Time to Front Up

With all the Heineken Cup wrangling so prominent, it feels almost as if the tournament itself will be a mere background event this year.  How’s about Ulster vs. Leicester on Friday night at Ravenhill to kick off proceedings?  Sounds great, but first tell us about the latest cloak-and-dagger statement to come out from Ligue National de Rugby.

While the Celtalian provinces/regions/franchises don’t come to the negotiating table speciafically, being represented by their umbrella unions, they can do themselves a service by showing strongly and putting out a message to the English sides that they are worthy of being here, regardless of what rule changes may exclude them in the future.

Leinster, Munster and Ulster we know will be competitive – they always are.  It’s time for a handful of Pro12 teams outside the Irish Big Three to show that Anglo-French perceptions of the Pro12 as a sort of joke tournament are wide of the mark.

First on that list has to be Glasgow, increasingly impressive in the Pro12 but seemingly unable to translate their form into wins against the more physically imposing sides in Europe.  Last season they won just one pool game in a group with Ulster, Northampton and Castres, but finished third in the Pro12 and were deeply unfortunate not to beat Leinster in the semi-final.  Spearheaded by the magnificent Josh Strauss at 8 and with great attacking players like Stuart Hogg and Sean Maitland in the backline, it’s high time they brought their A-game to the next level.  A lot appears to hinge on which Ruaraidh Jackson shows up for them; more often than not it’s the patchy, flaky, indecisive one.  With Exeter, Cardiff and Toulon in their pool, winning it outright looks difficult, but they should be targeting second place.

Another who can impose themselves in their pool are the fast-improving Treviso.  The premier Italian franchise remain formidable at home, and racked up wins in the second half of last season’s league to finish a creditable 7th.  Their season has been slow to start, but in beating Munster on Friday night they are up and running.  They have signed Matt Berquist to play 10, and it could be a shrewd bit of business, as they have been crying out for a controlling fly-half.  They’re in a pickle of a pool, with Ulster, Leicester and Montpellier, but two home wins is a realistic target.  French sides can take a lackadaisical attitude to such games and are ripe for taking by surprise, and only last season, Leicester only beat Treviso through a somewhat dubious penalty try minutes from the end.  Ulster have yet to hit their stride, and are eminently beatable if they have an off-day.

Ireland’s ‘fourth province’ Connacht have been a soft target for the likes of Stephen Jones, who has said they are not ‘elite’ whatever that means, but they have given a great account of themselves in the big league so far and are back again this year (thanks again to Leinster).  Their group contains Saracens and Toulouse, as well as Zebre.  Toulouse have been to the Sportsground before, and won comfortably, but they are ageing and dull these days.  Connacht will be targeting that game in a big way, and a win would put out a huge signal of the Pro12’s strength.

Finally, what about the Welsh?  As usual, the Ospreys are their best hope.  For all the brickbats they receive, they usually make a big contribution to the tournament. Last year their 15-15 draw with Leicester was the best match of the season, but they have a habit of coming out on the losing side of thrilling games.  They join Leinster, Saints and Castres in what should be a white knuckle-ride of a pool.  Even if they don’t come out of the pool, their results may define it.

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.