The Passion of St Tibulus

This summer, when Axel Foley started his reign as Munster coach, there was a lot of talk about (brace yourself) a “return to traditional Munster values”. To be fair none of it came from Axel himself, but a meeja who had never really bought into the Rob Penney thing defaulted to assuming it would happen.  Those traditional Munster values, as we understand them, are something like an emphasis on the set piece, attacking by forwards around the fringes, and a gameplan strong on half backs kicking for territory.  But if pulled pork was among the most annoying phrases of 2014, ‘a return to traditional Munster values’ should be at least in the top five.  It’s become a sort of off the shelf commodity.  Get your return to traditional Munster values for just €29.99 at Argos.  Simply plug into the wall, and you automatically have a winning rugby team.

In recent weeks, Foley’s gameplan has been pretty effective, with wins in Sale (including an extra bonus traditional value of a late drop goal) and the Palindrome by a relative cricket score, and a satisfying slap-down of Globo Gym in Thomond. They have played a fairly narrow game, with CJ Stander carrying and big centres used to try and bash holes.  Foley’s one creative midfield outlet, JJ Hanrahan, has gone largely unused, when he’s a full deck to choose from at least.

There is, however, one traditional value not mentioned above, and it was best articulated by Axel himself – “we’re better when we are bitter”. Too right – a large portion of the Munster mytholgy is built on proving someone wrong – playing a big English or French team, taking a “they don’t rate us” mentality on to the field – and showing them who is boss. There are many classics of the genre, but our favourite was in Leicester in 2006 when Rog announced the week before the game that he could not accept the English players were any better than Irish ones (at a time when this was a controversial line), won with a last minute penalty into the rain from the halfway line. The perfect riposte – the arrogant English Tigers didn’t rate Munster, and they were shown up in their own house.  Munster still love the underdog tag.

In the build-up to this game last week, the talk was about how the Munster tight five would be dominant and Clermont would naturaly wilt in the cauldron that was Thomond on a Saturday night. No-one was under-rating Munster, and Clermont were painted as a powehouse, but ultimately a mentally frail team who always give you a chance no matter how good they are.  Everyone felt Munster would win.

If there was one team playing like they had a point to prove, one team that felt disregarded, it was Clermont. And they played like a Deccie-era Munster team facing the arrogant English. Munster looked a bit shell-shocked by the intensity Clermont were bringing, by the magnitude of the hits, by the un-Brock James like fortitude of Camille Lopez and by the refusal to bow down before the waves of passion from the stands. Lopez missed three early kicks but all were difficult and noe were especially badly struck.  Any supsicion that he had been Thomond-ed fell apart once he nailed a drop goal from the 10m line.

Clermont had the Munster scrum in trouble – how BJ Botha lasted 80 minutes is beyond us. The lineout malfunctioned – Duncan Casey’s hot arm is cooling at just the wrong time – and one-out rumbles were stopped on, or behind, the gainline every time. Of the forwards, only Tommy O’Donnell carried effectively (and he was superb, carrying for 44m, compared to 47m for the rest of the pack) and the general, Conor Murray, was under pressure and mis-firing, for once. Has Paul O’Connell ever been shunted backwards so often in a match?  CJ Stander had been Munster’s best forward in the early season, but he had a poor match; had Robin Copeland been available he might have been called ashore.

The most disappointing thing was the absence of a Plan B – in the last 10, Munster went through 20 phases in the Clermont half when Clermont took them behind the gainline every time they attacked the fringes of the ruck.  If you were one of those punters looking for a return to traditional Munster values – you had your wish granted.  Suggestions that Hanrahan would have made a difference in this match are miles off; he wouldn’t have seen the ball.

It felt like Munster simply did not rate Clermont and couldn’t get their heads around the fact that they were still unable to bash through the middle; that Clermont would eventually ‘give them a chance’ if they kept doing the same thing. The expected choke never happened, but this isn’t the time of year for it anyway – since the last time they played Munster in the pool stages, Clermont have qualified for five quarter finals in succession, topping the pool four times. In recent years, they have cruised through the pool stages and a succession of tough draws, including Leinster twice, Ulster, Leicester twice and the Ospreys – the tailspins are saved for the spring.  In fact Clermont deserve a huge amount of praise for the manner in which they won it.  Very few teams contest opposition lineouts in their own 22 these days, the vast majority prefering to set the maul defence, but Clermont were brave enough to put a man in the air and only went and stole the ball.  Chouly said they knew O’Connell would call it on himself.

Simply put – Munster weren’t braced for this kind of contest, and have likely paid with their participation in the tournament. Peter O’Mahony said straight after the game that Munster owed their fans a big performance in the return leg – problem is, the Marcel Michelin isn’t a very hospitable place for a last stand – however well Munster come out, they are unlikely to get the win they need. Going to Saracens and winning offers a better chance, but still less than probable.  Saracens are still in the competition and will need the result just as badly as Munster.  Munster needed the bitter attitude going in on Saturday, but somehow misplaced their indignation.

Now some caution needs to be thrown to the wind.  Foley talked about using both Keatley and Hanrahan together in the team earlier this season, but he has stuck with Hurley as a hole-punching inside centre.  Hanrahan’s scarcity of gametime in the important matches has been one of the season’s curiosities, because it’s not as if he hasn’t played well when he’s been on.  Foley needs to embrace the possibilites he offers, because they will not beat Clermont by trucking it up for another 80 minutes. But at least they’ll be underdogs and largely written off this time.  That always helps.

Ulster Struggles

So there ya go – the dream is over. With Ulster’s development in recent years, Ireland have had three names supping at the top table of European rugby – we felt that the provinces were in a good position to replicate last season (and 2012)’s success and have three in the last eight. But, for the first time since 2010, Ulster won’t be there. We haven’t bothered crunching the stats – we’ll leave that to real numbers gurus like Andy McGeady – but we suspect there haven’t been many teams who have made the knockouts after losing their opening two games. After nicking a late bonus point in Welford Road, Ulster couldn’t even repeat that trick at home to Toulon and are now marooned with a single point. Bummer.

Now, losing to Toulon is far from disgraceful – they are European and French champions and produced the first powerhouse performance of the tournament on Saturday, whacking and bagging Ulster by half-time. Losing to this Leicester vintage isn’t so great though, and four wins with a couple of bonus points from here looks an extremely tall order, especially since one of those games is in Toulon.

In a sense, there have been some chickens coming home to roost for Ulster – organisational upheavel this summer, a lack of depth in the pack being exposed by injuries, and curious selection.

When Humph announced he was leaving for Glaws, Ulster rugger went into a state of shock, and it has taken four months for the endgame to play out. First of all, Cowboy was given the heave-ho with Les “Kissy” Kiss coming in on an interim job-share basis to bring his choke tackling expertise, hipster specs and sunny, thoughtful demeanour to Ravers – this was initally announced as a season-long measure. But then the announcement came that Kissy was going back to Carton House full-time and Ulster would shortly name a full-time coach. To no-ones surprise, a few weeks later, that was Neil Doak – with Kissy returning after RWC15 as Nucifor-stamped DoR. All of which ends well for Ulster, but it does mean that the Ulster players have had three head coaches for the 2014/15 season in 3 months – hardly the best preparation for European rugby.

And, although Doak has been around Ravers since, like, forever and has presumably – like the perennial bridesmaid – been preparing to be head coach for half that time, he only got the keys three weeks ago. Now, there can be no doubt he had input into team selection and tactics, so he wasn’t completely green, but having your second and third games as head coach against Leicester and Toulon is far from ideal. From Ulster’s perspective, the succession hasn’t been smooth – the best-managed corporates have a succession plan for everybody that they can put in place when required – Ulster might have got the outcome they wanted, but it took them a while to get there, and preparation undoubedly suffered. Perhaps there was a reason Doak couldn’t have taken over when Cowboy was slung out, with Kiss being lined up as 2015 DoR in time, but we can’t think of a persuasive one. Either way, Ulster have been in a state of organisational flux since June.

Secondly, the team was decimated by injury – or was it? The reality is that they are missing both starting locks  – Dan Tuohy, NWJMB – Ruan Pienaar and Andy Trimble. Pienaar and Trimble are virtually irreplacable but its the pack which has been hardest hit. Note: Alan O’Connor is also suspended, but if you are depending on an Academy player with two starts to rescue you against Toulon, you are in trouble. The reality of the situation is that Ulster’s depth in the pack was a concern 12 month ago and its got markedly worse since:

  • OUT: Tom Court (Prop, 32 caps for Ireland), John Afoa (Prop, 36 caps for BNZ, RWC11 winner), Johann Muller (Lock, 24 caps for SA, RWC07 winner), Fez (Flanker, 35 caps for Ireland, 2009 Lion) plus Niall Annett (Hooker), Adam Macklin (Prop), Paddy McAlister (Prop), Sean Doyle (Flanker)
  • IN: Wiehann Herbst (Prop), Ruadhri Murphy (Prop), Dave Ryan (Prop), Franco van der Merwe (Lock, 1 cap for SA), Charlie Butterworth (Flanker), Sean Reidy (Flanker)

Essentially, Ulster have lost their captain, 2 RWC winners, Ireland’s only player of the professional era aside from POC and BOD to be challenging for a World XV and 127 international caps and replaced them with a couple of wild card props and a once-capped Springbok journeyman. Poor planning, and ordinary recruitment. That’s going to hurt when you come up against a side who can lose Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe after five minutes and replace him with a MOTM contender from last year’s final. Ulster were so stretched, they had to rely on Clive Ross and Nick Williams as crack game-changers from the bench.

That’s a big enough handicap as is, but to find yourself struggling to identify your starting centres is pretty careless. Jared Payne has been the chosen one at outside centre for Ulster (and maybe for Ireland) but it’s fair to say he hasn’t got going there – when Ulster have brought Dazzler Cave into the team and moved Payne back to full-back, they’ve looked immeasurably more dangerous. Against the Tigers, Ulster went for brawn inside in the shape of Stuart McCloskey, but began to create opportunities only when he was replaced with the rapier that is Stu Olding. The against Toulon, it was Olding who started, but even before he got kicked in the head in a scene reminiscent of the Thing That Never Happened, he was being run ragged by Maxime Mermoz (aside: is this a first for anyone else to see Mermoz actually playing well? He has always seemed disappointing any time we have seen him) and Mathieu Boshtereaud.

Which isn’t to say Toulon steamrollered over Ulster – it was the technical brilliance of their pack and centres that won them this game – subtlety was the name of the game in the key moments. That awful feeling of being outclassed came a week after a litany of errors handed a free win to a Leicester Tigers team that subsequently gave the Scarlets (the Scarlets!) an easy win. Ulster have hid it pretty well in the Pro12 to date, but a pair of limp defeats in the rarefied air of the HEC/ERCC has shown them up for being a bit of a mess right now. If Doak didn’t know he had a big job on his hands, he does now.

Anglo-Irish Rivalry

Since 2007, when Leicester lost to Wasps in an all-English Heineken Cup final, the Irish have lorded it over the arrogant English © Gervais de Thornleille – four tournament victories to none, five finalists to three and ten semi-finalists to six … all from approximately half the tournament representation. The perceived advantage in qualification enjoyed by the three major Irish provinces was one of the drivers of the ERCC setup (even though it’s bollocks – under any qualification rules, the three would have cruised through in most seasons).

This weekend, all three provinces played English opponents – and they struggled mightily. The combined half-time score was 62-21 to the Premiership – an average of 21-7, although it should be noted that it was a very blustery weekend and in each case the English teams had the wind at their backs in the first half. In the second halves, all three Irish teams came out and fought for their lives in the tournament and began to show something like the quality we all think they have – Leinster and Munster eked out wins over Wasps and Sale, and Ulster got close enough to earn a bonus point and leave Leicester somewhat worried and mildly panicky. Combined, the score was 71-70 to les Anglais. Two of the three games were played in England, but still, this wasn’t by any means the cream of this year’s Boshiership season – the English teams stand 5th, 8th and 10th. Or in other words, the same berths occupied by Connacht, Embra and Cardiff in the Pro12 – none of whom are gracing this years HEC.

This was hardly an outstanding weekend from the provinces, and it really felt like muscle memory keeping them in it at times – BT Sport might be over-anxious to sell this as a brand-new tournament, but the provinces’ collective history and experience certainly told at times when there was a prospect of wipeout.

A quick word on each.  Munster were able to use the wind to good effect in the second half and Sale just couldn’t get out of their own half.  Any platform they did get, they found Peter O’Mahony and Dave Foley all over their lineout ball.  And in CJ Stander they have found a wrecking ball.  This was a performance for the ages, he just could not be contained.  At times he looked to be going into contact too upright, but is just so strong he could keep going.  Remarkable!  They still have a problem at centre though.  Hurley’s up-and-down season hit a trough here, and JJ Hanrahan’s nicely angled kick to the corner late in the match showed his contrasting style in a good light.  Also, Simon Zebo seems a little out of sorts?

Three yers ago, Ulster lost in Welford Road and showed no cutting edge whatsoever, and got beaten.  Those days are certainly gone, and Ulster now boast a backline capable of the sort of try that Tommy Bowe dotted down on Saturday night.  With such potency behind the pack, they’ll be annoyed they gave Leicester a three try start in the match.  Coupled with Jackson’s conversion blooper, it felt like an Ulster performance that only got to 90% intensity; never enough to win in a ground like Welford Road.  Still, they’re alive in the pool, but must beat Toulon this weekend.

As for Leinster, they were the only one of the three at home, but this was another bounty of handling errors and tear-your-hair-out stuff from them.  It’s becoming the default.  Injuries are a mitigating factor and once the team was announced sans Messrs. Kearney and Ross, this had the potential to be a banana skin.  Again, they dug themselves out of a corner, and used the wind to decent effect in the second half.  Amid the injury crisis, Dom Ryan and Darragh ‘Fanj’ Fanning have stepped up admirably this season, and continued that streak here.

There is no doubt the delight we take in beating English teams, and we find it hard to really rate them – perhaps they are better than we think… and perhaps we aren’t as good as we think we are.  Next week, things get dialled up a notch as Munster face Saracens.  The last installment of this rivalry was a damp squib, but a repeat is unlikely.  We’ll have a fair idea of where everyone stands afterwards.

New Broom

As Gerry might say, plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose. The brand-new European rugby tournament is here, and it’s … err .. completely different. For example, it’s got a better TV deal – oh no, wait, just a French domestic one and a UK/Ireland one where fans aren’t sure what package they need to see their team on a given week – ok, more commercial clout – wait, off that, same sponsor – better governance? – same staff, but in non-cowboy country – well, that’s something. Phew!

On field, we’re down from 24 to 20 teams, having chopped some of the chaff (Connacht, Cardiff, Embra and the Zebras) and that’s no bad thing. We’ve been left with a couple of stonking pools (1 and 3) but, to be fair, there are also a couple of duds in there (2 and possibly 4). We still see three teams as going oh-from-six (Treviso, Scarlets and Sale) and three others as having essentially no chance of progression (Wasps, Castres, Racing Metro) – meaning an expected knockout stage lineup as very similar to the last couple of years. We reckon you’ll have 6 of last years quarter finalists back in April for the runoff and, presumably much to McCafferty’s chagrin, three of them will be Irish! Whoop-de-whoop. So here goes this year’s flight of fancy (or maybe not, we got seven right last year):

Pool 1 (Globo Gym, Munster, Clermont, Sale Sharks):

Three of last year’s four semi-finalists – this is one tough pool. Saracens and Clermont are top of their respective leagues, and Munster will need all of their fabled Europan cup nous to get out of this one.  When two of the three met last year, Saracens made mincemeat of Clermont, winning by 40 points. That could be relevant here as Clermont are not the strongest mentally. It’s hard to see the Sharks winning a game – they are languishing in the Boshiership and are a clear level below the rest. They aren’t an intimidating presence, even at home, and are bonus point fodder. This could easily see the big three trade home wins with two qualifiers decided by bonus points. Saracens look to have the best recent history here (runners up in HEC and Premiership last year) and are the easiest to back as the most likely to win at Munster or the Marcel Michelin. After that, if it came down to a Munster vs Clermont HEC-off in front of teary, rabid  fans, we’d back Munster. Just.

Prediction: Saracens to win (70% confidence level), Munster to qualify as runners-up (50.01% confidence level)

Pool 2 (Leinster, Castres, Harlequins, Wasps):

An utter dud of a pool – Leinster are playing like drains and struggling with a gameplan, on-pitch direction and a lengthy injury list. If they had Munster’s draw, we’d give them virtually no chance of making it through, but they don’t – they have a bit of a gimme. Castres are in the Top14 nether regions, and rarely give a hoot about Europe, and Wasps will be playing in front of zero fans and are reliant on Andy Goode – those two are out. Quins have something about them and are a tough nut to crack at the Stoop, but it’s hard to see them doubling up on the bunnies. They haven’t quite pushed on since their glorious championship-winning season, though any team with Danny Care and Nick Evans at half-back has to be at least useful.  If Leinster can win in Castres in round two then they are on the path.  Where Quins will be dangerous is in the race for second place against Munster – if they win four games, they’ll be in the mix – the brave and the faithful should be cheering full-throated for a pair of Leinster whuppings. Leinster may not hit top gear but they have the experience to deal with this lot.

Prediction: Leinster to win (95% confidence level)

Pool 3 (Toulon, Leicester, Ulster, Scarlets):

Pool of death! Scarlets are the bunnies here – they are <insert patronising platitude here> but are beatable at home and consider defence optional. They are capable of pulling one outrageous win out of the bag, but we’re expecting them to be whitewashed.  Of the three remaining, one are double European and reigning Top14 champions, one have been bridesmaids so many times they are in danger of becoming the Northampton Saints, and one are an injury-addled shadow of their former selves. Toulon are deservedly tournament favourites, and they are unlikely to become unstuck here – they could field two teams that would win this pool, and are good enough to beat anyone. We have covered Ulster already, and first up is the best time to play Leicester away – Barnesy feels Ulster are tournament dark horses, and they have enough tough wins in the European locker (Leicester home and away, Montpellier away, Clermont home, Saints away, Munster away) to warrant some faith here. They have shown themselves adept at getting through the pool stages, but have lost their heads in knockout games with exasperating frequency.  Time to deliver, boys.

Prediction: Toulon to win (80% confidence level), Ulster to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)

Pool 4 (Glasgow, Montpellier, Ooooooooooooooooooooooooohhh Bath, Toulouse)

This is a very interesting pool – unlike the previous three, there is no standout team here, and you can make a coherent case for each to qualify. The least coherent case is probably the Montpellier one – they are down a couple of forwards from two years ago, and Francois Trinh-Duc is out until 2015 – they gave up on the HEC after losing to Ulster at home last year, and might not be bothered. We’d dearly love to tip Glasgow to make the breakthrough – great for the Pro12 and a very likeable team addicted to high-risk, watchable rugby – but they have three tough away games ahead, and we can’t quite bring ourselves to back them in any of them. Potential is there, and the pool is up for grabs, but they’ll need to show us something new. Bath are flying high-ish in the Boshiership, marshalled by the quicksilver George Ford, but one feels dirty mucky French packs won’t quite be to their liking – they looked primed to be arm-wrestled out of it. Which leaves European aristocrats ™ boring bosh merchants Toulouse. Which team will show up – the one who beat Saracens twice, or the one who lost at home to Connacht and bent the knee in Thomond? Either way, they have the quality in their squad and consistent experience of just topping the pool to prevail here.

Prediction: Toulouse to win (60% confidence level)

Pool 5 (Northampton Saints, Racing Metro, Hairsprays, Treviso)

Let’s start with the easy bit – Treviso won’t win a game. The Saints look the best team here – they (finally) won the Premiership last year and are riding high again – in the last three years, they have come unstuck against Irish teams at home, this time around the draw is kinder and a quarter-final beckons. For the runners-up slot and (we reckon) the last place in the knockouts it’s red-hot young fearless Ospreys, with a pair of excellent halves, versus behemoth bosh-heavy moneybags Racing Metro. The Parisians are without Jonny Sexton for the opening rounds, and are really tough to have any confidence in – we’d like the Spreys to continue their recent form and get back to the knockout stages.  Backing them to transfer their Pro12 form to Europe has been a losing trade in recent years, but maybe this time it will be different?

Prediction: Saints to win (90% confidence level), Ospreys to qualify as runners-up (70% confidence level)

So there you have it – out go Leicester and Clermont and in come the Saints and the Ospreys. The group winners are mucking in for the all-important home draw – and without knowing who has that prize in the bag, or the home semi-final draw, picking winners is a fools errand. We will say this though, given the Saints pool, and the guaranteed 10 points from Benetton, they will expect a home draw – and they are a decent bet at 13/2.

Stop Press: Ulster Optimism

This particular Ulster fan is feeling pretty chipper right now. That’s right – chipper! And it’s very unlike him – normally he worries about Ulster’s lack of depth in the front five, Paul Marshall being near the first XV, Jared Payne running the defensive alignment and (especially) when dishy Steve Walsh will next referee his province. Dreamboat.

But there are grounds for hope, and more than that, what with the HEC cranking into gear soon:

  1. He worried incessantly about the wisdom of replacing both props in one summer. Now, he maintains it was a risk, but he can’t argue that things aren’t looking good. On the loosehead side, Andrew Warwick looks more powerful every time he plays – he looks a real find. Maybe he’s not ready for HEC rugby, but why not? He seems able. On the tighthead side, Wiehann Herbst has been a revelation, turning Ulster’s scrum into a real platform – John Afoa has not only not been missed, but he has given Ulster fans a chance to wallow in some glorious schadenfreude at his travails at Glaws
  2. Let’s not talk about the second row, bar saying Alan O’Connor played well on his debut and Franco van der Werve better not get injured in the next three weeks
  3. Ruan Pienaar has arrived back at Ravers! Ulster simply must get him on the pitch next weekend, or they are goosed
  4. Stuart Olding has picked up where he left off 15 months ago and looks in spectacularly good nick – Ulster missed a bit of guile in the opposition 22 under Cowboy, and they look to have added clinicality – Olding is a big part of that

But, more, much more than that, its the horrendous start to the season endured by the Leicester Tigers that has this Ulster fan feeling so chipper – the HEC (for that is what it is) starts in nine days, and it starts in Leicester. If ever there was a time to play the Tigers its now, and Ulster already have experience of playing there – and winning.

Those of us who love rugby, and love ye olde school English clubs, love the Leicester Tigers, but unfortunately for them, everyone is injured.  The pack is missing several most of their best forwards, including the Toms Young and Croft and the unfortunate Dan Cole.  That leaves them with a pack anchored by the same Italians that have been tearing up the Six Nati … wait, that’s wrong … and Big Bad Brad Thorn, who finally seems done. Leicester are renowned for tough uncompromising forward play, but it’s just not as frightening when your pack enforcers are .. er .. Graham Kitchener and Julian Salvi. And giving this team direction from 10 is Freddie Burns, who is now a fully paid-up member of the English out-halves who looked decent for three months then collapsed in a pile of dung club, which is chaired by Ryan Lamb and Shane Geraghty.  Way to let the next England fly-half go off to Ooooooooohh Bath, goys! Also missing is Ooooooooooooooooooooohhh Manu Tuilagi – the anchor of their backline.

They lie just above the Boshiership relegation zone and their form is dismal. Here are their results this season:

  • Leicester 36-17 Newcastle
  • Exeter 20-24 Leicester
  • Bath 45-0 (NIL) Leicester (Videprinter moment)
  • Leicester 19-22 London Oirish
  • Gloucester 33-16 Leicester

Sure, Ulster might have lost to the Zebras, but they made 10 changes for that game, had a guy sent off and still probably should have won. And they weren’t at home. To London Oirish. Make no mistake, this is a winnable game. Eminently winnable. Its literally the best possible time to play in Welford Road.

After that, it’s the big one, double champions Toulon – this is a toughie, especially with injuries in the second row – Bakkies and Ali Williams don’t cost megabucks for nothing. Still though – Ulster are at home, and Ravers is a bit of a fortress these days, and a sizzling atmosphere a la Saracens last year is guaranteed. Not that that will phase Toulon of course – despite what Gerry might think, there is little the Irish can teach the French about culture, passion or roaring hot rugby grounds. Toulon’s away form has improved this year (3 wins from 4), but they lost their opening HEC away game last year – to Cardiff, of all teams!  Toulon might travel with the sense that a losing bonus point is a decent outcome.

It is unlikely to be a classic, but Ulster are a tough nut to crack in Ravers, and it will be tight. If Ulster can eke out two wins, that would be eight points on the board with a double header with the Scarlets to come – and with three from five runners-up qualifying, they will have got themselves into an excellent position. Ulster have qualified from tougher pools – notably 2011/12 with Clermont and Leicester when Clermont were at or around the peak of their powers (and Leicester, again, succumbed to an injury crisis) and Ulster are much improved since then. They went 6-for-6 last year, winning in Montpellier and Leicester, and have enough about them to justify some faith – we’re tipping them to win both and take a giant leap to the knockout stages of the inaugural HEC.  How’s that for glass-half-full Nordie Optimism?!

EEERRCCCCC Draw 2014/15

If you were confused by the seeding vagaries of the draw for the EERRRRCCCCCC, you weren’t the only ones – we are Maths nerds by profession and all we could understand was that our brains were frying. Luckily, in stepped Murray Kinsella to explain it all in short, easy-to-understand words for us – thanks Murray!

When the ultra-complex draw happened, it produced tougher pools than the legacy tournament, which, as well as having 4 more teams, wasn’t as “elite”. While we had major issues with the money/power grab from the crowing money men of the Boshiership, the case for cutting teams from the HEC structure was pretty strong – and it has turned out that way, looking at the draw, with Pools 1 and 3 (with Munster and Ulster) utterly mouth-watering and the rest largely hard to call.

One pool contains three of last years semi-finalists and two collectively have six of the quarter-finalists – although this says as much about the difficulty of losing a good ranking under the HEC system than it does about the EEEEEEERCCC one. Here’s the full listing:

  1. Globo Gym, Munster, ASM Mental Stength, Sale Sharks
  2. Leinster, Castres, Quins, Wasps
  3. Toulon, Leicester Tigers, Ulster, Hard-Scrummaging Scarlets
  4. Glasgow, Montpellier, Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooooohh Bath, Boring Bosh Merchants Toulouse
  5. Northampton, Racing Metro, Ospreys, Treviso

Starting, as ever, with hardy traditionalists Munster, while its a tough draw, their fans are secretly quite pleased – nothing gets the pishun stirring as much as a visit of the arrogant Englishman (© Gerry) or a flaky bunch of Frenchmen. Munster will be confident of 3 home wins, and will target Sale for their away win. Given the fact that 3 out of 5 runners-up will qualify, and looking at how competitive the pools are, 4 wins and 3 bonus points (19 points) might be enough to qualify, and they’ll be aiming for that. Initially anyway.

In pool 2, Leinster have got a bit of a bye – Castres are familiar foes and rarely put 100% effort into Europe. Quins have experience but are a bit short on top quality and Wasps have neither to be frank. Leinster will be thinking of a home quarter-final – for all their attacking struggles this year, their pack and defence retains its excellent rating.

Ulster have paid the price for merely finishing fourth, drawing Toulon and Leicester. While they have made a habit of beating the Tigers in recent times, Leicester surely won’t have as many injuries and Ulster have yet to adequately replace their departing props. Toulon will be really tough, but any team with European pretensions (as Ulster have) should be beating the Scarlets twice. So, then, a simliar target to Munster – 19 points and second place. Third time to edge out the Tigers in four years?

Elsewhere, Northampton and RM92 will be happy with their draw and be confident of reaching the knockouts, and if Glasgae can re-produce their Pro12 form they might be in with a sniff, and that’s a mighty open pool. So much can depend on the timing of the fixtures and how the teams are going at the time, but we feel Leinster will definitely qualify, Munster are slight odds-against, and Ulster third favourites in their pool. Either way, the games look spectacular – worth subscribing to BT Sport though? 🙂

The Spirit of the Golden Belltower

Allez Toulon, the third ever back-to-back Heineken Cup champions. If they were deeply fortunate to win the pot last year, helped in no end by a calamitous collapse from specialist chokers Clermont, this time around they did it in style, dispatching Saracens by 23 points to 6. In the end they were strolling, and went close to adding another try on, which would have made it 30-6, which we all know to be a scoreline that signifies a COMPLETE ROUT!

What was most notable was the extraordinary bond the players have with one another, and their fans. Matt Giteau (who just oozes class, by the way) took to Twitter to tell the world he’d won the Cup with his ‘best mates’. Johnny Wilkinson spoke in his usual extraordinarily humble way, hitting every right note as he always does. Heck, he was already thinking about the Top 14 final!

In the game of rugby, the belief has long been held that success is hard to buy, and cannot simply be imported wholesale. In a game in which physicality and espirit de corps are such dominant factors, a team which is suitably motivated to put the hurting on its opponents can overcome limitations such as y’know, skill, or a decent lineout and utilise its physical advantage to win rugby matches.

Having a proud fanbase and a rich tapestry of history is something which rugby teams utilise to drive this fervour and passion, none more so than the Irish provinces. In short, the jersey matters. We all know the backdrop at this stage, and though each of the provinces has their own unique history and identity, in all of them there is a sense that to play for the jersey and for the fans is important and attaches a certain standard below which one dare not fall. For most of the players, they’re playing for their local team, and many of them spent their youths on the terraces as supporters. As Denis Hickie put it ‘I’m a Leinster lad. That’s my team. I don’t make any apologies for it.’ The communities are relatively small and close knit and the players place a huge premium on playing for their province, often literally in the case of signing contracts when greater riches are on offer elsewhere.

We do occasionally need to remind ourselves that the Irish provinces are not unique (Exhibit A: the periodic “Irish can teach French culture and passion” stories from Gerry), and in England and France there exist many great clubs with their own strong senses of identity and rich, glorious histories; Toulouse, Castres, Clermont Auverge, Biarritz, Perpignan, Leicester, Northampton, Bath and so on.

Toulon is a rugby-mad town but the team has been bought in. None of the South African, Argentinian or Australian superstars they have on the books have an innate attachment to Toulon, and presumably none of them are all that au fait with the history of the trench warfare that is French rugby. None of them would say ‘I’m a Toulon lad. That’s my team. I make no apologies for it.’ It only serves to make their accomplishments all the more impressive. You can buy success in rugby it seems, but only if you buy the right people. And this is the crux of it. Toulon have recruited sensationally well. There are leaders, standard-bearers and born winners across the team.

While Racing got the chequebook out for the likes of Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts, Toulon have no problem bringing in guys who appear miles over the hill, or whose share price has come off a high; Bakkies Botha, Simon Shaw and Castrogiovanni anyone? Matt Giteau was unceremoniously dumped by Australia but it now seems incredible that his talents could be overlooked by anoyone. Juan Smith had been forced to retire, but gets re-threaded at Toulon and plugs right into the team ethos. It works, because the likes of Castro, Shawsy and Wilkinson are grizzled pros who know how to get the job done, and have the respect of every other player with whom they come into contact. Wilkinson, as we know, demands of himself the highest of high standards – his mental torture and intensity is such that he barely looks like he enjoys a second of what he does.

Sure, they’re all world class players, so they have an innate advantage, but at the same time they’re all extremely well paid, playing for a team far from home in the sunny climes of the Mediterranean coast. It would be easy for them to simply phone it in; but they don’t. Where does the hunger come from? Key individuals such as Jonny Wilkinson and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe are instrumental in ensuring everyone is aware that this is not a club where you can simply pick up a cheque.

The maintenance of this spirit is going to be an exceedingly difficult thing to maintain, especially after the post-RWC15 global player churn – Wilkinson is likely to stick around the club to provide a guiding hand, and it’s hard to see key men like Steffon Armitage, Fernandez Lobbe, Giteau or Bastaread leaving any time soon. What price the corp of 2007 Springboks nearing the end of the road – Bakkies, Smith and Roussouw – get swapped en masse for a chunk of 2015 BNZ-ers who finally feel that they have earned a French payday. What chance Ruchie, Kieran Read, DC and Ma’a Nonu – players who are about as far from the Beaver-in-Bath dialling-it-in Southern Hemisphere player as can be imagined – rocking up in two years as the next generation of Toulonnais?

Swapsies

Up in Ravers, the winds of change are in the air – Phase One of Project Humph feels like it is coming to a close. In 2010, Ulster signed Johann Muller, Pedrie Wannenbosh and Ruan Pienaar to take a young and unsuccessful team and drag them up by the collar to be competitive in Europe and ultimately scoop up some silverware. BJ Botha was already there, but he was replaced by (the cheaper) John Afoa a year later when he decided he needed some more passion in his life. The coach was the homegrown Brian McLaughlin but the power behind the throne was the local hero Humph, who had seen the Celtic League-winning team of 2006 spectacularly implode after he retired.

The imposition of some Bok beef has done the trick – Ulster are now a bona fide European power, and the careful husbandry of an excellent generation has yielded internationals NWJMB, Wee PJ, Bamm-Bamm and Craig Gilroy; has given new life to the likes of Besty, Chris Henry and Andrew Trimble and has enticed Tommy Bowe and Roger Wilson to re-join the revolution. McLaughlin was replaced by Mark Anscombe, who in turn appears to have the Sword of Damocles (Thornley101) hanging over him as regards the 2015/16 season, when Neil Doak is available at short odds to be promoted.

However, as of next season, only Pienaar of the big-name foreign brigade will remain – something that will definitely come as a surprise to the casual reader of the Indo, who may be under the impression that Ulster are not only wholly reliant on the foreign contingent, but are the only team to have ever played non-Irish players. Wannenbosh joined Castres the year before last, Muller is going to retire to the ostrich farm (or whatever) and, while acknowledging his unhappiness in Belfast, John Afoa is moving a very small bit closer to New Zealand – Gloucester. Pienaar himself turned down megabucks from Toulon to stay, clearly rating the quality of the Bibles in Belfast more like South Africa than the weather on the Riviera.

Ulster, again not to shock our readers, also have Irish players – and some of them are leaving too: Tom Court is taking his blame lightning rod and pitching up in Samoa London Reading to play with London Samoa Irish Oirish; young guns Niall Annett, Chris Farrell and Adam Macklin are departing for new challenges at Worcester, Grenoble and Rotherham respectively; Paddy McAllister is joining Jeremy Davidson at Aurillac to re-kindle his career; and Average Joes Sean Doyle and James McKinney are off as well.

Ulster’s recruitment to replace these departing names, including no less than four props, has been rather underwhelming, to say the least. Indeed, on hearing the names of the players signed, the most likely reaction for even the most knowledgable of rugby fans is to ask ‘who the heck are these guys?’  Some of the glass-half-full merchants are comvinced that losing a disinterested Afoa and the underrated Court are actually positives, the hope being that Ulster can develop younger (and better) options – but that’s patently not the case. The pack at present looks woefully undermanned and short of beef for challenging on two fronts next year – and we are getting increasingly concerned. Here’s a quick run-through by position:

  • Loose-head prop: replacing Tom Court was never going to be easy – just as he was the easiest man for any Irish coach to ditch, the under-appreciation of our favourite unsung hero continues. Ulster are replacing the 32-times capped Irish international with Ruadhri Murphy from the Brumbies, who has yet to get past the “promising” stage.  Murphy has slipped down the pecking order in Canberra and his previously-stated dream of being shunted all around Eden Park as a Wallaby are now on ice as he looks to fight it out with Callum Black for the Ulster 1 jersey. It’s positive to see a young Irish prop with some potential come on board, but he is 26 now and this will be his 4th club in eight seasons, and he has yet to impress a coaching team enough to make him a key player. It all sounds a bit John Andress-ish.  It seems like Black will start initially.
  • Tight-head prop: continuing in the proud tradition laid down by Botha and Afoa will be .. Dave Ryan, Zebre 3rd choice, and Wiehahn Herbst, who has a rather better dedigree, with 37 Sharks caps in 5 seasons. No South African prop is likely to be anything but technically excellent, but it goes without saying that if he was all that, he’d be going nowhere. Potential for sure, but a serious step down on the previous two incumbents. Because, given Deccie Fitz’ latest health news, it looks like incumbency is where Herbst will be at. He is likely to be Ulster’s new project player when Jared Payne has served his time, so he is here for the medium term. The case of Dave Ryan seems simply a matter of bringing an Irish player home – if Ulster are looking for him to play HEC rugby next year, they’re in trouble.
  • Second row/flank: the retiring captain Muller is, on the face of it, being replaced by a somewhat like-for-like player – Franco van der Merwe of the Liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiions Lions. But while Muller had 30 Springbok caps, van der Merwe has one – so it’s a step down, for sure, but it’s a different ask really. Replacing Muller’s first XV contribution will be put on the goals of one Iain Henderson – van der Merwe’s role is to take Henderson’s role as second row first reserve and occasional flanker and make it his own. It’s a pretty decent hire to be fair, for Ulster lack beefy forwards, and this is a pretty good one – he’s basically a bigger version of Robbie Diack
  • Half-back: steeping into James McKinney’s size 10s is the returning iHumph, who flounced out of Ravers after being dropped for the HEC semi-final against Embra (Embra! In the HEC semi-final!! With Michael Bradley as coach!!!) in 2012. Humphreys pitched up in Samoa London Reading for a couple of seasons, and he is a good signing. He’s nearing the twilight of his career, but Ulster need backup for Wee PJ for the international breaks, and Stuart Olding should be allowed to concentrate on centre (more of which anon). Humphreys might defend like a saloon door, but he’s better than McKinney.  Whatever his flaws, there’s some talent there and at Pro12 level he should be a valuable player.

This season, Ulster’s pack has at times looked in need of an injection of depth – the first team is excellent when everyone is there (Court, Best, Afoa, Muller, Tuohy, Fez, Henry, Wilson) but how often does that happen these days?  Fez is always injured and the backups, NWJMB aside, aren’t top class. Diack, Black and Herring have looked game, but Stevenson is a squad man at best, Williams just doesn’t cut it at the highest level, then there is … er … Mike McComish and Neil McComb. The changes they have made don’t change that, and indeed, Sean Doyle has yet to be replaced. The rumour mill is whirring that yet another Shark, this time Keegan Daniel, could be tempted to jump on board, and it’s sorely needed.

The Ulster squad looks pretty unbalanced for next season – light on numbers up front, but stacked behind. Ulster could play a backline of Pienaar, Jackson, Marshall, Cave, Bowe, Trimble and Payne and have the luxury of leaving at least one of Wallace (assuming he’s still knocking around somewhere) , Olding and Gilroy out of the match-day squad altogether. Admittedly, its not Toulon levels of depth, but this is Ireland. The promising youngsters Mike Allen and Ricky Andrew are capable deputies at Pro12 level, but the pack backups struggle to be that sometimes.

One very interesting rumour doing the rounds is Jared Payne to Leinster – Ulster fans have gone all Connacht on this one (“How DARE they steal our players”) but it might be something to consider if a high enough bounty can be extracted. Leinster would look at Payne as an outside centre, as Joe Schmidt is likely to do, given the dishy face of Bob glowering at high balls and the rather gaping hole at 13, post you-know-who retiring.

Payne is currently second choice at Ulster in that shirt, and it’s a position where Ulster have options , unlike in the Oar Dee Esh (or “Tomond” for that matter).   For Payne to take the 13 shirt he needs Gilroy to step into the 15 jersey and shift Cave – neither of which comes close to being warranted on this season’s evidence. We may have mild concerns over Payne’s defensive abilities in that key position, but given the desire of the Irish hierarchy is for him to be an outside centre and the needs of the other provinces, Ulster might not be able to get a higher trade-in for him again – and it might be time to cash in.

If Humph can use those legendary bargaining skills, and get a prop and some depth in the backrow, this might be something worth considering – let’s say Ulster managed to wrangle Jack McGrath and Dom Ryan out of D4, would that be so bad?

There are several factors at work here – a more pro-active Union with the appointment of David Nucifora, a pushy national coach who has political capital to burn, and something we have discussed before – the surfeit of props and backrows in Leinster versus centres in Ulster. Of course, all are contracted, but if everyone wants this to happen, it might just come to pass. If a nuclear-option trade like this is a win-win for both provinces, and a boon to the green shirt, why not?

Plus it would inject some life into the flagging Ulster (and Leinster – see Kirchner, Z.) recruitment process.

Stickability

Another year, another heartbreaking, soul-stirring semi-final defeat for Munster. They’re making a habit of semi-final defeats; 2009 to Leinster, 2011 to Biarritz, 2013 to Clermont and this year to Toulon. The last time they won one was in 2008, narrowly edging out an obdurate pre-Globo Gym-era Saracens team. They haven’t been helped by having to go away from home on every occasion, but it looks like this is their level for now; going deep into the tournament but not quite having what it takes to win it. That’s not an insult, and there are few teams capable of consistently make it to the last two weekends of the competition.

This was a pulsating, riveting semi-final. We said it would diverge from last year’s Clermont game in that Toulon would pull away in the third quarter. We were half-right at best. Toulon certainly threatened a rout in the third quarter, but when Armitage was deemed not to have scored in the corner, Simon Zebo’s superb cover tackle improbably saving the day, something very similar to the Clermont game happened. Toulon seemingly couldn’t believe their supremacy wasn’t better reflected on the scoreboard and they became error-strewn and jittery. When Munster managed not only to hang on by their fingernails, but suddenly respond with a (dubious) try of their own, Toulon were rattled, and suddenly Munster were right in the match. Indeed, they had a kick to take the lead that fell narrowly wide.  Munster’s stickability has to be commended; plenty of teams would have crumpled in that onslaught.  Indeed, Leinster did crumble in very similar circumstances.

There’ll be plenty of what-ifs and reflections on those moments that got away. Munster conspicuously failed to make the most of their extra-man advantage, conceding a ridiculous penalty immediately after scoring one of their own, and Delon Armitage’s booming long-range kick before half-time looked spirit-crushing.  Plenty of Toulon’s points felt cheaply won, and unnecessary.  Some indiscipline in the first half was costly.

The decision to go for the try from the penalty late in the match will also be poured over. It’s easy to be a Hindsight Harry and say it was wrong because they didn’t score a try, but we questioned it at the time. It was a category one error. Surely the right move was to close the gap to two points? The difference between needing a try to win in the final five minutes and needing a drop goal or penalty is vast. It completely changes the complexion of how the defending team approaches things. If they can’t give away a penalty, they won’t dare contest at the ruck, and a steady supply of quick ball can be generated. Teams looking for a try late in matches rarely score them, unless they’re New Zealand, because they have fewer cards to play in attack. Grubber-kicks and chips over the backline are generally taken out of the equation. Play the percentages and take the points!

In truth, Munster can’t have too many complaints about Wayne Barnes, much as they (and Gerry) would love to. They got plenty of breaks.  Sure, the scrum was a lottery but it pretty much balanced out in the end. Lobbe’s carding looked absurdly harsh. He wasn’t behaving recklessly, and sometimes extremities come together; this looked a case of that and no more. As for Zebo’s try, it seemed extraordinary that it was awarded without recourse to the TMO. The touchjudge persuaded Barnes that the try was legitimate, but it seemed from looking at the angles on telly that he didn’t even have a clear view of the only moment where it could have been grounded.

Nonetheless, Munster bow out of the Heineken Cup with great honour and the future looks good. Ian Keatley will never be Ronan O’Gara, but he has blossomed this season. James Coughlan remains a granite-hard rock on which the pack is founded. Robin Copeland arrives next season, but he will need a crowbar to get Coughlan out of the team.  Conor Murray is among the global elite, a piece of absolute class. Simon Zebo is showing he has the workrate to merit a recall to test level. The bedrock is there and it will be up to Axel Foley to keep improving the squad – with centre a flashing red light in spite of the efforts of Oooooooooooooohhh and Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh.

There’s still silverware to be played for in the season, and Munster would do well to try and switch focus quickly. In the past, they’ve tended to shut up shop once they fall out of the Heineken Cup (excepting 2011 where the timing and nature of their exit ensured it couldn’t happen). Last year their season petered out to nothing after Clermont. An away semi-final in Scotstoun is likely and they have a pishun-stirring game against Ulster to come. Turn up to either looking bored and distracted and the sense of a great season with huge improvements in performances will start to dissipate. Rob Penney should make sure minds are as focussed as they can be on the sending him off with some silverware.

Turning briefly to the other semi-final, as much as it sticks in the craw to acknowledge it, Saracens were simply brilliant against Clermont – the penalty try decision looked pretty harsh to say the least, but it was in the first 10 minutes. Saracens turned the screw in a pretty impressive manner, and handing Clermont a 40-burger is mighty admirable – we haven’t been bothered to dig out the statistics yet, but it is surely a HEC knockout stage record and a clumping you’d never expect from Clermont, in spite of their mental frailties.

We’ll still be able to say Saracens are a soulless (tick) bunch of foreign (tick) money-grabbing (tick) easy-to-despise (see Ashton, C.) proto-franchise, but we cannot any longer say they play up-the-jumper bosh-heavy rugger or that they are flat-track bullies who can easily humiliate the likes of Zebre and Connacht but lie down before the big boys. They fully deserve their place in the final, even if regrets are multiplying for Ulster fans after seeing Clermont in the flesh. The likes of Gerry and Ryle Nugent have been taking great delight in equating Saracens and Toulon, but the differences are legion – Toulon have many more supporters and a much deeper club infrastructure and history, are richer, and have much better players; and in style terms, its Saracens who play the better football.

Epic Odyssey

Once again, into the breach – our brave, faithful, honest and passionate warriors once more hitch planes, trains, automobiles, bikes, segways, scooters and all and every mode of transport possible to get to the south of France, where they will walk over molten lava to the ground to pay homage to their heroes, through the misty air stoked by too much pate and too many Kronenburg’s in De Danu the night before.

As much fun as it is to make fun of the Munster stereotype, Munster in Europe is a great story, and the gift that never stops giving. Somehow they always make the HEC about themselves, the selfish bar stewards!

For the second year in succession, it’s Munster who are the lone Irish standard-bearers at this stage of the competition – and again it’s a tough trip to France to play for a place in the final. Munster might have been faced with a feeble Toulouse challenge in the quarters, but it’s easy to get dragged down the their level – just ask Sarries – and Munster did what they needed to do and more, swatting them aside with consumate ease, and running in bucketloads of tries in the process.

We have a huge amount of time for this Munster team – a young pack executing a technically excellent and accurate game with emphasis on set-piece and maul dominance, Europe’s best scrum-half (did you know he played 10 for Garryowen once?) and slippery and creative outside backs who may or may not celebrate too much when they score tries. Great fun to watch and easy to get behind – the cobwebs of the directionless and indisciplined dog days of the McGahan era, with its belly-tickling European knockout performances, have long been swept away.

But while this Munster team had just three representatives on Joe Schmidt’s Championship-winning Ireland team, and are facing a star-studded Toulon operation that slammed a Leinster side festooned with Irish players into the turf and held them down for 80 minutes, don’t think that a hammering is in order. This is the type of occasion Munster live for – just look at last season when they were mighty close to mugging Clermont – and they will be out like dervishes, without any kind of semblence of respect for Toulon’s big names, who will have to go out and win the game.

There is a bit of history there too – the last time the teams played, the dying sting of the Liginds was devoid of any potency and the team played without shape or discipline; they were tonked. But for Saturday that can be ignored – an almost entirely new Munster side (with Earls, Varley, POC and Cawlin possibly the only survivors) will line out, and Jonny Wilkinson and JM Fernandez Lobbe (swoon) may be the only Toulon players who played in that game.  What, no Paul Sackey?

But let’s be honest – Toulon look just too strong for them – a backrow of Fernandez Lobbe, Steffon Armitage and Juan Smith is World XV stuff, and adding Matthieu Bastaread to the breakdown and Wayne Barnes to the middle only ensures a game that will be played on Toulon’s terms, with no prospect of quick ruck ball and moving the point of the attack. Expect Munster to put up a hell of a fight, but it’s tough to see how they can win without Peter O’Mahony and a viable 10-12 axis. The congregation in the parish of St Axel’s have been raving about CJ Stander for a while now, and he had an excellent game against Toulouse, but this is a different level altogether – if he can impact this match as much as he did that, then maybe the hype is justified. And it’s simply impossible to visualise a universe where Ian Keatley and Oooooooooooooooooooooohh James Downey have the game to take on Wilko and Gits.

And we must take this opportunity to once again implore the media not to try and turn this match into a ridiculous galacticos-against-the-parish narrative.  There’s no room for slackers in Toulon’s hiring policy – the so-called galacticos are in fact men of iron who would die with their boots on whoever they were playing for – and the fans and players have a bond no different to that of the Irish provinces in what is a rugby-mad town.

Add in that Toulon’s only loss in their last eight games was in Clermont, and that they have effectively secured a bye in le barrage – they only need to avoid defeat at home to Stade in their last game – and Toulon’s focus will be four-square on defending their HEC trophy (and keeping it forever?). Munster will arrive in Marseille confident and in no mood to lay down, but this Toulon team will eventually overcome them – when you can bring on the likes of Castro and Bryan Habana to face down Stephen Archer and Johne Murphy off the Munster bench, it’s unlikely to end in defeat.  We expect it to be a sort-of-reverse of the Clermont fixture last year.  In that game Clermont stormed out of the traps and threatened to destroy Munster in the first 40 minutes.  But Munster held on by their fingernails and gradually got a grip of the game.  Toulon tenfd to start slower and ratchet up the intensity in increments, so it could be neck-and-neck after 50 to 60 minutes.

Still, Toulon by 8-12 after a mighty first hour.

In the other semi, we fancied Saracens on the basis of home advantage and Clermont’s renowned ability to lose to inferior teams in pressure moments, but we are beginning to waver. On Sunday, Barnesy effortlessly catalogued Sarries ability to lose at home to French teams in recent years, and the memory of their ineptitude in Ravers won’t fade – but for Schalk Brits and Billy Vunipola, they would have lost to a 14-man team missing Rory Best and with Ruan Pienaar flying on one wing. Perhaps Clermont will expose Saracens for what they are – pretenders on the biggest stage. Maybe they need to go off and set up their own tournament or something.