Ulster Struggles

So there ya go – the dream is over. With Ulster’s development in recent years, Ireland have had three names supping at the top table of European rugby – we felt that the provinces were in a good position to replicate last season (and 2012)’s success and have three in the last eight. But, for the first time since 2010, Ulster won’t be there. We haven’t bothered crunching the stats – we’ll leave that to real numbers gurus like Andy McGeady – but we suspect there haven’t been many teams who have made the knockouts after losing their opening two games. After nicking a late bonus point in Welford Road, Ulster couldn’t even repeat that trick at home to Toulon and are now marooned with a single point. Bummer.

Now, losing to Toulon is far from disgraceful – they are European and French champions and produced the first powerhouse performance of the tournament on Saturday, whacking and bagging Ulster by half-time. Losing to this Leicester vintage isn’t so great though, and four wins with a couple of bonus points from here looks an extremely tall order, especially since one of those games is in Toulon.

In a sense, there have been some chickens coming home to roost for Ulster – organisational upheavel this summer, a lack of depth in the pack being exposed by injuries, and curious selection.

When Humph announced he was leaving for Glaws, Ulster rugger went into a state of shock, and it has taken four months for the endgame to play out. First of all, Cowboy was given the heave-ho with Les “Kissy” Kiss coming in on an interim job-share basis to bring his choke tackling expertise, hipster specs and sunny, thoughtful demeanour to Ravers – this was initally announced as a season-long measure. But then the announcement came that Kissy was going back to Carton House full-time and Ulster would shortly name a full-time coach. To no-ones surprise, a few weeks later, that was Neil Doak – with Kissy returning after RWC15 as Nucifor-stamped DoR. All of which ends well for Ulster, but it does mean that the Ulster players have had three head coaches for the 2014/15 season in 3 months – hardly the best preparation for European rugby.

And, although Doak has been around Ravers since, like, forever and has presumably – like the perennial bridesmaid – been preparing to be head coach for half that time, he only got the keys three weeks ago. Now, there can be no doubt he had input into team selection and tactics, so he wasn’t completely green, but having your second and third games as head coach against Leicester and Toulon is far from ideal. From Ulster’s perspective, the succession hasn’t been smooth – the best-managed corporates have a succession plan for everybody that they can put in place when required – Ulster might have got the outcome they wanted, but it took them a while to get there, and preparation undoubedly suffered. Perhaps there was a reason Doak couldn’t have taken over when Cowboy was slung out, with Kiss being lined up as 2015 DoR in time, but we can’t think of a persuasive one. Either way, Ulster have been in a state of organisational flux since June.

Secondly, the team was decimated by injury – or was it? The reality is that they are missing both starting locks  – Dan Tuohy, NWJMB – Ruan Pienaar and Andy Trimble. Pienaar and Trimble are virtually irreplacable but its the pack which has been hardest hit. Note: Alan O’Connor is also suspended, but if you are depending on an Academy player with two starts to rescue you against Toulon, you are in trouble. The reality of the situation is that Ulster’s depth in the pack was a concern 12 month ago and its got markedly worse since:

  • OUT: Tom Court (Prop, 32 caps for Ireland), John Afoa (Prop, 36 caps for BNZ, RWC11 winner), Johann Muller (Lock, 24 caps for SA, RWC07 winner), Fez (Flanker, 35 caps for Ireland, 2009 Lion) plus Niall Annett (Hooker), Adam Macklin (Prop), Paddy McAlister (Prop), Sean Doyle (Flanker)
  • IN: Wiehann Herbst (Prop), Ruadhri Murphy (Prop), Dave Ryan (Prop), Franco van der Merwe (Lock, 1 cap for SA), Charlie Butterworth (Flanker), Sean Reidy (Flanker)

Essentially, Ulster have lost their captain, 2 RWC winners, Ireland’s only player of the professional era aside from POC and BOD to be challenging for a World XV and 127 international caps and replaced them with a couple of wild card props and a once-capped Springbok journeyman. Poor planning, and ordinary recruitment. That’s going to hurt when you come up against a side who can lose Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe after five minutes and replace him with a MOTM contender from last year’s final. Ulster were so stretched, they had to rely on Clive Ross and Nick Williams as crack game-changers from the bench.

That’s a big enough handicap as is, but to find yourself struggling to identify your starting centres is pretty careless. Jared Payne has been the chosen one at outside centre for Ulster (and maybe for Ireland) but it’s fair to say he hasn’t got going there – when Ulster have brought Dazzler Cave into the team and moved Payne back to full-back, they’ve looked immeasurably more dangerous. Against the Tigers, Ulster went for brawn inside in the shape of Stuart McCloskey, but began to create opportunities only when he was replaced with the rapier that is Stu Olding. The against Toulon, it was Olding who started, but even before he got kicked in the head in a scene reminiscent of the Thing That Never Happened, he was being run ragged by Maxime Mermoz (aside: is this a first for anyone else to see Mermoz actually playing well? He has always seemed disappointing any time we have seen him) and Mathieu Boshtereaud.

Which isn’t to say Toulon steamrollered over Ulster – it was the technical brilliance of their pack and centres that won them this game – subtlety was the name of the game in the key moments. That awful feeling of being outclassed came a week after a litany of errors handed a free win to a Leicester Tigers team that subsequently gave the Scarlets (the Scarlets!) an easy win. Ulster have hid it pretty well in the Pro12 to date, but a pair of limp defeats in the rarefied air of the HEC/ERCC has shown them up for being a bit of a mess right now. If Doak didn’t know he had a big job on his hands, he does now.

The Spirit of the Golden Belltower

Allez Toulon, the third ever back-to-back Heineken Cup champions. If they were deeply fortunate to win the pot last year, helped in no end by a calamitous collapse from specialist chokers Clermont, this time around they did it in style, dispatching Saracens by 23 points to 6. In the end they were strolling, and went close to adding another try on, which would have made it 30-6, which we all know to be a scoreline that signifies a COMPLETE ROUT!

What was most notable was the extraordinary bond the players have with one another, and their fans. Matt Giteau (who just oozes class, by the way) took to Twitter to tell the world he’d won the Cup with his ‘best mates’. Johnny Wilkinson spoke in his usual extraordinarily humble way, hitting every right note as he always does. Heck, he was already thinking about the Top 14 final!

In the game of rugby, the belief has long been held that success is hard to buy, and cannot simply be imported wholesale. In a game in which physicality and espirit de corps are such dominant factors, a team which is suitably motivated to put the hurting on its opponents can overcome limitations such as y’know, skill, or a decent lineout and utilise its physical advantage to win rugby matches.

Having a proud fanbase and a rich tapestry of history is something which rugby teams utilise to drive this fervour and passion, none more so than the Irish provinces. In short, the jersey matters. We all know the backdrop at this stage, and though each of the provinces has their own unique history and identity, in all of them there is a sense that to play for the jersey and for the fans is important and attaches a certain standard below which one dare not fall. For most of the players, they’re playing for their local team, and many of them spent their youths on the terraces as supporters. As Denis Hickie put it ‘I’m a Leinster lad. That’s my team. I don’t make any apologies for it.’ The communities are relatively small and close knit and the players place a huge premium on playing for their province, often literally in the case of signing contracts when greater riches are on offer elsewhere.

We do occasionally need to remind ourselves that the Irish provinces are not unique (Exhibit A: the periodic “Irish can teach French culture and passion” stories from Gerry), and in England and France there exist many great clubs with their own strong senses of identity and rich, glorious histories; Toulouse, Castres, Clermont Auverge, Biarritz, Perpignan, Leicester, Northampton, Bath and so on.

Toulon is a rugby-mad town but the team has been bought in. None of the South African, Argentinian or Australian superstars they have on the books have an innate attachment to Toulon, and presumably none of them are all that au fait with the history of the trench warfare that is French rugby. None of them would say ‘I’m a Toulon lad. That’s my team. I make no apologies for it.’ It only serves to make their accomplishments all the more impressive. You can buy success in rugby it seems, but only if you buy the right people. And this is the crux of it. Toulon have recruited sensationally well. There are leaders, standard-bearers and born winners across the team.

While Racing got the chequebook out for the likes of Dan Lydiate and Jamie Roberts, Toulon have no problem bringing in guys who appear miles over the hill, or whose share price has come off a high; Bakkies Botha, Simon Shaw and Castrogiovanni anyone? Matt Giteau was unceremoniously dumped by Australia but it now seems incredible that his talents could be overlooked by anoyone. Juan Smith had been forced to retire, but gets re-threaded at Toulon and plugs right into the team ethos. It works, because the likes of Castro, Shawsy and Wilkinson are grizzled pros who know how to get the job done, and have the respect of every other player with whom they come into contact. Wilkinson, as we know, demands of himself the highest of high standards – his mental torture and intensity is such that he barely looks like he enjoys a second of what he does.

Sure, they’re all world class players, so they have an innate advantage, but at the same time they’re all extremely well paid, playing for a team far from home in the sunny climes of the Mediterranean coast. It would be easy for them to simply phone it in; but they don’t. Where does the hunger come from? Key individuals such as Jonny Wilkinson and Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe are instrumental in ensuring everyone is aware that this is not a club where you can simply pick up a cheque.

The maintenance of this spirit is going to be an exceedingly difficult thing to maintain, especially after the post-RWC15 global player churn – Wilkinson is likely to stick around the club to provide a guiding hand, and it’s hard to see key men like Steffon Armitage, Fernandez Lobbe, Giteau or Bastaread leaving any time soon. What price the corp of 2007 Springboks nearing the end of the road – Bakkies, Smith and Roussouw – get swapped en masse for a chunk of 2015 BNZ-ers who finally feel that they have earned a French payday. What chance Ruchie, Kieran Read, DC and Ma’a Nonu – players who are about as far from the Beaver-in-Bath dialling-it-in Southern Hemisphere player as can be imagined – rocking up in two years as the next generation of Toulonnais?

Stickability

Another year, another heartbreaking, soul-stirring semi-final defeat for Munster. They’re making a habit of semi-final defeats; 2009 to Leinster, 2011 to Biarritz, 2013 to Clermont and this year to Toulon. The last time they won one was in 2008, narrowly edging out an obdurate pre-Globo Gym-era Saracens team. They haven’t been helped by having to go away from home on every occasion, but it looks like this is their level for now; going deep into the tournament but not quite having what it takes to win it. That’s not an insult, and there are few teams capable of consistently make it to the last two weekends of the competition.

This was a pulsating, riveting semi-final. We said it would diverge from last year’s Clermont game in that Toulon would pull away in the third quarter. We were half-right at best. Toulon certainly threatened a rout in the third quarter, but when Armitage was deemed not to have scored in the corner, Simon Zebo’s superb cover tackle improbably saving the day, something very similar to the Clermont game happened. Toulon seemingly couldn’t believe their supremacy wasn’t better reflected on the scoreboard and they became error-strewn and jittery. When Munster managed not only to hang on by their fingernails, but suddenly respond with a (dubious) try of their own, Toulon were rattled, and suddenly Munster were right in the match. Indeed, they had a kick to take the lead that fell narrowly wide.  Munster’s stickability has to be commended; plenty of teams would have crumpled in that onslaught.  Indeed, Leinster did crumble in very similar circumstances.

There’ll be plenty of what-ifs and reflections on those moments that got away. Munster conspicuously failed to make the most of their extra-man advantage, conceding a ridiculous penalty immediately after scoring one of their own, and Delon Armitage’s booming long-range kick before half-time looked spirit-crushing.  Plenty of Toulon’s points felt cheaply won, and unnecessary.  Some indiscipline in the first half was costly.

The decision to go for the try from the penalty late in the match will also be poured over. It’s easy to be a Hindsight Harry and say it was wrong because they didn’t score a try, but we questioned it at the time. It was a category one error. Surely the right move was to close the gap to two points? The difference between needing a try to win in the final five minutes and needing a drop goal or penalty is vast. It completely changes the complexion of how the defending team approaches things. If they can’t give away a penalty, they won’t dare contest at the ruck, and a steady supply of quick ball can be generated. Teams looking for a try late in matches rarely score them, unless they’re New Zealand, because they have fewer cards to play in attack. Grubber-kicks and chips over the backline are generally taken out of the equation. Play the percentages and take the points!

In truth, Munster can’t have too many complaints about Wayne Barnes, much as they (and Gerry) would love to. They got plenty of breaks.  Sure, the scrum was a lottery but it pretty much balanced out in the end. Lobbe’s carding looked absurdly harsh. He wasn’t behaving recklessly, and sometimes extremities come together; this looked a case of that and no more. As for Zebo’s try, it seemed extraordinary that it was awarded without recourse to the TMO. The touchjudge persuaded Barnes that the try was legitimate, but it seemed from looking at the angles on telly that he didn’t even have a clear view of the only moment where it could have been grounded.

Nonetheless, Munster bow out of the Heineken Cup with great honour and the future looks good. Ian Keatley will never be Ronan O’Gara, but he has blossomed this season. James Coughlan remains a granite-hard rock on which the pack is founded. Robin Copeland arrives next season, but he will need a crowbar to get Coughlan out of the team.  Conor Murray is among the global elite, a piece of absolute class. Simon Zebo is showing he has the workrate to merit a recall to test level. The bedrock is there and it will be up to Axel Foley to keep improving the squad – with centre a flashing red light in spite of the efforts of Oooooooooooooohhh and Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhh.

There’s still silverware to be played for in the season, and Munster would do well to try and switch focus quickly. In the past, they’ve tended to shut up shop once they fall out of the Heineken Cup (excepting 2011 where the timing and nature of their exit ensured it couldn’t happen). Last year their season petered out to nothing after Clermont. An away semi-final in Scotstoun is likely and they have a pishun-stirring game against Ulster to come. Turn up to either looking bored and distracted and the sense of a great season with huge improvements in performances will start to dissipate. Rob Penney should make sure minds are as focussed as they can be on the sending him off with some silverware.

Turning briefly to the other semi-final, as much as it sticks in the craw to acknowledge it, Saracens were simply brilliant against Clermont – the penalty try decision looked pretty harsh to say the least, but it was in the first 10 minutes. Saracens turned the screw in a pretty impressive manner, and handing Clermont a 40-burger is mighty admirable – we haven’t been bothered to dig out the statistics yet, but it is surely a HEC knockout stage record and a clumping you’d never expect from Clermont, in spite of their mental frailties.

We’ll still be able to say Saracens are a soulless (tick) bunch of foreign (tick) money-grabbing (tick) easy-to-despise (see Ashton, C.) proto-franchise, but we cannot any longer say they play up-the-jumper bosh-heavy rugger or that they are flat-track bullies who can easily humiliate the likes of Zebre and Connacht but lie down before the big boys. They fully deserve their place in the final, even if regrets are multiplying for Ulster fans after seeing Clermont in the flesh. The likes of Gerry and Ryle Nugent have been taking great delight in equating Saracens and Toulon, but the differences are legion – Toulon have many more supporters and a much deeper club infrastructure and history, are richer, and have much better players; and in style terms, its Saracens who play the better football.

Epic Odyssey

Once again, into the breach – our brave, faithful, honest and passionate warriors once more hitch planes, trains, automobiles, bikes, segways, scooters and all and every mode of transport possible to get to the south of France, where they will walk over molten lava to the ground to pay homage to their heroes, through the misty air stoked by too much pate and too many Kronenburg’s in De Danu the night before.

As much fun as it is to make fun of the Munster stereotype, Munster in Europe is a great story, and the gift that never stops giving. Somehow they always make the HEC about themselves, the selfish bar stewards!

For the second year in succession, it’s Munster who are the lone Irish standard-bearers at this stage of the competition – and again it’s a tough trip to France to play for a place in the final. Munster might have been faced with a feeble Toulouse challenge in the quarters, but it’s easy to get dragged down the their level – just ask Sarries – and Munster did what they needed to do and more, swatting them aside with consumate ease, and running in bucketloads of tries in the process.

We have a huge amount of time for this Munster team – a young pack executing a technically excellent and accurate game with emphasis on set-piece and maul dominance, Europe’s best scrum-half (did you know he played 10 for Garryowen once?) and slippery and creative outside backs who may or may not celebrate too much when they score tries. Great fun to watch and easy to get behind – the cobwebs of the directionless and indisciplined dog days of the McGahan era, with its belly-tickling European knockout performances, have long been swept away.

But while this Munster team had just three representatives on Joe Schmidt’s Championship-winning Ireland team, and are facing a star-studded Toulon operation that slammed a Leinster side festooned with Irish players into the turf and held them down for 80 minutes, don’t think that a hammering is in order. This is the type of occasion Munster live for – just look at last season when they were mighty close to mugging Clermont – and they will be out like dervishes, without any kind of semblence of respect for Toulon’s big names, who will have to go out and win the game.

There is a bit of history there too – the last time the teams played, the dying sting of the Liginds was devoid of any potency and the team played without shape or discipline; they were tonked. But for Saturday that can be ignored – an almost entirely new Munster side (with Earls, Varley, POC and Cawlin possibly the only survivors) will line out, and Jonny Wilkinson and JM Fernandez Lobbe (swoon) may be the only Toulon players who played in that game.  What, no Paul Sackey?

But let’s be honest – Toulon look just too strong for them – a backrow of Fernandez Lobbe, Steffon Armitage and Juan Smith is World XV stuff, and adding Matthieu Bastaread to the breakdown and Wayne Barnes to the middle only ensures a game that will be played on Toulon’s terms, with no prospect of quick ruck ball and moving the point of the attack. Expect Munster to put up a hell of a fight, but it’s tough to see how they can win without Peter O’Mahony and a viable 10-12 axis. The congregation in the parish of St Axel’s have been raving about CJ Stander for a while now, and he had an excellent game against Toulouse, but this is a different level altogether – if he can impact this match as much as he did that, then maybe the hype is justified. And it’s simply impossible to visualise a universe where Ian Keatley and Oooooooooooooooooooooohh James Downey have the game to take on Wilko and Gits.

And we must take this opportunity to once again implore the media not to try and turn this match into a ridiculous galacticos-against-the-parish narrative.  There’s no room for slackers in Toulon’s hiring policy – the so-called galacticos are in fact men of iron who would die with their boots on whoever they were playing for – and the fans and players have a bond no different to that of the Irish provinces in what is a rugby-mad town.

Add in that Toulon’s only loss in their last eight games was in Clermont, and that they have effectively secured a bye in le barrage – they only need to avoid defeat at home to Stade in their last game – and Toulon’s focus will be four-square on defending their HEC trophy (and keeping it forever?). Munster will arrive in Marseille confident and in no mood to lay down, but this Toulon team will eventually overcome them – when you can bring on the likes of Castro and Bryan Habana to face down Stephen Archer and Johne Murphy off the Munster bench, it’s unlikely to end in defeat.  We expect it to be a sort-of-reverse of the Clermont fixture last year.  In that game Clermont stormed out of the traps and threatened to destroy Munster in the first 40 minutes.  But Munster held on by their fingernails and gradually got a grip of the game.  Toulon tenfd to start slower and ratchet up the intensity in increments, so it could be neck-and-neck after 50 to 60 minutes.

Still, Toulon by 8-12 after a mighty first hour.

In the other semi, we fancied Saracens on the basis of home advantage and Clermont’s renowned ability to lose to inferior teams in pressure moments, but we are beginning to waver. On Sunday, Barnesy effortlessly catalogued Sarries ability to lose at home to French teams in recent years, and the memory of their ineptitude in Ravers won’t fade – but for Schalk Brits and Billy Vunipola, they would have lost to a 14-man team missing Rory Best and with Ruan Pienaar flying on one wing. Perhaps Clermont will expose Saracens for what they are – pretenders on the biggest stage. Maybe they need to go off and set up their own tournament or something.

Standing Alone

The received wisdom is that Munster are supposedly the third best province in Ireland, but clearly they haven’t bothered to pay it much attention – perhaps giving belated truth to Gerry’s assertion that ‘Ulster are the better team, but Munster are the better province’. For the second year running they find themselves in the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, carrying the hopes of the nation, while their more heralded rivals to the north and east will be watching events on their television sets. Quite the achievement given the supposed transition they are in. Sign whoever that coach is up for as long as he likes! Or ditch him and promote the local hero, whatever.

Munster swatted aside a desperate Toulouse effort over Saturday brunch in effervescent fashion. Toulouse were hanging on at half-time but two early second half tries won the game A home win always appeared likely. Toulouse were poor and didn’t appear to have any belief that they could win in Thomond Park, but to score six tries in a Heineken Cup quarter final against anyone is impressive.

More impressive still is that they did it without their captain, Peter O’Mahony. He was replaced after just 18 minutes, but this was the day CJ Stander emphatically announced himself as a Munster player. The South African backrow has had an enigmatic, slightly puzzling Munster career to date, providing brief glimpses of a rarefied talent which has had tongues wagging in the stands, but appearing to struggle to gain the faith of his coaches. Now we know what he can do. Can this be the start of something wonderful?

The two wings deserve special mention. Keith Earls looks sharp as a tack and Simon Zebo looks like he has taken Joe Schmidt’s pointers on board. Rather than sulking or whining to the media, he has come out and spoken of his determination to improve certain aspects of his game, and is doing his talking on the pitch. He scored the fifth try in the face of some pretty tepid defending, but it was all started by him doing something pretty mundane: aggressively chasing a restart. Jamie Heaslip, when he was rotated out of the team in the 2009 Six Nations, told Declan Kidney he would be 100% positive in the lead-up to the game and wouldn’t allow being dropped to negatively affect him in any way. He’d train harder than ever. In the event, he was brought on after 20 minutes and scored the winning try, and was back in the team for the final game. Simon Zebo appears to have the same attitude.

The win and the manner of it also highlighted the importance of getting a home quarter-final. Contrast with Leinster’s trip to Toulon, a similarly comfortable win for the home side. Flip the venues, though and it’s a different ball game altogether. The home-away swing effect is always big in rugby, but particularly so where the French are concerned, what with the spirit of the bell-tower and all that. Leinster will be left to ruminate on a carless defeat to Northampton Saints, having put 40 points on them the previous week.

So, on Munster march to the semi-finals, and this time they have to go away. Can they win? They won’t go down without a fight, but they look like outsiders (again) – Toulon are clear favourites in Marseille, and the reality is that Munster have had a bit of an armchair ride to this point. None of their pool opponents will be partaking in the inaugural RCC next season if the leaked qualification rules come to pass – six from each league (including one from each Rabo country), one from the HEC/RCC champions league, and the winner of a Franglais playoff. Contrast with all three of Ulster and Leinster’s pool opponents likely to be back (admittedly Treviso by default). Of all eight quarter-finalists, Toulouse are the only ones hanging on to qualify, clinging on to the final French automatic spot. Here’s hoping their excellent pack and brilliant outside backs can trouble the beastly behemoth Toulonnais the same way they troubled the bosh-happy behemoth Toulousain.

Away We Go

The Heineken Cup quarter finals are imminent. It’s always hard to see past the home sides in these games, and traditionally home advantage holds a big sway, but there’s usually one team able to overturn expectations and pull off a win on the road. Last year it was Munster, who were unfancied going to Harlequins but raised their intensity to levels Quins couldn’t deal with. The year before that it was Ulster, who went and sacked the Thomond Park fortress in a remarkable game. Which of the four look the most likely this time?

  1. Toulouse, at Munster. It’s increasingly hard to see Toulouse pulling off a result in this match. Their away form has been dismal all season and there are doubts over Louis Picamoles and Yannick Nyanga and Dusatoir is still injured. With the likes of Medard, Fickou, Huget and Poitrenaud in their backline they should be one of the most exciting teams around, but it never really comes to fruition. If you’re wondering why, the clue might be in their half-backs. Jean-Marc Doussain is a scrum half in the Tomas O’Leary mould – picked for his physicality, he lacks mobility and intuition. Simply put, he’s a poor player for a club of this stature. Luke McAllister is a great footballer, but not a great 10 or a great place-kicker. Ulster showed that you can still win in Thomond Park even if your 10 plays rubbish, but only if your nine makes up for him. Can’t see that happening here, with the caveat that Toulouse’ bruising pack ground down Globo Gym once they were let into the game. If Munster whack and bag them early, tears will flow.
  2. Leicester Tigers, at Clermont. Nobody wins at the Stade Marcel Michelin, and Leicester, for all their undoubted awkward toughness and never-say-die attitude, do not look quite good enough to break what has been an incredible winning streak at home. Clermont are just too good, and their annual choke doesn’t usually get started until later. Leicester came up short in both games against Ulster, despite throwing everything at them and a similar outcome here feels inevitable. Having Tuilagi back in the fold is great news for them, and don’t expect Leicester to give Clermont anything cheap, but even if it’s tight, Clermont will pull through in the end.
  3. Saracens, at Ulster. The new Ravenhill is ready. Are Ulster? They look to have gone the old Munster route, throwing in a careless Pro12 defeat the week before the game, which gives Anscombe plenty of scope to kick them up the rear and get minds focused on the game ahead. Assuming Pienaar is fit, they’ve a pretty full deck to choose from. Even Ferris could feature, presumably as part of a double-whammy with Iain Henderson with 20 minutes to go. But what of Saracens? Never the most likeable of clubs, with the odious chairman Nigel Wray spearheading the European rugby governance coup, they have at least tried to broaden their game this season. They always looked to have the players capable of playing a bit more footie than they did, especially the superbly balanced Alex Goode, and it’s working well for them; they’re top of the Premiership and top try-scorers too, averaging almost three a match. This will be a hard game for Ulster and Saracens have a reasonable chance of pulling out an away win; in truth if the away win comes from anywhere it is most likely to be here. Ulster have shown enough toughness in this competition to deserve the tip, but Saracens are confident and in good form.
  4. Leinster, at Toulon. If timing is everything, Leinster have got this one wrong. Before the Six Nations, Bernard Jackman, the resident expert on all things French rugby, saw no reason why Leinster couldn’t win, citing Toulon’s shoddy morale, poor coaching, infighting and mediocre results as evidence. Roll on a few weeks and Toulon have put together five wins out of six in the Top 14 and the juggernaut appears to be pointing in the right direction. Heck, they’ve even won an away game! In the Top 14! Sacre bleu! As for Leinster, they’re just not playing well enough to be confident of getting what would be a remarkable win. Their greatest wins have been based on the twin pillars of accurate passing and near-feral clear-out; neither have been in much supply this season. Doubts remain over who will play at fly-half and whether the selected player can deliver. We’d have guessed Jimmy Gopperth was favourite, but it looks like O’Connor may feel his best chance is to approach this game as he would a home tie and play at as high a tempo as possible against what is a huge, but not overly mobile Toulon pack. So we’re expecting Jennings, Reddan and Madigan all to be in the starting team. Leinster still look to be dining out on their performance in Northampton this year and something of the same order is required here. Being Leinster, they can’t be ruled out but it’s a tall order. A home win looks the more likely.

Forgive the blandness of the opinion, but four home wins looks the most probable outcome, which would give us a semi-final line-up of Ulster-Clermont and Toulon-Munster. Both have met in recent years, with Ulster likely to look back with fonder memories. Clermont’s flakiness under pressure and poor record in Ireland would lead you to hesitate picking Clermont, but still, a repeat of last years final is a distinct possibility, and any winner other than Toulon would be a mild surprise.  The winner of Toulon-Leinster becomes tournament favourite.

The Mental

Were Clermont the better team in Saturday’s HEC final? Yes, no doubt – they dominated possession, territory and scoring chances. Did they deserve to win the game? Hmmmm, not so sure about that one.

Watching the game on Saturday, we’ve never been as deflated as we were at the full-time whistle – like most neutrals, we were cheering heartily for the Auvergnats. Clermont are a most likeable bunch – led by fine upstanding men like Julien Bonnaire and Aurelien Rougerie, and guided by the little genius Morgan Parra. And their fans are the best in Europe, bar none. But, and there is a massive but, they showed zero mental resolve when it counted, and crumbled visibly as the pressure mounted.  There is something almost Shakesperian, or even out of ancient Greek mythology about this Clermont side.  They are European rugby’s Achilles.  An extraordinary team with the ability to crush all-comers, but with a fatal weakness – when it comes to the crunch they don’t know how to win.

Shortly after Jonny Wilkinson’s penalty to bring the game to 15-9, Clermont had a knock-on advantage in their own half. What they did was shuttle the ball back and forth, recycling dirtier and dirtier ball, and panicking as the Toulon line went nowhere. The ball came back to Wes Fofana, who finally broke through (losing the advantage) … but got himself slightly isolated and turned over (in a brilliant piece of play), from which that horrible man ran in an easy turnover try.

On the same weekend in which that master of clutch situations, Ronan O’Gara, announced his retirement, it’s worth asking what would he have done? Welted the ball away to relieve the pressure – or tried a cheeky dink over the top, knowing you’ll get the ball back if it doesn’t work out. Certainly not faffed around and panicked, that’s for sure.

And this was when they were leading. It’s tempting to get bogged down in what-ifs about the Toulon try, but, judging by the pattern of the last 20 minutes, even if Felon Armitage had knocked on Fernandez Lobbe’s pass, Toulon would have manufactured a try from somewhere. And another ice-cool pressure merchant, St Jonny, would have converted for the win.

In fact, Egg found himself in a very strange place with a minute to go – he badly wanted Clermont to win, but he also found himself thinking a team that wobbles this badly during squeaky-bum time simply does not deserve to be champions of Europe. Clermont have played in four massive clutch European games this season – the two versus Leinster, the semi-final against Munster, and the final. In three of those games, they did their utmost to lose – squeezing out a win at home against a patched-up Leinster team, scraping past an inferior Munster team, and finally losing to the disciplined but limited Toulon. Only in the Aviva, when the pressure was largely on Leinster as the home side, did they play freely and with ice in their veins.

The sight of Rougerie, Parra and James on the bench, helpless as the woeful David Skrela repeatedly took the ball into contact, put us in mind of the New Zealand-France game in RWC07 – then it was Carter, Kelleher and Collins sitting ashen-faced as New Zealand managed to lose a game they dominated.  It seemed they knew the game was lost even when it could still be won.  Even Rougerie’s comments after the game – he said that Clermont came within one point of something special – did not sound like those of a serial winner.  Would Ronan O’Gara, or Brian O’Driscoll, or Rory Best say such a thing after a defeat like that?

This is a pattern with Clermont, dating back many years in Europe – the RDS in 2010 when les Jaunards lost a game they all but won was simply the most memorable. Until now anyway. Vern Cotter has ambitions to go back to New Zealand and angle for a Super Rugby job, and eventually the All Black one – but for all his success in Clermont, they are missing a major trait of winners – the mental. His substitutions of the halves were disastrous – how he thought serial loser Skrela (now possessor of 3 HEC silver medals with 3 different teams) was a better option than Brock James, even acknowledging James’ history in Dublin, is beyond us.

The sad truth is that Clermont didn’t show the kind of character that champions do. Which is an awful shame. Toulon (with the exception of that awful individual) did, and that’s why they won the game.

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!

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.

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.