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 4

Teams: Castres, Ulster, Northampton and Glasgow

Mark McCafferty Unfairness Rating: totally legit.  All teams finished in the top six in their leagues.  So we can categorise this group as ‘elite’.

Preview:  Elite indeed.  It doesn’t get any more elite than Castres and Glasgow.  Castres have established themselves as consistent top six material in France and are capable of beating good teams on their home ground, but are content to trot out the reserve team in European away games.  They define French ambivalence to the H-Cup.  Nonetheless, they can be a significant factor in that they could beat one of the big boys, but are unlikely to contest the group themselves.

The same applies to Glasgow, who have had a good start to the season.  They’re third in the Pro12.  They lack the sort of hard-bitten pack to get results on the road but could easily win all their home games.

Ultimately though, this looks like a shoot-out between Northampton and Ulster.  Both teams are bubbling just below the established big boys and both are knocking very hard to make that breakthrough.  Indeed, they’ve both been finalists in the last two years, only to be smashed by the Leinster juggernaut.

Northampton imploded last season in the face of a spirit-sapping last-dash defeat in Thomond Park (we think there was a drop goal or something, but we’re not quite sure). We have concerns over their mental fortitude: a stronger side would have recognised that while they lost the game, they were still well set for qualification.  Similarly, the manner in which they lost control of Leinster in the 2011 final and failed to see out a winning position in last year’s Premiership semi-final against Harlequins suggests a team that doesn’t quite have the mental to be winners.  They’ve plenty of strengths but they’re weak at half-back, where Dickson is an arm-waving, slow scrummie who can expect to hear the phrase ‘Use it!’ a lot and neither Myler nor Ryan Lamb are matchwinners.  And with Ben Foden injured, they lack real attacking threat.

It leaves Ulster well positioned.  This will be a tough season for the Ulstermen, who have to try to deal with the tragic loss of one of their number.  However, they look the sort of tight-knit bunch, with a spine of great leaders that will be exceptionally determined to lay down something great in Nevin’s memory.  They also have the heavyweight pack and dominant set piece – the best defensive lineout in the tournament, perhaps – to go toe to toe with Northampton, and boast an impregnable home fortress where they just won’t lose.  Coming out of on top of the head-to-head with Northampton looks to be the key to qualifying.

Verdict: Ulster to qualify.  The fixtures are set up nicely for them, with Castres first and last.  They should chalk up five points at home and if there’s ever a good time to have to visit one of the French middle tier it’s in the final week of the pool stages when they’re already out and minds are distracted by the Top Quatorze.  With the benefit of last season’s experience, they Ulster can edge out Northampton over two legs and possibly even make a home quarter-final.

Heineken Cup Round 2: The Good, the Bad and the Saints

Good week

Scarlet Fever
We have been banging on about the potential in the young Llanelli side for a while now, and we aren’t the only ones – key Scarlets played important roles in Wales’ RWC success and the potential at Stradey Park Parc Y Scarlets has long been acknowledge. This week, they arrived, filletting last years beaten finalists and wrapping up a 4 try bonus point on the hour. Sure, the Saints were distracted and sloppy and Peter Fitzgibbon was poor, but the Scarlets nullified the Saints scrum and let talent do the rest. Rhys Thomas, Ben Morgan, Rhys Priestland, JJV Davies, George North and Liam Williams were excellent.

Heavyweight Division
Last week, we pointed out how the Heineken Cup seemed to be rather open this year. This week, two of the favourites flexed their muscles – Leinster and Toulouse swatted aside what were expected to be troublesome opponents with ease. Both also had the luxury of making several changes and still looking formidable – they will take some beating this year.

Radge
After last week’s get out of jail stunt from Rog, we confidently predicted it was a stunning once off. And, not for the first time, the man came to his sides rescue in Europe. A nerveless injury time drop goal from the maestro got Munster out of France with a very useful 4 points. In spite of the new blood, the men in red know exactly what needs to be done and when – and they have the perfect executioner. We are at odds as to who is in the driving seat for the pool – but there is no doubt who is the star driver.

Bad Week

Les Autres Francais
Toulouse are HEC bluebloods, and reach the knock out stages pretty much every year – and will do so again this year. In the last two editions, they have been joined by a variety of fellow countrymen – Toulon, Stade, Clermont, Biarritz and Perpignan. This year, they might be a bit lonely in April. Castres and Racing Metro are out of it with two defeats and Montpellier now need to win in the RDS – don’t be surprised to see all three throw in the towel and concentrate on the Top 14 from here. Biarritz and Clermont are in scraps to the death to get through their pools – it doesn’t look like a vintage year for the French.

Northampton Saints
After 80 minutes of this year HEC, the Saints had an away victory nailed and were all set to stay on the radar as one of Europe’s best sides and a team with a bright future ahead of them. 41 phases and 80 minutes later, their European season lies in tatters – torn asunder by Rog and the Scarlets. The nature of some of the Saintly performances – Ryan Lamb (flaky), Dylan Hartley (weak-willed) and Chris Ashton (appalling attitude) and the likely departure of Jim Mallinder to replace Johnno at St Boshington’s creates an air of uncertainty about the future at Franklin’s Gardens. What an astonishing turnaround in 6 days.

No Romance at the Dog Track
It was the biggest night in the history of Connacht, but also one of the toughest.  After a great effort at The Stoop last week, the hope was that they could at least make life uncomfortable for Toulouse, for 50 or 60 minutes anyway.  Instead, they never fired a shot.  Maybe the occasion got the better of them, or perhaps Toulouse were simply too powerful, but Connacht are rarely hammered in their own ground like this.  It should have been a night to celebrate (and in some ways still was), but the old questions about the future of Connacht will be asked all over again this week.

HEC Preview: Pool 1 & Pool 2

Pool 1: Munster, Northampton, Castres, Scarlets

Pedigree: Huge. Munster are Heineken Cup royalty, and the Saints are no slouches either – 3 victories between them and 3 other final appearances. The Scarlets have a few semi-finals to boast of, most recently in 2007 when Ireland’s favourite un-droppable Welshman, Simon Easterby, led them past Munster. Castres have no history of note, but look a team on the rise, domestically at least.

Preview: Two years ago, Munster and Northampton were paired together in a memorable series of pool games and quarter-final. The Saints felt that they had the Liginds’ number after the pool, but they were taught a lesson in European Cup rugby in the quarter-final. And it’s a lesson they paid heed to, making the final last year with a series of gritty wins. Rope-a-dope was unlikely to work against Leinster, so they came out throwing the ball around and very nearly pulled it off. Munster, meanwhile, failed to make the knockout stages for the first time in 10 years in atypically harum-scarum fashion.

It certainly gives the impression the graphs of these two crossed last year, and we would agree. The Saints should win in Franklins Gardens and will be targetting Thomond Park – Munster will do well to tie this head-to-head in match points. Castres are very tough at home, but lay down like lambs away – they won’t care about the HEC, but won’t want to give up a proud home record. Northampton’s pack looks not only higher in quality, but more gnarled than Munster’s, and are better equipped to win in France.  They have a bit more depth this year after some good recruiting (Vasily Artemiev has arrived with a bang) and their St. Boshingtons contingent will be hungry to restore battered reputations.

The Scarlets are the joker here – they will be looking to break games up and give their exciting young backs plenty of quick ball – they could win a couple of games, but won’t be in the shake-up.

It will ultimately come down to who is better at winning away from home, and that’s something Munster failed to do last year in a notably weaker pool than this one – only Toulon was an intimidating place to visit. Forget the Miracle Match – getting through this pool will be the greatest escape of the lot.

Verdict: Northampton to win the pool and advance.  Munster into the AmlinVase

Pool 2: Cardiff, London Irish, Edinburgh, Racing Metro

Pedigree: Not great, but not as bad as you might think – Cardiff were runners-up in the first tournament, and have a few semi-finals as well – most recently in 2009, when Leicester beat them on penalties. Irish, amazingly, were semi-finalists as recently as 2008, when Toulouse sent them packing. Edinburgh and Racing have no achievements to speak of at this level.

Preview: The Group of Dearth – whoever ups their game here will win it. Let’s start with the least likely – Edinburgh. The Scots have regressed badly since their top 4 Magners finish a few years ago, and pretty much the only good thing on the horizon is Tim Visser. They will fancy themselves at home to Irish, and Cardiff and (particularly) Racing if they take their eye off the ball. Away, they will be eviscerated.

Irish are almost as bad – they have replaced the bosh-tastic but reasonably decent Seilala Mapasua with the bosh-tastic and terrible Shontayne Hape. Don’t expect fireworks in Reading – just the way Biiiiiiiiiiiiig Bob likes it. Irish will beat Embra at home, and probably Racing Metro, but achieve nothing else.

So its between Cardiff and Racing Metro. The French side will win all their home games, but won’t be too bothered about wininng away – they should knock off Embra, but might get well beaten in Wales. Cardiff have underachived given the stellar names in their squad in recent years, and they have Sam Warburton, the new Tana Umaga Richie McCaw and a rejuvenated Jamie Roberts. The structure of the RaboCiderPro12 will allow them to target games, and this pool is there for the taking if they get it right.

Verdict: Cardiff will win it, and continue pushing forward the feel-good factor in Welsh rugby. Racing Metro to get the Amlin booby prize

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.

Notes from a Small Country

With one half of Whiff of Cordite manfully running the show from home, the other was on a crucial research trip in Cardiff, Bristol and (ooooooooooohhh!) Bath this weekend. The following memo details our findings:

1. The Millenium Stadium is unmatched in Europe. The palindrome has the best location, Stade de France the most appealing design, Twickenham has front-lawn barbeques en route to the ground, but The Millenium tops the lot. Ear-shreddingly loud, right in the centre of town, and so steep-sided that there is not a bad seat in the house – this was one ground we’ll never forget.
2. Jonny will be the Lions test out half in 2013. How much can be attributed to his half-time speech we can never be sure, but one thing’s for sure: Jonny was wired. He had the look of a man who wasn’t going to accept defeat. It was reminiscent of a certain fly half from Cork…
3. It was the greatest Heineken Cup Final ever. Leicester v Stade and Wasps v Toulouse are generally held up as the classics, but this surely topped the lot. It was one of those exceptional occasions where sport takes on the realm of theatre, with the players’ emotions writ large on their faces. Let it not be forgotten that Northampton played a huge part.
4. The Heineken Cup final is the party of the year. Northampton and Leinster fans travelled en masse, of course, but they weren’t the only colours represented. Whether it was La Marseillaise booming out of an Irish pub, or Les Toulousaines passing people over their heads on the train, this was a party with a very international flavour.
5. It was sweeter than 2009. If most Leinster fans are honest, the semi-final victory over Munster felt more significant than winning the Cup that year. Leinster’s form in that competition was patchy to say the least; but this year, they were the best team in the tournament from the first moment to the last. Even their only defeat, away to Clermont, was a great performance.
6. We heart Bath. Whiff of Cordite has always been bemused by the venorated treatment of Bath Rugby, but having visited yesterday, we are card-carrying fanclub members of this magnificent town, which deserves a team to match it. Amazing Roman ruins, beautiful limestone buildings, natural hot springs and one of the great old Englsih rugby grounds. We can see ourselves quite happy there, in fact: Saturday afternoons at the Rec with Barnesy, stretching out in the Thermae Bath Spa steam rooms with Barnesy, Sunday lunch in the Pump Room with Barnesy…

Post-coital Bliss

Although Whiff of Cordite is physically split between Dublin and (Ooooh) Bath, one day out from THE game, we are of one mind on our musings:

The half-time turnaround is obviously the key – what happened? We think Dylan Hartley’s injury had a huge effect on the Northampton team. We can envisage a half-time dressing room of few words and few stepping forward to plan a close-out of a match all-but-won as Hartley received treatment. This is in contrast to the Leinster dressing room, where BOD himself alluded to the leadership being shown by Jonny Sexton, no doubt in addition to O’Driscoll himself, plus Cullen, Heaslip, Horgan and Reddan, amongst others. The Saints looked unsure of themselves from from the start of the second half.

As soon as Leinster got the first score, you got a sense the tide had turned irrevocably. From the 41st minute on, it was the Saints who were falling off tackles, whose set-piece was crumbling, and with none of the bloody resistance that had done for Ulster. Perhaps the inevitability was felt by the Northampton players as well – they themselves were on the other end of an eerily similar game just 2 weeks ago – how the Leeds players must have felt is an interesting question.

The Leinster selection was wrong. All year, Joe has picked on form, not reputation, and has reaped the benefits, building a much deeper squad throughout the season. Fitzgerald was again poor yesterday, falling off several tackles (notably against Foden in the 67th minute) and not showing much in attack – McFadden should have started. The McLaughlin/Jennings call was more marginal, and form was less of a factor – but with Jennings in place, the back-row looked much better balanced. Also, Locky’s first-half scrummaging was poor – Mike Ross will not have been amused with his detachment. In the second half, the Leinster 8 got the shove on straight away, helped by everyone muscling in.

Whiff Of Cordite had a huge amount of respect for Northampton as a club and a team before this game, and has even more after it. The daring nature of the Northampton gameplan was uber-refreshing, and the team literally gave it all. The post-match actions of the team, led by captain and coach, of staying on the field for as long as Leinster did showed huge respect, and will hopefully give these guys the hunger to scale the peak themselves. The experience of yesterday will stand to this team, and we suspect there will be many more titanic battles between these 2 sides in the near future.

And finally, the referee was excellent. Romain Poite has received a fair degree of heat from the Irish media, but Whiff of Cordite has only praise for his display. The stronger team in the scrum was consistently rewarded with penalties, and his positioning for the Dorce non-try was perfect, as was his reversion upstairs just in case. One very slght caveat – Barnesy made an argument in commentary for a possible penalty try for a bat-down with 3 outside during the advantage being played for Dowson’s yellow, but he went back for the original offence. Maybe WoC’s hero in Tara Street will give him the, eh, credit he is due.

All roads lead to Cardiff

As Palla Ovale is busy collecting 4-leaf clovers, rabbits feet, horseshoes and wishbones for Cardiff tomorrow, I will take it upon myself to educate him a little on the finer points of the big match, though not in the usual Northampton-have-a-good-scrum-and-don’t-kick-to-Nacewa way.

Northampton
Strengths: Yes, the Saints have a good scrum. Yes, their rucking is controlled and brutally effective mayhem. But why? We think it is down to their phenonemal team spirit and togetherness. Let’s be honest, man for man, the Saints aren’t actually that good (even the Ospreys might trump them on that card), but the collective supremely maximises their resources. Previously unheralded players like Dowson, Dickson, Wilson and Downey are all now key cogs in the machine. Their never-say-die attitude is hugely admirable, most obviously in the quarter-final, when Ulster went in at half-time confident they could close out the game with a bit to spare, but were smashed apart in the second half. Dylan Hartley has matured into a real leader with Johnno-esque qualities, and, but for his accent, would be a potential Lions captain in 2013. For sheer bloody-mindedness and determination, few better Northampton.

Weaknesses: This one is a bit more easy. In a powder-puff pool consisting of Castres, Edinburgh and Cardiff, the Saints only scored 16 tries; the same as the Scarlets, who finished 3rd in a pool with Leicester, Perpignan and Treviso; and 1 less than Munster, whose campaign was nothing short of disastrous. In last weeks Premiership semi-final, the Saints never looked likely to score a try. If your close-in defence holds firm and you track the runs of their dangerous back 3, you can be relatively confident of holding them out. If the scrum/ruck penalties do not accumulate for Northampton, how are they going to score enough points to win?

Leinster


Strengths: If you consider the 10 teams dispatched by Leinster and Northampton so far, there is a pretty coherent argument that the best 5 have all been beaten by Leinster. Toulouse, Leicester, Clermont and Racing Metro are most defintely the best 4 sides of the 10, and the next is a toss-up between Sarries, Ulster and Perpignan. Looking at this on a more granular level, Northampton’s toughest game was against Ulster, who Leinster routinely whack and bag without getting out of third gear. Northampton will need to play better than they have to date against a side far better than anyone they have met to date in order to win. Its a seriously tall order.

Weaknesses: Leinster have huge trust in their defensive system, possibly sometimes too much. In the 2 HEC knock-out games to date, both were still in the melting pot after 80 minutes, despite Leinster being the better side in both cases. Ditto against Ulster in the Magners semi-final, Leinster were not out of sight until Fitzy snuck in with a few minutes to go. Some day, they will be soaking up pressure, buckle, and find themselves with too much to do and not enough time to do it.

There is only one person in the world who could convey how excited we are, so lets leave the final word to Barnesy:

“Oooooooooooooooooooooooooooohhhhhh”

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!

Northamptonwatch

Anyone keeping an eye on Leinster’s HEC Final opponents Northampton will have seen a bizarre game in which they at one stage trailed 3-24 against now relegated Leeds, before turning the tie around to win 31-24. What such a strange game says about the side’s qualities is anyone’s guess. But one thing’s for sure: if they give a better side than Leeds a three try start, they will surely struggle.
It leaves Northampton with an imposing game away to Leicester – opponenets who Leinster described as test-level in terms of physicality – next saturday. We’ll follow their approach to this match with interest. Leinster will also benefit from an additional day in terms of turnaround time, as they play on Friday at home to Ulster.
Incidentally, what type of player does a swallow dive in scoring a try when you know it’s relegating your opposition? Charming as always.