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.

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.

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.