Rich Man’s World

At the tail end of last season, we posted on the demands of the English and French clubs (here and here) to make HEC qualification more “merit-based”. We rather sympathised with their issues with the Pro12, and largely agreed with the Anglo-French proposal.

They will be discussed today in Dublin, and the Premiership has dramatically raised the stakes with the announcement of their TV deal with BT Vision – this includes the Premiership, the Anglo-Welsh Cup and (crucially) HEC games involving English clubs from 2014 onwards. The ERC’s first reponse was to effectively say “You can’t do this”, but McCafferty et al appear to have read the small print and seem to be confident that they can – given the ERC announced Sky have right to all HEC games until 2018, clearly someone needs a good lawyer.  We’ve more questions than answers on the legal issues – if anyone has any insight into this, please share it with us in the comments section.

It’s an extremely provocative step from the English, leading to plenty of articles with the word “arrogance”, and rightly so. It’s worth noting they are dangling a portion of this cash in front of the Celtic unions, telling them “You are welcome to a slice, so long as you do things our way”. With the famous parsimony of the IRFU, and the cash-strapped nature of the WRU and SRU, the English will be hoping it’s enough to make them to go all weak at the knees and fold like a cheap suit in the face of the flashy Englishmen and their sterling.  It’s also an attack on their own union, the RFU, with whom they have long been at loggerheads.  It’s a grab at taking ownership of the European Cup out of the union’s hands and into their own.

BT haven’t exactly behaved with mild restraint either.  Talk of ‘owning a sport entirely’ is extraordinarily arrogant and misplaced, and the surety with which they talk about the end of the Heineken Cup is recklessly presumptuous.  Who the heck are these Johnny Come Latelys anyway?

Ultimately, while European qualification is in the picture, this one’s all about money and power (well, duh).  And what a grubby old business it is.  But while it is difficult to like the brashness and obvious greed of the Premiership chairmen, it’s also important to bear in mind the situation in which some of them find themselves. The clubs who don’t own their own ground perennially struggle to break even, and if they fall too far underwater, the union won’t be bailing them out – a look at Wasps’ near-death experience is instructive here. Last year only four Premiership clubs returned a profit.  Little wonder they’re looking for a greater share of the pie.  But as Gerry Thornley pointed out this week, in comparing Saracens’ head Nigel Wray’s comments about money with the meagre performance and attendances they delivered in the competition, they’re not necessarily entitled to it.

Word is that the Celtic nations are apoplectic over the TV deal, but are willing to compromise over the qualification rules.  Indications are the Irish and Welsh have put together a proposal to maintain the 24-team structure, with eight qualifying from each of the three major leagues.  We can only presume the Scottish and Italians are not behind this.  Ultimately, we wouldn’t be entirely surprised if the tournament ended up looking very close to the structure we outlined, with one guaranteed participant from each Pro12 union and meritocracy coming into play after that.

It all leaves the French Top 14 clubs with the casting vote.  Align themselves with the Premiership and the Celts pretty much have to fall in line or retreat to their Pro12 competition.  But while the French are in agreement with the English over qualification rules, they have not acted with anything like the same bullishness, and appear more than a little put out over the TV announcement deal.  We can’t imagine a powerful group like the Ligue Natioanle Rugby allowing the Englsih to dictate terms over the new format, and the French have always had a better relationship with their Celtic Cousins than Les Rosbifs.  The English continue to threaten an Anglo-French league as a viable option should the Celts not jump on board, but the French appear disinterested in such a format.  It could be that the Premiership solo run has lost them their most important prospective ally, leaving them looking more than a little isolated.

We suspect there is nothing the humble rugby punter (needless to say, not at the forefront of anyone’s thinking in all of this) would enjoy more than to see the Premiership clubs hoist by their own petard.  Oh to be a fly on the wall at today’s meeting.

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Weeks Out… Round Two

That’s your lot for Round One, now the whole tournament goes on hiatus for a couple of months and we reconvene on drier tracks in the April.  Everyone take a deep breath.  As Group stages go, this was up there with the best of them.  Every week seemed to throw up something bizarre.  Indeed, the exact line-up went down to the very last phase.  With Cardiff having a lineout in the Racing 22, but then turning over and Racing almost breaking out for a try of their own, three possible outcomes were in play.  Try for Cardiff, and Cardiff were home to Clermont; try for Racing and Biarritz were playing Munster; no try (as it turned out) and Cardiff were playing Leinster.  Phew.  Here’s our final Heineken Cup Good Week/Bad Week.

Good Week
Frankie goes to Hollywood
It was a good weekend for Frankie. Firstly, in Galway on Friday night, he (astonishingly) wasn’t the worst commentator in view – his lead (whose name we can’t recall) spent the first 79 minutes patronizing Connacht, patting them on the head and thanking them for giving Quins a tough game – the realization that they had won came late in the day, and Frankie crowed like only he can. Then, on Sunday, his big prediction came true. Last Wednesday, he had anointed Peter O’Majesty the HEC Player of the Group Stages in his blog. Oh, how we scoffed, especially since Frankie himself had awarded one of the MOTM’s he referred to. We are big POM fans, but we didn’t agree with the hyperbole. Cue Sunday, and a breath-takingly good performance from the man himself and, while we don’t want to declare him the greatest player in world rugby just yet,  we’re pretty sure he looks the real deal. Frankie the sooth-sayer, we salute you! Wait, stop press, what’s this? Surely not a conflict of interest?
Who said Round Six was predictable?
One of the best (and worst) games of the group stages was in the Sportsground on Friday – a memorable victory for Connacht, and confirmation the Quins bubble has well and truly burst. Despite of the nail-biting and desperate attempts of both teams to lose, the real story on Friday was Gloucester beating 4-times winners Toulouse. Although they have a really gassy back 3, Gloucester are an average Premiership team. Toulouse , despite giving away a ridiculous early try, eased 17-7 in front. But that only inspired Gloucester to cut loose, and the Cherry and Whites ended up winning by 10 points. Make no mistake, this was a massive win – Toulouse are top of the Top 14 and looking menacing. Given Connacht and then Embra ensured Toulouse are not only through, but have a benign route to the semis, this result may be lost in the mists a little, but try telling that to Glaws.
On the Seventh Day, God created Fez
The sense of bathos surrounding Ulster’s quarter-final is a bit strange. I mean, they produced the best Irish performance yet in the Marcel Michelin – eschewing containment for an aggressive and fearless drive to win. Clermont’s initial superiority melted away, and only the impact of the Clermont bench, some uncharacteristic inaccuracy from Pienaar and a lack of true ruthlessness let them down. A win would have, incredibly, meant 3 home quarter-finals for Irish teams (although they would have played Toulouse). Instead, Ulster now await the bear-pit of Thomond Park, and have to address the toughest question of them all: do they have The Mental to win big games away from home? One fears it may be 2013 before we learn the answer, and they need only ask Northampton Saints about how much fun the glass ceiling can be if they don’t answer them correctly.

Bad Week


The Aviva Premiership Moaning Competition


It’s been a poor season for the Premiership teams, and expect a lot of headscratching (and even more carping) over the next week or so.  The Torygraph has already nailed its colours to the mast and wants to see a more meritocratic qualification system.  Paul Ackford has a right old whinge, but never offers any explanation explain why, Sarries aside, the Premiership teams have been so poor this year – Leicester got thrashed in Belfast, Bath in Dublin and Quins blew up when the pressure came on. Northampton Saints epitomised the malaise, with just two wins out of six, and showed a surprising lack of savvy.  They couldn’t see out a potentially seismic win in Munster, and on Saturday, couldn’t stay in the game when they were under the kosh.  Their team is breaking up this summer, and last season looks like their peak, rather than a springboard for success.


Leinster, Cardiff, Toulouse and Edinburgh


All are in the quarter-finals, but all pitted in the away half of the semi-final draw.  It remains the single biggest flaw in the quirky tournament – the difference between getting Toulouse, say, or Clermont home or away is a masive swing, and it’s all decided on pot luck.  This year, though, it mightn’t be as big an advantage as it looks.  Ulster have never played in the Palindrome, and Munster are zero from two there.  It’s a bigger advantage for Leinster to play there than either of the other Irish provinces, but that won’t be happening this year.  Sarries enjoy their trips to Wem-ber-ley, but it’s no fortress – Leinster have already gone there and won, without BOD.  Meanwhile, we’ve no record of Clermont playing in St. Etienne or Lyon.


Declan Kidney


Uncle Deccie will inherit the happiest 52-man squad in Irish history.  Hooray!  A record three provinces in the HEC knockouts, and Connacht finally ending their losing streak.  Munster finally found a cutting edge, Jamie Heaslip is at his marauding best, and Ulster have become men.  But with that comes heightened expectations.  Deccie will have to work extra-hard to turn this group of in-form players into the lateral-attacking, penalty-condecing, gameplan-confused, poorly selected side we’re used to seeing.  The real hard work begins now.

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!!!

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.

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.

Magners Playoffs: Not Quite Top 14

The playoffs (and Treviso) have rescued the Magners League this season. They have prolonged a dull and stratified league season that would have been finished by April, but there is still a strange sense of bathos surrounding the whole concept. Last year’s final at the RDS was a soulless affair, as the organisers employed London PR gurus to strip the heart out of the RDS in an effort to ‘neutralise’ the venue and the match. So there were no D4TRESS posters, no Leo the Lion, an English announcer and a lame attempt at razzle-dazzle before kick off. In the end, Ospreys deservedly ran off with the cup, but the occasion was flat and lifeless.
This year, semi-final attendances were disappointing – Leinster and Munster season ticket holders baulked at the notion of having to fork out for another match that was not included in the original package, both content to wait for the final they seemed certain to reach.
Well, reach it they did, and Magners have got their wish, a Munster v Leinster final and a shot at redemption for the organisers. This one has sold out, of course, and Leinster winning the HEC means it couldn’t be any better set up. Let’s just hope the league have learned from last year and let Munster put on their impressive pre-match palaver – giant stags, Stand up and Fight and all that. Early indications aren’t good though – Leinster won’t be subjected to the usual wait on their own for a good two minutes before the Munster team come out – the teams will emerge from the tunnel together.
No such trouble in the Premiership where the playoffs are well established. Twickenham is all but sold out for the Premiership final, a repeat of last year’s classic. The only quirk is that Sky don’t have the rights to the final. Only ESPN subscribers will be able to tune in. No Barnesy assuring Miles and us all that it’s a classic as Owen Farrell thwacks the leather off the ball for the 715th time? What’s the point in even watching?!
And the Top 14 remains the most exciting and glamorous competition at the business end of the season. In an inspired move, both semi-finals are being brought to the 60,000 seat Stade Velodrome in Marseille, the spiritual home of French rugby.
Friday night’s contest between Toulouse and Clermont should be the game of the weekend. The match-up between two hugely physical packs will be wince-inducing, but let’s hope there’s at least some space out there amid the fatties for the likes of Medard, Clerc and Malzieu to flaunt their genius. Then on Saturday, we will find out if the magic Montpellier roundabout will roll on, or if Racing Metro can advance to what they see as their rightful place in the Top 14 final.

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!

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.

Oooooh – the Tuilagi’s

On the day Will Greenwood named a brace of Tuilagi’s on his Premiership team of the year, we would like to share this.

As you will suspect, at Whiff of Cordite we don’t buy into the entirely predictable hype surrounding the latest Premiership Pacific bosher (remember Lesley “Next Big Thing” Vainikolo being railroaded into the England team by Stephen Jones), but Manu looks a hugely talented player and an amazing prospect. If Johnno decides to ditch Shontayne Hapless and re-build his midfield for the RWC, Manu could made a big impression in the Land of the Long White Cloud.