Sunday, April 28, 2013

France three, Ireland one

The Heineken and Amlin Cup finalists were decided this weekend, two tournaments with very different feels to them. The Amlin Cup was bonkers and enjoyable, while the Heineken Cup was intense and enjoyable.

Perpignan Stade was all over the place as expected, but in a good way. The passion of the home crowd was second to none, and it took some very strange bounces of the ball in penalties for Stade to steal it at the end.   Perpignan had it, they had it, and then they lost it…and were left totally broken, with players slumped all over the ground. From a Leinster perspective, I was hoping Perpignan were going to win as the size of those Stade players is unbelievable. Great, enjoyable match to watch anyway.

Leinster kept hold of their official ‘Blue Magic’ title with a storming performance to stomp all over Biarritz. Biarritz kept it half decent until the last three minutes of the first half, when Leinster ran in two tries and killed the match off as a contest. Leinster ran everything, and with Sexton, Madigan, Nacewa , Bod and Kearney all looking dangerous – it wasn’t going to be Biarritz’s day. There was a sublime interchange of passes between Nacewa and Sexton for Sexton’s try, that won’t be matched for a long time. I was also impressed with how Leinster fronted up to the physical challenge of Biarritz, even without SOB. Home final too!

The Clermont Munster match was a far lower scoring affair, but way more intense. Clermont came out of the blocks at 100mph, and while they conceded an early penalty, they came roaring back with a try and looked like they were going to totally dominate Munster. But Munster were playing the game in the right parts of the field, and picking up points with penalties, staying in touch. Munster were much stronger in the second half, Hurleys try brought them back into it, and they NEARLY stole it at the end, but it wasn’t to be. Clermont are a hugely impressive team, so big and talented and well balanced, this looks like their year. For Munster, with POC back in the team, they are a physical force to contend with any team. And O’Gara played his best game in ages, awesome stuff, pinning Clermont back and putting through perfect little grubbers. Munster played well and it’s no disgrace to be beaten by a team like Clermont.

Finally, Saracens succumbed to the runaway juggernaut that is Toulon. They have the biggest, or the most skilled player, (or both) in every position, and JW to take the points. He squeezed out a drop goal there like threading a needle, he’s just pure pure class. It’s going to make for an awesome final, with Clermont the only team you could see beating them. Saracens were right there for most of the match, but faded at the end – Touoln’s subs were just better, and they totally lost their heads at the end. I think Saracens need a scrumhalf/flyhalf pairing with more flair, to present some sort of back play challenge to go with their awesome pack.

Heineken Cup
Sunday , April 28
Saracens 12 - 24 Toulon 
Saturday , April 27
Clermont Auvergne 16 - 10 Munster
Amlin Challenge Cup
Saturday , April 27
Leinster 44 - 16 Biarritz 
Friday , April 26
Perpignan 22 - 25 Stade Francais

Friday, April 26, 2013

Leinster work on the 'boutique' Amlin Challenge Cup (think Electric Picnic v Oxegen Heineken Cup)

Even has blue ribbons!

I was going to cover the BIG competition first, but at the risk of looking partisan, I suppose I should glance over the Heineken Cup.

It’s only heavyweights left at this stage of the competition – is it a coincidence that the four remaining teams would be well known for their physicality ?

First up is the tournament favorites Clermont  taking on a resurgent Munster side. There have been some impressive battles between the teams in the last 5 years or so – battle generally being the operative word. I can remember a Munster/Clermont match at Thomond where Jamie Cudmore was red carded for punching Paul O’Connell (I’m sayin’ nothing!) and even with 14 men proceeded to push Munster right down to the wire. The key of course is whether Munster can stand up and fight like they did against Quins. It’s absolutely the approach that Clermont will be expecting, and one I think they’re looking forward to the physical challenge Munster will present.  Then if the Clermont forwards can get an upper hand – their backs will ram home the advantage. This is probably the hardest one to call this weekend – I think Clermont really mean business this year, and I’m going with them, even if they do look a bit iffy at fly half with James and Skrela in doubt. And if they do win, it will probably be by a bit.

Saracens Toulon is going to be a total slugfest. Flair, finesse, running rugby – are words unlikely to be spoken on Sunday. It’s going to be a last man standing matching, and a shoot out between Owen Farell and Johnny Wilkinson. Toulon have the biggest club rugby budget in the world I’d say, so man for man they are bigger, and probably more skilled. They are away, which doesn’t suit them, but nothing I’ve seen from Saracens suggest they’ll be able to beat someone they can’t bully. So I’m going Toulon and an all French final.

In the boutique club tournament, the Amlin Challenge Cup  (think Electric Picnic to Oxegen) Perpignan and Stade get it going on Friday. That is likely to be a classic French derby ie pretty bonkers- lots of physical stuff up front, and a bit of insane throwing the ball around at the back. Perpignan should take it with home advantage.

Leinster look to be able to pick nearly from a full squad this weekend, which has been a relative rarity for this season. They won’t have many players without international caps in the team, and if Sexton, BOD D’Arcy, Nacewa and Kearney bring their a game that wil probably decide it. Biarritz Olympique coach Didier Faugeron said  "If you want to beat Leinster you must be well in the head ". You can’ argue with that! Even if Biarritz aren’t a top team anymore, they have awesone depth, but if  their away form is as brutal as normal, Leinster should grab this one.

Heineken Cup
Saturday , April 27
Clermont Auvergne vs Munster 18:00
Sunday , April 28
Saracens vs Toulon 15:00
Amlin Challenge Cup
Friday , April 26
Perpignan vs Stade Francais 
Saturday , April 27
Leinster vs Biarritz

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Uster and Leinster keep it one and two for Ireland

Friday night saw me sitting down to Connacht v Ulster. The first half was a fantastic match, with Eric Elwoods side trading tries with Ulster, and standing toe to toe with them. I suppose it was never going to last, and Ulster’s class showed through as they pulled away in the second half. Henderson, Bowe and Payne all shone, and Pienaar is just a class apart – how was that back flick to Trimble? Ulster rightfully retain top spot with a match to play. Meanwhile 8th is tantalisingly close for Connacht.

Munster’s up and down season continued with a disappointing loss to the Dragons.  They can’t do better (or worse) than 6th so they had better do something in the HC.

Then I was going to watch the Leinster Zebre match – but I didn’t. But – surprise – we won and got the bonus point! So we stay in second, Glasgow won to keep 3rd, Scarlets look good for 4th, but it’s still all to play for in the last round.

1. Ulster 21 16 1 4 540 335 205 10 76
2. Leinster 21 16 0 5 548 367 181 9 73
3. Glasgow  21 15 0 6 521 321 200 12 72
4. Scarlets 21 15 0 6 419 365 54 6 66
5. Ospreys 21 14 1 6 452 305 147 4 62

RaboDirect PRO12
Sunday , April 21
Zebre 22 - 41 Leinster 
Saturday , April 20
Scarlets 24 - 6 Cardiff Blues 
Friday , April 19
Newport Gwent D'gons 30 - 24 Munster 
Benetton Treviso 30 - 10 Edinburgh 
Glasgow 35 - 17 Ospreys 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Crime, punishment and rugby

Fillol - dangerous play (Picture

So Paulies kick to the head of Dave Kearney turns out to have been a damp squib with the citing commissioner saying he had no case to answer.  Meanwhile, Jerome Fillol gets 14 weeks for spitting on Peter Stringer. Seems kosher…

It just shows that the whole citing and suspension system is crying out loud for an overhaul. I couldn’t see where spitting was covered in the rules, so I thought a few new categories might need to be added. So here it is, a world exclusive, the new set of rules which will (probably) be adopted by the IRB. You read them here first!

Spitting on a player - 14 week suspension
Wiping a snarly on a players sleeve - 8 weeks, reduced to 6 on appeal
Farting in a players general direction - 6 weeks suspension
Front row forward chewing garlic during a match - 4 weeks
Dangerous head high tackle - 10 weeks
Eye gouging, heavy stamping, goolie grabbing -16 weeks
Kicking a player in the head - 0 weeks (sure, you’re grand)
Dangerous head high tackle, accompanied by eye gouge and goolie grab-
  A kick in the head by a player in red

So things kick off on Friday with Munsters trip to the Dragons. The Dragons are the least competitive of the Welsh sides, and have been picking up hidings all over the place in the last few weeks. They are a whole lot better at Rodney Parade – but I think Munster will still pick up a win, even the lightish side they’ve piocked with an eye on the semi the weekend after.
Glasgow Ospreys is a big one -3rd takes on 4th. The Scots really don’t want to slip up now as the Scarlets are hovering to swoop in and  steal their play off place. On their play over the season, Glasgow really deserve to be in the playoffs, and I think they’ll step up to the plate and take the win they need.
Ulster visit Connacht, again not wanting any mishaps, and to cement their top spot. They are bringing all their big guns, and should put Connacht away.
Leinster are taking a solid squad to Italy to face Zebre on Sunday. They have Sexton back, which is great news, and some of the squad players like Bent get a chance to show their wares. Shouldn’t present any problems to Leinster, they just need to make sure of the bonus point.

RaboDirect PRO12
Friday , April 19
Newport Gwent D'gons vs Munster 19:00
Benetton Treviso vs Edinburgh 19:30
Glasgow vs Ospreys 19:35
Connacht vs Ulster 19:45
Saturday , April 20
Scarlets vs Cardiff Blues 18:30
Sunday , April 21
Zebre vs Leinster 15:00

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Three Irish provinces triumph and Munsters' excuse is that they had to play Leinster!

Dave Kearney (picture

It looks like it will all go down to the last weekend now, the most competitive it’s been for years, after the Scarlets picked up a big victory for the pack chasing Glasgow on Friday.

I caught the Ulster Dragons match – Ulster took a little while to get going, but they got there in the end. They got their four tries they wanted, with four different scorers, and totally dominated a Dragons side which still has some very talented players. One lesson Dragons can take out of this is that you don’t argue with referee Olly Hodges after he yellow carded Dan Evans for dissent.  He had plenty to think about on the bold step!

Connacht picked up a good victory over Edinburgh, and the last match of the weekend was the big Irish derby, Munster at home to Leinster. It was played in a gale, and as you could expect, it was pretty highly charged. Ian Madigan kicked everything he was asked to, then  Munster came roaring back into the lead with two quick tries, and the stage was set then for BOD to deliver the coup de gras. I don’t think Leinster played that well, but they took on Munster physically when they had to and more than matched them. There were a few big talking points – did Kearney score a try – yes he did! And should POC have got into more trouble for nearly kicking Dave Kearneys head off – yes I think so. I don’t know what the ref and touch judges saw, or what POC saw as he ran up to kick the ball, but he kicked him in the head, Kearney left on a stretcher. It was reckless and he should have got a yellow, if not a red.

So that’s the way it’s sitting, if anyone slips up now, they’ll pay…

1. Ulster 20 15 1 4 506 317 189 9 71
2. Leinster 20 15 0 5 507 345 162 8 68
3. Glasgow Warriors 20 14 0 6 486 304 182 11 67
4. Ospreys 20 14 1 5 435 270 165 4 62
5. Scarlets 20 14 0 6 395 359 36 6 62

RaboDirect PRO12
Saturday , April 13
Cardiff Blues 28 - 13 Zebre 
Munster 16 - 22 Leinster 
Ospreys 28 - 3 Benetton Treviso 
Friday , April 12
Scarlets 29 - 6 Glasgow 
Ulster 31 - 5 Newport Gwent D'gons 

Friday, April 12, 2013

BOD is back off the bold step for Munster v Leinster!

Try machine (picture

There a couple of big matches this weekend- it’s a critical time to be picking up points as the season draws to a close.

Ulster need to win big against the Dragons, get max points, and hope Glasgow stumble against the Scarlets. They put in a flat performance last week..but now that’s out the way, they can concentrate on the PRO12, where they still have a really good chance of winning. Tommy Bowe starts for Ulster – I was so impressed last weekend when all the lady Quins fans stood up and clapped when he was subbed on – that’s sportsmanship for you! They are missing a few front runners, but the pack looks very mobile. And Marshall and Pienaar is a good attacking 9/10 combination. So they should get the 5 points they need.

Leinster take on Munster, which is a big game for Leinster in the hunt for a good spot in the Pro 12, but not a huge match for Munster. BOD is back off the bold step, and Sexton and Jennings are both in the frame. Try machine Mike Ross, who scored the first try of his professional career last weekend,  is looking to double his tally :) I don’t know what sort of team Munster will pick – they won’t want to lose to Leinster – but they don’t want to pick up any injuries either.  Munster are on a high – I kind of think Leinster may still do it though, should be a great match!

Connacht should put in a good show at Edinburgh - they could up in 8th, which would be a great result for a small team.

RaboDirect PRO12
Friday , April 12
Ulster vs Newport Gwent D'gons 
Scarlets vs Glasgow 
Edinburgh vs Connacht 
Saturday , April 13
Cardiff Blues vs Zebre 14:30
Ospreys vs Benetton Treviso 18:30
Munster vs Leinster 18:30

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Munster steal the show for Ireland

He's the man ( picture )

Leinster got things going for Ireland with a smashing performance against Wasps. This is Leinster! Their defense wasn’t 100% - I think a unfamiliar centre partnering had a lot to do with that – and Wasps have some attacking ability in their backline. But this is the form that wins you cups – when you can attack, and the opposition trembles in their boots! Madigan just ran through their whole team. Add in some great loose forward play, a stellar return from D’Arcy, and now a home semi – this is what we want! I like Christian Wade though – doesn’t he want to move to Ireland?

The main thing that was emphasised in Ulster’s loss to Saracens, is that Chris Aston is a gigantic knob. He really is peerless in this department. Ulster had a bad day at the office at Twickenham. They came with a bad gameplan – you don’t try and outmuscle a team stuffed with Saffers. Outwitting them is generally simpler. They just got bulldozed by Saracens, wacked in the lineout and monstered at the breakdown, with the scrum being the only area that had parity. They just never got out the blocks, they had butter fingers, it was hard to watch really. No lack of effort, but they were just smothered by Saracens.

It was the Munster’s turn to peg things back for Ireland, with a rousing second half comeback, picking up the game by the scruff of the neck and having their Munster way with it. Paul O’Connell was imperious, at the lineout, with ball in hand, the engine of the victory, ably assisted by the loss trio who just bossed Quins off the park. We could have done with that energy in the 6N. They stood up and fought alright!

Out of the 8 remaining teams, five are French, two Irish and one English. We punch way above our weight!
Heineken Cup
Sunday , April 7
Harlequins 12 - 18 Munster 
Toulon 21 - 15 Leicester 
Saturday , April 6
Clermont Auvergne 36 - 14 Montpellier 
Saracens 27 - 16 Ulster 
Amlin Challenge Cup
Saturday , April 6
Bath 20 - 36 Stade Francais 
Friday , April 5
Perpignan 30 - 19 Toulouse 

Thursday, April 4, 2013

If Leinster do manage to win the Amlin Cup, will they add half a star to the jersey?

So the BIG challenge this weekend for Leinster is the Amlin Challenge Cup! After having graciously bowed out of the Heineken Cup to give Ulster and Munster a sporting chance :) , it’s a fresh challenge for Leinster to win a cup they’ve never won, but which is every bit as prestigious as the Heineken Cup.  It’s a major, major cup, like, a really big one. Ok, no it isn’t, and we’d far rather be in the Heineken cup. Will they add a half star to the jersey if we win it? Maybe an asterisk? With a note on the bottom of the jerseys to  explain what it’s for?

Leinster have put out a strong team – performers like Sean O’Brien, Gordon D’Arcy and Fergus McFadden Come back in. We still have issues at lock, but the backline looks much better balanced.  The Wasps team looks decent but not exceptional – I really rate Christian Wade and Joe Launchbury, but player for player we are better on average. They do have home advantage. Wasps are 7th in the premiership and have lost to Saracens Saints Worcester and the Exiles in their last matches. So, I think we’ll do it if we play any rugby at all.

Ulster have a tall order at Saracens. Early on in the season, they had a hard physical game, and a good running game, and the combination propelled them to the top of the Rabo, and into the Heineken Quarters. But this year, things have been a lot mixed. They seem to have rediscovered their physical edge, which they are going to need because Sarries are only bloody massive. If they stand up to Sarries, and play the game out of the range of Owen Farrell’s  boot, they could win this. On recent form though, I think Sarries will bulldoze them.  Hope not.

Munster come into their match against Quins in disarray. Donnacha Ryan, Connor Murray, and maybe Howlett and Zebo will be back. A decent scrum half is a good start. After a battering last week, I don’t know if they can pull it together against Quins, especially away. Having said all that, Quins have lost their last three matches on the bounce. Most people are expecting Quins to take this at a canter, and I think they’ll win, but probably not by much.

In the rest of the matches – I’m going Clermont and Toulon in the HC, and Gloucester,  Toulouse and Bath. Let’s see how I do!

Heineken Cup
Saturday , April 6
Clermont Auvergne vs Montpellier 15:40
Saracens vs Ulster 18:30
Sunday , April 7
Harlequins vs Munster 14:00
Toulon vs Leicester 17:30
Amlin Challenge Cup
Thursday , April 4
Gloucester vs Biarritz 
Friday , April 5
Perpignan vs Toulouse 20:00
Wasps vs Leinster 20:00
Saturday , April 6
Bath vs Stade Francais 13:00