away against Castres and Scarlets to make it happen.
Pool 2: Cardiff, London Irish, Edinburgh, Racing Metro
The group of dearth.  Fourth seeds Racing have been handed a huge opportunity, and if they want it enough they should qualify.  In truth, this group is there for the taking if any of the four can get their act together and pinch a win or two on the road.
Pool 3: Leinster, Ooooooooooooohhh Bath, Glasgow, Montpellier
Leinster could hardly have handpicked a more benign group, though if Montpellier are interested they could be a banana skin; better to face them in Round 5 or 6.  Glasgow offer a meek threat, while Leinster and their fans will have happy memories of the Rec.  Whiff of Cordite fell in love with Bath on a recent visit and cannot wait to return…

Pool 4: Leicester, Clermont, Ulster, Aironi

A bit of a stinker for Ulster, drawing two of the most physically intimidating sides in the competition.  Four wins is not beyond them, and two teams will probably go through, but it is hard to see them getting enough crucial bonus points to edge out one of Leicester and Clermont.
Pool 5: Biarritz, Ospreys, Saracens, Treviso
A great chance for Sarries here to build on their Premiership win and make a statement in Europe.  Ospreys will struggle next year with so many names leaving in the summer, while Biarritz rarely impress in spite of a strong qualification record.
Pool 6: Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester, Connacht
Not an ideal draw for Connacht, who will find the step-up from the Amlin a tall order.  They could easily emerge winless and not disgrace themselves, but will target the home games against Gloucester and Quins.  If nothing else, it will be fun to see Toulouse’s great rugby aristocrats roll out at the dog-track, hopefully on a friday night when it’s blowing a gale.

Notes from a Small Country

With one half of Whiff of Cordite manfully running the show from home, the other was on a crucial research trip in Cardiff, Bristol and (ooooooooooohhh!) Bath this weekend. The following memo details our findings:

1. The Millenium Stadium is unmatched in Europe. The palindrome has the best location, Stade de France the most appealing design, Twickenham has front-lawn barbeques en route to the ground, but The Millenium tops the lot. Ear-shreddingly loud, right in the centre of town, and so steep-sided that there is not a bad seat in the house – this was one ground we’ll never forget.
2. Jonny will be the Lions test out half in 2013. How much can be attributed to his half-time speech we can never be sure, but one thing’s for sure: Jonny was wired. He had the look of a man who wasn’t going to accept defeat. It was reminiscent of a certain fly half from Cork…
3. It was the greatest Heineken Cup Final ever. Leicester v Stade and Wasps v Toulouse are generally held up as the classics, but this surely topped the lot. It was one of those exceptional occasions where sport takes on the realm of theatre, with the players’ emotions writ large on their faces. Let it not be forgotten that Northampton played a huge part.
4. The Heineken Cup final is the party of the year. Northampton and Leinster fans travelled en masse, of course, but they weren’t the only colours represented. Whether it was La Marseillaise booming out of an Irish pub, or Les Toulousaines passing people over their heads on the train, this was a party with a very international flavour.
5. It was sweeter than 2009. If most Leinster fans are honest, the semi-final victory over Munster felt more significant than winning the Cup that year. Leinster’s form in that competition was patchy to say the least; but this year, they were the best team in the tournament from the first moment to the last. Even their only defeat, away to Clermont, was a great performance.
6. We heart Bath. Whiff of Cordite has always been bemused by the venorated treatment of Bath Rugby, but having visited yesterday, we are card-carrying fanclub members of this magnificent town, which deserves a team to match it. Amazing Roman ruins, beautiful limestone buildings, natural hot springs and one of the great old Englsih rugby grounds. We can see ourselves quite happy there, in fact: Saturday afternoons at the Rec with Barnesy, stretching out in the Thermae Bath Spa steam rooms with Barnesy, Sunday lunch in the Pump Room with Barnesy…