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.

Stop Press! (Except the Online Ones)

It seems unfair to concentrate on the players, what with so many others putting their heart and soul into this World Cup. There’s been demand for Maori chiefs to welcome competitors at airports, astronauts to retrieve Morne Steyn’s kickoffs and Bayonne butchers wondering why Shontayne Hape is wearing their products on his hands.

Spare a thought also for the scribes and TV pundits covering the tournament – they have been forced to undergo an all-expenses-paid trip away from the Trouble and Strife for a month to watch rugby and drink Marlborough Savugnon Blanc. To cheer them up, we have put together a RWC preview of our favourite hacks and Stephen Jones.
 

Matt Williams (Setanta)

Style: Tends to start with a rabbit-on-the-headlights never-been-on-TV look, but then relaxes into matey banter with Franno. His perfect teeth and healthy tan cover a razor-sharp rugby mind, and his snippets of insider knowledge gleaned from his time in D4 and Ravenhill are always interesting.

Likely to say: Paddy Wallace is an amaaaaaaaaaaaaazing playah, reaaaaaaaaaaaaaally underaaaaaaaaaated
Unlikely to say: Let’s refer to New Zealand as the All Blacks

Jeremy Guscott (BBC)
Style: Self-satisfied, smug, paunch-bearing know-it-all. His judgement can best be summed up by his pre Six Nations verdict on Richie Gray – “He looks like he is running through treacle”. Errrr. Egg Chaser and his brother used to e-mail his BBC column with praise of rubbish players to see if he’d agree – our bigging up of Ayoola Erinle was a notable success.

Likely to say: Brian O’Driscoll isn’t a patch on the outside centre the 1997 Lions had
Unlikely to say: Interesting opinion Inverdale, I’ll take that on board

Ryle Nugent (RTE)
Style: Excited, excitable and exciting, roysh. Ryle has the refined voice and fur-lined coat of a man who has never left South Dublin in his life. His vocal range is huge, and one can generally tell how Ireland are doing merely by listening to the tone of his voice – anything mezzosoprano and above is good.

Likely to say: You beauty!!
Unlikely to say: Bring rugby back to the Northside 

Frankie Sheahan (RTE)
Style: Fiercely neutral and fair in his commentary, he rarely allws the origins of a player to dictate his opinion of them. No matter what you think of Frankie, you can’t argue that players from Cork and Limerick don’t get treated equally in his eyes. His day job is acting as agent for, among others, David Wallace and Tomas O’Leary – expect many references to how much they are being missed (truthful ones in Wally’s case).

Likely to say: Mick O’Driscoll is very unfortunate not to be here

Unlikely to say: What a performance from Jonny Sexton!

Stuart Barnes (Sky Sports)
Style: Surprisingly for a Sky commentator, over-enthusiastic and a strong backer of whatever Sky have the rights for at the time. When you push through the bluster, he’s actually a very shrewd and interesting analyst. Provided Whiff of Cordite with their favourite commentary moment last year in the Leicester-Perpignan game, as they discussed the collective noun for Tuilagi’s (winner: a terror of Tuilagi’s). While they talked, both Henry and Alesana took the ball directly into contact and got turned over.

Likely to say: I know Matt Banahan knocked on, but what power!
Unlikely to say: I know Matt Banahan is powerful, but what’s the point if you have hands like soap!

George Hook (RTE)

Style: Committed to saying the first thing that comes into his head, unless that happens to be a criticism of Munster. Specialises in popping some of the over-exuberant balloons inflated by the Irish press, but has morphed into a cynical parody of himself. Struggles to admit when his far-flung predictions turn out entirely incorrect.  The Irish players despise him.

Likely to say: We’ll get destroyed up front and lose
Unlikely to say: Keep the faith Tom

Stephen Jones (Sunday Times)
Style: Pointless curmudgeon who persists in his outrageously biased nonsense. To be fair, he makes great copy, and we don’t know if it’s us getting older or him getting more mellow, but we have found ourselves in agreement more than is healthy of late.

Likely to say: McCaw is running scared of the intensity of Edgely Park and Sixways by staying with the Crusaders
Unlikely to say: James Hook needs to improve his decision-making on the field

Gerry Thornley (Irish Times)

Style: Torn between Southside chic and Indie cool (Ms Ovale admits to a minor crush), Gerry can often be seen puffing on a Marlboro Light outside O’Donoghues. Favours the stubble, sunglasses and scarf look. Used to be Head Boy at St Deccie’s but has been usurped in favour of Fanning, despite fervent support for the regime. In fact, fervent support of pretty much everything Irish can be guaranteed.

Likely to say: I had to restrain Dave Pearson from licking Wilkinson’s boots roysh
Unlikely to say: Rugby is now a 22 man game, and Deccie needs to learn that

Lets hope the poor dears survive their tourism – Palla will be keeping a beedy eye out for photo ops, especially with Barnesy.

Needless to say, this blog also has a deep connection to Gerry, and we will watch with interest the reaction to his demotion – will he knuckle down and praise the junta more than ever, or actually begin to call the Great Leader out on his mistakes?