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.

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!

Road Trip Reseach Report

Lovely Bath: we came, we saw, and Leinster did their best not to conquer, but did so in the end, thanks to Johnny’s composure and a good forward effort in the last 10.  But it was nervier than it should have been, and Sean O’Brien will be looking for somewhere to hide in today’s video session.  As for the town itself, suffice to say WoC were in awe of its multitude of wonders – from the setting of the rickety old Rec to the Thermae Baths and Royal Crescent, with many fine eateries and pubs in between, this is up there with the great rugby towns.  Throw in the last weekend of the Christmas Markets and you’ve got the perfect leisurely rugby weekend.  We’ll be back.  On with good week/bad week…
Good week
Munster and BJ Botha
With an aggregate points difference of +8 after three wins, this Munster team is not necessarily dominating opposition, but they know how to come out on the right side of tight fixtures.  Few fancied their massively depleted side to come out on top against a vaunted Scarlets outfit, but thanks largely to the scrummaging of their South African tighthead, and the obligatory Radge ‘masterclass’, they are now three from three and looking at a home quarter final.  They’re back in business.

Treviso

No longer the whipping boys of Europe, Treviso now have a draw and a win in their two home games so far.  Having been desperately unlucky to cough up a late levelling penalty to Ospreys last week, here they held their nerve to slay the ailing Basque club.  What’s most remarkable is that both games have been try-heavy, high-scoring affairs.  Treviso’s desire to expand their game is impressive in and of itself, but it is getting results for them too.  In Tomasso Benvenuti they have an attacking weapon in the backline, but on Saturday they left the scoring to the fatties.
The Big French Clubs

The middle-tier French sides have been indistinguished this year (Racing, Castres, Montpellier, Birritz) but they still provide two of the favourites.  Clermont Auvergne swatted Leicester aside and are firmly in control of their pool, while Toulouse asserted their superiority against a fancied Harlequins.  We were surprised at the bullishness of many English commentators before the game, and Toulouse duly showed Quins the level they need to get to.  They have an ominous look about them.

Bad Week

Rhys Priestland

We’ve been here before.  Mega-hyped young fly-half is deemed set for greatness, only to come up against the wily old master, Radge, and come off distinctly second best.  Erratic from placed ball, where he missed three from five shots at goal, he was moved from the 10 channel when Stephen Jones was brought on to try and get Scarlets back into the game.  He’s still a promising player, but not quite a Lions fly-half just yet. 

Pascal Gauzerre

He being the ref from Sarries v Ospreys.  Some very poor calls indeed, and Ospreys will feel a little hard done by in what was a very entertaining game.  Called back for a non-existant forward pass when they looked to have broken clear, Ospreys conceded a soft try directly from the resulting scrum.  Then, in the second half, we’re still dubious as to whether Chris Wyles grounded the ball for the final Sarries try.  At the very least, Gauzerre should have gone upstairs, but simply awarded the try.

Weeks Five and Six

The double headers falling between the top sides in each group is a double edged sword.  Exciting in Rounds Three and Four of course, but by the last two rounds, many pools will be settled.  Munster, Leinster and Toulouse will be home free, and Sarries, Cardiff and Clermont could join them by winning on the road next week.  There could be uncharacteristically few groups going to the wire.

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.

HEC Preview: Pool 5 & Pool 6

Pool 5: Biarritz, Saracens, Ospreys, Treviso

Pedigree: Solid. Biarritz have two final appearances on their CV, losing both narrowly. The most recent was in 2010, where they shunted the Liginds into the dust before losing to Toulouse in the final. Sarries were Glen Jackson-inspired semi-finalists in 2008, when they almost upset the Munster bandwagon. Ospreys have a smattering of knockout experience and Treviso have little to shout about – although they get closer to scalping a big name every year.

Preview: The experience of Biarritz throws up a frequently-cited curiosity of the HEC draw. Because, inevitably, some French side with little European pedigree qualifies every year (e.g. Agen, Bourgoin, Montauban, Racing Metro, Montpellier) and must be kept apart from other French sides, top seeded French teams tend to draw a bunny e.g. Italian teams. Which means they are much more likely to qualify for the knockout stages and hence keep their top rating, then draw a bunny, etc, etc. Biarritz are a functional side built around a garganutan pack, Dmitri Yachvili’s on-field generalship and Damien Traille’s boot – but they are pretty average, and “boast” Iain Balshaw in their backline. Still, it’s a formula that works well in European rugby, and they have punched above their weight.

They know how to take 10 points from Italian sides (notwithstanding last year’s shock defeat to Aironi), get losing bonus points away and then blow teams apart at home (or in San Sebastian) – they will be very hard to stop in this pool, in spite of their precarious position in the Top 14

Sarries, on paper, carry a real threat. They are English champions (albeit with a smattering of South African influence) and aren’t easily beaten. Their problem might be in picking up enough bonus points to qualify, as they aren’t full of tries. They will win their home games against the two outsiders, but could struggle to seal the deal away, especially in Biarritz, and double especially because they plan to bring the Basques to Cape Town in January for their “home” game – with the kind of climate that the Biarritz lads will prefer to the muck, bosh and boot of North Lahndahn.

The Hairsprays have started the RaboMagners in chipper fashion, careering along happily, and with the tightest defence in the league. The jettisoning of the like of Jerry Collins and Mike Philips and banning of fake tan seems to have helped with team spirit, and the club are in a better place. At home, they are strong and are difficult to beat – they will be looking to be in the mix for the knockouts, but won’t qualify this year.

Treviso are interesting – they are far away from the worst side in Europe now, and will be aiming for a home win to put in their locker – any of these three constitute a scalp and any win would be a big step forward for the Italians.

Verdict: Biarritz to cruise the pool, and maybe even get a home quarter-final. Sarries should win enough games to contend for a quarter-final as best runners-up, but could regret the holiday in the Cape. We think if Quins fail to beat Toulouse at home in Pool 6, Sarries are through.

Pool 6: Toulouse, Harlequins, Gloucester, Connacht

Pedigree: The most decorated group in the compeition, and all due to Toulouse – 4 wins and 2 runners-up appearances trumps everyone else. Gloucester reached the knock-out stages in 2008, and Quins in 2010, but both lost to Irish opposition, in Quins case in spite of a little help from Count Drac. Connacht are making their HEC debut.

Preview: Toulouse never stop – last year they did well in the Top 14, and gave Leinster their toughest game of the HEC in the semi-final. And it was still not good enough. They have recruited well over the summer and look primed for another huge season. Luke McAlister has hit the ground running, and a pool short on sharks will be welcome – they had a huge RWC contingent who they will want firing on all cylinders in May, the integration process of Dusautoir et al may determine the level of silverware spending the summer under Guy Noves’ beady gaze.

Quins have started the English season like a train – 10 from 10 in all competitions, and playing a pretty attractive brand of rugby as well. They have undoubtedly been helped by having virtually a full team throughout the RWC, including Nick Evans and potential FEC Chris Robshaw. We don’t doubt the momentum won’t last, but if they get an away win at Gloucester in week 2, they are contenders for the knockout stages.

Gloucester themselves have started well in England, but are another team which had a low RWC quotient, and a trip to Toulouse will not be pleasant to start things off. The game with Quins will determine their tournament, and if they lose, they may not have the stomach for the one game Connacht will fancy themselves for in week 3 – they are firm outsiders now, but don’t rule them out if they win well in week 2.

Connacht themselves represent 10 points in the bag for Toulouse and Quins, and at least 6 for Gloucester. They will target the Cherry and Whites and hope the Atlantic whips up a winter storm, but it probably won’t be enough – this is a step way beyond what Connacht have experienced, and while it’s great to see a new name in the tournamnt, it could get very grizzly in January.

Verdict: Toulouse will stroll this pool, without needing (or wanting) to get out of third gear. Quins have a chance of sneaking into the quarter-finals on their coat-tails if they beat Gloucester in week 2 – if they don’t they will need to beat Toulouse at home. Connacht to get zero wins, regretably.

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.

Moments of the Season Part 1

In keeping with the end of season theme, we’re going to take a look at our favourite moments of the season.  First, Egg Chaser takes us through his, tomorrow Palla Ovale follows suit.

Chris Ashton’s length of the field try against Australia. Australia, fresh from beating the All Blacks in a remarkable game of running rugby, landed in Twickers in November. Its fair to say WoC probably weren’t the only ones expecting the Wallabies to be the only team playing fast and loose, but in an incredible match, they were beaten at their own game.There had been flutterings of something happening for England in Australia in June, but the anthracite-clad red rose announced itself this day, with the highlight Ashton’s try. It established Ashton as a star, and signposted a gloriously unexpected positive attitude, the type of which we had not seen in an English team since 1990.



The best two teams in Europe collide. Coming to Lansdowne Road for the final game of the 6 Nations, England needed a win to complete a first Grand Slam since 2003, when it was also finished off (in style) in Dublin. Less than a minute into the game came the first scrum, something Dylan Hartley was clearly relishing, judging by the way he shoo-ed away the physio. Cue Mike Ross mincing the England scrum, a quick tap penalty by Sexton, Banahan’s outside shoulder exposed by Earls, and 80 metres gained by Ireland. The English platform had been decimated, and Ireland never looked likely to lose afterwards.

Reality dawns on the Northern Hemisphere. Following the rather dowdy and generally low-quality Six Nations, the Crusaders and the Sharks came to Twickers as refugees from the Christchurch earthquake. To stunned Northern Hemisphere fans made comfortable by the likes of Mad Dog Jones deriding the Super XV as basketball, this was a serious shock to the system. The players here seemed to be playing a different sport to that which “graced” Murrayfield and the Millennium Stadium. Not only did we see wonderful running lines and a series of deft and intelligent offloads by Daniel Carter and Sonny Bill Williams, we witnessed a display of powerful scrummaging from the Crusaders and ferocious rucking. Simply incredible.

Clement Poitrenaud not scoring against Clermont. If any passage of play symbolised French rugby over the last decade, it’s this one. Indeed, if any player symbolises French rugby over the past decade, it’s Clement Poitrenaud – a man who mixes the sublime with the ridiculous, sometimes within seconds of one another – just like here. Toulouse covered 105 metres in just six marauding phases, a mesmeric series of play full of offloads, line breaks and runners flooding the support channels, all in a visceral and powerful lunge at Clermont’s throat. Poitrenaud touched the ball 3 times in this magical 45 seconds, once to draw in 2 tacklers to a prop, again in a brilliant half-break to commit 2 more men before offloading to Servat, and the third time to drop the ball when all he needed to do was fall over to make this the try of the century. Which almost made it better.

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!

John Hayes, Your Country Needs You!

As the season rumbled to a close, Whiff of Cordite managed the miracle of being in two places at one time (well, there are two of us I suppose) to get a view of all the action. Some things we noticed:

Munster deserved the Cup. They have struggled on the big occasion this season, but their consistency in the league is admirable. They played the final with an intensity Leinster couldn’t dredge up after their heroics last week. McGahan deserves some credit for switching his selecion policy mid-season to putting faith in youth, and a number of gems have been unearthed. Top of the class is Conor Murray, who, it could be argued, should not only travel to New Zealand, but be Ireland’s starting 9.

John Hayes is going to the World Cup. Munster’s scrum has improved beyond all recognition in the last couple of months, and the big Bruff man has surely seen off the non-challenge of Tony Buckley for a spot on the RWC plane. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the somewhat rejuventaed Marcus Horan could join him – swallow dive and off-the-ball hit notwithstanding.

The Flying Fattie still has it. Rupeni Caucaunibuca is one player we really hope to see in the World Cup. Spare tyre or otherwise, the sight of this huge man running the length of the pitch in the final moments of Toulouse’s semi-final win was surely the moment of the weekend. A shout-out to rugby genius Maxime Medard is also in order.

Thank heavens for Schalk Brits. Amid the Premiership drudge-fests at least there’s Schalk to keep up the fun-quotient. Saracens’ ridiculously dynamic hooker put in a man-of-the-match performance to swing an otherwise drab final for his side. He lit the place up, and his try-saving tackle on Alesana Tuilagi was the stuff of greatenss. South Africa are missing a trick if both he and Richardt Strauss are sitting at home this September, as is likely.

As for Montpellier‘s fairytale adventure, we’ll be having a closer look at just how the second-favourites for relegation at the start of the season have found themselves in the Top 14 Final a little later in the week.

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.