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!

Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 3

Teams: Biarritz, Connacht, Harlequins, Zebre

McCafferty Unfairness Factor: Very high. Zebre didn’t even exist last season, and Connacht finished 8th in the Pro12 and got in due to Leinster’s heroics. Biarritz also got in the back door by winning the Amlin, so only Quins actually qualified of right.

Preview: Forewarned is forearmed for Quins here – they got mugged in Galway last year and it’s hard to see a repeat. Ditto for Biarritz, who lost in Aironi two years ago – the Zebre squad is largely the same, and the circumstances in which the Basques and Londoners won’t get four wins from the double bunnies are pretty hard to imagine. Biarritz are certainly more vulnerable, but they have oodles of experience in this competition.

Factor in a couple of home bonus points, and both of the big guns will expect to qualify – as well they should. Quins look better able to hoover up try bonus points, particularly away from home, so, if they split the head-to-heads, we would still expect to see the English champions emerge on top.

From a Connacht perspective, this pool presents both opportunities and threats – Zebre should easily be taken at home, but Zebre will see Connacht as their target for a home win as well. Strange as it may sound, if Elwood’s men come out of this with two wins over Zebre, they will feel disappointed.  We think that’s how it going to transpire – their other opponents look a little too streetwise to be beaten. On l’autre hand, if Connacht do beat one of the biggies, it will immediately supercede last year’s Quins results as their best ever European result. So, feast or famine, but them’s the margins at this level!

Verdict: Quins surprised us last season with their fortitude at the business end of the Premiership season, particularly after their meltdown in the Sportsground. That mental strength, allied to the genius of Nuck Ivans and the shrewd hand of Conor O’Shea, should steer them through as group winners and a home quarter final. Biarritz should come through on their coat tails as one of the wild cards. Connacht to do the double over Zebre – but that’s it.

HEC Round Four – Review

The old cliche is that you can never safely predict too much in the Heineken Cup, and it was reassuring to see that it still holds true this week.  Just when it looked as though most issues were virtually settled with two rounds to go, Quins did the unthinkable and won in Toulouse.  It’s not the first supposedly unbreachable citadel this young side has sacked, and it underlines their credentials as a coming force after they appeared to have been scuppered last week.  Here’s our latest good week/bad week…

Good week


Who else? Quins

A remarkable victory for a remarkable team.  When they lost to Toulouse last week it looked like a case of ‘Welcome to the Big League, chaps’.  To turn it around in Toulouse’s own patch a week on was a feat you simply had to stand and applaud.  This may be a year too early for them to win, but they are a team nobody will fancy playing in the knockout stages, for which they now look set to qualify for, either as winners or as runners-up.  It also underlined the importance of having a world class kicker.  Which brings us on to…

Johnny Sexton

While ROG has been grabbing the headlines with his timely drop-goals, Sexton has been efficiently getting on with the business of playing brilliantly.  He bailed Leinster out in Montpellier, ran the show against Glasgow and then delivered back-to-back man of the match performances against Bath and has racked up 63 points in four games.  On Saturday, he showcased the full range of his talents, and was a dream to watch.

Saracens

In poll position in Pool Five and looking in decent nick having done the double over the Ospreys.  Not the flashiest of teams, but they do have a consistent kicker in Owen Farrell and a belligerant set of forwards, which are two of the basic requirements to qualify as contenders.  Creativity is in short supply, with a somewhat predictable backline (Ooooooohhh Brad Barritt was literally centimetres over the gainline there!), but there’s always Schalk Brits to provide a spark. 

Bad Week


Blind Dave Pearson

Yes, it’s Blind Dave’s second appearance in our Bad Week section, and while his first was for bewildering us with reasoning we couldn’t really understand, this is for one of the single most knuckleheaded decisions in recent times.  You know the one, the blatantly obvious Scarlets try that he just walked away from and went back to give them an attacking scrum.  Had they not scored from said scrum, there would have been serious questions asked.  It was a bizarre moment.

Tomas O’Leary

Lordy.  Tomas had actually impressed a little on his recent cameos but this was back to the 2010/11 vintage.  Munster were totally in control until he came on, and promptly fell on to the back foot.  At one stage, his back-and-across crabbing saw him trapped metres behind the gainline and a penalty followed.  He was then extrmely lucky when his ill-judged grubber went out to touch off a Scarlets boot late in the match. 

Connacht

How much heartbreak can a team take?  Strangely, Connacht have saved their best performances for away matches in the competition, and were five minutes from a famous victory over Gloucester until nothing so complicated as a missed first-up tackle let in a late try.  It must be hard to take for a fanbase that so seldom has anything to cheer.  Connacht are the anti-Munster – a team that simply doesn’t know how to win.

HEC Preview: Pool 5 & Pool 6

Pool 5: Biarritz, Saracens, Ospreys, Treviso

Pedigree: Solid. Biarritz have two final appearances on their CV, losing both narrowly. The most recent was in 2010, where they shunted the Liginds into the dust before losing to Toulouse in the final. Sarries were Glen Jackson-inspired semi-finalists in 2008, when they almost upset the Munster bandwagon. Ospreys have a smattering of knockout experience and Treviso have little to shout about – although they get closer to scalping a big name every year.

Preview: The experience of Biarritz throws up a frequently-cited curiosity of the HEC draw. Because, inevitably, some French side with little European pedigree qualifies every year (e.g. Agen, Bourgoin, Montauban, Racing Metro, Montpellier) and must be kept apart from other French sides, top seeded French teams tend to draw a bunny e.g. Italian teams. Which means they are much more likely to qualify for the knockout stages and hence keep their top rating, then draw a bunny, etc, etc. Biarritz are a functional side built around a garganutan pack, Dmitri Yachvili’s on-field generalship and Damien Traille’s boot – but they are pretty average, and “boast” Iain Balshaw in their backline. Still, it’s a formula that works well in European rugby, and they have punched above their weight.

They know how to take 10 points from Italian sides (notwithstanding last year’s shock defeat to Aironi), get losing bonus points away and then blow teams apart at home (or in San Sebastian) – they will be very hard to stop in this pool, in spite of their precarious position in the Top 14

Sarries, on paper, carry a real threat. They are English champions (albeit with a smattering of South African influence) and aren’t easily beaten. Their problem might be in picking up enough bonus points to qualify, as they aren’t full of tries. They will win their home games against the two outsiders, but could struggle to seal the deal away, especially in Biarritz, and double especially because they plan to bring the Basques to Cape Town in January for their “home” game – with the kind of climate that the Biarritz lads will prefer to the muck, bosh and boot of North Lahndahn.

The Hairsprays have started the RaboMagners in chipper fashion, careering along happily, and with the tightest defence in the league. The jettisoning of the like of Jerry Collins and Mike Philips and banning of fake tan seems to have helped with team spirit, and the club are in a better place. At home, they are strong and are difficult to beat – they will be looking to be in the mix for the knockouts, but won’t qualify this year.

Treviso are interesting – they are far away from the worst side in Europe now, and will be aiming for a home win to put in their locker – any of these three constitute a scalp and any win would be a big step forward for the Italians.

Verdict: Biarritz to cruise the pool, and maybe even get a home quarter-final. Sarries should win enough games to contend for a quarter-final as best runners-up, but could regret the holiday in the Cape. We think if Quins fail to beat Toulouse at home in Pool 6, Sarries are through.

Pool 6: Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester, Connacht

Pedigree: The most decorated group in the compeition, and all due to Toulouse – 4 wins and 2 runners-up appearances trumps everyone else. Gloucester reached the knock-out stages in 2008, and Quins in 2010, but both lost to Irish opposition, in Quins case in spite of a little help from Count Drac. Connacht are making their HEC debut.

Preview: Toulouse never stop – last year they did well in the Top 14, and gave Leinster their toughest game of the HEC in the semi-final. And it was still not good enough. They have recruited well over the summer and look primed for another huge season. Luke McAlister has hit the ground running, and a pool short on sharks will be welcome – they had a huge RWC contingent who they will want firing on all cylinders in May, the integration process of Dusautoir et al may determine the level of silverware spending the summer under Guy Noves’ beady gaze.

Quins have started the English season like a train – 10 from 10 in all competitions, and playing a pretty attractive brand of rugby as well. They have undoubtedly been helped by having virtually a full team throughout the RWC, including Nick Evans and potential FEC Chris Robshaw. We don’t doubt the momentum won’t last, but if they get an away win at Gloucester in week 2, they are contenders for the knockout stages.

Gloucester themselves have started well in England, but are another team which had a low RWC quotient, and a trip to Toulouse will not be pleasant to start things off. The game with Quins will determine their tournament, and if they lose, they may not have the stomach for the one game Connacht will fancy themselves for in week 3 – they are firm outsiders now, but don’t rule them out if they win well in week 2.

Connacht themselves represent 10 points in the bag for Toulouse and Quins, and at least 6 for Gloucester. They will target the Cherry and Whites and hope the Atlantic whips up a winter storm, but it probably won’t be enough – this is a step way beyond what Connacht have experienced, and while it’s great to see a new name in the tournamnt, it could get very grizzly in January.

Verdict: Toulouse will stroll this pool, without needing (or wanting) to get out of third gear. Quins have a chance of sneaking into the quarter-finals on their coat-tails if they beat Gloucester in week 2 – if they don’t they will need to beat Toulouse at home. Connacht to get zero wins, regretably.

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.

You’ll win nothing with kids

It was joy unconfined for the Queensland Reds this weekend, as they won their first ever Super Rugby final.  It’s a great result for Super Rugby, with a new name on the Cup, and a remarkable one for the Reds, who have come a long way in a short space of time.  If you cast your eye over their record in the last five years, it’s clear this is a meteoric rise: as recently as 2009 they were bottom dwellers. Last year, they soared to 5th place, just missing out on a play-off slot at the death.

P W D L F A +/- B Pt
2006 12th 13 4 0 9 240 320 −80 6 22
2007 14th 13 2 0 11 201 438 −237 3 11
2008 12th 13 3 1 9 258 323 −65 4 18
2009 13th 13 3 0 10 258 380 −122 4 19
2010 5th 13 8 0 5 366 308 +58 7 39

It shows the value of investing in a young, talented squad which can mature together over time. This can require some hard lessons and usually involves the team absorbing some heavy, punishing defeats along the way.  No doubt there were times when things looked grim (not least when the Bulls put 90 points on them in 2007) but their faith in youth has been handsomely rewarded, and the likes of Genia and Cooper look set to become global superstars this autumn. Serendipity also helped: had they sneaked into the play-offs last year, a punishing defeat in Pretoria was a real possibility – the team had completely run out of steam. The lack of mental hangup on the home straight was evident on Saturday.

Are there any teams in the cold and rainy Northern Hemisphere countries that could emulate the Reds zeroes-to-heroes feat? Whiff of Cordite has identified 4 possibilities:

Ulster: Building a side around a new generation of talented backs, with experience coming from Saffa beef up front.  Big improvement last season, with HEC quarter final and 3rd place ML finish after just scraping ahead of Connacht in 2010.
Can they be the NH Reds?  Have solid commercial base with room for improvement (albeit with laughable marketing strategies, more of which anon) but have been dealt a tough draw in the HEC. This could make them, but they maybe need another year to break through.

Llanelli Scarlets: Culled expensive imports two years ago in order to build new side around home grown talent.  Played some terrific rugby last season, not least in beating Perpignan in a remarkable game, but missed out on Magners playoffs.
Can they be the NH Reds? If anyone in Wales can break up the Irish dominance, it is they.  Pack needs toughening up, but their young Number 8, Ben Morgan, is outstanding. Another problem for Welsh teams is the Toulons of this world, who can offer fat cheques for re-location – the Reds’ biggest worry was Quade Cooper switching sports to League.

Ospreys: Several big names leaving this summer. Rebuild starts here, around home grown players such as Justin Tipuric and Kristian Philips.
Can they be the NH Reds?  Unlikely. Fanbase has still to materialise and the culture of the club needs overhaul as much as the playing staff. Plus Tommy Bowe surely has noticed most of his international team-mates have HEC medals (plural).

Harlequins: In process of rebuild following Bloodgate in 2009.  Playing an attractive brand of rugby in the Premiership (like Bath), they lost too many tight games last season.  Well coached by Conor O’Shea, they have already landed silverware, winning the Amlin Challenge Cup.
Can they be the NH Reds?  Have a good chance.  Look to have the right coach in place, and have solid pillars (Easter, Evans) to groom the youngsters, plus a loyal fanbase. Performance in Thomond Park demonstrated their talent. Have a real opportunity to sneak into the HEC knockout stages behind Toulouse.

HEC-xy Boy

A momentous weekend ahead in European rugby – the last weekend of the regular season in France, England and the Magners. Since most play-off places are pretty much nailed down, lets talk instead about who will get into next season’s European Cup instead.

Qualifying automatically are 6 teams from England and France, 3 from Ireland and Wales and 2 from Scotland and Italy. The winners of this years HEC and AC will qualify, or earn their country an extra spot if they are already qualified through their league. However, if Saints and Quins do the business, England only gets 1 extra place, so this 24th place passes on to the highest ranked side who didn’t previously qualify.

So, who is in so far?

England: Leicester, Saracens, Gloucester, Northampton and Swashbuckling Bath
France: Toulouse, Racing Metro, and almost certainly Clermont and Castres
Ireland: Munster, Leinster, Ulster
Wales: Cardiff, Ospreys, Scarlets
Plus the usual Scottish and Italian patsies.

The final English place is between Irish and Quins. Irish are away to Leicester and Quins at home to Sarries. If Quins get 4 more match points than Irish, they get the last place. Both Leicester and Sarries have qualified with home semi-finals, so its hard to know what teams they will put out. Irish firmly in the box seat here, but we have a little fancy for Quins.

The French situation is more complex. Toulon (70 points), Biarritz (68), Montpellier (67) and Bayonne (67) are all in the mix. The big game is Montpellier-Toulon. The other 2 play already-relegated La Rochelle and Bourgoin, so you would have to expect 5 points each, meaning Toulon need to win and Montpellier need a bonus point win. Toulon have a bit of momentum at present, so we are going for Biarritz and Toulon to make it.

However, the really interesting question is if one of the other 2 make it – Toulon this year came in as bottom seeds, but not only did they qualify, the competition within the pool ensured no other team came through with them. If Bayonne or (especially) Montpellier make it, they are a very tough draw, and don’t forget Bayonne are taking out the chequebook this summer.

And finally, the “bonus” places for trophy winners:
If Leinster and Harlequins win, Connacht and Quins/Irish qualify.
If Leinster and Stade win, Connacht and Stade qualify.
If Saints and Stade win, Quins/Irish and Stade qualify.
If Saints and Quins win, Quins/Irish and Perpignan qualify, as Perpignan are the highest ranked team not already qualified.

Note: up to 22 of this seasons 24 participants can get back in – is the HEC becoming a self-perpetuating European rugby elite?

Snail Mail

In this age of Twitter and instant communication, its always somehow nice to receive an old-fashioned newspaper cutting from far-flung lands. Or London.

Especially when its as funny as this: