Time to Front Up

With all the Heineken Cup wrangling so prominent, it feels almost as if the tournament itself will be a mere background event this year.  How’s about Ulster vs. Leicester on Friday night at Ravenhill to kick off proceedings?  Sounds great, but first tell us about the latest cloak-and-dagger statement to come out from Ligue National de Rugby.

While the Celtalian provinces/regions/franchises don’t come to the negotiating table speciafically, being represented by their umbrella unions, they can do themselves a service by showing strongly and putting out a message to the English sides that they are worthy of being here, regardless of what rule changes may exclude them in the future.

Leinster, Munster and Ulster we know will be competitive – they always are.  It’s time for a handful of Pro12 teams outside the Irish Big Three to show that Anglo-French perceptions of the Pro12 as a sort of joke tournament are wide of the mark.

First on that list has to be Glasgow, increasingly impressive in the Pro12 but seemingly unable to translate their form into wins against the more physically imposing sides in Europe.  Last season they won just one pool game in a group with Ulster, Northampton and Castres, but finished third in the Pro12 and were deeply unfortunate not to beat Leinster in the semi-final.  Spearheaded by the magnificent Josh Strauss at 8 and with great attacking players like Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland in the backline, it’s high time they brought their A-game to the next level.  A lot appears to hinge on which Ruaraidh Jackson shows up for them; more often than not it’s the patchy, flaky, indecisive one.  With Exeter, Cardiff and Toulon in their pool, winning it outright looks difficult, but they should be targeting second place.

Another who can impose themselves in their pool are the fast-improving Treviso.  The premier Italian franchise remain formidable at home, and racked up wins in the second half of last season’s league to finish a creditable 7th.  Their season has been slow to start, but in beating Munster on Friday night they are up and running.  They have signed Matt Berquist to play 10, and it could be a shrewd bit of business, as they have been crying out for a controlling fly-half.  They’re in a pickle of a pool, with Ulster, Leicester and Montpellier, but two home wins is a realistic target.  French sides can take a lackadaisical attitude to such games and are ripe for taking by surprise, and only last season, Leicester only beat Treviso through a somewhat dubious penalty try minutes from the end.  Ulster have yet to hit their stride, and are eminently beatable if they have an off-day.

Ireland’s ‘fourth province’ Connacht have been a soft target for the likes of Stephen Jones, who has said they are not ‘elite’ whatever that means, but they have given a great account of themselves in the big league so far and are back again this year (thanks again to Leinster).  Their group contains Saracens and Toulouse, as well as Zebre.  Toulouse have been to the Sportsground before, and won comfortably, but they are ageing and dull these days.  Connacht will be targeting that game in a big way, and a win would put out a huge signal of the Pro12’s strength.

Finally, what about the Welsh?  As usual, the Ospreys are their best hope.  For all the brickbats they receive, they usually make a big contribution to the tournament. Last year their 15-15 draw with Leicester was the best match of the season, but they have a habit of coming out on the losing side of thrilling games.  They join Leinster, Saints and Castres in what should be a white knuckle-ride of a pool.  Even if they don’t come out of the pool, their results may define it.

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Back to the Day Job…

What with the World Cup being so all-encompassing, it hasn’t been the easiest to find the time to follow the less glamorous domestic leagues.  But now that the New Zealand adventure is over for once and for all, it’s a case of ‘back to the day job’ for the northern hemisphere players.  In the meantime, the team domestiques have got the show on the road in the big boys’ absence.  Here’s a quick refresher on what’s been going on.

RaboDirect Pro 12

What’s happened so far? Well, it’s got a new name for a start, so those wishing to demean it will have to stop calling it the Cider Cup and find a new nickname.  Six rounds of games have been played.

Looking good: Ospreys are the pick of the bunch, with a surprising six from six record.  Having jettisoned a number of underperforming, highly paid galacticos (sayanora, Jerry Collins!), the team is being rebuilt around home grown players.  Justin Tipuric and Dan Biggar have been to the fore.  Leinster and Munster are ticking over nicely with four wins apiece, although both have lost once at home.  Treviso are comfortably halfway up the log, with two wins on the road, including a notable victory at Ravenhill.

Looking grim: Ulster have lost three in a row, and can’t get their talented young backs enough ball.  Aironi find themselves in a familiar position, propping up the table.

Making a name for themselves: Peter O’Mahony has captained the Munster team while Paulie’s been down under, and has already been compared to, erm, Richie McCaw by a typically feverish Hugh Farrelly, though whether he was wearing his matching ‘I Heart Munster’ cufflinks, tie and socks at the time of going to press remains unclear.  Nonetheless, O’Mahony could be starting some big games this year, and is one to keep an eye on.  Ian Madigan’s running game and eye for the tryline have impressed at Leinster.

Coming up: the tournament’s tri-annual showpiece, where Leinster and Munster collide, is on October 4.

Aviva Premiership

What’s happened so far? Six rounds of games have been played, with an unknown, but high, number of defenders having been run into by ball-carrying Samoans – Oooooohhhh!

Looking good: Conor O’Shea’s Harlequins have won all six games and look to have taken the step up from last season that so many expected.  Relatively unaffected by the World Cup, they had the princely Nick Evans all to themselves, and have made hay while the grounds are still hard.

Looking grim: What on earth are Leicester doing second from bottom?  In truth they’re missing a lot of key players, and will improve once the likes of Castro, Cole, Flood, Murphy and the Samoan harbour-jumper
are back in the side.

Making a name for themselves: Any of the young whippersnappers in the Quins team. Their terrific captain Chris Robshaw continues to make a name for himself, and show the English selectors what they missed out on.

Coming up: Andy Powell and Tony Buckley will be debuting for Sale shortly.  They’re third currently, can it continue?

Top 14

What’s happened so far? They’ve been busy, playing eight rounds of games so far.

Looking good: Clermont Auvergne and Castres are top of the bus at the moment.  Clermont routed Perpignan 39-3 at the weekend, with Nathan Hines getting his first try for his new employers.   Toulouse and Toulon have also had positive starts to the season.

Looking grim: It wasn’t Perpignan’s first thrashing: they were whipped 38-0 by Toulon the previous weekend.  More concerning still is Biarritz’ position right at the bottom.  Dull at the best of times, they have been positively embarrassing without Yachvili, Traille and Harinordoquy to get them out of trouble.

Making a name for themselves: Luke McAllister has been winning rave reviews having settled quickly into life in Toulouse. Le Rouge et Noirs have recruited well, and will be challenging, as ever, for silverware on all fronts this year.

Coming up: Toulouse v Stade Francais, one of the most glamorous match-ups in Europe, is the pick of the bunch this weekend.

You’ll win nothing with kids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going backwards

Last week we handed out our Team FAIL gongs. Now, we present the Individual awards. Step forward the weak-willed, the constantly injured, the thuggish and the just plain useless.

On a fairly disastrous Irish tour to NZ and Australia last June, Ed O’Donoghue played against the Barbarians and NZ Maori and acquited himself well. Ed was coming off a good season for Ulster and had secured a move to Leinster. However, in a season where Leinster’s second row was beginning to creak with Trevor Hogan retiring, Devin Toner not really stepping up and Leo Cullen not getting any younger, Ed disappeared. Completely. He isn’t even listed in the programmes any more.

To be truthful, Delon Armitage never totally endeared himself to Whiff of Cordite, with his ridiculous chest thumping and 2009 “tackle” on BOD. This season, however, having lost his hold on the England 15 shirt, we expected him to put the head down. However, he has turned into a poor mans John Terry – when not screaming at officials, he was punching Stephen Myler off the ball. Whatever happened to professionalism?

Whiff of Cordite was at Croke Park in March 2010, fully expecting an(other) Irish Triple Crown to be wrapped up with victory against Scotland. Especially when we scanned the Irish back row and saw the names Ferris, Wallace and Heaslip. But the best back row forward on the pitch that day was John Barclay, and he ended last season as the front-runner for the Lions openside shirt. This season, the expected kick on has not happened. Showing minimal leadership qualities for an underperforming side that desperately needed them, Barclay checked out mid-way through the 6 Nations.

Speaking of Scotland players who seem to have given up, what about Euan Murray? As sanctimonious as ever, Euan’s performance in the 6 Nations was nothing short of embarrassing. Never mind his powder-puff propping, his lack of responsibility and poor attitude saw him ditched mid-way through the tournament by an exasperated Andy Robinson. Another Lions front-runner this time last season, he would struggle to make the plane right now.

On the topic of stroppy tight-heads, Tony Buckley also seems to have thrown in the towel. Back in October, with John Hayes on the verge of actual retirement (as opposed to retirement from scrummaging), Mike Ross not even on the radar and Tom Court playing primarily at loosehead, the Ireland tighthead shirt was Mushy’s for 3 years if he made even the slightest effort at fitness and application. Nine months later, his place on the RWC11 plane is uncertain and he is on his way to a flailing Sale Sharks side. With Andy Powell. And Sam Tuitupou.

Rocky Elsom arrived in the Northern Hemisphere in November on the back of leading a pretty successful Tri-Nations for Australia and a Hong Kong Bledisloe Cup ambushing of NZ. He departed, having decided abusing the touch judge was the best way to rally his weak-scrummaging troops in Italy, as one of the leading men in a Brumbies side expected to challenge for the Super Rugby playoffs. Player power then struck 3 games into the season with Andy Friend departing amid rumours the senior players wanted Stephen Larkham installed. Since then, Rocky has mystifyingly yet to tog out, the Brumbies sink to new lows virtually every week, and the Australian fans don’t want him in the team.

Oh, and has Mike Phillips been on strike recently? After walking out on his 3 year Ospreys contract? The Ospreys have got a lot of heat from WoC recently, but we are on their side on this one.

Sweet Sixteen

The Ospreys were given 400 tickets by Munster for the ML semi-final, and shifted …. 16 (Videprinter: SIXTEEN). The number itself doesn’t need any comment, but the reasons behind it do. Is this what regional Welsh rugby has become? That the best team (statistically that is, the Scarlets are the best team in reality) can attract less spectators than players for their most important game this season? Although, having seen the fayre dished up, perhaps the other 384 were the smart ones.

Down where the weather is nice, the Lions, led by the impressive young Elton Jantjes, broke a 16-year winless run in Australia with a storming win over the rudderless Brumbies, the Southern Hemisphere’s answer to the Ospreys. The same day, the Cheetahs beat the Crusaders to win their 3rd Super Rugby game in a row for the first time ever (ever!). SARU have promised that the Port Elizabeth-based Southern Kings will get a Super Rugby franchise for 2013, and its likely to be the Lions or Cheetahs making way – wouldn’t it be great if last year’s bottom two turned into front runners next year, and gave SARU a headache?

Top of the Flops

All the silverware is still up for grabs, but for a bunch of teams, the season is already at an end. No shame in the performances of the likes of Treviso, who achieved their aim of respect at home in the Magners, or Exeter, who stayed well clear of relegation in the Premiership, but a bunch of teams will be taking home a sorry looking report card to their parents…

Glasgow Warriors
11th in Magners, 3rd in group in HEC
Having been fired to third in last season’s ML by Dan Parks’ boot and the exuberant Killer B’s, this was a depressing reversion to type. Thom Evans was badly missed, Kelly Brown left for Saracens, and injuries hampered the campaign. Little wonder Max Evans is off to Castres. The misery was compounded by Andy Robinson withdrawing several key players, including Richie Gray, from the last few rounds of the ML.

Ospreys
4th in Magners, 3rd in group in HEC
Whiff of Cordite has a confession to make. Following last season’s finale when Ospreys won in Thomond Park and clinched the title in the RDS, we erroneously thought Ospreys had located their cojones and would pose a significant threat in Europe this year. How wrong could we be? Weak-willed and negative in Europe, they blew their chance against a desperately out of sorts London Irish. In the ML, they were no better, but somehow fell over the line into fourth in spite of looking like they don’t really care. Never mind, Munster will beat them. Decline could be permanent, with Mike Philipps, Lee Byrne, James Hook and Jerry Collins off to pastures new. How long until Bowe bolts for the exit?

Stade Francais
11th in Top Catorze, Amlin finalists
Ok, they can still win the Amlin, but 11th in the Top 14 is a shameful performance for such an illustrious club. No longer the moneybags they used to be, but with the like of Parisse, Basteraud and Beauxis on the books, nobody should be looking for excuses. Primed for a clearout this summer, with a new side built in the manager’s image hopefully emerging. But, one has to wonder, has the power balance in the French capital shifted to Racing Metro?

Toulon
8th in Top 14, QF in HEC
A decent showing in their first season in Europe, but given their vast resources and extraordinary playing roster, they should be challenging for the Bouclier. The suspicion remains that their team of expensive mercenaries lack heart, and it was a pleasure to see unheralded Montpellier pip them to the playoff spot this weekend. Oh, and their brand of 10-man rugby is borderline unwatchable.

Wasps

9th in Premiership, QF in Amlin
Two words: Andy Powell.