Gallic Shrug

There was an air of inevitability about Munster’s five-try qualifying haul on Sunday.  Not even Munster’s most ardent supporters – heck, not even Frankie Sheahan – would claim there was anything miraculous about it, or hold it up against famous last-round wins against Sale or Gloucester.

Why?  Because we’ve become accustomed to the middle tier French rugby clubs capitulating in the latter rounds of the Cup.  When Racing gave up a generous lead at home to Saracens the week before, Leinster’s goose was more or less cooked.  For some – Leinster fans anyway – it resulted in a slightly unsatisfactory finale to the pool stages.  How much more exciting would it have been if Munster really had it put up to them, as Leinster did in Exeter?  That’s not to discredit Munster.  As discussed in Monday’s post, they had their destiny in their own hands and did what they had to do; they deserve their place in the last eight.

The question is, can anything be done to ensure sides remain competitive to the last?  Not really.  Sure, you could try to impose fines on teams for putting out weakened sides, but in the days of heavy squad rotation, how do you define first and second choice players?  On the face of it, it looks unworkable.

And besides, it’s more a question of attitude than names on a team sheet.  Rugby is a game where bodies are put on the line; if one side’s need is greater, they will generally prevail, even if they possess less quality.  As an example, Toulon put out a strong line-up for Saturday’s do-or-go-through-anyway game against Montpellier, but it was clear from the moment Freddie Michalak gave a Gallic shrug and allowed the Montpellier centre to canter over the line for their first try, that their hearts weren’t in it.  The best that could be achieved would be that if the French are to be given concessions as part of the much-discussed tournament restructure, that they are reminded of their responsibilities to uphold the credibility of the competition.

In defence of the French sides, that they were more consistently competitive this year than in any in recent memory.  Clermont and Toulouse will always treat the tournament with respect and Biarritz – although rubbish these days – have a tradition of giving it a go.  Toulon, with their mega-squad, have no excuse for not being competitive, and took advantage of an easy pool to amble through to a home quarter-final.  It was only Montpellier’s second season in the competition, and while their pool was straightforward, they showed terrific commitment throughout and clearly wanted to make a statement, and qualified deservedly.

The performances of Castres and Racing were also committed for the most part.  Castes are notorious for throwing matches on the road, but they won in Glasgow and kept Northampton tryless in Franklin’s Gardens, a result which effectively took the Saints out of the competition.  Racing also won in Scotland, beat Munster at home and looked suitably gutted at the end of their hard-fought defeat to Saracens.  It was only once they were ruled out that they couldn’t be bothered.

If one thing could be done to improve the tournament, it’s a change to the lopsided seeding system, which counts the previous four years of tournament points to determine each side’s place in the rankings.  Four years is too many, and allows the deadwood to hang around for too long.  Cardiff were a top seed this year, which seems farcical.  They were losing semi-finalists four years ago, when Martyn Williams missed a penalty in a shoot-out against Leicester, but not many of the names that played that day are still on their books.  While there is no points system that can account for a loss of players to other clubs, two years’ ranking points appears more appropriate, and if the ranking coefficient included an element of domestic league performance, then all the better.

Heineken Cup Week 1: The Good, the Bad and the Referees

Good week
Flowers of Scotland
 
Scotland had a pretty grim RWC, and the drip-drip of dispiriting news, which seems to have been going on forever, continued with last weeks revelation that the man who will anchor the Jock pack for the next decade, Richie Gray, was flying the coop. And not to Toulon, Clermont or even Narbonne – to Sale Sharks! To team up with renowned team players like Mushy and Powell-y. But this weekend showed a chink of light in the gloom. On Saturday, Embra scored a well-earned win in Reading. London Irish might be awful, but any away win deserves a clap on the back in this competition. Then yesterday, Glasgow soaked up all the “running rugby” Bath could throw at them and struck for a last-minute sucker punch. The Scots are 2 for 2, and Edinburgh have a chance to go 2/2 themselves when Racing Metro come to town at the weekend. Long may it last.
 
Onwards and upwards

 

Wales, in contrast to Scotland, had an excellent RWC with talented young players who showed maturity that seemed out of reach for Mike Philips and Gav the elder statesmen of the side. Ospreys are top of the TripleALeague, and the good news seems set to last. And it continued this weekend, with a full house from our Welsh friends. Cardiff had the stand-out result of the weekend, winning in Paris and already looking like they have a firm stranglehold on Pool 2. Ospreys and the Scarlets also saw off French opposition, both showing admirable cojones when the pressure was put on in the second half.
23 Man Rugby

 
Deccie has yet to embrace the concept, but the rules of rugby these days allow shrewd coaches to replace players who aren’t injured with other players. During the game! I know – revolutionary. The best coaches, however, are completely au fait with the idea, and have responded in a rational fashion – pick 8 (or 7) men on the bench who you can tactically introduce in an attempt to win matches. You are often left with the (somewhat contradictory) idea that the correct XV was picked, but the substitutes made the difference. Joe Schmidt is an expert in this regard. He picked a pack (and a 9) to meet the physical intensity of Montpellier head-on. After 55 minutes, Leinster were teetering at 16-6, but Joe could introduce players better suited to tiring opponents such as Sean Cronin, Devin Toner, Shane Jennings and Eoin Reddan. The use of the bench was the key factor in Leinster’s recovery.

Bad Week

Homer Owens and Blind Dave Pearson

It’s an unfortunate state of affairs that so many high profile rugby matches are decided by the man in the middle.  As @sarahlennon08 tweeted, ‘After watching Owens and Pearson today, I have decided I don’t understand the laws of rugby.’  It felt a bit that way to us, too.  The last minute penalty for Leinster where the Montpellier chap was clearly first into the tackle zone, the scrum penalties when Munster were scrummaging at 90 degrees to the tryline, the blatant crooked feeds, O’Mahony playing the ball while his legs were in mid air in a maul, the same fellow being penalised at the lineout for contesting possesion, the stopping of the Saints maul in full flow… we were left saying ‘Huh?’  more than once.

Northampton Saints

They were a two minutes from a famous victory, and putting themselves in complete control of the pool, and as bad as Owens was, Saints will be kicking themselves.  Ryan Lamb lost his bottle kicking from hand, and needed to look for further territory.  Artemyev showed why Leinster were willing to let him go (he has feet for hands) and Northampton were fiddling around in a maul in their own half when they should have just been kicking downtown in the last minute of the game.  Saints have the pack to win the tournament, but have been on the wrong end of too many close matches.  They need to win a big one like this to be genuine contenders, but we think they’re still favourites to top the group.

Clermont Fly Halves

Two 10s, and both as flaky as each other.  Brock James has never recovered from that night in the RDS and Skrela plays like a man who is trying to remember if he left the iron on at home too often for a player at an elite club.  Between them, they let Ulster back into a game in which they should have been dead and buried.  Like Saints, Clermont have a pack to live with anyone, but their woes on the road will continue with these two fly-halves.  Morgan Parra at 10, anyone?

HEC Preview: Pool 1 & Pool 2

Pool 1: Munster, Northampton, Castres, Scarlets

Pedigree: Huge. Munster are Heineken Cup royalty, and the Saints are no slouches either – 3 victories between them and 3 other final appearances. The Scarlets have a few semi-finals to boast of, most recently in 2007 when Ireland’s favourite un-droppable Welshman, Simon Easterby, led them past Munster. Castres have no history of note, but look a team on the rise, domestically at least.

Preview: Two years ago, Munster and Northampton were paired together in a memorable series of pool games and quarter-final. The Saints felt that they had the Liginds’ number after the pool, but they were taught a lesson in European Cup rugby in the quarter-final. And it’s a lesson they paid heed to, making the final last year with a series of gritty wins. Rope-a-dope was unlikely to work against Leinster, so they came out throwing the ball around and very nearly pulled it off. Munster, meanwhile, failed to make the knockout stages for the first time in 10 years in atypically harum-scarum fashion.

It certainly gives the impression the graphs of these two crossed last year, and we would agree. The Saints should win in Franklins Gardens and will be targetting Thomond Park – Munster will do well to tie this head-to-head in match points. Castres are very tough at home, but lay down like lambs away – they won’t care about the HEC, but won’t want to give up a proud home record. Northampton’s pack looks not only higher in quality, but more gnarled than Munster’s, and are better equipped to win in France.  They have a bit more depth this year after some good recruiting (Vasily Artemiev has arrived with a bang) and their St. Boshingtons contingent will be hungry to restore battered reputations.

The Scarlets are the joker here – they will be looking to break games up and give their exciting young backs plenty of quick ball – they could win a couple of games, but won’t be in the shake-up.

It will ultimately come down to who is better at winning away from home, and that’s something Munster failed to do last year in a notably weaker pool than this one – only Toulon was an intimidating place to visit. Forget the Miracle Match – getting through this pool will be the greatest escape of the lot.

Verdict: Northampton to win the pool and advance.  Munster into the AmlinVase

Pool 2: Cardiff, London Irish, Edinburgh, Racing Metro

Pedigree: Not great, but not as bad as you might think – Cardiff were runners-up in the first tournament, and have a few semi-finals as well – most recently in 2009, when Leicester beat them on penalties. Irish, amazingly, were semi-finalists as recently as 2008, when Toulouse sent them packing. Edinburgh and Racing have no achievements to speak of at this level.

Preview: The Group of Dearth – whoever ups their game here will win it. Let’s start with the least likely – Edinburgh. The Scots have regressed badly since their top 4 Magners finish a few years ago, and pretty much the only good thing on the horizon is Tim Visser. They will fancy themselves at home to Irish, and Cardiff and (particularly) Racing if they take their eye off the ball. Away, they will be eviscerated.

Irish are almost as bad – they have replaced the bosh-tastic but reasonably decent Seilala Mapasua with the bosh-tastic and terrible Shontayne Hape. Don’t expect fireworks in Reading – just the way Biiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob likes it. Irish will beat Embra at home, and probably Racing Metro, but achieve nothing else.

So its between Cardiff and Racing Metro. The French side will win all their home games, but won’t be too bothered about wininng away – they should knock off Embra, but might get well beaten in Wales. Cardiff have underachived given the stellar names in their squad in recent years, and they have Sam Warburton, the new Tana Umaga Richie McCaw and a rejuvenated Jamie Roberts. The structure of the RaboCiderPro12 will allow them to target games, and this pool is there for the taking if they get it right.

Verdict: Cardiff will win it, and continue pushing forward the feel-good factor in Welsh rugby. Racing Metro to get the Amlin booby prize