Away We Go

The Heineken Cup quarter finals are imminent. It’s always hard to see past the home sides in these games, and traditionally home advantage holds a big sway, but there’s usually one team able to overturn expectations and pull off a win on the road. Last year it was Munster, who were unfancied going to Harlequins but raised their intensity to levels Quins couldn’t deal with. The year before that it was Ulster, who went and sacked the Thomond Park fortress in a remarkable game. Which of the four look the most likely this time?

  1. Toulouse, at Munster. It’s increasingly hard to see Toulouse pulling off a result in this match. Their away form has been dismal all season and there are doubts over Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga and Dusatoir is still injured. With the likes of Medard, Fickou, Huget and Poitrenaud in their backline they should be one of the most exciting teams around, but it never really comes to fruition. If you’re wondering why, the clue might be in their half-backs. Jean-Marc Doussain is a scrum half in the Tomas O’Leary mould – picked for his physicality, he lacks mobility and intuition. Simply put, he’s a poor player for a club of this stature. Luke McAllister is a great footballer, but not a great 10 or a great place-kicker. Ulster showed that you can still win in Thomond Park even if your 10 plays rubbish, but only if your nine makes up for him. Can’t see that happening here, with the caveat that Toulouse’ bruising pack ground down Globo Gym once they were let into the game. If Munster whack and bag them early, tears will flow.
  2. Leicester Tigers, at Clermont. Nobody wins at the Stade Marcel Michelin, and Leicester, for all their undoubted awkward toughness and never-say-die attitude, do not look quite good enough to break what has been an incredible winning streak at home. Clermont are just too good, and their annual choke doesn’t usually get started until later. Leicester came up short in both games against Ulster, despite throwing everything at them and a similar outcome here feels inevitable. Having Tuilagi back in the fold is great news for them, and don’t expect Leicester to give Clermont anything cheap, but even if it’s tight, Clermont will pull through in the end.
  3. Saracens, at Ulster. The new Ravenhill is ready. Are Ulster? They look to have gone the old Munster route, throwing in a careless Pro12 defeat the week before the game, which gives Anscombe plenty of scope to kick them up the rear and get minds focused on the game ahead. Assuming Pienaar is fit, they’ve a pretty full deck to choose from. Even Ferris could feature, presumably as part of a double-whammy with Iain Henderson with 20 minutes to go. But what of Saracens? Never the most likeable of clubs, with the odious chairman Nigel Wray spearheading the European rugby governance coup, they have at least tried to broaden their game this season. They always looked to have the players capable of playing a bit more footie than they did, especially the superbly balanced Alex Goode, and it’s working well for them; they’re top of the Premiership and top try-scorers too, averaging almost three a match. This will be a hard game for Ulster and Saracens have a reasonable chance of pulling out an away win; in truth if the away win comes from anywhere it is most likely to be here. Ulster have shown enough toughness in this competition to deserve the tip, but Saracens are confident and in good form.
  4. Leinster, at Toulon. If timing is everything, Leinster have got this one wrong. Before the Six Nations, Bernard Jackman, the resident expert on all things French rugby, saw no reason why Leinster couldn’t win, citing Toulon’s shoddy morale, poor coaching, infighting and mediocre results as evidence. Roll on a few weeks and Toulon have put together five wins out of six in the Top 14 and the juggernaut appears to be pointing in the right direction. Heck, they’ve even won an away game! In the Top 14! Sacre bleu! As for Leinster, they’re just not playing well enough to be confident of getting what would be a remarkable win. Their greatest wins have been based on the twin pillars of accurate passing and near-feral clear-out; neither have been in much supply this season. Doubts remain over who will play at fly-half and whether the selected player can deliver. We’d have guessed Jimmy Gopperth was favourite, but it looks like O’Connor may feel his best chance is to approach this game as he would a home tie and play at as high a tempo as possible against what is a huge, but not overly mobile Toulon pack. So we’re expecting Jennings, Reddan and Madigan all to be in the starting team. Leinster still look to be dining out on their performance in Northampton this year and something of the same order is required here. Being Leinster, they can’t be ruled out but it’s a tall order. A home win looks the more likely.

Forgive the blandness of the opinion, but four home wins looks the most probable outcome, which would give us a semi-final line-up of Ulster-Clermont and Toulon-Munster. Both have met in recent years, with Ulster likely to look back with fonder memories. Clermont’s flakiness under pressure and poor record in Ireland would lead you to hesitate picking Clermont, but still, a repeat of last years final is a distinct possibility, and any winner other than Toulon would be a mild surprise.  The winner of Toulon-Leinster becomes tournament favourite.

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Heineken Cup Preview: Pool 2

Teams: Leicester Tigers, Ospreys, Toulouse, Treviso

McCafferty Unfairness Factor: Low. Treviso may have finished outside the top 6 of the Pro12, but they are de facto Italian champions, and deserve a place. The other three are either league champions (Ospreys, Toulouse) or runners-up (Leicester).

Preview: The proverbial group of death, containing the best team in Wales, the best team in France, historically the biggest guns in England (and the most successful at this level) and the best team in Italy.

Treviso are the obvious bunnies here, but they are no mugs at home – they spoiled Ospreys’ European season last year and nearly turned over Leicester themselves in the recent past – both will be forewarned, but don’t expect Treviso to lose six games, despite the quality of the opposition.

All three of the other sides are domestic heavyweights, but they will all have their eyes on success in both competitions – you won’t find any Castres types here. Each of them are armed with ferocious packs, and will expect to win their home games. Ospreys have often flattered to deceive at this level, but fear nobody – the binning of the galacticos has barely impacted their effectiveness, and Justin Tipruic is the best openside in the NH at present.

As for Leicester and Toulouse, no-one needs reminding of their pedigree in the competition, but they are both coming off disappointing seasons in Europe. Toulouse scraped into the QFs on the back of Quins’ implosion in the Sportsground, following their own implosion to Gloucesters Road Runners, then limply capitulated to Embra. Leicester endured a fearful beating in Ravers on a classic freezing Belfast night and finished 3rd in a nightmare pool, albeit with wins against Ulster (beaten finalists) and Clermont (beaten semi-finalists) and a team decimated by injury. Both will be hoping for redemption this season.

Verdict: This is a desperately difficult pool to call. Each of the big three will win their home games, and it will come down to who doesn’t slip up in Treviso, and how many bonus points they can glean away from home.

We have a slight leaning towards Leicester by dint of their general toughness, and memories of how disinterested Toulouse looked in their crunch game against Glaws last year – the attritional nature of the Top14 seemed to take more focus than usual for Les Rouges et Noirs. Ospreys are much improved, but are perhaps a year or two away from being able to win a group like this. Either way, expect this one to go down to the last breathless mucky scrum.

Heineken Cup Round Five

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

Good week

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

Welford Road

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

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

Bad Week

Peter Stringer and the Wobbly Kick

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

Biarritz and Leicester – All Pedigree and no Trousers

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

Stuart Barnes Has Something to Say

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

Charity Begins at Home

The most glamorous, long-awaited and exciting rugby tournament in the world is just eight days away.  For the likes of Luke Fitzgerald, David Strettle and Tomas Domingo, however, the next two months will be spent playing in their domestic leagues.  Yes, the Magners League Rabodirect Pro12 kicks off this weekend.  The Premiership also gets up and running, and the gruelling Top 14 has already started.  Here’s a quick preview of what we can expect over the domestic season, and in particular the first few weeks when the big boys are away.
Top 14
The Top 14 is generally best watched at the beginning of the season, when the tracks are relatively firm, and the end, when the high-profile and passionate finale is unmatched by any other club tournament – witness last year’s semi-finals in Marseille.  In the winter months it tends to turn into something of a drop goal competition, as packs are content to scrummmage for 80 minutes, and the likes of Wilkinson, Winiewski and Skrela sit dee in the pocket…

Possible winners: Toulouse and Clermont will always be in or around the playoff spots, and Perpignan and Biarritz will be looking for an improvement on last year’s mediocrity.  But this will surely be the year Toulon‘s riches finally tell.  They were pretty dire to watch last term, but a new coach (still unknown) will arrive to allow Phillips Saint-Andre to take the reins of the national team.  They’ve recruited exceptionally and have no Heineken Cup to distract them.  Already up and running, they beat Biarritz 20-5 in their first game.  Pilous, pilous!

Player to watch: Matthieu Basteraud finds himself at – where else? – Toulon in a bid to reignite his international career.  If he stays fit and focused there should be no stopping him.

Premiership

Ooooooooooooooooohhh!  You can almost hear Barnesy warming up his larynx for the shuddering hits and slow-paced slugfest that is the Premirship.  With the Sky-hype behind it, even the most mundane 6-3 win for Exeter over Sale is a classic.  Ok, so the Premiership isn’t really that awful – surely watching the Dragons v Connacht on a wet Friday night isn’t any better? – and we can’t help but love Barnesy and his customary roar as Oooooooooohhh! Jordan Turner-Hall! puts in yet another collosal hit on Jeremy Staunton.

Possible winners: It’s hard to see beyond Leicester, Northampton and Saracens.  Leicester look in the best nick – with Anthony Allen and Manu Tuilagi they have a genuinely exciting midfield.  They should be hungry after losing their title last year, and will be out for vengeance.

Player to watch: Matthew Tait is still only 25, but feels like he’s been around forever.  Finally, he has arrived at a club where he can fulfil his potential.  Possessed of a natural talent that few English rugby players can match, we would dearly love to see him deliver.

Rabodirect Pro12

Now rebranded, and hopefully, delivering more of a shake-up than last year, when the teams appeared to file into an Irish-Welsh-Scottish-Italian order.   The best hope of upsetting the order look to be the Scarlets, who have spent two years developing a talented and exciting team, which now looks primed to challenge for silverware.  Treviso will be looking to build on last season’s strong home form, and Aironi will be hugely improved.  But whither Scotland?  With Max Evans headed for Castres, Glasgow could be weaker again this year.

Possible winners: Munster have shed much of their deadwood, but could be set for a transitional season, blooding several young players.  It’s hard to see them being as consistent as last year.  Leinster are the most affected by World Cup call-ups, but if they can avoid last year’s terrible start they will be in the shake-up.  Ulster‘s upsurge will continue – their outstanding young backs will be a year older, and Mueller and Pienaar will be around to guide them post-world cup.  Afoa and Jared Payne are outstanding recruits, and if Ferris can stay fit, they could go one or two steps better than last year.

Player to watch:  Rhys Ruddock will captain Leinster in the first few weeks, a massive endorsement of his talent.  A naturally built specimen, he will be expected to provide the ball-carries for Leinster while Sean and Jamie make hay down under.  Both he and Dom Ryan should be challenging for starting shirts for the big games, and even Ireland, this year.

HEC Team of the Season

Everyone else is doing it, so why can’t we? Here’s our Heineken Cup XV of the season.

If Leinster dominate the selections, then it’s probably no surprise. Toulouse lacked a little of their usual pizazz, Perpignan ran out of juice in the semi-final and Munster weren’t their usual selves. Leinster overcame the toughest group with a game to spare, securing a home QF in the process, beat two heavyweights in the knockouts, before winning in memorable style in the final against a hard-nosed Northampton team.

15 Isa Nacewa (Leinster) – The key to Leinster’s counter-attacking game. Not the quickest full back but is a visionary player in how he exploits the space in front of him. Try against Leicester was unforgettable.
Honourable mention: Ben Foden (Northampton).

14 Shane Horgan (Leinster) – No longer in demand at international level, but Shaggy had his best season in years for Leinster. Ability at restarts particularly impressive.
Honourable mention: Morgan Stoddart (Scarlets), Andrew Trimble (Ulster).
Dishonourable mention: Matt “4 tries against Aironi” Banahan (Oooooooooohhh Bath) – what were Planet Rugby thinking?

13 Brian O’Driscoll (Leinster) – Few things left to say about the great one at this stage, but his ability to come up with the goods when his team needs it are unparalleled. Witness match-winning try against Toulouse.
Honourable mention: Manu Tuilagi (Leicester)

12 Clement Poitrenaud (Toulouse) – Dismissed by Matty Williams as a poor selection for Toulouse’s visit to the palindrome (and of course by Lievremont for RWC11), he proved the doubters wrong. Can be flakey, but has magic in his hands and feet.
Honourable mention: Maxime Mermoz (Perpignan), Ooooooooooohhh James Downey (Northampton)

11. Alesana Tuilagi (Leicester) – Oooooooooooooh, that’s a whole lot of Tuilagi. Rescued Leicester when they alsmost lost to Treviso in the opening round, and should have scored when he flattened BOD in Lansdowne Road.
Honourable mention: Vincent Clerc (Toulouse)

10. Jonny Sexton (Leinster) – Haul of five tries and phenomenal kicking percentage was one thing; that performance in the final was another. Looks a player set for the world stage.
Honourable mention: Ian Humphries (Ulster), Jonny Wilkinson (Toulon)

9. Ruan Pienaar (Ulster) – A classy footballer who brought a winning mentality to Ulster. Distinctly un-South African in that he can pass and run as well as boot the ball into the air.
Honourable mention: Lee Dickson (Northampton), Dmitri Yachvili (Biarritz)

1. Soane Tonga’uiha (Northampton) – Raw power helped the Northampton scrum become one of the most feared in the competition. His first half in the final was simply astonishing.
Honourable mention: Perry Freshwater (Perpignan)

2. Richardt Strauss (Leinster) – His throwing and scrummaging were good enough to get in, but his open field play secured the position – how many times was he right on the shoulder of the ball carrier?
Honourable mention: William Servat (Toulouse), Dylan Hartley (Northampton)

3. Mike Ross (Leinster) – Europe’s premier tight-head right now, his intelligence and tactical nous put him a class apart. Hard to believe that he (or Strauss) couldn’t get a game last year.
Honourable mention: Nicolas Mas (Perpignan), Brian Mujati (Northampton)

4. Courtney Lawes (Northampton) – Phenomenally athletic young lock who packs a serious punch. His patrolling of the ruck against Ulster got Northampton out of a sticky patch.
Honourable mention: Leo Cullen (Leinster)

5. Nathan Hines (Leinster) – Absolutely everywhere this seaseon. Line-outs, rucking, carrying ball, and scoring in the final. Knits the Leinster team together.
Honourable mention: Jerome Thion (Toulouse)

6. Sean O’Brien (Leinster) – Man of the match 3 times in the group stages and his barrelling ball carrying ensured Leinster had go-forward ball all-season. The 40 metre run in the final with defenders hanging off him will live long in the memory.
Honourable mention: Tom Wood (Northampton)

7. Thierry Dusautoir (Toulouse) – Classy operator who appears to make a tackle every 2 minutes. Toulouse’s leader, he chipped in with 4 tries.
Honourable mention: Phil Dowson (Northampton)

8. Jamie Heaslip (Leinster) – Gets the nod for his latter performances after a patchy and injury-affected group stage.The stand out player in the knock-out stages.
Honourable mention: Joe van Niekerk (Toulon), Roger Wilson (Northampton)

And finally, a nod to our top 3 players in the Amlin Vase, or whatever its called. He might be regarded by some as an honest journeyman, but the performances of Chris Robshaw in the knock-out stages, especially at Thomond Park, were of the highest quality. We also doff our caps to Nick Evans and Sergio Parisse – class is permanent in both cases.

Keep your eye on: the Premiership play-offs

Here at Whiff of Cordite, we are self-proclaimed (and proud) rugby nerds. And in addition to Red Dwarf and Cheesy Wotsits, nerds love numbers. So let us look at the Premiership play-offs by numbers:

Leicester vs Northampton

The last 3 regular season games between the sides at Welford Road have had remarkably similar scorelines:
2010-11 Leicester 27-16 Northampton
2009-10 Leicester 29-15 Northampton
2008-09 Leicester 29-19 Northampton

The Tigers home record this season is daunting, with 9 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat. The visitors have a respectable away record, winning 6 and losing 5 of their 11 games on the road.

Leicester have made the play-offs every year for the last 5 years … and won every time, with 4 of those victories coming at home. The Saints have been here once before, losing last year to Saracens (at home).

Saracens vs Gloucester

Saracens have won the last 2 regular season games at home against Gloucester (including a win just 3 weeks ago), but Gloucester have recent experience of a victorious trip to Watford:
2010-11 Saracens 35-12 Gloucester
2009-10 Saracens 19-16 Gloucester
2008-09 Saracens 21-25 Gloucester

Saracens have the best home record in the league this year, winning 10 matches and losing just 1. Gloucester, on the other hand, have the poorest away record of any of the semi-finalists, winning just 3 games on the road this season.

Both sides have won 1 and lost 1 of their 2 play-off semi-final appearances in last 5 seasons. Gloucester’s victory came against Saracens at Kingsholm in 2007 on a scoreline of …. 50-9!