Parallel Universe

Montpellier and Castres will be in action this weekend against Irish opposition; both at the same time in fact, which is very convenient for those who might have a passing interest in both matches.

Montpellier pose a significant threat to Ulster’s hopes of qualification.  They’re a beastly team with a mean pack of forwards and when they bring their A game they’re as unplayable as the best French sides.  They never quite bring the same energy on the road with them, but hey, plus ca change, plus ca meme chose and all that.  Hey Gerry, get off our typewriter!

The way the French typically set up their back five and operate their lineout is very different to Irish teams.  Their second rows are designed primarily with scrummaging and mauling in mind, with a side order of lifting – yes, lifting, not jumping – in the lineout.  In the winter months, the Top Quatorze turns into a slog, invariably decided by penalties, so having a hefty scrum to milk the opposition for three pointers is seen as de rigeur.  So the French think nothing of picking two of what we would call ‘tighthead locks’, the oversized granite-hewn chaps that add heft to the scrum and maul.  For Ireland think Mike McCarthy or Donncha O’Callaghan, though in France Donners would probably be considered underpowered.  For the French, think classical baby-munchers like Lionel Nallet and Romain Millo-Chluski.  Both top out at 195cm, below the 1.99m mark that is almost considered minimum for the role in Ireland.  Clermont’s gruesome twosome of Jamie Cudmore and Nathan Hines are old and not particularly tall or athletic in the lineout, but bleedin’ heck, what a lot of grunt they add to the team in the tight.

This weekend Castres will line out (assuming they bring their A-team, which they probably won’t, but anyway) with Richie Gray and Uruguayan behemoth Capo Ortega in the second row.  Gray is a decent lienout jumper, in spite of his size, but don’t expect to see the burly 195cm Ortega get in the air too much.  At the weekend they won five lineouts, but only one of those won by Gray, while Ortega took none.

Same goes for Montpellier, who will have to try and get all 124kg of Jim Hamilton off the ground a few times, but the 134kg Robins Tchale-Watchou will be positively earthbound throughout.

So who catches the ball in the lineout, then?  The chaps in the backrow, that’s who.  Most French teams contain a light, athletic backrow who they can fling in the air with ease, and who runs the lineout.  The model performer in this role has been Julien Bonnaire, who has ruled the skies for eons for both France and Clermont Auvergne.  Toulouse’s unsung hero Jean Bouilhou was their lineout specialist even when Fabian Pelous was around.  Imanol Harinordoquy’s lineout skills are almost unparalleled in world rugby – some of his one-handed takes are to die for.  Montpellier’s main lineout man is the exceptionally athletic Fulgence Ouedraogo.  Though not especially tall, he has an extraordinarily springy leap and at 102kg he can be flung miles into the air.  He’ll pose Ulster massive problems at lineout time this weekend.  Each of the Castres backrow caught a lineout against Northampton and between them they stole two of Northampton’s throws.

For Ireland, picking a second row of, say, Dan Tuohy and Mike McCarthy would be unthinkable; too unbalanced.  Where’s the lineout man?  If Peter O’Mahony and Kevin McLaughlin were French, they’d probably be the main lineout callers in their teams.  Both are tall, springy and athletic and are great catchers when in the air.  More interestingly, and it’s a point Demented Mole has made before, if Tony Buckley were French he would never have been converted from the second row to prop.  At 196cm and a whopping (according to Wikipedia) 138kg, he could hardly be expected to catch much lineout ball, but that would be no barrier to success if he had the likes of Ouedraogo around him.  Buckley’s decision to convert to front row was no doubt a result of Ireland’s dearth in that area, while locks would have been in abundance.  Had those around him been able to forecast how the scrum dynamics would shift (almost impossible, unfortunately), and how important all-conquering power in the engine room would become, it would probably never have come to pass.  Buckley’s career has been mired by an inability to master the technicalities of scrummaging; in a parallel universe somewhere he’s lording it up, dishing the hurt out with his sheer bulk in the second row.

Toulousers

What has happened to Toulouse? We were watching their opening Top14 game (on the 17th of August! … A whole other debate needed there) and were struck with how … shit … they were.

Toulouse have historically been associated with vibrant rugby, the embodiment of what is good about French rugby – local passion, youth-oriented ambitions, ferocity upfront coupled with inventiveness with ball in hand.

The team they put out consisted of a foreign front row, a backrow and three quarter line with a huge amount of mileage and Pacific bosh merchants off the bench, all piloted by the poor man’s Morné Steyn, Lionel Beauxis. Granted, they won with a late try from Matavanou, but the game itself was an abomination – bad tempered, boring, and essentially boiling down to a penalty contest.

These were/are two of the best four teams in France, and if that is the case, you have got to worry about French rugby. Toulouse won the *puts on Gerry’s French accent* Bouclier de Brennus last season, but the play-off series was woeful – it was a kicking contest which Wilko almost swung for Toulon. The semi-finals and final produced not a single try between them.  By contrast, the Aviva Premiership and the much maligned Pro12 produced thrilling finals. Its hard to imagine any French team earning a try-scoring bonus point 6 games in a row, like Leicester did last year – the Top14 deserves much more Oooooooooohh-ppobrium than the Premiership.

In Europe it’s been no great shakes either.  Toulouse were beaten by Embra in last season’s HEC quarters (after getting hammered by Gloucester and losing at home to Quins), and only Clermont joined them at that stage. The Amlin turned into a Top14 second tier playoff contest, but the final was another mindless boot contest.

Clermont stand alone as an exciting and vibrant side, and are worth watching, but Toulouse are becoming Toulon with a better PR department. You have to be concerned about the future of French rugby when so many of the top level clubs play such a desperate brand of rugby, so far away from the (admittedly self-professed) traditions of the game in France. Even Toulouse, the self-appointed guardians of le rugby, resort to utter dross. And we haven’t even mentioned the winter months when the grounds turn into puddings and the league turns into a Scrum & Drop Goal Competition.  Sigh – perhaps we expect too much!

French need to learn Culture and Passion From Irish

Gerry Thornley’s been warming to his theme of IRFU-bashing lately – he’s been awoken from his autopilot by the new NIE laws and is using his weekly column as a platform from which to berate the [Insert number Here] Old Farts.  Which we approve.  And, of course, he’s only too delighted to see three Irish provinces in the HEC quarter finals.  After all, who isn’t?

But the final paragraph in today’s piece set off the alarm bells:

But, for all its wealth, foreign imports and benefactors, the Top 14 remains, a la the Premier League in England, something of a circus act which works against its national team. Nor do they have the same sense of culture and identity between fans and players who truly represent their regions.
What’s that Gerry?  The French club sides don’t have a sense of culture and identity between fans and players?  Really?  Tell that to the Clermont Auvergne fans whose ground is the most intimidating in Europe, and make their mark on every city to which they travel.  Or the Toulousains who pour into the streets donned in rouge-et-noir whenever they land silverware.  Anyone who was there two years ago for the Leinster-Clermont quarter final will regard it as the greatest atmosphere ever to grace the RDS.

There’s no need to go on, because we all know this.  We’ve all seen the French support, and we all know how much the fans value the Bouclier, and how attached they are to their club teams.  The idea that Perpignan could learn a thing or two from the Irish pishun is ludicrous.  Maybe we could teach them to cook, make wine and dress stylishly while we’re at it? 

We’re entitled to be pleased with the state of Irish rugby, but this sort of smugness has no place.  The Bouclier de Brennus has been contested since 1892, quickly took on the character of village against village, providing an outlet for the denizens of Albi, Dax, Carcassonne and Aix similar to that which soccer provides in the north of England. Domestic Fench rugby has a tribal ferocity to this day.

Perhaps Gerry should watch the video of Pere Harinordoquy taking to the pitch to fight some Bayonnais forwards in the recently contested Basque derby.  Speaking of which, the bi-annual match-up between Bayonne and Biarritz is considered the single most intense rivalry in European rugger. It’s a longstanding one too – while we can’t be entirely sure, we think it might even pre-date the Heineken Cup semi-final in 2006.

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.

What the hell is going on at… Stade Francais

Phew. It all got a little too desperate for comfort at Stade Francais.  Just off the back of a miserable season (11th in the Top 14 and controversially denied an Amlin Cup at the death), they were saved from bankruptcy and spared relegation by the last minute intervention of appropriately named technology firm director Thomas Savere.  Under French league rules, clubs have to balance the books or face relegation – so Stade had to find €6.6m from somewhere or face deomtion to the third tier of French rugby.  They appeared to have the cash ‘dans le sac’ previously but a deal with a shady-sounding Canadian investment firm fell apart amid accusations of fraud, with Stade now suing the company, and three people arrested so far.
As to whether Savare will continue in the extravagant style of former President Max Guazzini’s remains to be seen.  Guazzini’s marketing hasn’t been to everyone’s taste: outrageous strips, pink goalposts, Gloria Gaynor songs and homoerotic calendars are at odds with the Anglo-Irish ideology of rugby (basically large men kicking lumps out of each other and hoofing the ball back and forth), but Whiff of Cordite has always saluted the glitzy approach.  After all, if you come from Paris, home to the two bottle lunch and one of the style, art and romance capitals of the world, and your rivals were from provincial backwaters down south, why not play the glamour card?  And why not get Sergio Parisse and co. to strip off for a calendar and get the gay community behind the team?  The theme of ‘Paris against the provinces’ has followed Stade around since their first final meeting with Bordeaux’s Stade Bordelais in 1899.
Besides, it’s not as if they didn’t get results.  Guazzini ressurected Stade after 50 years floating around the lower divisions, establishing them as the most succesful team in France this century.  Since 2000 they have won the coveted Bouclier four times (once more than Toulouse), most recently in 2007 playing a high octane brand of rugby built around stellar half backs Agostin Pichot and Juan Martin Hernandez.  Christophe Dominici, Fabien Galthie and Diego Dominguez are among the greats to have recently donned the pink, while Parisse (now captain) and Rodrigo Roncero are still on the books.  But the current squad looks a pale shadow of former championship-winning sides.  And with the swanky two-kisses-only denizens of Paris at best ambivalent about rugger, the newly-minted success of old school Racing Metro means they are no longer the only club in the city with lofty ambitions.
What Michael Cheika makes of it all is anyone’s guess.  But he has his own problems and faces a disciplinary hearing on 19 July for comments made after the Amlin fiasco.  If he can re-establish Stade as a force to be reckoned with in France and Europe from this low ebb it will surpass even his achievements with Leinster.

Team in focus: Montpellier

This weekend sees the final game of the Northern hemisphere season, and we aren’t talking about the latest episode in the tiresome story of a washed-up Welsh 12. At 19:45 Irish time in the Stade de France, one of the more remarkable fixtures of the season will kick off – the heavyweights of Toulouse, looking for their 18th Bouclier, against Montpellier, appearing in their first ever final.

The story of Montpellier is a fascinating one. At the beginning of the season, many pundits had them tipped for relegation. The team were coming off a disappointing 10th place finish in 2009-10, prompting the replacement of the coaching staff and the retirement of key pivot Federico Todeschini.

Brought in to turn the team around were Eric Bechu, who coached unfashionable Colomiers to the final in 2000, and his former on-field general, and French scrum-half, Fabien Galthié. The coaching staff were not daunted, with Galthié proclaiming  “The first conclusion I can draw is that the team is young enough that it has the potential to develop”.

The coaching staff kept the nucleus of last years squad, with a couple of additions. Bechu went to Argentina for a bit of shopping, bringing back inside back Santiago Fernandez and outside back Martin Bustos Moyano, both of whom have been key players this season. Weighing in with 265 points, Bustos Moyano’s dead-eyed goal kicking has been a crucial factor in Montpellier lasting the pace. Providing the cutting edge out wide has been former Ulster folk hero Timmy Naguca, who has contributed 10 tries, a statistic which will shock all but the most blinkered of Ravenhill regulars.

With the local youngsters and unheralded imports superbly marshalled by Francois Trinh-Duc, the mix has worked very well. Not only was the goal of Heineken Cup qualification achieved, with a stylish last weekend  27-3 victory over boot merchants Toulon, but gutsy wins over Castres and, in one of the most exciting games WoC has seen, Racing Metro, have propelled them into the final.

Regretably for all who love rugby, team captain and hard ground lover Fulgence Ouedraogo has been ruled out with a fractured hand, leaving Montpellier shorn of their most important player and leader. This may make Saturday a step too far, especially with Montpellier-born and raised contact magnet Louis Picamoles in the opposing back row. Whiff of Cordite would love to see Montpellier go all the way, but suspects the aristocrats of Stade Toulousain might spoil the story. Still, its been a great ride, and the Racing game will live long in the memory.

Vive les Heraultains!

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.

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.