Lobster Pot

Rugby is a 23-man game now, “they” say. And “they” are rarely wrong, and certainly not in this case, though it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. As recently as the 2007 RWC final, South Africa made just one permanent change, and that after 72 minutes (we aren’t counting Bismarck’s brief appearance as a blood sub for John Smit). Such a situation is unthinkable today, where coaches pick an eight man bench with a substitution policy in mind.

Even players are conditioned in such a way – one of major reasons for the Leicester Tigers relative lack of success this year is the inability of Dan Cole to burn himself out for 60 minutes then let Castro take over. For example:

  • In this years HEC, in the 4 games against Ulster and Montpellier, Dan Cole played 314 minutes and Fraser Balmain (!) 6 – Leicester lost twice, won in the last minute once, and needed a last minute Ryan Lamb drop goal to seal victory in the other game
  • In the 2012-13 HEC, in the 4 games against Toulouse and the Hairsprays, Cole played 235 minutes (58, 54, 60, 63) with Castro coming off the bench and totting up 85 minutes in total. Leicester won twice, drew once and topped the pool

The loss of Castro to France is a major driver in the lower effectiveness of the Tiger pack this year. And speaking of France, French props would self-destruct were they asked to do a full 80 these days.

Pack changes are now typically made with impact in mind, not what a withdrawn player has done, but what their replacement can do – fresh beef and grunt off the bench is the order of the day. Frequently big performers are asked to do what Cole was – give it all for 50-60 minutes – that’s their role in the 23. In the backline, a bit more thought is required – bench backs are not always there to provide relief, but to give options in case of injury or a change in gameplan – a classic example here would be Ulster’s use of Paul Marshall last season, where Pienaar stepped into the ten channel and provided a more structured game, while Wee PJ had a breather.

It’s a form of the classic cliche forwards win matches, backs decide by how much (aside: the American football equivalent of offence wins matches, defence wins championships was proven in brutal fashion late Sunday night) – your forward replacements roles are to continue whatever the starter was doing, but the backs have a more cerebral role. That’s simplified of course, but the principle stands.

One critical error that must be avoided when changing backs on the fly is losing momentum. Last year in Fortress Aviva, Ireland were 13-6 up on France after the hour and Conor Murray was bossing the game – the entrance of Eoin Reddan saw Ireland lose all momentum, and almost the game.

And there was another classic example in Le Bosh on Saturday night – England had started abysmally with Jack “Pat McGibbon” Nowell to the fore and quickly went 16-3 down. In 20 minutes either side of half-time oranges, they scored 18 points and for all intents and purposes had the game won – the first score was created by a cheeky tap penalty (scrum-halves always tap penalties cheekily, don’t they? They assuredly do) by Danny Care, and the last was a cheeky Naas Botha-esque zero-backlift drop goal by the same player.

England essentially had the game won, but fell victim to substitution by numbers – Care was hauled ashore for Lee Dickson. Dickson’s selection above Ben Youngs in the first place was perplexing, and his play took all the wind out of England’s sails – they went from snappy incisive ruck ball that made Owen Farrell look like Carlos Spencer on the gain line to hand-waving, flapping and rumbles. An English acquaintence described Dickson as a “lobster in a bucket” – waving his bound claws ineffectively while predictably moving in a small arc.

The change corresponded with the removal of the laughably ineffective Jean-Marc Doussain (didn’t it seem like Nyanga played scrum-half more than Doussain?) for Teen Wolf Maxime Machenaud – with England dawdling and France actually having someone who passed the ball from the base of the ruck, the dynamic of the game completely changed. France suddenly looked dangerous and the game seemed alive – it wasn’t guaranteed that France would win, but England sacrificed the initative voluntarily, and it might end up costing them the championship.

PS wouldn’t it be great if Machenaud wore Joe Namath’s fur coat – if you’re going to have hair like that, work it Maxime, work it

Say Hello to 2015

England’s game against Australia will make for intriguing viewing this weekend, not least because of the age profile of the side England have selected.  The team has an average age of sub-25 and there’s no one in the entire matchday panel older than 28.  The average number of caps is 14.  Neutrals should probably hope for an Australia win, because if this England team wins the hype will be unbearable.  World Cup Glory beckons!  Bring on the Kiwis!  SWING LOW!

Having said that, if this England team does beat an admittedly patchy Australia side, they can afford a little cautious optimism.  This is a side built with 2015 in mind.  For anyone who hasn’t seen it, it looks like this:

M Brown (Harlequins); C Ashton (Saracens), J Tomkins (Saracens), B Twelvetrees (Gloucester), M Yarde (London Irish); O Farrell (Saracens), L Dickson (Northampton), M Vunipola (Saracens), T Youngs (Leicester), D Cole (Leicester), J Launchbury (Wasps), C Lawes (Northampton), T Wood (Northampton), C Robshaw (Harlequins, capt), B Vunipola (Saracens).

Excitement abounds around the two Vunipolas.  As George Hamilton might say, the Vunipola brothers are not related.  Billy is a livewire carrier, possibly the No.8 England have been looking for since Nick Easter, er, got ignored for some reason.  And in the scrummaging merry-go-round it appears that Mako has benefitted from the new laws.  A liability at set piece in the Lions tour, if indeed he can show this to no longer be the case in the New Scrummaging World, then he can have a long test career.  Or up until the scrum engagement changes again, at least.

They’ll miss the unflappable Geoff Parling at lineout time for sure, but the second row combination of Launchbury and Lawes is bound to generate excitement.  There will be no quicker, more athletic second row in the November series, but are they men of substance?  Lawes is a product of massive overhype, but has spoken of maturing and no longer looking to make rugbydump hits, but play for the team. The jury’s still out.

On the flanks, we’d still prefer to see a little more specialisation.  Robshaw and Wood are grafters.  Both will make some yards, slow down some ball, make some tackles.  Wood will take a few lineouts.  Fine men and good players they undoubtedly are, but neither is outstanding at any one facet of the game.  He may have his detractors, but Tom Croft will be missed.  He gives England an explosive running threat out wide and coupling his absence with that of Manu Tuilagi, there’s a massive line-breaking threat removed from the side.

In the back division, England have been scratching around for years for a top class 12 (since Greenwood retired, arguably) – Stontayne Hapless never really ticked the boxes.  Billy Twelvetrees is big and strong, but also a smart footballer and a good offloader.  He could be that man.  Joel Tomkins plays outside him, and Marland Yarde is the latest speedster off the rank to be given a go on the wing.  A new one seems to explode on the scene every year before their form goes into a tailspin and disappear from view.  Will he be the new Tom Varndell/Paul Sackey/Ugo Monye/David Strettle/Topsy Ojo/Christian Wade?

With all the youthful verve on display, the key question might be: are Lee Dickson and Owen Farrell the men to put them into space?  Dickson is keeping Fotuali’i on the bench at Northampton, which counts for a huge amount, but we have never been especially impressed by him.  He tends to do a lot of flapping around the base, and can be seen waving his arms for eons before passing the ball.  Better than Ben Youngs?  Really?  Owen Farrell is a hardy competitor, but the feeling remains that until Freddie Burns makes an unarguable case for selection, England still lack a real playmaker for the role.

Anyway, the future starts here.  Possibly.  Maybe.  England have prematurely celebrated any number of false dawns since 2003.  Remember when they won in Paris with a very youthful Toby Flood and – brace yourself – Shane Geraghty cutting the French to ribbons?  The press corps got very excited. It didn’t last.

England – Revolution or Evolution? Part 1

It’s a huge week for England – Stuart Lancaster will be announcing his 32-man Six Nations squad, and we all will hope that the farce of RWC11 will be put firmly behind them.

Of the XV that started against France in the quarter-final, no fewer than seven (Thommo – retired, Deacon – injured, Moody – retired, Wilko – retired, Tuilagi – injured, Easter and Cueto (already told they’re cut)) and two of the subs (Shawsie – retired, Haskell Inc – expanding the brand in Japan) definitively won’t be donning the red rose in Murrayfield in three and a bit weeks. Tindall has gone too, and the new broom is likely to sweep away a few others.

Lancaster’s binning of Danny Care for his idiotic (and dangerous) behaviour sent a powerful message – no longer will Johnno’s cloak of loayalty be thrown around the players – they will need to prove they are good enough men as well as good enough players for England.

We can expect some changes in addition to the above – Lancaster has intimated that dull and conservative gameplans are to be left to Deccie – word is a boshing 12 is off the table for example. But how far is the boat going to be pushed out here? Are England going to do a Lieveremont 08 and pick a Francois Trinh-Duc to groom him for RWC15? Or is it going to be more gradual? It would be all well and good flooding the squad with new names, but the style of play has got to change as well as the personnel.  Let’s look at the question in 3 key areas, as we ask: will Lancaster be a Roundhead or a Cavalier, a Robespierre or a Louis XVI…

Backrow:

Since Neil Back retired, England have struggled to find a good backrow balance. When Moody isn’t fit (often), they tended to shoehorn a blindside into the 7 shirt – Worsley or Haskell for example. England have had a surfeit of uninspiring blindsides in recent years (the two mentioned above, or Tom Croft) and the lack of a real fetcher has tended to make the ball to the backs even more stodgy.

Roundheads: Here is a chance for Lancaster to have an impact. Select Andy Saull, a proper openside who looks like he may fit in with a slicker gameplan. Ben Morgan is a Lion in the making – all the assumptions were he was waiting for Welsh qualification, but he has done a Barnesy and gone back to the country of his birth. With Tom Wood at 6 and Chris Robshaw on the bench, England would look more dynamic.

Cavaliers: Continuing with the status quo would see Crofty back at 6 and an awkward blindside fit at 7 (Wood or Robshaw). Thomas the Tank Engine would eschew space for contact from number 8, and, without an openside, the backs can forget it.

Fly-half:

For the last 2 years, it has been the Barnesy/Rob Andrew debate again – the flair and flat alignment of Floody versus the defensive rock, but attacking pebble, that is Wilko. Johnno never looked likely to pick anyone but Wilko when squeaky-bum time arrived, and the first post-6N mistake by Floody meant he was out. Flood is now injured and Wilko gone.

Robespierre: Danny Cipriani is called back from Australia with a clean slate and given a chance to show everyone what we have been missing for the last three years. Charlie comes back as an elder statesman and an avowed attacker. George Ford gets to train with the squad.

Louis XVI: Cipriani is ignored, and Owen Farrell is brought in as a 10 – he has decent hands, but a howitzer of a boot which it would be tempting to use at first five – it’s more expansive than Wilko but not much.

Centres:

If anything typified the malaise of England under Johnno, it was the depressing sight of Shontayne Hapless and Matt Banahan as a centre partnership – not a subtle pass between them, and lots of contact. Hape was well out of his depth (even Scotland or Italy would not have picked him) and Banahan is not an international centre – it’s one thing to bosh your way to four tries against Aironi, quite another to do so against BOD, Rougerie or Roberts. Tindall was a rather uninspiring constant in the equation.

Union: Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Trinder and JJ Joseph come into the squad. Farrell plays at 13, outside an expansive 10, where he has more space to work with.

Confederacy: Brad Barritt and Jordan Turner-Hall are new faces, but they are the slightly richer man’s James Downey – not men Ben Foden would relish playing outside. Banahan keeps his place, and the emphasis on bosh continues.

We’ll be back tomorrow to review Lancaster’s squad and deliver our verdict.

Stuart Barnes – a salute!

Early Christmas Day, Egg Chaser looked at the pile of presents under his tree. Pondering which one to open first (he has many siblings, and thus was confronted the agony of choice), he picked a vaguely book-looking gift, and opened it.

What was it but the best present in history? – a signed (signed!) copy of Barnesy’s 1994 autobiography, Smelling of Roses. You’re right – it doesn’t get much better. So we spent the next 3 days ignoring the family and reading it. Brilliant

So what did we learn? Well, some things we knew already, like:

  • Barnesy can express his opinions and is well-spoken
  • He loves Bath
  • He is a fat chap, who can devour red wine
  • He is bitter about his largely unfulfilled international career
  • He loves big hits from Samoans. No wait, this was the amateur era – English club teams didn’t hire boshing Rent-A-Samoans yet. Scratch that bit 

So far, so sports-biography predictable. But what was new? What pearls of wisdom were spoken by our favourite rugger pundit that illuminated the festive season?

Firstly, his rugby education is Welsh, which certainly puts a new perspective on his rugby outlook. Barnesy was (and is) a huge Arsenal fan from Essex who loves soccer. He did not even know what a rugby ball was until Clan Barnes moved to Wales when he was 12 or so. His school (the same Alma Mater as deranged mouth-frothing hack Stephen Jones) in Newport made him play, and he was captain in his first year. He played for Welsh Schools, and narrowly missed out on a place on the Welsh bench for a 5 Nations game in his last season in Wales before moving to Oxford University, where he declared himself English.

What else? He doesn’t hold back. The very first page of the book contains a glued-in page with a lengthly apology for any perceived insult to Brian Moore in the book. And it continues in a simliar vein. Geoff Cooke was unimaginative and controlled Bum-chin Carling and Moore, reining in their on-pitch rebellious tendencies and making them automatons. Cooke’s fly half, Rob Andrew, reacted to the threat from Barnesy by standing 10 yards behind the scrum and kicking the corners – safety-first no-mistake rugby – to ensure he wouldn’t make an error and be dropped. Andrew (and Cooke)’s view that a 10 is a cog in the machine and not the driver of the machine itself is heavily criticized.  The sainted Ian McGeechan (now, of course, Bath coach) – disinterested in the peripheral Lions and unable to react to what was in front of him on the 1993 Tour. Moore and the Players Committee in the few years before professionalism (which Barnesy considered inevitable) – naive and shambolic. It’s amazing stuff.

In our opinion, the most interesting thing was his consistent argument against Groupthink in English rugby, perpetrated by the (then-and-now) powerful English rugby media. Recently, Barnesy has talked about how ex-playing pundits are largely drawn from one club (Leicester, presumably) and that clubs’ ethos/gameplan is largely uncriticized and thus considered a zenith. No room for alternatives are discussed or acknowledged if success is the goal. In the book, he continually refers to the idea that because England didn’t win a Grand Slam in 1990 playing ambitious rugby, and did in 1991 and 1992 playing 10-man stuff, 10-man was the only way to play. The idea that there was a potentially better and more successful way was not on the agenda. The sight of England bottling the 1991 RWC final is a particular bugbear for Barnesy.

Now, admittedly, back in 1994, this was pretty self-serving. If England did want to expand their game, they were hardly going to ignore the best 10 in the country at running a backline to do so. But the point stands and is just as relevant today. England won the RWC in 2003 with a team that had already peaked that summer and was so fearful of losing they boot-and-bullocked it .. crucially, they had the personnel to do so successfully. In both subsequent RWC tournaments, when the pressure was on, all ambition was ditched and they reverted to the 2003 type, despite having nothing like the capability to execute the gameplan. They fluked their way to a final in 2007, but the chickens came home to roost this year.

Even thinking about England’s approach between tournaments, consider a list of attacking players who have all played for England in the last 10 years and been ditched sharpish after 1 or 2 mistakes: Olly Barkley (23 caps in 10 years), Charlie Hodgson (36 caps in 10 years), Danny Cipriani (7 caps, rushed back and then humiliated by Johnno), Olly Morgan (2 caps), Dave Strettle (7), Shane Geraghty (6). Now, they aren’t all the answer to England’s problems (here’s looking at you Charlie), but there is no doubt all of them would have more caps, and more encouragement, had they been Welsh, Irish or French. Contrast to, say, Shontayne Hape (13 caps in 18 months and not one notable memory), Mark Cueto (55 caps in 7 years, consistently not at international level, but so many recalls we have lost count), Matt Banahan (16 caps in 2 years – more than Cipriani and Strettle combined).

What would Barnesy say? It’s easy to guess, and one doubts Danny Cipriani would be in Melbourne if the Barnesy’s of this world had their way.  Barnesy, as ever, we salute thee!

Ooooooooooooooooooohhh

We saw this scoreline from the weekend and felt we had to say something.  It doesn’t get much more Ooooohh than this…

Anyone wondering why the Wasps team has fallen so far from grace can find the answer simply by looking at these two teamsheets:

Wasps team vs Worcester (0-6) 1/1/2012 (Premiership):

Haughton; Varndell, Waldouck, Flutey, Wade; Robinson, Simpson; Payne, Webber, Broster; Birkett, Wentzel (c); Du Plessis, Poff, Jones.

Wasps team vs Leicester Tigers (25-9) 19/5/2007 (Heineken Cup final):

Cipriani; Sackey, Waters, Lewsey, Voyce; King, Reddan; French, Ibanez, Vickery, Shaw, Palmer, Worsley, Rees, Dallaglio (c).

Not one survivor, and you’ll be forgiven for not being overly familiar with the likes of Broster, Birkett and Poff!

Mystic Egg (Chasing)

Predicting the winner of the HEC from the off is folly, given the importance of home advantage in the knock-out stages. For example, Northampton rode a powder puff 6-0 pool last year to advance all the way to the final via home games with Ulster and Perpignan.

At least the Saints earned a home quarter – the semis are literally a lottery. Of the last 4 semi-finals, arguably all would have gone the other way if played in the oppositions “home” venue. So, even at this stage, it’s something of a fools errand, but sure, let’s crank up the crystal ball anyway.

Pool 1

What to say? Munster are the only team left that are 4 from 4, but they have been pretty poor by their own standards. It’s arguable that without Paulie and Rog (and better kicking coaches at opposition teams), they could be 0 from 4. They just know how to get over the line. We think they will beat a disinterested Castres and probably secure a bonus point, but lose in Franklins Gardens. Saints may be out, but they’ll be up for that game.  Scarlets should win twice, but with no extras. We think it’s:
Munster 22
Scarlets 19

Pool 2

The Group of Dearth at the start, but it’s shaping up to be a very interesting finish, thanks to the rejuvenation of Scottish “club” rugby (more of which anon). Tim Visser has Embra have done well to get three wins, but one of those was in rather farcical circumstances. It’s one thing to beat Racing 95-94 at home, but winning away? Nah. We fancy Cardiff to go to Fortress Reading and come away with a win, and then hockey Racing in the last game.
Cardiff 22
Embra 17

Pool 3

Its been all Leinster so far. As expected, a tough opener, but afterwards they have had it more or less their own way, opening a serious can of whoooooooooooooooooooohhhp-ass on Bath at the weekend. Glasgae have been nothing if not brave, helped in their second-chasing endeavours by Montpellier giving up. Leinster should get 9 more points roysh, and a home win and a losing bp in Beautiful Bath will get Glasgae second place, but no cigar.
Leinster 25
Glasgae 15

Pool 4

Tighter than the proverbial Kiwi duck’s butt – and as expected, it’s going to come down to bonus points. On that score, Clermont are in control – Leicester “lost” one away to Aironi and in Clermont, and Ulster lost one in Leicester. Ulster will come away empty handed from the Michelin, and will probably get their hoops handed to them as well. If they beat Leicester by more than 7 at home, second is theirs, but even if Marshall and Pienaar are the halves, Leicester are dogs and know how to tough it out.
Clermont 21
Leicester 18 (ahead of Ulster on head to head)
Ulster 18

Pool 5

Sarries have done some very hard work with a tough win in Osprey-land, but with Biarritz having picked up 4 bonus points so far, they still need to beat them and possibly Treviso away to ensure passage. They will do both, very narrowly, and progress. Biarritz will get 6 more points.
Saracens 23
Biarritz 18

Pool 6

Quins threw the tournament wide open (and forced Gerry to praise English rugby, albeit between gritted teeth) by winning in the toughest club venue in Europe (except the Aviva? Discuss). Still, Toulouse are in the saddle here, they should swat Connacht aside and although not a fait accomplis, they should win in Gloucester to go through as winners. Quins will beat Gloucester, possibly with a bonus point, and should win in Galway without one.
Toulouse 22
Harlequins 21

So, we have the eight quarter-finalists ranked as follows, bearing in mind it will come down to tries scored to seperate ties:


Leinster 25
Saracens 23
Toulouse 22
Munster 22
Cardiff 22
Clermont 21
Harlequins 21
Scarlets 19

Munster are currently two tries ahead of Cardiff – if they get the bonus point against Castres, they should maintain that advantage, but not overtake Toulouse. Amazingly, if the Scarlets slip up, Biarritz are in pole position to take advantage – the nous to scoop up bonus points while playing badly is worth its weight in gold in Europe (Asterisk Miracle Match).

The quarters will then be:
Leinster-Scarlets
Saracens-Harlequins
Toulouse-Clermont
Munster-Cardiff

Four home wins I hear you say? Even predicting this far ahead once the quarter-finalists are decided is fraught with peril – there’s a whole Six Nations in between so things can look very different when the Heiny resumes.  You’d still fancy Leinster to take Scarlets and Munster would most likely have the Mental to grind down Cardiff and should win. Toulouse-Clermont – mouth-watering, Toulouse to edge it. Sarries-Quins will depend on how the sides are motoring at the time in the Premiership … and where their prioirities lie.

Note, our eight quarter-finalists at the beginning were Northampton, Cardiff, Leinster, Clermont, Biarritz, Toulouse, Leicester, Saracens – so if we’re right this time, last time we’ll have called five from eight. Meh.  But, y’know, we’ll probably be wrong again.

Everyone Thinks They Have the Most Beautiful Wife at Home

After last week’s HEC action, everyone is banging on about how the AAABankPro’s contingent did themselves proud – and 9 wins from 12 is not to be sniffed at, especially when some Sky-hyped Premiership sides were downed in the process. Even our favourite corpulent ego-merchant has been giving his tuppence, making the not entirely ridiculous point that if the top 4 in England, France and Celt-land played each other, it would mostly be even between all 3 leagues.

Of course, the uncomfortable point for Barnesy and Miles among all this is that when Edinburgh (8th last season) beat London Samoan Irish (6th last season), its is the equivalent of Exeter beating Cardiff – something we can’t see happening too regularly.

Anyway, less Premiership-bashing, its not that bad to be fair, and is a sight better than Dragons-Connacht on a mucky Friday night. Let us do what nerds do and present a scientific analysis of which league is stronger. What we are going to do is take the top 6 in each league and look at their performances against one another in the following season’s HEC, for the last 3 European Cups. This controls for standard on the pitch – no-one cares about how much Sarries can stuff Treviso, if they can’t beat Munster (their equivalent this year as domestic champions in 2011).

We should acknowledge that the group stages are the most representative as teams play home and away. We will take knock-out stages into consideration as well, but they are less easy to extrapolate from, as one-off occasions.

So, our sample contains:

2009 HEC:
Celtic League: Leinster, Cardiff, Munster, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Scarlets
Premiership: Gloucester, Wasps, Ooooooooooooooohh Bath, Leicester, Sale Sharks, Harlequins
Top 14: Clermont, Toulouse, Stade Francais, Perpignan, Castres, Biarritz

2010 HEC:
Celtic League: Munster, Leinster, Edinburgh, Ospreys, Scarlets, Cardiff
Premiership: Leicester, Harlequins, London Irish, Ooooooooooooooohh Bath, Sale Sharks, Gloucester
Top 14: Perpignan, Toulouse, Clermont, Stade Francais, Biarritz, Brive

2011 HEC:
Celtic League: Leinster, Ospreys, Glasgow, Munster, Cardiff, Edinburgh
Premiership: Leicester, Northampton, Wasps, Ooooooooooooooohh Bath, London Irish, Saracens
Top 14: Perpignan, Toulon, Clermont, Toulouse, Castres, Racing Metro

2009:

Group Stages:


P

W

D

L

BP

Tot

Premiership

24

14

1

9

9

67

Celtic League

24

13

0

11

13

65

Top 14

24

8

1

15

7

41

Knock-out Stages:
Cardiff (CL) 9-6 Toulouse (T14)
Harleqiuns (AP) 5-6 Leinster (CL)
Cardiff (CL) 26-26 Leicester (AP)
Leinster (CL) 19-16 Leicester (AP)

Verdict: The Premiership shaded the regular season, but the Celts hit back with 2 wins and a draw against English opponents in the knock-out stages, both in neutral and English grounds. We think this makes up the 2 point differential so the Celtic League wins. Top 14 nowhere.

2010:

Group Stages:


P

W

D

L

BP

Tot

Celtic League

24

16

2

6

7

75

Top 14

24

11

0

13

11

55

Premiership

24

7

2

15

10

42

Knock-out Stages:
Leinster (CL) 29-28 Clermont (T14)
Biarritz (T14) 29-28 Ospreys (CL)
Toulouse (T14) 26-16 Leinster (CL)
Biarritz (T14) 18-7 Munster (CL)

Verdict: Although the Top 14 was soundly beaten in the regular season (not helped by Brive going 0-6), they won 3 of their 4 games at the business end (and the one they lost was one that got away). The best teams in the tournament were undoubtedly from France. Still, this is about the season as a whole and the Top 14 had 20 points less in the groups stages – so the Celtic League wins this one as well. The Premiership were laggards.

2011:

Group Stages:


P

W

D

L

BP

Tot

Top 14

26

14

1

11

8

66

Celtic League

26

12

0

14

12

60

Premiership

24

11

1

12

7

53

Knock-out Stages:

Leinster (CL) 17-10 Leicester (AP)
Leinster (CL) 32-23 Toulouse (T14)
Northampton (AP) 23-7 Perpignan (T14)
Leinster (CL) 33-22 Northampton (AP)

Verdict: The Celtic League was just behind the Top 14 on regular season (note the Celtic and French teams played extra games against one another due to vagaries of the draw). In terms of points per game, the Premiership (2.2) still lagged the Celts (2.3). In the knock-out stages, Leinster won the one game between the 2 leagues, albeit it home.. We still have to award this one to the Top 14. The Premiership once again is lagging behind, but not as much as in a grim 2010.

What do we think then? Undoubtedly, the League formerly known as Magners is the most consistent. The Top 14 seems to swing from the sublime to the ridiculous, and we should note that the occasional French team is not too bothered, so the overall standard is maybe higher than it looks. As for the Premiership – work to do. The best teams are as good as anyone, but the quality tapers off pretty quickly – teams like Bath and London Irish have a propensity to lose at home, something the French, Welsh and Irish do not make a habit of.

Of what use it this analysis? Well, when we meet Barnesy on our WoC away trip to Bath in December, we can blitz him with numbers. Then ask him about Matt Banahan. Altogether now: Oooooooooooooooohhh!!!

Oooooooooooooooooohhh Barnesy’s Excited, and so are we!

It’s the first weekend of the Heineken Cup, folks, and that can only mean one thing: Barnesy’s back.  Unless you watch the English Premiership every week (confession time: we find it too dull) it’s only on Heineken Cup weekends that we get a full dose of Stuart ‘Oooooooooooooooohhh!’ Barnes.  Whether extolling Bath’s super-slick running game or conspiring to add to Munster’s disciplinary woes (right, Gerry?), or talking up his latest overhyped bright young thing, we love a bit of Barnesy.  But nothing beats that ‘Oooooooooooooooohhhh!!’ as a shuddering no-arms smash from some Island loose cannon upends a 75kg scrum half.

Here’s some of what we’re looking forward to this weekend:

It’s Barnesy time!