Get Back To Us After Round Five

Amid the turbulent birth of the new tournament, much has been made of the supposedly more competitive pools the new 20-team format has thrown up. As has become customary, it’s an argument that’s only half-true, and one which supporters of Bruce Craig and his chums are keen to stretch to its limits.

On the face of it, there is certainly at least some truth to it. Missing in action, in effect, are Edinburgh, Zebre, Connacht and Cardiff, none of whom are exactly heavyweights who would have much expectations of making the knockout stages.

But a closer look at last year’s results reveals that all bar the hapless Zebre made a significant splash in the competition.

  • Cardiff finished second in their pool with three wins, including being the only team to beat Toulon in the competition
  • Edinburgh managed three wins too, a big one at home to Munster and even a rare win on the road, against Gloucester
  • Connacht also managed three wins, including one of the most remarkable results in the history of the competition, away to Toulouse – admittedly the other two wins were against the Zebras, and they got fed a brutal 58-burger by Globo Gym. But they still beat Toulouse away!

Indeed, the worst performers in the competition, outside of the Italians, were a surprisingly useless Ospreys, Perpignan, who went on to be relegated from the Top 14, and Racing Metro, all of whom could muster just one win each. Ospreys and Racing Metro are back this year (and to be fair, are expected to do much better this time around – helped by being in the same pool as Treviso!) while Perpignan have been replaced, in effect, by Wasps, who won the playoff to be the 20th team.

The truth of the matter is that the pool stages have not been as exciting in the last three years, with most pools more or less decided going into round six, and relatively little at stake in the final week; even the running order of the top eight seemed largely pre-ordained. We wrote a piece about this back in January. In fact, the pools were so easy to predict, even we could get seven quarter-finalists right in our preview for last year, and don’t really expect a mid-tier team to make a run from the pack this time around either.

So will the pools be more competitive this year? Squeezing the talent from six pools into five should have an impact, but it is up to the middle-tier teams to show that they can take enough points to put the top seeds under pressure. In the article linked above we noted that the lack of round six hoopla was not so much down to the likes of Zebre being completely useless, but the fact that the second-tier teams haven’t been good enough to put pressure on the top dogs by accumulating enough points over the full six weeks.  The ‘more competitive’ argument appears to make a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes a pool competitive: it’s how closely matched the top two or three teams in the pool are, not how far off the next rung the fourth team is.

Last year, Gloucester were a hopelessly inadequate opponent for Munster, while Harlequins and Montpellier took an almost laissez-faire approach to the tournament. Northampton had their day in the Palindrome, but were too hot-and-cold over six rounds. Toulon, Toulouse, Leinster and Clermont breezed through their groups without great pressure from beneath. Munster and Toulon could even afford to throw in ridiculous defeats and still qualify with a round to spare. This year, it is up to the likes of Harlequins, Wasps, Bath, Montpellier, Racing Metro and Sale Sharks to show that they are genuinely more competitive and can make the likes of Gerry Thornley, and ourselves, eat our words.

The proof of the pudding will of course be in the eating and after round five, we will return to assess just how much is at stake in the final round, and judge accordingly. Having four less teams does mean one thing – genuine knock-out rugby starts early – by our reckoning last year, once Ulster beat Montpellier away (14th December), the eight quarter finalists were essentially decided. This time around, we’d be stunned if Clermont-Saracens and Ulster-Leicester aren’t relevant in the last round- and the fixtures on the first day already feel must-not-lose for the Tigers and Sarries. And if Munster’s pool is decided by any greater margins than a post-41,000-phase-86th-minute-bonus-point try against Sale, set against the backdrop of a weeping RTE commentary team, we will be disappointed.

Whatever about more competitive pools, one thing that certainly hasn’t changed is the wildly unbalanced nature of the pools.  Pools 1 and 3 are crammed full of talent and the rest are decidedly bantam-weight by comparison.  The newly domestic-based seeding system, based on one year’s domestic results, where Glasgow found themselves in the top pot and Toulouse in the bottom one, is undoubtedly responsible.  The short-term nature of the seeding is the polar opposite of the generously long-term nature of the previous system, whereby Biarritz maintained a perma top seed status (right from the first ranking-driven draw in 2008-09) due to a couple of finals and being drawn with Aironi/Zebre every year – until they dropped out entirely because they were hopeless. We’re not clear on whether this seeding system will persist or whether the performances in the European competition will count towards the seedings of future tournaments.  Anyone?

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Perception is Reality

It’s funny how one game can change the perception of a team. Especially when it’s Leinster vs Munster – for all the two provinces successes, they still measure themselves against one another. It’s pretty tough to remember before the two most famous of their clashes, but in both cases, perceptions after the game were diametrically different to those before:

  • 2006: Before the game, Munster were thought of as having lost their best chance to win a HEC when losing an epic semi-final to Wasps in Lansdowne Road. Leinster were coming off a most stunning second half of attacking rugby in Toulouse (an actual fortress back then) and were slight favourites going into a game where it was “how do you stop Leinster’s razzle-dazzle back play?” Post-game, Munster morphed in an unstoppable machine of forward power and passion, and Leinster became the ladyboys
  • 2009: Leinster were still the ladyboys – they’d tightened up up front, but couldn’t score tries and were liable to lose to a Castres or an Embra and not one to put any money on. Munster were double European champions who had just hammered the Hairspray Glacticos in the quarter-finals. The hubris was in overdrive, but then 80 minutes later, Munster had chinks in the armour – now they were an ageing team whose aura was punctured, while Leinster were a force to be reckoned with.

Nobody’s saying this game will prove to be as landscape-shifting as those, but the comprehensive nature of Munster’s victory at least passed an unwanted torch up the N7 for the next few weeks.  On Friday, Leinster had had a scratchy start to the season, but Munster were supposedly bordering on crisis – management’s feelings on some fringe squad players had gone public and it felt like the squad hadn’t quite managed to forget about it. They had lost in Thomond twice, in front of meagre attendances and only managed to beat hapless Eye-talians.

Now? Well, Munster are back to porridge – a pack whose feral intensity cannot be matched, driven on by the personality of Paul O’Connell and led by the general behind the pack – this time not a 10, but a 9; Conor Murray. The hard-working backs chip in, but it’s all about the piano shifters. And CJ Stander?!  What a find.  He looks increasingly like the real deal. And who cares about the early season messing about? Don’t worry about the Ospreys or whatever, we can do it when it matters. We got this one.  Was it ever any different?

It was remarkable how Munster got across the gainline in nearly every phase, cleared out brilliantly, and presented the ball quickly. When the pack deigned to let the backs have the ball, Murray distributed and kicked superbly, putting up contestable box kicks (which Munster invariably eventually won) and showing up the callow positioning of hipster’s choice Mick McGrath. Dinny Hurley had an excellent game, fixing the Leinster centres and making space for Keatley to orchestrate yet more gainline success. They were more disciplined than the four – four! – yellow cards suggests. The first was for cumulative penalties in Leinster’s half, and the fourth in garbage time. Bird-brained pair BJ Botha and Dave Foley conspired to give Leinster a thoroughly undeserved toehold in the game, but predictably they couldn’t take advantage.

And Leinster? Well, Leinster are the ones bordering on crisis now. They weren’t exactly in a fantastic place before the game, but they were so utterly dominated at the breakdown and now have been left with more injuries and selection issues (not of the good sort) in several positions. Jimmy Gopperth, for once not having an armchair ride behind a dominant pack, was abysmal – his passing was all over the place and his kicking aimless and often pointless. The nadir came when he kicked the ball twice – twice! – down the throat of Munster’s outside backs in oceans of space when Leinster were two – two! – men up. Barnesy remarked that Gopperth panicked, and that’s fair – he crumbled under pressure. Matt O’Connor has hoisted up the Gopperth flag, but even he has to reconsider based on that performance – Madigan might a little wilder, but if your pack is going backwards, Gopperth effectively offers you no game-winning options. As Keynes might have put it, when your outside half plays himself off the team, you change your opinion.

At the breakdown, Leinster were blown away – Dom Ryan finished the game as the team’s leading tackler, but had no discernible impact on the game, bar a few Hollywood tackles on Robin Copeland. On paper Leinster looked to have an advantage at the breakdown, with Munster’s backrow stacked with ball carriers, but that was turned on its head. Leinster are really down to the bare bones – Jordi Murphy can’t return quickly enough, and Shane Jennings would also have made a big difference.

And to add to DJ Church, Jack McGrath, Marty Moore, Sean O’Brien, Murphy, Shane Jennings, Luke Fitz Roysh, Dave Kearndashian on the disabled list is Ferg, Tadgh Furlong and Rosser. Ferg had a horrendous-looking leg injury when some big lump fell on him, and both tightheads limped off looking uncomfortable.  Even Joe Schmidt’s Super-Duper All Conquering Leinster wouldn’t have been able to withstand such an injury crisis. And this iteration of Leinster aren’t super-duper or all conquering.

In weeks ahead, what looked like a group of death in the ERCC will now be approached with confidence by Munster (though it’s still pretty horrible), whereas Leinster’s gimme group suddenly appears daunting with a decimated pack and no direction to speak of. Funny how perceptions change innit?

Postscript: for this Ulster fan, the game has to be commended for being pretty watchable – not something that can be said about recent vintages of the fixture. High fives all round!