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.

The Mental

Were Clermont the better team in Saturday’s HEC final? Yes, no doubt – they dominated possession, territory and scoring chances. Did they deserve to win the game? Hmmmm, not so sure about that one.

Watching the game on Saturday, we’ve never been as deflated as we were at the full-time whistle – like most neutrals, we were cheering heartily for the Auvergnats. Clermont are a most likeable bunch – led by fine upstanding men like Julien Bonnaire and Aurelien Rougerie, and guided by the little genius Morgan Parra. And their fans are the best in Europe, bar none. But, and there is a massive but, they showed zero mental resolve when it counted, and crumbled visibly as the pressure mounted.  There is something almost Shakesperian, or even out of ancient Greek mythology about this Clermont side.  They are European rugby’s Achilles.  An extraordinary team with the ability to crush all-comers, but with a fatal weakness – when it comes to the crunch they don’t know how to win.

Shortly after Jonny Wilkinson’s penalty to bring the game to 15-9, Clermont had a knock-on advantage in their own half. What they did was shuttle the ball back and forth, recycling dirtier and dirtier ball, and panicking as the Toulon line went nowhere. The ball came back to Wes Fofana, who finally broke through (losing the advantage) … but got himself slightly isolated and turned over (in a brilliant piece of play), from which that horrible man ran in an easy turnover try.

On the same weekend in which that master of clutch situations, Ronan O’Gara, announced his retirement, it’s worth asking what would he have done? Welted the ball away to relieve the pressure – or tried a cheeky dink over the top, knowing you’ll get the ball back if it doesn’t work out. Certainly not faffed around and panicked, that’s for sure.

And this was when they were leading. It’s tempting to get bogged down in what-ifs about the Toulon try, but, judging by the pattern of the last 20 minutes, even if Felon Armitage had knocked on Fernandez Lobbe’s pass, Toulon would have manufactured a try from somewhere. And another ice-cool pressure merchant, St Jonny, would have converted for the win.

In fact, Egg found himself in a very strange place with a minute to go – he badly wanted Clermont to win, but he also found himself thinking a team that wobbles this badly during squeaky-bum time simply does not deserve to be champions of Europe. Clermont have played in four massive clutch European games this season – the two versus Leinster, the semi-final against Munster, and the final. In three of those games, they did their utmost to lose – squeezing out a win at home against a patched-up Leinster team, scraping past an inferior Munster team, and finally losing to the disciplined but limited Toulon. Only in the Aviva, when the pressure was largely on Leinster as the home side, did they play freely and with ice in their veins.

The sight of Rougerie, Parra and James on the bench, helpless as the woeful David Skrela repeatedly took the ball into contact, put us in mind of the New Zealand-France game in RWC07 – then it was Carter, Kelleher and Collins sitting ashen-faced as New Zealand managed to lose a game they dominated.  It seemed they knew the game was lost even when it could still be won.  Even Rougerie’s comments after the game – he said that Clermont came within one point of something special – did not sound like those of a serial winner.  Would Ronan O’Gara, or Brian O’Driscoll, or Rory Best say such a thing after a defeat like that?

This is a pattern with Clermont, dating back many years in Europe – the RDS in 2010 when les Jaunards lost a game they all but won was simply the most memorable. Until now anyway. Vern Cotter has ambitions to go back to New Zealand and angle for a Super Rugby job, and eventually the All Black one – but for all his success in Clermont, they are missing a major trait of winners – the mental. His substitutions of the halves were disastrous – how he thought serial loser Skrela (now possessor of 3 HEC silver medals with 3 different teams) was a better option than Brock James, even acknowledging James’ history in Dublin, is beyond us.

The sad truth is that Clermont didn’t show the kind of character that champions do. Which is an awful shame. Toulon (with the exception of that awful individual) did, and that’s why they won the game.

Medium Sized Fish Hosts Big Fish

This weekend we count five potentially defining games among the twelve, all along a similar theme: one of the tournament contenders must travel to one of the mid-ranking teams.  They’re the sort of games that if they were held in the reciprocal ground, they would be home bankers.  But such is the home-away swing-o-meter in rugger, that they take on a huge defining quality; any win on the road is to be prized in the Heineken Cup.

Indeed, these sort of tough away days against the makeweight division are exactly the sort of games that are the making of champions, or genuine contenders anyway.  They’re rarely all that memorable, the good teams are usually made to look pretty ordinary, but if any of the five can get the win and move onto somewhere between eight and ten points after two rounds, it sets them up for the all-important December head-to-head.  Think back to Munster beating Sale away in 2009, or Leinster toughing it out in Glasgow last season.  Can you remember too many of the finer details of the matches?  Probably not, but both wins were pivotal in ensuring not only qualification, but a home draw for the quarter final.

All five of the big fish won their opening games at home, as one would have expected.  This week will teach us a whole lot more about their title credentials.  For the medium-sized fish, this is already last chance saloon stuff.  With one defeat already on the board, defeat at home in round two and it’s more or less thanks and goodbye.  But win, and suddenly the picture is completely altered, and all sorts of possibilities open up.

And just who are these famous five?  Leinster, Ulster, Northampton, Clermont and Harlequins.  Here’s a look at what they can expect.

Llanelli v Leinster

In our preview we’ve already identified this as the key weekend in Leinster’s pool.  Last week’s decidedly uninspiring victory over Exeter has only served to ratchet up the importance of this game, and also the sense of trepidation among Leinster fans.  It’s looking like a tougher match by the minute.  Gordon D’arcy is likely to be in contention for selection, but Rob Kearney’s return appears uncertain.  The Louth man is badly missed at the moment, as he’s the only back who gives them real muscle, and the Scarlets backline is big on… bigness.  With Leinster yet to click, this one’s all about hanging in there and coming out with any sort of a win.

Leinster will win if: their front five is almost feral.  Scarlets are weak in the tight and Leinster can cut off supply at source, but only if Cian Healy is back on top of his game and Leinster get their second row selection right, and that could mean putting Cullen on the bench.

Scarlets will win if: Priestland keeps his cool.  Just what is this fellow all about?  We can’t make him out at all.  If he can keep the scoreboard working, Scarlets should have enough firepower outside him to finish the job.

Glasgow v Ulster

This is the very sort of game that would have scuppered the campaign of the Ulster of three or four years ago.  The onus is on the new teak-tough and increasingly impressive model to show they are no longer susceptible to such tawdry away days.  Last year’s defeat in Leicester was one such moribund performance, but they atoned in the Auvergne and, of course, Limerick.  Glasgow were in contention in Northampton until the last few minutes and led 15-0 after half an hour.  They’re no mugs.

Ulster will win if: they hold on to the ball.  They have the forward power to beat Glasgow, but away from home, they can’t afford the sort of sloppiness they displayed against Connacht and Castres.  More incision in their back play is the order of the day.

Glasgow will win if: they can hold their own at the set piece.  Ulster’s set piece is formidable, both in lineout and scrum.  If Glasgow can neutralise Ulster in this facet of the game, they’re halfway there.

Connacht v Harlequins

Surely Quins won’t be caught cold a second time?  We all remember what happened last year, when Connacht held out for a 9-8 win in horizontal rain to end a 14-game losing streak.  Last season, every time we felt Quins had run out of puff they seemed to find an extra reserve somewhere, and ended up English champions.  They look like bona-fide contenders in Europe this year.  Having already come out 5-0 at home to Biarritz, and with Zebre in the double-header, only a loss in Galway stands between them and topping the pool.  They’ll surely be too well prepared this time around for an ambush.

Quins will win if: they prepare correctly.  They have no excuses ans should know what to expect in Galway this time.

Connacht will win if: they can conjure up the spirit of last season, when they somehow held a one-point lead playing into a 10-point gale.

Exeter v Clermont

A most intriguing fixture.  In truth, the two halves of WoC aren’t seeing eye to eye on this at all.  Egg Chaser does not believe Exeter have the stuff to worry Clermont, and sees Les Jaunards pulling away in the second half.  But Palla Ovale, fresh from last weekend’s nerve-shredder, reckons Exeter at Sandy Park to be more than capable of beating a team which – let’s face it – doesn’t have a good away record.  Can Exeter back up their performance last week?  Do they have the power to match Clermont’s pack?  And do Clermont have the appetite to go to one of Europe’s more obscure corners and come away with the win?

Clermont will win if: they bring the same intensity as they do at the Marcel Michelin.

Exeter will win if: they can give the crowd something to shout about early on.  The Chiefs fans are a raucous bunch, and if their team can get their noses in front, it could be a long way back for the Bananamen.

Castres v Northampton

Saints gave themselves a fair bit of work to do last week by giving Glasgow a 15-point start.  They finished in credit though, and it was their cool heads in a crisis that impressed the most.  Now they must back it up with a win on the road.  Castres rested their first team in Ravenhill last week, but will be a different proposition at home.  More than any other French club, they are schizophrenic.  It’s back to back games with Ulster in December, so the onus is on them to at least match what Ulster accomplish in Glasgow.

Northampton will win if: their half-backs have a good day.  They have great power upfront and in the Pisi brothers, enough flair in the backline to make up for Foden’s absence, but at out-half they must pick the flaky, but occasionally brilliant Ryan Lamb, and hope he has one of his better matches.

Castres will win if: they get a sniff of a result.  Like Racing Metro, they’re not that worked up about the H-Cup.  But you can make the French interested by letting them into the game, just as Munster did last week.  If Castres get the feeling they can take a scalp, they’ll dial up the intensity.

We were tempted to include Cardiff v Toulon, but decided Cardiff were too rubbish to be taken seriously.  They even lost to Sale, for goodness sake!

Weeks Out… Round Two

That’s your lot for Round One, now the whole tournament goes on hiatus for a couple of months and we reconvene on drier tracks in the April.  Everyone take a deep breath.  As Group stages go, this was up there with the best of them.  Every week seemed to throw up something bizarre.  Indeed, the exact line-up went down to the very last phase.  With Cardiff having a lineout in the Racing 22, but then turning over and Racing almost breaking out for a try of their own, three possible outcomes were in play.  Try for Cardiff, and Cardiff were home to Clermont; try for Racing and Biarritz were playing Munster; no try (as it turned out) and Cardiff were playing Leinster.  Phew.  Here’s our final Heineken Cup Good Week/Bad Week.

Good Week
Frankie goes to Hollywood
It was a good weekend for Frankie. Firstly, in Galway on Friday night, he (astonishingly) wasn’t the worst commentator in view – his lead (whose name we can’t recall) spent the first 79 minutes patronizing Connacht, patting them on the head and thanking them for giving Quins a tough game – the realization that they had won came late in the day, and Frankie crowed like only he can. Then, on Sunday, his big prediction came true. Last Wednesday, he had anointed Peter O’Majesty the HEC Player of the Group Stages in his blog. Oh, how we scoffed, especially since Frankie himself had awarded one of the MOTM’s he referred to. We are big POM fans, but we didn’t agree with the hyperbole. Cue Sunday, and a breath-takingly good performance from the man himself and, while we don’t want to declare him the greatest player in world rugby just yet,  we’re pretty sure he looks the real deal. Frankie the sooth-sayer, we salute you! Wait, stop press, what’s this? Surely not a conflict of interest?
Who said Round Six was predictable?
One of the best (and worst) games of the group stages was in the Sportsground on Friday – a memorable victory for Connacht, and confirmation the Quins bubble has well and truly burst. Despite of the nail-biting and desperate attempts of both teams to lose, the real story on Friday was Gloucester beating 4-times winners Toulouse. Although they have a really gassy back 3, Gloucester are an average Premiership team. Toulouse , despite giving away a ridiculous early try, eased 17-7 in front. But that only inspired Gloucester to cut loose, and the Cherry and Whites ended up winning by 10 points. Make no mistake, this was a massive win – Toulouse are top of the Top 14 and looking menacing. Given Connacht and then Embra ensured Toulouse are not only through, but have a benign route to the semis, this result may be lost in the mists a little, but try telling that to Glaws.
On the Seventh Day, God created Fez
The sense of bathos surrounding Ulster’s quarter-final is a bit strange. I mean, they produced the best Irish performance yet in the Marcel Michelin – eschewing containment for an aggressive and fearless drive to win. Clermont’s initial superiority melted away, and only the impact of the Clermont bench, some uncharacteristic inaccuracy from Pienaar and a lack of true ruthlessness let them down. A win would have, incredibly, meant 3 home quarter-finals for Irish teams (although they would have played Toulouse). Instead, Ulster now await the bear-pit of Thomond Park, and have to address the toughest question of them all: do they have The Mental to win big games away from home? One fears it may be 2013 before we learn the answer, and they need only ask Northampton Saints about how much fun the glass ceiling can be if they don’t answer them correctly.

Bad Week


The Aviva Premiership Moaning Competition


It’s been a poor season for the Premiership teams, and expect a lot of headscratching (and even more carping) over the next week or so.  The Torygraph has already nailed its colours to the mast and wants to see a more meritocratic qualification system.  Paul Ackford has a right old whinge, but never offers any explanation explain why, Sarries aside, the Premiership teams have been so poor this year – Leicester got thrashed in Belfast, Bath in Dublin and Quins blew up when the pressure came on. Northampton Saints epitomised the malaise, with just two wins out of six, and showed a surprising lack of savvy.  They couldn’t see out a potentially seismic win in Munster, and on Saturday, couldn’t stay in the game when they were under the kosh.  Their team is breaking up this summer, and last season looks like their peak, rather than a springboard for success.


Leinster, Cardiff, Toulouse and Edinburgh


All are in the quarter-finals, but all pitted in the away half of the semi-final draw.  It remains the single biggest flaw in the quirky tournament – the difference between getting Toulouse, say, or Clermont home or away is a masive swing, and it’s all decided on pot luck.  This year, though, it mightn’t be as big an advantage as it looks.  Ulster have never played in the Palindrome, and Munster are zero from two there.  It’s a bigger advantage for Leinster to play there than either of the other Irish provinces, but that won’t be happening this year.  Sarries enjoy their trips to Wem-ber-ley, but it’s no fortress – Leinster have already gone there and won, without BOD.  Meanwhile, we’ve no record of Clermont playing in St. Etienne or Lyon.


Declan Kidney


Uncle Deccie will inherit the happiest 52-man squad in Irish history.  Hooray!  A record three provinces in the HEC knockouts, and Connacht finally ending their losing streak.  Munster finally found a cutting edge, Jamie Heaslip is at his marauding best, and Ulster have become men.  But with that comes heightened expectations.  Deccie will have to work extra-hard to turn this group of in-form players into the lateral-attacking, penalty-condecing, gameplan-confused, poorly selected side we’re used to seeing.  The real hard work begins now.

Heineken Cup Round Five

Whiff of Cordite went on its second trip of the season this weekend – a swift eight-hour round trip to Belfast.  It was Leinsterman Palla Ovale’s first proper Ravenhill experience (Ireland A v Tonga doesn’t really count).  Talk about timing – the old ground heaved as Ulster racked up a wonderful four-try victory that keeps them in the hunt.  The highlight was the three fans behind us who with, as typical Nordies, refused to get carried away when Palla began to laud the Ulster display, responding ‘Aye, but Leicester are sh*te!’.  Here’s our Good Week/Bad Week, and where else to start but at Ravenhill.

Good week

Shtand up for the Ul-[whistle]-termen:
The standout performance of the weekend – Ulster absolutely smashed Leicester, dominating the collisions and set-piece and leaving England’s most storied team of the professional era a leaderless rabble by full-time. The tone was set by an immense hit by Fez on Agulla to prevent a Tigers try early on, and the ferocious work never stopped. Once the ball made it to the piano players, they did the business as well – even PedrieWannenbosh had two gorgeous try-making offloads. The pity is that they probably won’t qualify – the lost bonus point in

Welford Road

might prove crucial. True, they will make it if one of Toulouse, Quins, Embra or Cardiff slip up, but that is still odds against. Mind you, stranger things have happened, and better to have one in the hand then to need a win in Galway when you are playing sh!te…

When Eric eats a banana, he turns into…
Bananaman!  If you closed your eyes slightly, you would have though fifteen Erics were playing on Saturday morning. Egg Chaser was enjoying a leisurely lunch with the family when he decided to check the latest score from the Zaffanella on the off-chance there would be a shock. Errr … no. It was 47-0 at half–time. Then the Erics added another 35 in the second half for a grand total of 82 points and 12 tries. Okay, it was only Aironi. But still.  Aironi beat Biarritz last year, and gave Leicester a pretty uncomfortable time of it this year.  They have home wins against Embra, Treviso and Connacht in the AAALeague and gave Cardiff and Ulster some heart-in-mouth moments. Sure, they are bunnies, and they target matches (Munster, 12th of February, watch your backs), but they are improving – they are certainly not an 82-0 team. If Clermont get 4 more tries and win on Saturday, they will likely have a home quarter final, and from there, anything can happen. Ask Eric.
Send Them Homewards tae the Knockout Stages
Scottish rugby has been in the doldrums for so long, you sometimes forget the positives. They have some decent back-row forwards, they should have won the Triple Crown in 2010, and they will soon have HupHupTim Visher. But they have loads of negatives. Glasgow have no history of rugby and struggle to get the deposit back from Partick Thistle Nil and are losing Richie Gray to Sale (Sale!).Embra do well to pack 10% of Murrayfield on a weekly basis. So with those handicaps, its great to see Embra show such bronca – 2 last minute away wins, and a 30 point comeback in this group –its the stuff quarter-finals are made of. If they beat London Samoa at home, they are in. Given they might make it at the expense of Ulster, it’s a stretch to say we will be cheering them on, but no-one could begrudge them, and Scottish rugby, their day in the sun.

Bad Week

Peter Stringer and the Wobbly Kick

There could hardly be much more goodwill towards Peter Stringer – we were in a Bath pub full of travelling Leinster fans who loudly cheered his debut appearance against Ospreys.  What a pity to see his kick charged down, resulting in a Biarritz try on Sunday.  His boot out of play to secure the win also went at a strangely low trajectory – it would have been funny-painful to see Ngwenya catch it on the full and gallop in for a winning try.  Things have gone well for Strings up til now – he’ll put this one behind him.

Biarritz and Leicester – All Pedigree and no Trousers

Pedigree is often argued to be the crucial ingredient in the Heineken Cup – it’s what digs Munster out of tight spots and gets Toulouse through the group stages without breaking a sweat.  Biarritz and Leicester have it in spades, but it will only get you so far.  Both are a pale shadow of fomer sides.  Biarritz were never the most watchable of teams, but the forward power that used to intimidate is no longer there.  Leicester became a rabble on Friday night.  They are admittedly beset by injuries, but they don’t appear particularly strong in any unit.  Castro is no longer the force of old, and the backrow was anonymous on Friday, smashed to pieces at the breakdown.  12×3 had a meltdown, and Ben Youngs is starting to look a bit overrated.  Both these teams will be focussing on domestic affairs for the rest of the season.

Stuart Barnes Has Something to Say

Oooooohhh Barnesy, what a week!  Darren Cave took him on in his Sunday Times interview (questioning his pick of Leicester as among the favourites), and came out on top.  After the Friday debacle, he made an extraordinary admission: that the Rabo Pro12 is better, and quicker, than the Premiership.  The Premiership Sky Hype, the perennial excuse that the powder-puff Rabo gives the Celtic sides an unfair advantage – all gone in a flash.  You half expected the producer to get in his ear and make him recant.

Road Trip Reseach Report

Lovely Bath: we came, we saw, and Leinster did their best not to conquer, but did so in the end, thanks to Johnny’s composure and a good forward effort in the last 10.  But it was nervier than it should have been, and Sean O’Brien will be looking for somewhere to hide in today’s video session.  As for the town itself, suffice to say WoC were in awe of its multitude of wonders – from the setting of the rickety old Rec to the Thermae Baths and Royal Crescent, with many fine eateries and pubs in between, this is up there with the great rugby towns.  Throw in the last weekend of the Christmas Markets and you’ve got the perfect leisurely rugby weekend.  We’ll be back.  On with good week/bad week…
Good week
Munster and BJ Botha
With an aggregate points difference of +8 after three wins, this Munster team is not necessarily dominating opposition, but they know how to come out on the right side of tight fixtures.  Few fancied their massively depleted side to come out on top against a vaunted Scarlets outfit, but thanks largely to the scrummaging of their South African tighthead, and the obligatory Radge ‘masterclass’, they are now three from three and looking at a home quarter final.  They’re back in business.

Treviso

No longer the whipping boys of Europe, Treviso now have a draw and a win in their two home games so far.  Having been desperately unlucky to cough up a late levelling penalty to Ospreys last week, here they held their nerve to slay the ailing Basque club.  What’s most remarkable is that both games have been try-heavy, high-scoring affairs.  Treviso’s desire to expand their game is impressive in and of itself, but it is getting results for them too.  In Tomasso Benvenuti they have an attacking weapon in the backline, but on Saturday they left the scoring to the fatties.
The Big French Clubs

The middle-tier French sides have been indistinguished this year (Racing, Castres, Montpellier, Birritz) but they still provide two of the favourites.  Clermont Auvergne swatted Leicester aside and are firmly in control of their pool, while Toulouse asserted their superiority against a fancied Harlequins.  We were surprised at the bullishness of many English commentators before the game, and Toulouse duly showed Quins the level they need to get to.  They have an ominous look about them.

Bad Week

Rhys Priestland

We’ve been here before.  Mega-hyped young fly-half is deemed set for greatness, only to come up against the wily old master, Radge, and come off distinctly second best.  Erratic from placed ball, where he missed three from five shots at goal, he was moved from the 10 channel when Stephen Jones was brought on to try and get Scarlets back into the game.  He’s still a promising player, but not quite a Lions fly-half just yet. 

Pascal Gauzerre

He being the ref from Sarries v Ospreys.  Some very poor calls indeed, and Ospreys will feel a little hard done by in what was a very entertaining game.  Called back for a non-existant forward pass when they looked to have broken clear, Ospreys conceded a soft try directly from the resulting scrum.  Then, in the second half, we’re still dubious as to whether Chris Wyles grounded the ball for the final Sarries try.  At the very least, Gauzerre should have gone upstairs, but simply awarded the try.

Weeks Five and Six

The double headers falling between the top sides in each group is a double edged sword.  Exciting in Rounds Three and Four of course, but by the last two rounds, many pools will be settled.  Munster, Leinster and Toulouse will be home free, and Sarries, Cardiff and Clermont could join them by winning on the road next week.  There could be uncharacteristically few groups going to the wire.

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?

Back to the Day Job…

What with the World Cup being so all-encompassing, it hasn’t been the easiest to find the time to follow the less glamorous domestic leagues.  But now that the New Zealand adventure is over for once and for all, it’s a case of ‘back to the day job’ for the northern hemisphere players.  In the meantime, the team domestiques have got the show on the road in the big boys’ absence.  Here’s a quick refresher on what’s been going on.

RaboDirect Pro 12

What’s happened so far? Well, it’s got a new name for a start, so those wishing to demean it will have to stop calling it the Cider Cup and find a new nickname.  Six rounds of games have been played.

Looking good: Ospreys are the pick of the bunch, with a surprising six from six record.  Having jettisoned a number of underperforming, highly paid galacticos (sayanora, Jerry Collins!), the team is being rebuilt around home grown players.  Justin Tipuric and Dan Biggar have been to the fore.  Leinster and Munster are ticking over nicely with four wins apiece, although both have lost once at home.  Treviso are comfortably halfway up the log, with two wins on the road, including a notable victory at Ravenhill.

Looking grim: Ulster have lost three in a row, and can’t get their talented young backs enough ball.  Aironi find themselves in a familiar position, propping up the table.

Making a name for themselves: Peter O’Mahony has captained the Munster team while Paulie’s been down under, and has already been compared to, erm, Richie McCaw by a typically feverish Hugh Farrelly, though whether he was wearing his matching ‘I Heart Munster’ cufflinks, tie and socks at the time of going to press remains unclear.  Nonetheless, O’Mahony could be starting some big games this year, and is one to keep an eye on.  Ian Madigan’s running game and eye for the tryline have impressed at Leinster.

Coming up: the tournament’s tri-annual showpiece, where Leinster and Munster collide, is on October 4.

Aviva Premiership

What’s happened so far? Six rounds of games have been played, with an unknown, but high, number of defenders having been run into by ball-carrying Samoans – Oooooohhhh!

Looking good: Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins have won all six games and look to have taken the step up from last season that so many expected.  Relatively unaffected by the World Cup, they had the princely Nick Evans all to themselves, and have made hay while the grounds are still hard.

Looking grim: What on earth are Leicester doing second from bottom?  In truth they’re missing a lot of key players, and will improve once the likes of Castro, Cole, Flood, Murphy and the Samoan harbour-jumper
are back in the side.

Making a name for themselves: Any of the young whippersnappers in the Quins team. Their terrific captain Chris Robshaw continues to make a name for himself, and show the English selectors what they missed out on.

Coming up: Andy Powell and Tony Buckley will be debuting for Sale shortly.  They’re third currently, can it continue?

Top 14

What’s happened so far? They’ve been busy, playing eight rounds of games so far.

Looking good: Clermont Auvergne and Castres are top of the bus at the moment.  Clermont routed Perpignan 39-3 at the weekend, with Nathan Hines getting his first try for his new employers.   Toulouse and Toulon have also had positive starts to the season.

Looking grim: It wasn’t Perpignan’s first thrashing: they were whipped 38-0 by Toulon the previous weekend.  More concerning still is Biarritz’ position right at the bottom.  Dull at the best of times, they have been positively embarrassing without Yachvili, Traille and Harinordoquy to get them out of trouble.

Making a name for themselves: Luke McAllister has been winning rave reviews having settled quickly into life in Toulouse. Le Rouge et Noirs have recruited well, and will be challenging, as ever, for silverware on all fronts this year.

Coming up: Toulouse v Stade Francais, one of the most glamorous match-ups in Europe, is the pick of the bunch this weekend.

Magners Playoffs: Not Quite Top 14

The playoffs (and Treviso) have rescued the Magners League this season. They have prolonged a dull and stratified league season that would have been finished by April, but there is still a strange sense of bathos surrounding the whole concept. Last year’s final at the RDS was a soulless affair, as the organisers employed London PR gurus to strip the heart out of the RDS in an effort to ‘neutralise’ the venue and the match. So there were no D4TRESS posters, no Leo the Lion, an English announcer and a lame attempt at razzle-dazzle before kick off. In the end, Ospreys deservedly ran off with the cup, but the occasion was flat and lifeless.
This year, semi-final attendances were disappointing – Leinster and Munster season ticket holders baulked at the notion of having to fork out for another match that was not included in the original package, both content to wait for the final they seemed certain to reach.
Well, reach it they did, and Magners have got their wish, a Munster v Leinster final and a shot at redemption for the organisers. This one has sold out, of course, and Leinster winning the HEC means it couldn’t be any better set up. Let’s just hope the league have learned from last year and let Munster put on their impressive pre-match palaver – giant stags, Stand up and Fight and all that. Early indications aren’t good though – Leinster won’t be subjected to the usual wait on their own for a good two minutes before the Munster team come out – the teams will emerge from the tunnel together.
No such trouble in the Premiership where the playoffs are well established. Twickenham is all but sold out for the Premiership final, a repeat of last year’s classic. The only quirk is that Sky don’t have the rights to the final. Only ESPN subscribers will be able to tune in. No Barnesy assuring Miles and us all that it’s a classic as Owen Farrell thwacks the leather off the ball for the 715th time? What’s the point in even watching?!
And the Top 14 remains the most exciting and glamorous competition at the business end of the season. In an inspired move, both semi-finals are being brought to the 60,000 seat Stade Velodrome in Marseille, the spiritual home of French rugby.
Friday night’s contest between Toulouse and Clermont should be the game of the weekend. The match-up between two hugely physical packs will be wince-inducing, but let’s hope there’s at least some space out there amid the fatties for the likes of Medard, Clerc and Malzieu to flaunt their genius. Then on Saturday, we will find out if the magic Montpellier roundabout will roll on, or if Racing Metro can advance to what they see as their rightful place in the Top 14 final.