Friday, 30 April 2010

Our Friends in the North

Just when you thought that the lesser-spotted Gavin Henson was finally starting to focus on rugby, it turns out he's been galavanting around Norway for a new reality show.

The long term Ospreys absentee has been jumping into fjords and trekking up glaciers for ITV's 71 Degrees North - the Arctic Circle version of I'm a Celebrity Get Me in the Papers.

Henson lines up alongside stellar names such as cockney wide-boy and Nolan fancier Shane Richie, operatic warbler Leslie Garrett, and Rob Kearney's girlfriend Susie Amy.

The question is why?  Maybe Gavin was feeling a bit strapped for cash after his lengthy spot of unpaid leave?  Or maybe he thought climbing snowy mountains would be a good way to get back in shape?  Then again, he could have been answering the call of the Norwegian Tourist Board - the Northern Lights have been lacking a certain orange glow of late.

Whatever the case may be, I hope that Mr. Charlotte Church will be back next season with his eyes totally on the game and not halfway up some fjord in Norway.

Lykke boyo!

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Magic Weekend

Rugby, rugby, rugby.

That's the only thing on my agenda this bank holiday weekend.

I'm off up to Edinburgh for rugby league's Magic Weekend: Two days of back to back Super League matches and free-flowing drinks, swiftly followed by a crippling hangover and a spot of sightseeing.

But there's also plenty of rugby union action over the May day holiday too.

The much anticipated Heineken Cup semi-finals roll into town this weekend.  Toulouse take on reigning champions Leinster, while Munster travel to Spain to take on Biarritz.

If everything goes according to plan (and my Sky+ doesn't throw a hissy fit) then I'll settle down to watch these when I get back from the land of deep fried Mars bars and Iron Bru.


They really are two potentially cracking games: Ireland v France x 2.

The Heineken Cup road to the final in Paris has been spectacular this season, with almost every game straight out of the top drawer.

But will we see an all Ireland final or an all French affair?  The closer we get to the final the more difficult it is to predict the winner - such is the quality in this competition.

That's not going to stop me from giving it a go, of course.

Toulouse v Leinster

Current champions Leinster squeaked past Clermont Auvergne in the quarter-finals, thanks to a classy kicking display from fly-half Jonny Sexton

But that's only half the story of their 29-28 win at the RDS.  Brock James, Sexton's opposite number, handed Leinster the win after his epically dire kicking performance beat even Tim Henman in the choking stakes.  James has been banging over kicks from all over the pitch this season, but his boot/bottle left him and he missed five penalties, one conversion and two easy drop goals.  By my calculations, that's 23 points that went begging.

Leinster did look classy in attack, with powerful Jamie Heaslip thundering over for two tries.  But Michael Cheika's men will have to up the ante if they are to beat Toulouse on their home turf, and a raft of injuries to key players won't help.

Wunderkind Jonny Sexton is a major doubt as he recovers from a fractured jaw which he suffered in the win over Clermont.  Full back Rob Kearney looks likely to miss the game with a dodgy ankle, and prop CJ van der Linde is also a doubt.  Naturally, decrepit old Brian O'Driscoll is nursing a couple of niggles, but when has a pesky injury stopped him from putting in a top class performance?

But these are problems Leinster could do without.  The Dubliners need to field all their star players to snatch a win in the south of France.  Toulouse's annihilation of Stade Francais in the second half of their quarter final was spectacular to watch.  Yannick Jauzion weaved his irrepressible magic and his team waltzed into the next round. 

And Jauzion isn't the only match winner in the Toulouse side.  Cedric Heymans, Jean-Baptiste Ellisalde, David Skrela, Vincent Clerc, Clermont Poitreneaud and not forgetting France captain Thierry Dusautoir are all in the squad.  Not bad, not bad at all.

If this game was being played at the RDS and if Leinster had their first choice team all fit, then I would be inclined to lean towards a Leinster win.

But with key Leinster players only likely to feature when the cameras pick them out in the stands, and with Toulouse on home turf, I think the French will triumph.  Sorry Leinster.

My prediction:  Toulouse to win by 12.

Biarritz v Munster

The second semi-final Gallic/Celtic clash sees the Thomond Park faithful travel en masse to San Sebastian to see the men in red mount their next assault on the road to Paris.

In the quarter finals, Munster brushed aside pretenders to the crown Northampton, while Biarritz saw off the visiting Ospreys in a blistering match.  This game promises to be another epic battle.

When these two sides met at the Millennium Stadium in the 2005/6 final, a Peter Stringer try clinched the 23-19 win for the men from the emerald isle.  That day also saw a 100% kicking performance from Ronan O'Gara to steer his team to their first Heineken Cup win.

Skipper Paul O'Connell misses this match as he struggles with the groin injury that has ruled him out since the Six Nations clash with Scotland.  Biarritz will be without France star Damian Traille who has a shoulder injury.  But fear not, Munster fans, for Ronan and Strings are in the squad and will no doubt be pumped up to repeat the victory in Cardiff from four years ago.

As for my prediction?

It's tough.  With Munster's pedigree and history in this competition it's hard to bet against them, even away from Thomond Park.  They travelled to Perpignan in the pool stages and ran riot, so games on the road in France (or in this case, Spain) hold no fear.

My prediction:  Munster to win by 6.

But what do you think?

Whatever the results, let's hope it's a Magic Weekend in both codes.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Leicester in the Making?

Unless you've been sleeping under a rock I'm sure you will know that Leeds Carnegie beat Worcester Warriors 12-10 at Headingley on Sunday to grab their place in the top flight for next season.

As a die-hard Leeds fan I am immensely proud of the entire squad, backroom staff and coaching team. And I'm not ashamed to admit it, but I did shed a tear when the ref blew the final whistle.

Whilst I feel for Worcester (as I know the pain of relegation) it is a brilliant achievement for Leeds.  This season, the Yorkshire side managed to secure top flight rugby with 40% less cash than all other teams in the Premiership.

Now that's boxing clever.

Their success due in massive part to the focus and determination of Head Coach Neil Back and Director of Rugby Andy Key.

When Back and Key arrived in LS6 two years ago they set themselves a non-negotiable three year plan:

Year 1: Promotion from the Championship.  Check.
Year 2: Survival in the Guinness Premiership.  Kerching!  Pass GO and collect £1m.
Year 3: Top 6 finish in the league and a Heineken Cup spot.  Dare I dream?

Well maybe.

Back and Key have instilled a new level of grit and determination in Leeds.  Call it mental strength, the ability to grind out results - it doesn't matter. 

Last time they were in the Premiership, Leeds didn't have the fitness or mental toughness to dispatch London Irish in the way they did two weeks ago.  Back then, I lost count of the times when I stood in the South Stand at Headingley to see Leeds start blowing out of their arses and roll over in the last twenty minutes.

Not now.  Neil Back's Leeds are arguably one of the fittest teams in the league - as London Irish discovered in the frantic final minutes at the Majedski.

And Carnegie seem to have a newly found mental strength to tough out games and grab the win.

Remind you of anyone?

It's like Neil Back has picked up a load of individuals, shook them up, whipped them into shape, distilled his winning mentality and injected it into them along with a load of Leicester grit.

Are Leeds a new Leicester Tigers in the making?

Leeds have the infastructure, the academy, the stadium, the community links and now they have the cash.  OK, so Carnegie don't have the same fan base, but if they keep winning - and winning well - then the crowds will come.

Hopefully the ex-Leicester pairing of Back and Key will be able to entice quality signings to the club with the extra £1m they will get from the RFU.

But I'm not talking about big name stars - I mean, the Justin Marshall disaster from a couple of years ago says it all. 

No, I'm talking about players who many people might not have heard of but who go on to develop and be great for the team.  Players like flanker Hendre Fourie, second rows Marco Wentzel and Eric Lund (who is sadly leaving the club), and hooker Andy Titterall.

Although saying that, I wouldn't mind too much if they signed Dan Carter...

But I am keeping my fingers crossed that Back and Key might have stumbled across the winning formula:

Leicester-style Grit + Fitness + Amazing team spirit x £1m = Top 6 finish for 2010/11.

As I say, I can dream...

WELL DONE LEEDS!

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Guinness Premiership Previews & Predictions: Round 21

Round 21 is packed full of crucial clashes in the Guinness Premiership.  The bottom four teams are in action against each other in the relegation dogfight, whilst playoff hopefuls Wasps and Bath do battle at Adams Park.  Second placed Northampton will fight it out with third placed Saracens and leaders Leicester take on the Quins.

But which teams will come out on top?  Here are my previews and predictions for this weekend:

Sale Sharks v Newcastle Falcons

Friday night sees 11th placed Sale meet 10th placed Newcastle in a fight for Premiership survival.  The teams drew 16-all at Kingston Park in round two, but Sale beware: the Falcons have won two of their last three visits to Edgeley Park.

The Sharks have been in a torrid run of form and have only won two of their last 13 games in all competitions since New Year's Day.  Crucially, these wins were against Worcester and Wasps in two of their last three games at home.

The Falcons' form has been equally poor, and their only win in their last eleven matches in all competitions was the 25-13 home league win to Gloucester on 31 March. 

My prediction: This is a tough one to call.  The winner will secure Premiership rugby for next season.  The loser will anxiously be waiting for the result of the Leeds v Worcester game on Sunday.  With Charlie Hodgson at the helm, I think Sale will edge it by 6.
 
Gloucester Rugby v London Irish
 
Playoff chasing London Irish will be hoping to bounce back from their shock 23-13 home defeat by Leeds last Sunday.  When the Exiles played Gloucester at the Madejski in September they won 40-10, but Irish have only ever won once at Kingsholm in the Premiership: 13-9 on 28 January 2006.

Gloucester's current home form is impressive.  They are unbeaten in their last ten games at Kingsholm in all competitions since Cardiff Blues won there in the LV= Cup on 8 November.

My prediction: London Irish were a shambles last weekend and their form is deserting them at the crucial point in the season.  Gloucester to win by 8.

Leicester Tigers v Harlequins

Leicester are unbeaten in their last 19 games at Fortress Welford Road - the third best home winning run in Premiership history.

The Tigers are hunting top spot in the league to secure a home semi-final, and have suffered just one defeat in their last ten matches in the Guinness Premiership.  That was the 19-3 loss to Northampton on 27 February.

Quins' record against Leicester isn't glittering.  They have lost their last 13 matches against the current league champions, with their most recent win way back in May 2003.

Harlequins were taught a rugby lesson by Saracens at Wembley on Saturday, when they lost 37-18.  Conor O'Shea's men have not won away from home in the league since a visit to Leeds Carnegie on 4 December.

Add to this the stat that their last win at Welford Road was in the old Division One on 26 April 1997 and things aren't looking great for the team from West London.

My prediction:  There can be only one winner.  Leicester by 12.


Northampton Saints v Saracens

This season in the league, the Saints have played ten, won ten at home and are bidding to go through a complete campaign in the top flight unbeaten at Franklins Gardens for the first time.

Saracens have won three of their last four games in the Guinness Premiership and more than doubled their try tally for the entire Premiership season in the process.

The Saints approach this game on the back of the 21-20 loss to Bath on Tuesday after fielding a much weakened side due to EPS restrictions.  Jim Mallinder's men are vying for a home semi-final and they must win one of their final two games to cement second place.
Saracens beat Harlequins in fine style last weekend, and will be looking to improve on their previous two visits to Franklins Gardens in the LV= Cup, where they lost 3-19 and 20-31.

However, Sarries won 19-16 when the two teams clashed at Wembley in round two of the Guinness Premiership.

My prediction:  A tough one to call.  Sarries' are in a fine vein of try-scoring form, whilst Northampton have been one of the teams to beat all season.  Home advantage plays.  Saints to win by 7.
 

London Wasps v Bath Rugby

Only two league points separate 4th place Wasps and 6th place Bath.  It really is that tight at the top.
This game will be played at Twickenham, where Bath have the edge.  The boys in black and blue have won three of the clashes against Wasps at HQ to the London side's one.

Bath beat Northampton Saints 21-20 at the Rec on Tuesday night in a nailbiting game.

Wasps won 17-15 at The Rec in the Premiership in September and have won their last three games in all competitions.  They have also been victorious on their last three visits to Twickenham.

Bath, on the other hand, have not won at HQ since the Pilkington Cup final in May 1996 when they beat Leicester.
My prediction: Wasps are hitting form late, but they are hitting it never the less.  This is a very close game to call, so I won't.  I'm going for a draw.

Leeds Carnegie v Worcester Warriors

For me, as a Leeds fan, this is the game of the season.  This fixture is being touted as the "Million Pound Match", due to the extra funding Leeds will receive from the RFU if they survive in the Premiership.

Leeds grabbed a shock 23-13 away win over London Irish on Sunday to catapult them to 9th in the table.  Worcester are currently rooted to the bottom, and only a win will keep their Premiership dreams alive for next season.  No mean feat, as Mike Ruddock's men have not won on the road in the league in this campaign.

However, the Warriors took the spoils when the two teams met at Sixways in round two but they have only picked up one league point from their last four games.

This is a crucial clash for both sides.  I expect to have no voice left on Monday morning after all the shouting I will be doing at Headingley on Sunday!

My prediction:  Leeds' well deserved win in Reading will have boosted their confidence no end.  I've got to go for a home win.  Leeds Carnegie to win by 9.

But what do you think?

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Crunch

Well, well, well.  What a turn up for the books that was.

Leeds Carnegie grabbed a brilliant 23-13 win over London Irish at the Majedski Stadium on Sunday to set up a tantalizing penultimate round in the Guinness Premiership.

Playoff chasing Irish were outplayed by the better team on the day, and the result catapulted Leeds into 9th spot.  Relative safety, you might say.

Let's look at the table:


Leeds host relegation favourites Worcester on Sunday, and Sale entertain fellow strugglers Newcastle on Friday night.

The Gods of relegation couldn't have planned it better if they had tried.  The bottom four are all playing each other, and something, or someone has to give.

But what are the cold hard facts?

If Leeds beat Worcester then the Warriors are gone.  Doomed.  Consigned to a year of Championship rugby.  As Rafa Benitez would say, that is a fact.

But Sale and Newcastle are by no means safe yet. Whoever loses at Edgeley Park on Friday will be praying for a Leeds win, that I can guarantee.

However, if Mike Ruddock's men take four points from Neil Back's battling Leeds there is everything to play for in the final round. 

This would leave three of the four teams staring down both barrels of relegation on the last day of the season.

Gulp.

What a finale!  I know the argument about relegation/ringfencing and the viability of the Championship is rumbling on, but that is for another day.  End of season squeaky-bum finishes like this are the biggest advocate for promotion and relegation.

However, I wouldn't want to be one of the players who have put pen to paper on a Worcester Warriors contract for next season.  The bookies have them as 1/4 favourites for the drop.  Leeds are now 5/1 after drifting out from 7/4.  I'm not a betting woman, but I know that sucks for Wuss.

I've got to wonder though... Will new Worcester signing Andy Goode become the only comb-over in the Championship?  What of full back Luke Rooney who has set his sights on playing for England?  And will the excellent Neil Best still leave Northampton for Sixways?

Time to check out the get-out-of Championship-relegation-escape-clause in your contracts boys.  After all, the bookies are rarely wrong.

COME ON YOU TYKES!

Friday, 16 April 2010

Tigers Eye Top Spot

Leicester Tigers will be the first Guinness Premiership side to roar into the playoffs if they beat Newcastle this weekend.

But Richard Cockerill's men aren't focussing on a trip to Twickhenham just yet.  As the sporting cliche goes, they are only concentrating on their next game.  That is a trip to Kingston Park on Sunday, where they haven't beaten the Falcons since 2004.

Here, Leicester captain Geordan Murphy and number eight Jordan Crane talk about the race for top spot, and scrum-half Ben Youngs tells us about an embarassing incident with a champagne bottle. Bless him.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Guinness Premiership Previews and Predictions: Round 20

London Irish v Leeds Carnegie

London Irish have won their last five games against Leeds since the semi-final of the 2004/05 Powergen Cup. The Exiles' only defeat in their last five Premiership clashes at Madejski Stadium was the 35-22 defeat by Bath on St Valentine's Day. The Reading based side have their eyes firmly on a Premiership play off place and are battling with a resurgent Wasps for fourth spot.

Leeds have slipped to three successive losses in the league but have won three times on the road in the competition this season: at Wasps, Newcastle and Sale. Carnegie will be looking to bounce back after Quins wiped the floor with them last weekend and pick up some points to lift them away from Worcester.

Leeds' last win at the Madejski Stadium was 16-12 in October 2004.

My prediction: Irish will have too much for relegation battlers Leeds. London Irish to win by 14.

Newcastle Falcons v Leicester Tigers

Steve Bates' Newcastle welcome Leicester this weekend, and top spot Tigers are firm favourites for the win. Leicester's only loss in their last nine Guinness Premiership games was 19-3 at Northampton on 27 February.

The last eight matches between the Tigers and Falcons have all been won by the home side on the day. I can't see the result of this game being any different.

Newcastle have notched up just one win in their last ten matches in all competitions. This was the 25-13 home league victory over Gloucester on 31 March.

My prediction: Leicester to maul the Falcons into submission by 20 points.


Bath Rugby v Sale

These teams have met twice this season with Bath winning both times.  The West Country boys won 25-12 in the Premiership and 40-7 in the LV= Cup at The Rec.


Bath's loss at Leicester in round 19 ended their seven game winning run in the Guinness Premiership butt Steve Meehan's men have won their last three league games at home.
Sale have lost two of their last three games and have won just one league game on the road since January 2009.  That came in the shape of the 24-17 win at Leeds on 22 November. The Sharks have won only once at The Rec since 1998, which was way back in January 2006.  History and form tells us there can only be one winner, and that isn't the men from South Manchester.

My prediction: Bath to win by 10.


Northampton Saints v Gloucester Rugby

Northampton have won their last three clashes with Gloucester, including the-24 win in the LV= Cup final at Worcester on 21 March.
The Saints' only defeat in their last eleven games in the Guinness Premiership was 6-13 at Harlequins on 20 February.

Jim Mallinder's high flying team will hope to bounce back from last weekend's Heineken Cup exit on home soil, where they are unbeaten this season. 

No doubt Gloucester will be looking to avenge their cup final defeat by the Saints but their away form is poor.  They have only won one of their last 15 Premiership away games, which was against strugglers Leeds on 4 October.

My prediction: Northampton to do the Premiership double over the cherry and whites and win by 7.


Worcester Warriors v London Wasps

This is a crucial clash for both sides: Worcester need a win to keep their Premiership rugby dreams alive for next season, and Wasps are beadily eyeing a fourth place finish.

Wasps won 23-3 when the two clubs met in round three and will be gunning for their first league double over Worcester.
The Warriors have won just one of their last 15 matches in the Guinness Premiership since September which explains why they are at the foot of the table.

London Wasps' last eight matches in all competitions have all been won by the home side on the day, whilst their most recent win away from home in the Guinness Premiership came against rivals Harlequins on 27th December at Twickenham.

My prediction: Wasps might have left it late to start their charge on the title, but they're looking classy.  They will have too much for Worcester on a hardening pitch.  Wasps to win by 16.


Saracens v Harlequins

Saracens return to Wembley for the fourth time this season, having already grabbed three narrow wins at the home of English football.  In their previous visits, Sarries beat Northampton 19-16 and Worcester 25-20 in the league and embarrassed South Africa to the tune of 24-23.  The men from Watford sank Sale 30-19 at Edgeley Park last Friday, after the action packed 29-28 loss to Gloucester the week before.
Harlequins last eight games in the Guinness Premiership have all been won by the home side on the day.  Last weekend they demolished Leeds 46-11, and their most recent away league win was 30-27 at Leeds Carnegie on 4 December
The Fez heads met Quins at the Stoop in round three and won 22-9.

My prediction:  Both teams have been scoring tries for fun.  I think Saracens' experience of playing at Wembley will give them the edge.  Saracens to win by 8.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Rugby Drunk

I have to admit that I spent the majority of last weekend watching rugby and having a few shandies.

Well, it was my birthday and the weekend was filled with the best Heineken Cup quarter finals that I can remember.  And that's not just because I have a memory like a sieve.

I can't let these four fabulous games pass without comment.
The Leinster v Clermont Auvergne see-saw on Friday night was brilliant.  I like Leinster and I wanted them to win, but if I'm honest it wouldn't have been the end of the world if they hadn't.

But as a neutral this game had it all: 
  • Man of the Match Jamie Heaslip powering over for a brace of tries.
  • Jonny Sexton dragging his kicking stats out of the toilet and nailing kick after kick.
  • Brock James flushing his usually robotically reliable kicking boots down the bog and turning into as big a choker as Tim Henman.
  • Both teams edging ahead before being dragged back by the opposition.
Excellent stuff.  29-28 to Leinster.

Next up Biarritz v Ospreys, and randomly, another 29-28 thriller.

Again, the home team (even though they were playing in Spain) came out on top.  Some of the more amazing points:
  • King of Mediocrity and ex-Leeds Carnegie player/full-time sicknote Iain Balshaw scorched over for a try WITHOUT injuring himself.
  • Ryan Jones put in a storming performance after looking, well, pretty rubbish in the Six Nations.
  • And who can forget one of the most outstanding solo tries to grace the competition.  Step up Takzuda Ngwenya:


Awesome stuff.

Next up was Munster v Northampton Saints: the game I was really looking forward to.

As a patriotic kind of girl I was firmly behind the Saints, who were the only English team left in the competition.  As a result, this was the game I enjoyed watching the least - not because it was a poor game, but because it meant a bit more.  I was gutted as Saints lost.

Highlights/lowlights:
  • The impatient Sky Sports cameras venturing into the Northampton dressing room before kick-off.  Five seconds later they made a hasty retreat thanks to a chorus of expletives beign shouted out by the pumped up players.
  • The atmosphere at Thomond Park.  Absolutely electric.  I NEED to go and watch a game of this magnitude there at some point in my life.
  • Ronan O'Gara, who stopped whingeing about Jonny Sexton and did what he does best and kicked his team home in the second half, 33-19 the final score.
  • Northampton captain Dylan Hartley's post match interview.  Credit to him, he fronted up even though he was absolutely gutted.  I just wanted to give him a cuddle.
Finally, there was the epic all French clash between Toulouse and pretty in pink Stade Francais on Sunday.

I very much enjoyed watching:
  • Yannick Jauzion weaving his unique magic in the centre.  The man is a class act.
  • Toulouse really going for the jugular and ripping Stade apart in the second half.  Very impressive.  42-16 at full time after a half time score of 13-10.  Watch out Leinster.
  • Another brilliant try for Cedric Heymans.  I'm still gutted he didn't win try of the year last year.
All this means the semi finals shake down like this:

Leinster v Toulouse
Munster v Biarritz

I can't wait.

However I have to end this post on a sad note.  My team, Leeds Carnegie, were bummed 46-11 by Harlequins.  How rude of them not to give me the only birthday present I'd asked for: a bonus point win!
Boo!  :-(

James Haskell Stars in "Sushi Pour Un"

Yesterday was an epic day in the Twittering world of everyone's favourite love-to-hate-him rugby star, James "Jimmy" Haskell.

First up, Jimbo treated us all to an illuminating insight into his high octane training regime, before revealing a much more sensitive side.  Bless:

@jameshaskell: Just finished some street Olympics. I ran about 4 miles and stopped after every 2 songs to do an exercises. ie if you came to scaffolding u would do chins and dips. Or some body weight squats, lunges, press up and burpees. i am shattered now off to grab some sushi. I really need a girlfriend this is getting beyond sad. Table for one in the corner please, next to the fat special guy eating wallpaper paste.

I'm sure Jimmy was hoping for a chorus of tweets from his adoring fans to offer themselves up to be his girlfriend.  Of course, I can't verify if people did, but I'm sure there must have been some people willing to help him in his plight.

But his tweet did prompt an excellent suggestion from one of his followers:

@SnowyMoore: You need to hold an audition, like for X Factor. Line up the hopefuls and then have a panel to choose. That or Blind Date!

Wow.  Imagine that for a show.  We could call it "The Hask Factor: One Ego's Search for Love".

Naturally, the self-publicising maestro was all over the idea:

@jameshaskell: Ha ha amazing idea. i can see the headline now, arrogant prick Haskell holds xfactor gf selection in paris house. 1 girl shows

Oh the insight.

But on realising that maybe he'd let his guard slip, Jimmy did an expert spot of backtracking:

@jameshaskell: i do love it when people take my tweets and spend hours commenting and mocking me. while your doing that i'm actually living a life.

No.  You're on Twitter, tweeting and not having a life.  I go on Twitter when I am at work.  Bored.  What's your excuse?

But just in case you think in any way that the Hask really is searching for someone the share his sushi with, he then goes on to clarify things:

@jameshaskell: So lets be clear, and that goes for all the journalists hiding among my followers. Its All Banter, maybe not funny but its still Banter.

OK.  So it's banter.  Does this mean he's not single, and rushing round Paris randomly doing pull ups like the ridiculous cartoon character Johnny Bravo, before grabbing a table pour un?

No comment.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Will Greenwood on the Heineken Cup Quarter Finals

There's only a few hours left before the kick off of the first Heineken Cup Quarter Final: an epic clash between Leinster and Clermont Auvergne.

Here, Will Greenwood tells us his thoughts ahead of the four games:



All I can say is: Good luck to Leinster and Northampton Saints!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

What a Weekend!

I can't wait for this weekend, I really can't.

For starters, it's my birthday. 

Yes, this means I will be blowing out an increasingly large number of candles on a chocolate caterpillar cake, and venturing into town for a few shandies.

Not only that, the Grand National gallops onto our TV screens on Saturday afternoon.  I will have my annual flutter on the gee-gees with the hope of topping up my birthday beer fund.

But then there's the rugby.

The Guinness Premiership draws ever closer to its epic finale, and my team Leeds travel down to the Stoop to take on Quins.  There's only really one present that I want this year, and that's a four try bonus point win for Carnegie.  But I'll settle for a win though...

Not only that, but the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup roll back into town.

I love the Heineken Cup.  After the Six Nations it is my favourite competition.  The pride and passion of club rugby is taken to a whole new level on the European stage.  I can't get enough of it.

But who will win this weekend?  As ever, here are my predictions:.

Leinster v Clermont Auvergne

Defending champions Leinster take on Clermont in Friday's much hyped match.  Last weekend, the Dubliners took the prize scalp of Munster in a 16-15 Magners' League win, which will have helped to build their confidence ahead of this crucial clash.  The RDS faithful will also be pleased to see Brian O'Driscoll included in the squad for Friday.

Clermont Auvergne are currently fourth in the French Top 14 but come into the game on the back of a 19-10 loss away to Stade Fran├žais.  Clermont showed dazzling ability in their backline during the pool stages of the cup, most notably against a strong Leicester Tigers.  To win, Leinster have to grab the ball up front and put the squeeze on their visitors.

My prediction: Leinster by 5.

Biarritz v Ospreys

Claiming a win in the south of France in a cup quarter final isn't an easy ask for the Ospreys.  The Magners league side beat rivals the Scarlets 27-19 last weekend, but unlike trailblazing leaders Leinster, the Welsh team are firmly mid-table.

Biarritz are also slap bang in the middle of their respective league, and last weekend they crushed Montauban to the tune of 42-13.  In a crunch fixture like this, I think Biarritz will pull it out of the bag again.

My prediction: Biarritz by 10.


Munster v Northampton Saints

Now this should be a game and a half.  Northampton are the only English team left in the competition and were in the same pool as two time winners Munster.  The men in red beat the Saints 12-9 at Fortress Thomond in January's pool clash, but Northampton claimed Munster's scalp in round one in the closely fought 31-27 win at Franklins Gardens.

Both sides are second in their respective leagues, and whilst Munster lost to rivals Leinster last weekend, Northampton only managed to clinch a late win over relegation battlers Leeds.  Maybe both teams had one eye on this weekend's game?  For me, this is the one to watch, and I sense an upset on the cards.

My prediction: Northampton to win by 6.


Toulouse v Stade Fran├žais

Two giants of the French Top 14 will battle it out in another mouth watering clash.  Last weekend, Stade beat Clermont 19-10 whilst Toulouse were 28-23 winners over Racing Metro.

I'll be honest and admit that I don't know too much about French club rugby, but I think the home side will have more of an edge.  Either way, this game should be a corker.

My prediction: Toulouse to win by 9.


Over in the Amlin Challenge Cup:

Connacht to beat Bourgoin by 6.
Toulon to beat the Scarlets by 9.
Cardiff to beat Newcastle by 10.
Wasps to beat Gloucester by 4.

And finally, in the Guinness Premiership:

Leeds Carnegie to beat Harlequins by 5.
Saracens to beat Sale by 17.
London Irish to beat Worcester by 13.

This weekend is a proper rugby-fest, and I can't wait!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Thom Struts his Stuff

Thom Evans has continued his return from injury by strutting his stuff on the runway at a New York fashion show.

Evans, 25, was asked to appear at the 'Dressed to Kilt' show, which was hosted by actor Sean Connery's Friends of Scotland charity. 

The Scotland and Glasgow wing, who is a cousin of DJ Chris Evans, suffered a serious neck injury whilst starring in the Six Nations clash against Wales in February.

He had to be stretchered from the field after colliding with Wales full-back Lee Byrne.  Team doctor James Robson later revealed that Evans' vertebra was so badly knocked out of alignment that if it had been moved by just one more millimetre he could have been paralysed or even died.

It remains unclear if Evans will be able to resume his playing career due to the seriousness of his injury.

The player is not new to modelling - he and brother Max can be found sporting only moody looks in this year's Dieux Du Stade calendar.

Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your point of view), Thom resisted the urge to strip off on the catwalk and instead stepped out in a Scotland shirt

Maybe rugby's loss will be modelling's gain?  After all, Thom's not exactly been beaten with the ugly stick.

Good luck with your recovery Thom, whichever career path you decide to take!

Friday, 2 April 2010

Soane Long Saints?

Soane Tonga'uiha is the latest player to be embroiled in a Chuckle Brothers style "To me, to you" tug of war.

First we saw James "Jimmy" Haskell starring as the rope in a ridiculous battle between Stade Francais and England.

Now, Northampton prop Tonga'uiha has thrown the cat amongst the pigeons by signing a new deal with the Saints - three months after he agreed a contract with Saracens for next season.

As a result, everything is kicking off.

Edward Griffiths, Sarries' Chief Executive, isn't exactly full of the joys of spring.  In fact, he has slammed Northampton and called them "April Fools".

He said: "On April Fool's Day, Northampton have announced they have signed a new contract with Soane. This contract is illegal and irrelevant.

"The sad reality is that a proud Premiership club has brought our game into disrepute.

"They have shown complete contempt for legality, justice and integrity and have made themselves look like the ultimate April fools. We must now decide whether we operate a league where signed agreements mean something and are respected, or whether we have chaos."

So he's not a happy Easter bunny then.

But what's going to happen if Griffiths gets his way?

If Tonga'uiha's Saracens' contract stands up, are they going to force him to join them?  Do Sarries really think they're going to get the best out of a player who would rather be plying his trade 50 miles up the M1?

Time to wheel in lawyers, but it would be nice if this could all be sorted out sensibly and behind closed doors.

For a change.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Man of the Month: April

Today might be April Fool's Day but my Man of the Month is far from an idiot.

As the Guinness Premiership season enters the home straight, once again I find myself nervously tapping at my calculator and praying for a great escape.

You see, life as a Leeds Carnegie fan is a tough one.  At the start of the season Leeds were written off by pundits and the media alike.  Halfway through the fixture list, Carnegie were still rooted to the bottom of the table and couldn't buy a win.

But then something wonderful started to happen.  A dramatic upturn in form.  Cohesive play.  Excellent performances by the Leeds pack.  Three successive wins and an amazing climb out of the drop spot.

Head Coach Neil Back and Director of Rugby Andy Key have been working wonders. 

However they don't win this month's award.

No, that honour goes to the man who said he would cancel Christmas for two Leeds Carnegie wins.

He is the man who will lead the boys in blue onto the pitch against Northampton on Saturday.

My Man of the Month for April is Marco Wentzel, Leeds Carnegie captain and line-out master extraordinaire.

Come on Marco - you can steer the boys into another season in the top flight!

GO ON YOU TYKES!

Guinness Premiership Previews and Predictions: Round 19

Sale Sharks v Worcester Warriors

Bottom of the pile Worcester travel up to Stockport for a good old relegation dogfight on Friday.

Last weekend Sale were ‘greenwashed’ 38-0 by a classy London Irish, which was only the second time the Sharks failed to register a point in a Premiership game.

But 10th place Sale did win their last home league game when they beat Wasps 19-8 on 19 March.

Worcester have won on their last three visits to Edgeley Park, but their only league victory since September was 13-0 over Newcastle at Sixways on 26 February. The Warriors are the only club without an away victory in the Guinness Premiership this season.

My prediction: It’s a tough one to call. Both teams are struggling as their league positions show. However I think Worcester’s experience of battling relegation will give them the edge. Worcester to win by 4.


Leeds Carnegie v Northampton Saints

Leeds were on a roll after bagging three consecutive league wins before Gloucester spoilt their party with a 19-0 whitewash on Saturday. However Carnegie are still gunning for a third successive Guinness Premiership win at Headingley Carnegie, something they have not achieved since the 2005/06 season.

Northampton are having the season of all seasons. They are unbeaten at home and their only league loss since the end of October was 13-6 at Harlequins on 20 February.

The last five league meetings between the two sides have all been won by the home team on the day, but the Saints have not won on Leeds turf since 2 May 2004. Well, when I say turf I mean sand, as the Headingley pitch looks more like a beach at the moment. We will have to wait and see if this will help stop the Saints’ glittering array of backs from tripping the light fandango over the try line.

My prediction: If Leeds can play in a similar way to the way that Wasps took on the Saints last Sunday – by winning up front and stifling their running game - then they have a chance. I still think Northampton will have too much, but Carnegie could sneak a losing bonus point. Northampton to win by 6.

Harlequins v Newcastle Falcons

For Newcastle, this is match number two in a week’s hat trick of games.

A Jimmy Gopperth inspired Falcons pulled off a shock 25-13 home win over Gloucester on Wednesday to consolidate ninth place in the table.

Harlequins and Newcastle have already met twice this season at Kingston Park. The first was a 17-all draw in the Premiership on 25 September, then Quins won 19-8 in the LV= Cup on 15 November.

The London side is unbeaten in their last five league games at the Twickenham Stoop, and Newcastle have lost on their last seven trips there.

My prediction: After their win on Wednesday I think Newcastle might grab a losing bonus point. Harlequins to win by 5.


Leicester Tigers v Bath Rugby

The Tigers are hunting down a top two finish to grab a home semi-final thanks to their unbeaten run of 29 matches at Welford Road. This record stretches back to when Wasps turned them over way back on 26 September 2008.

Leicester haven’t lost in their last five games against Bath, whilst the men in Blue’s only previous Premiership victory at Welford Road was 13-12 on 29 November 2003.

However, Bath are the best team in the Guinness Premiership on current form and have won 30 of the last 35 possible points. Bath are also the best away side in the competition with 25 league points gained on their travels this campaign.

But the Tigers have lost only one of their last eight games in the league which was the 19-3 defeat at Northampton on 27 February.

My prediction: This is a tough one to call. Bath have all the form but Welford Road is like a fortress. I’m going to be controversial and tip the nod to the visitors. Bath to win by 3.


Gloucester Rugby v Saracens

Saracens won 19-16 when the two teams met at Vicarage Road in round four and are seeking a first Premiership double over Gloucester since season 2004/05.

Gloucester made the long trip to Newcastle on Wednesday and came away with nothing from the 25-13 defeat. After this, the cherry and whites have little time to pick themselves up before facing third place Sarries on Saturday.

Saracens’ four game losing streak in all competitions ended on Sunday with their 58-15 demolition of Newcastle at home. But Sarries have not won a league game on the road since their trip to Bath at the end of October.

Gloucester, however, are unbeaten in their last six Guinness Premiership matches at Kingsholm since Wasps won there on 24 October.

My prediction: Sarries are still stuttering and Gloucester’s form is patchy. Gloucester to win by 8.

London Wasps v London Irish

This London derby is a massive game with both clubs pushing for a place in the playoffs.

Irish and Wasps have already met twice this season at Madejski Stadium, with the Exiles winning the first 28-16 in the league on 27 September, and Wasps winning the other, 24-20 in the LV= Cup on 8 November.

Last weekend, Wasps ran Northampton close and looked much more switched on than during their recent defeats at Sale and Leeds. Wasps’ last win in the league was the 24-19 home win over Gloucester on 7 March.

London Irish have lost just one of their last four matches: 19-35 at Leicester on 6 March, but they have not won away from home in the league since their trip to Bath on 28 November.

My prediction: Wasps are showing signs of progress but I think Irish will be too good on this occasion.
London Irish to win by 9.
 
So what do you think?