Friday, 29 October 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 7: Previews & Predictions

Can Wasps win this weekend in honour of the newly retired Phil Vickery?
Northampton Saints v Newcastle Falcons

Can anyone stop the Saints? OK, so Saracens beat them at Vicarage Road a month ago but since then Northampton have been unstoppable in both the league and Heineken Cup. The hallmark of a great team is grinding out a win from a poor performance, something Northampton showed against Castres before producing a get out of jail free card in their late comeback over Edinburgh. But Saints are also skilled in putting teams to the sword, making light work of Wasps in their 37-10 away win last weekend. However, international call ups will affect Northampton more than most and I think now could be the perfect time for the Falcons to strike. Saracens were lucky to win at Kingston Park last Sunday, a last-gasp Alex Goode penalty sealing the points in the 15-13 win. Newcastle will no doubt feel frustrated with only a losing bonus point after scoring the only try of the game, but even without Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden I think Northampton will have too much for their visitors to handle – especially as Euan Murray and Joe Ansbro could still feature for the Saints with Scotland’s Autumn Internationals only starting on 13 November.
My prediction: It’s a brave man or woman who bets against Northampton at the moment. Second plays 11t - it can only go one way, right? Saints by 12.

Saracens v Exeter Chiefs

Well, well, well, where do I start with Saracens? The future's bright, the fly half's orange? Of course the big news this week is everyone’s favourite tango-tanned rugby player has quickstepped over to Vicarage Road and signed a deal. I am of course talking about Gavin Henson, star of BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing, who will soon tripping the light fandango in Watford after not playing for 18 months. I can only deduce the signing has come about following fly-half Derick Hougaard’s Achilles injury which could rule him out for the rest of the season. Henson aside, Sarries are doing alright in the league thank you very much. Third behind Irish and Northampton, this week they do battle with Exeter who have slipped down to 10th despite some spirited performances. Last week, leaders London Irish pipped the Chiefs to the post in a very close game at Sandy Park, Gareth Steenson again scoring the majority of Exeter’s points. Sarries scraped a win against strugglers Newcastle last week, Alex Goode showing he can kick the points when the pressure is on. At home and with David Strettle and Brad Barritt released by England coach Martin Johnson, I can only see one winner.
My prediction: Saracens to sashay to a 16 point win.

Gloucester Rugby v Leicester Tigers

Gloucester won this fixture last season and a win against the visiting Tigers would be their fourth successive win in the league and fifth Premiership win from seven this season. Not bad, not bad at all. Now, is it just me, or have Bryan Redpath’s cherry and whites been flying under the radar and quietly doing quite well for themselves? As ever, all eyes are on Leicester, Bath and Northampton. London Irish are leaders so they have been getting plenty of plaudits, and of course, pundits always spare a moment to take a cursory glance at the other end of the table, just to make sure Leeds are still there. But Gloucester, now fourth in the league, are starting to fire after a slightly shaky start, last week’s late Brett Deacon try seeing off a second-half comeback by Harlequins. After a poor couple of seasons by their own standards, are the cherry and whites getting back to their best? This week they will be without second-row Dave Attwood, prop Paul Doran-Jones and centre Mike Tindall who are all away on England duty, whilst Leicester will be without England half-back pairing Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, second row Tom Croft and prop Dan Cole. Hooker George Chuter will available after being released. Last week, Flood kicked all the points in the Tigers’ 21-15 win over Bath and will be missed. Can Billy Twelvetrees step into the breach once again? I imagine so, as strength-in-depth never seems to be a problem at Leicester. However, the Tigers haven’t won on the road in the league since round 20 last season. Add Gloucester’s great record at Kingsholm and I’m going for a home win.
My prediction: Hopefully this will be a high scoring game, and I’m sure Brett Deacon would love to get on the scoresheet against his former club. Gloucester by 7.

Harlequins v Bath Rugby

Fly-half Nick Evans was so nearly the star of the show for Harlequins last weekend, bagging 21 of his side’s 26 points against Gloucester with a try, two conversions and four penalties. However, it wasn’t enough as Brett Deacon broke Quins’ hearts with a late score. Over in the opposite corner to Evans this weekend is England cast-off Olly Barkley, a man who plays at 12 not 10 but has been on regular kicking duties for Bath. Last weekend, Barkley scored all of his side’s 15 points in their defeat at Welford Road and I imagine he will want to put in a performance to make his snub by the England selectors seem to be even more ridiculous. Of course, Sam Vesty is Evans’ opposite number and he will do well to match arguably one of the best fly-halves in the world. Bath look to have lost their way a bit this season, their Heineken Cup dreams already hanging by a thread after two rounds and only winning one of their last four league games. However, they will be boosted by the release of England skipper Lewis Moody for this game and will be looking to end the run of five defeats from their last five visits to the Stoop. David Wilson and Matt Banahan will not feature for Bath, and Quins stars Danny Care and Nick Easter are also kept in the England camp.
My prediction: On current form and at home I think Harlequins will win by 9.

Leeds Carnegie v London Wasps

If ever there was a team who could suck all of the joy out of watching a game of rugby, then at the moment that team is Leeds. It’s not easy for me to admit that as I am a big Leeds Carnegie fan, but their start to the season has been woeful. Six league games, six defeats, rooted to the bottom of the table with only two losing bonus points to show for it. Last Friday’s dire 6-3 home defeat by Sale was a new low – a game Leeds should have won after having the vast majority of possession and attack. Now, flanker Hendre Fourie and hooker Steve Thompson are away on England duty and this Sunday’s task looks set to be a tough one as the struggling Wasps are the visitors to Headingley. Wasps coach Shaun Edwards stated this week that losing to Leeds is not an option. The High Wycombe based club have only won two of their six league games and approach this match on the back of a 37-10 thumping at home by Northampton – their worst loss at Adams Park since 2004. Can they bounce back and get a win to mark the retirement of prop Phil Vickery?  Wasps will be boosted by the return of England call ups Tim Payne, Dominic Waldouck and Dan Ward-Smith who have been released for this game, but they will be without Joe Worsley.   Wasps beware, Leeds did the double over the Londoners last season, the first win kickstarting their climb off the foot of the table. Can Carnegie head coach Neil Back do it again?
My prediction: I doubt it. Leeds look like they are starting to gel but they are still lacking much needed spark in the backline. This one's for you, Raging Bull.  Wasps by 8.

London Irish v Sale Sharks

Finally, leaders London Irish welcome Sale to the Majedski on Sunday afternoon. Both sides will be missing key players, with Sale fly-half Charlie Hodgson being retained by England due to an injured Jonny Wilkinson. Prop Andrew Sheridan is another Shark who won’t be making the trip to Reading along with wing Mark Cueto. Irish will have to do without the guile of Delon Armitage as he bids to wrestle the number 15 shirt back from Ben Foden. Form wise, the Exiles are unbeaten at home in any competition this season and are on a four game winning streak. Sale, on the other hand, made hard work of beating Leeds in an 80 minute snore-fest under Friday night lights to win their third league game of the season. How well will Sale do without the Hodgson running their game? It’s a tough one, and London Irish are one of the teams you would prefer to avoid whilst your star players are bonding at Pennyhill Park. A lot rests upon which version of Ryan Lamb turns up on Sunday afternoon: will it be Ryan Lamb the enigma or will it be Ryan Lamb the assured fly-half? We will have to wait and see.
My prediction: London Irish by 18.


Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Inside the Minds of Marco Wentzel and Hendre Fourie...


Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie, and yes that's me, looking like a ghost...
Last week, I met Leeds Carnegie duo Marco Wentzel and Hendre Fourie at an ESPN event.

The night, hosted by commentator Nick Mullins, turned out to be quite a cosy affair.  Due to a marketing mixup, meaning the event was only promoted the day before, only four Leeds Carnegie fans turned up to meet Leeds skipper Wentzel and the wonderful Mr Fourie.  Yes, you read that right - just four people.  As a fan, the support shown on the night was pretty embarrassing and I dread to think what the two players thought, but in a way it was great as the formal Q&A session turned into a casual chat in a pub.

(Before I go on, I'll wait whilst you make a joke about the four of us making up Leeds' entire fan base...)

Done?

Then I'll continue.  I'd been working in a sleepy town in Surrey for the week and had hot-footed it up the M1 in order to make it.  I'm glad that I did, as it was a great chance to grill two of my favourite players for more than an hour.

Due to the limited audience, I had to resist the urge to whip out my dictaphone or take down a shorthand note in my trusty reporters pad.  It wasn't really the time or place, but it was nice to hear the players speak so candidly without head coach Neil Back breathing down their necks and forcing them to toe the party line.

So what did we talk about?  Plenty of things, from Leeds' woeful start to refereeing interpretations and even which players they would love to bring to the club.

It's no secret that Leeds' start to the season has been poor.  Winless in the league, rooted to the bottom of the Premiership table with only two losing bonus points to show from the first six rounds.  However, Wentzel refused to accept the poor performances can be blamed on the age old argument that Leeds are perennially slow starters.  His analysis?  They haven't been playing well enough, the backline is really struggling to fire and the injury crisis hasn't helped.  Therefore, it came as no surprise that both Fourie and Wentzel agreed fly-half is the position they would target if they could make a dream signing for the club.  Interestingly, they had different ideas on who they would pick and why.  Wentzel opted for Leicester and England stand-off Toby Flood - a dynamic player with a great kicking game who he believes would breathe fire into the backline.  Fourie chose a fit Derick Hougaard, the Saracens 10 who was kicking everything in sight and totally running the show with his tactical nous before he ruptured an Achilles tendon.

So what does that say to me?  I think it's a glaring admission the players are as concerned as the fans that Leeds are missing a fly-half who can take charge of a game and be the crucial lynchpin.  It was pretty telling, especially when Fourie revealed that Sale and England number 10, Charlie Hodgson, would have been odds on to pull on a Leeds shirt if Sale had been relegated last season.  Fourie said he spoke to Hodgson during an England training camp and the Sale stand-off said Leeds would be his favourite option if Sale made the drop as he didn't want to move down south.  Of course, it's all water under the bridge, but how different a season might Leeds be having now with the consistency of Hodgson at 10?

Marco Wentzel, doing a great job of towering over me.
Interestingly, Wentzel claimed the departure of second row partner, Erik "The Viking" Lund, wasn't a huge loss.  That surprised me somewhat, as Lund and Wentzel formed arguably the best line-out partnership in the Premiership last season.  Check out the Opta stats if you don't believe me.  According to the Leeds skipper, Tom Denton has made the step up so well, Lund, in all his bearded glory, is hardly missed.  In fact, Fourie went on to say he believes the only area to suffer from Lund's switch to Biarritz is a bit of extra power in the scrum - but Denton is getting there, so Fourie claimed.
Wentzel, who featured in last year's Opta team of the year with the most line-out steals, also admitted to being a total stats junkie.  He revealed he studies opposition line-outs constantly in the week running up to a match, even on the morning of a game.  Fortunately for the 6ft 5" South African lock, his wife doesn't mind - as long as she can watch America's Next Top Model...

In between being quizzed, Fourie and Wentzel had a rather amusing mini-tiff about he flanker's latest sinbinning.  Talk about a difference of opinion, but Fourie wouldn't let it go, and it was all very amusing to watch the pair step into the captain and player relationship right before our eyes.  I couldn't tell you who won of course, but thankfully it didn't get too heated and the pair didn't start arguing in Afrikaans as apparently they have in the past during minor "disagreements".

Referees were another hot topic, both the standard of refereeing in the Aviva Premiership and referee's perceptions of Leeds as a team.  Wentzel admitted Leeds are in a vicious circle and need to get into the winning habit to stop referees seeing them at the bottom of the league making them more likely to penalise Leeds for perceived errors.

But which referees do they rate the most?  For Wentzel, (and for me), Wayne Barnes is the top referee in the world, as he is cool, calm and more often than not gets most things right.  Fourie opted for Chris White because he is one of the referees he can have a chat with on the pitch.  It's funny, but before I met him, I didn't have Hendre Fourie down as a chatty type, but let me tell you, he really, really is - and he's pretty funny too.

Listening to Fourie talk of his parents' pride at him being picked for the England squad and anecdotes of the reactions he's had in South Africa was great.  He is a man who is definitely passionate to play for his adopted country and came with none of the trappings of a man who has been bigged up by pundits and the media for his immense performances week after week.

Unfortunately, Fourie was taken off at half-time against Sale last Friday after suffering a rib injury, putting his involvement in next month's international fixtures in doubt.  The latest news is that he could be fit and in contention for the first game against New Zealand on 6 November - the small matter of ousting England skipper Lewis Moody in order to get his hands on the number seven shirt.

Fourie's injury is somewhat ironic.  The flanker revealed he only felt that he reached full match fitness against London Irish at the beginning of October after missing all of pre-season with injury.  I hope he is back in action sooner rather than later, for Leeds and hopefully for England.  Fourie is a class act on and off the pitch, and along with Wentzel he came across as being a lovely, down to earth bloke.

The only downside to the evening?  It doesn't look likely that either Wentzel or Fourie will be making an appearance on Twitter any time soon.  Despite my best efforts, Fourie admitted he spends way too much time on his Playstation to get into the whole tweeting thing, and Wentzel isn't even on Facebook.  Looks like it's down to Leeds fullback Leigh Hinton to continue Twitter duties for the entire team.

That aside it was a fantastic evening.  I just hope any future events will be publicised better by all concerned to at least get the attendance into double figures...

Sequins, Saracens and Squad Announcements

I must apologise as I've been a bit rubbish on the blogging front recently.  The Autumn Internationals are practically a heartbeat away and I've not even mentioned them.  Then there's been so much in the news about my favourite Ronseal Woodstained player, Gavin "Quickstep" Henson, and how he set aside some time from his sequin-fuelled antics on Strictly Come Dancing to squeeze in a training session with Saracens.  I said nothing.  Not even a sarky quip about him tangoing across the 22.  And then there was the night I met Leeds Carnegie duo Marco Wentzel and Hendre Fourie for a lovely chat and yet I didn't spill the beans.  I didn't even load up the photos of me grinning like an idiot next to arguably two of my favourite players.

Why?

Well, sadly revision is taking over my life at the moment.  Yes, I have turned into a social recluse and will stay that way for the next couple of week until my exams are over.  Still, it's all good as the end game is in sight, which is both scary and exciting at the same time.

Saying that, I will try my best to get some more posts up.  Just after I've done my law revision like a good girl...

Friday, 22 October 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 6: Previews & Predictions

The Aviva Premiership is back after a two week holiday in Europe.  As ever, it's predictions time...

Leeds Carnegie v Sale Sharks

Leeds are still searching for their first league win of the season after a tough start to their Aviva Premiership campaign. The Yorkshire team is currently four points adrift at the bottom of the table with the 23-9 win over Bucuresti Oaks in the Amlin Challenge Cup their only victory of the season. The pressure is starting to build at Headingley, but a strong performance against Stade Francais last Sunday hinted that things are finally starting to gel.
Now, Carnegie are looking to seal their second consecutive win against local rivals Sale after claiming their first ever victory in their most recent meeting at Edgeley Park last February.
Sale have been in fine form in the European competition, demolishing Petrarca 56-9 and running in 15 tries against Centransa El Salvador in a 97-11 hammering in South Manchester. However, the Sharks have not won away from home in the Premiership since they last visited Headingley Carnegie on 22 November 2009. Sale are struggling for league form this season with only the 21-17 win over Harlequins to their credit.

My prediction: Leeds Carnegie by 7.

Newcastle Falcons v Saracens

The Falcons’ last win was the 22-16 victory over Bourgoin in the European Challenge Cup two weeks ago. Alan Tait’s men have only won once in the league so far this season which was against Wasps on 10th September. Last week they didn’t seem to turn up against Montpellier and slumped to a disappointing 32-8 defeat.
Sarries, on the other hand, have been victorious in four of their five Aviva Premiership clashes but the Fez heads approach this game following back-to-back defeats in the Heineken Cup. Cue a quick rant from Brendan Venter just so we know all is well in the world…
Saracens will still be the favourites when they run out at Kingston Park though and I am backing them to win with ease over 11th placed Newcastle. The Londoners have won four of their last five games in all competitions against the Falcons and been winners in their last five away league games played at their opponents’ regular home grounds.

My prediction: Saracens by 18.

Leicester Tigers v Bath Rugby

Leicester are unbeaten in their last seven clashes with Bath in all competitions, a statistic that goes back to when Bath won 25-21 at The Rec in November 2008.
The Tigers are the only side in the Heineken Cup with maximum points after the first two rounds, but they have made a slow start to their Premiership campaign by their own high standards, winning only their two home games from the five they have played. However, to wheel out the old sporting cliché, Welford Road remains a veritable fortress as Leicester have only lost one game there since September 2008 which was against Saracens on 8th May. Add to that last weekend’s scintillating 46-10 romp over the visiting Scarlets and the Tigers look to have finally found their momentum.
Last Saturday, Bath claimed a crucial 22-6 win at Aironi to keep their Heineken Cup dreams alive. However, Bath’s league form has looked a bit shaky, and the home defeat by Biarritz in the Heineken Cup was a massive blow. Their only previous league win at Welford Road was a nail biting 13-12 on 29 November 2003. Can Bath rediscover the league form that saw them finish with a flourish last season? Not just yet.

My prediction: Leicester by 12.

Gloucester Rugby v Harlequins

If Gloucester beat Harlequins they will be one step closer to celebrating a year’s anniversary since their last defeat at Kingsholm in the Premiership. Wasps were the last team to silence the Shed in a Premiership game on 24th October last year. The history books suggest the cherry and whites are in reasonable shape to win on Saturday, as believe it or not, Harlequins haven’t won at Kingsholm since 1999.
The last seven league games between the two clubs have all been won by the home side on the day. Like Gloucester, Harlequins have won three of their last four games in all competitions. Conor O’Shea’s men are targeting their third consecutive Aviva Premiership Rugby win for the first time since April 2009. If they can beat the Kingsholm hoodoo it would also mark their first league win on the road in 2010.

My prediction: Gloucester by 7.

Exeter Chiefs v London Irish

It is 10 years since the Chiefs last played London Irish and Saturday’s game will be the first time the sides have met at Sandy Park. Exeter will be hoping to continue their excellent start in the Aviva Premiership and claim their first Exiles’ scalp to add to their growing collection from the Premiership. The signs are ominous for league leaders London Irish as the Chiefs have won both of their home league games this season.
The Premiership new boys have also tasted success in Europe, ending a three game losing run with a shock 34-19 win in Bourgoin last Friday. London Irish have won four from five in the league and are currently top thanks to winning bonus points, but their four-game winning run in all competitions was ended by the Ospreys in Swansea on Friday, and the Exiles’ only away win so far this season was 46-12 at Newcastle in the Premiership in round four. This is a difficult one to call as Sandy Park is a tough place to go, but I think the class of Irish will shine through.

My prediction: London Irish by 12.

London Wasps v Northampton Saints

Northampton have started the season strongly and have only lost one game in all competitions – the 24-17 defeat by title rivals Saracens at the end of September.
A successful start in the Heineken Cup saw the Saints build on their narrow home win over Castres to record an excellent second-half comeback and beat Edinburgh 31-27 last Saturday. Stephen Myler was handed the kicking duties once again as the Saints continue to search for their best option at 10. The fly-half seemed to have all the answers and helped himself to a 16-point haul. However, the Saints have never won in their nine previous trips to Adams Park and Wasps haven’t lost there since Newcastle were the visitors on 3 January.
Wasps are also looking strong following a convincing 38-26 win over Glasgow in the Heineken Cup on the back of a hard-fought bonus point against Toulouse. The European break has definitely been a welcome boost for the High Wycombe-based side after they have struggled to come to the boil in the league. Will home advantage play? I’m not so sure.

My prediction: Northampton by 9.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Blood Bath?

I have to admit I’ve had trouble sleeping this week. Hours and hours every night tossing and turning and waking up in a cold sweat. I just can’t shake a horrible image from my mind. An image so upsetting I’m surprised animal welfare organizations haven’t been protesting outside of the Rec.


What am I talking about?

This:


No, not Danny Grewcock.

Just how many poor, innocent skunks were brutally murdered in order to be plastered across Bath’s European shirt?

Please end this animal cruelty now.

Thank you.

Heineken Cup Round 2: Previews and Predictions

As per usual, I'm back with my somewhat haphazard predictions for the weekend.  It's Heineken Cup action again, and this week my predictions will be reaching a much wider audience on The Rugby Blog.  No pressure then...


Pool 1

Castres v Cardiff Blues

Cardiff will be without the guile of the seemingly never aging Martyn Williams for a tricky trip to the south of France. The 35-year-old flanker was banned for two weeks after pleading guilty to kneeing Chris Paterson in the head during last Saturday’s 18-17 win over Edinburgh. Cardiff’s opponents, Castres, earned a surprise losing bonus point at Franklins Gardens in their opening Heineken Cup fixture last Friday. If Bruce Reihana and Shane Geraghty had slotted all of the penalties on offer it could all have been oh so different, but now Castres, currently languishing 10th in the Top 14, arguably have as good a chance of anyone to progress from the pool.
My prediction: Cardiff by 9.

Edinburgh v Northampton

Saints supporters will no doubt have spent countless sleepless nights over the woes at fly-half. Stephen Myler, Shane Geraghty and now Bruce Reihana all seem equally keen to take their turn wearing the wayward kicking boots. Five missed place kicks against Castres wasn’t enough to lose Saints the game but it was hardly a glittering start to their European campaign. Saturday’s trip to Murrayfield will be the first time Northampton have played Edinburgh in a decade, and it looks set to be a close match. Edinburgh’s losing bonus in a hard-fought game at the Cardiff City Stadium leaves pool one wide open but they must back this up with a home win against the Saints. Jim Mallinder’s men have only lost one of their Aviva Premiership games, to Saracens, whilst Edinburgh have only won twice in the Magners League from their opening five fixtures.
My prediction: Northampton by 12.

Pool 2

Racing Metro 92 v Clermont Auvergne

Heineken Cup new boys and Top 14 leaders Racing host last year’s Heineken Cup quarter finalists and reigning league champions, Clermont. Racing kicked off their tournament with a five try hammering by Leinster in a real baptism of fire at the new Lansdowne/Aviva/call it what you want Stadium last Saturday. However, Racing should not be underestimated, boasting players of the calibre of Sebastien Chabal, Lionel Nallet and Francois Steyn. Clermont eased to a 25-10 win over Saracens, France scrum-half Morgan Parra calling the shots and weighing in with two penalties and two conversions. However, lock Jamie Cudmore will not feature for the visitors after being slapped with a 10 week ban for kicking and trampling on Sarries’ flanker Jacques Burger. Racing beat Clermont 28-17 when the teams last met in the Top 14 on 1 September.
My prediction: Racing Metro 92 by 7.

Saracens v Leinster

Saracens, like Racing, are looking to get their first points on the board after failing to take anything from Clermont last weekend. However, the task facing Brendan Venter’s men will be tough as Leinster arrive hot on the heels of an electrifying bonus-point win in round one. The men from Dublin might not have started the league season in scintillating form with only two wins from five, but the 2008/09 Heineken Cup champions look to have saved their best form for Europe.
My prediction: Leinster by 8.

Pool 3

Ospreys v London Irish

The Ospreys were narrowly pipped to a win in the south of France thanks to a moment of magic from Jonny Wilkinson and Paul Sackey. However, a bonus point on the road in arguably the toughest pool is not to be sniffed at. London Irish opened with a 23-17 win over Magners league leaders and three time Heineken Cup winners Munster, fly-half Ryan Lamb pulling the strings in an assured performance which included four penalties and a drop-goal. A must win game for the Ospreys if they are to progress from the pool.
My prediction: Ospreys by 6.

Munster v Toulon

Munster’s never say die attitude saw them claim a last-gasp try and with it a losing bonus point at the Majedski last Saturday – something which could help swing the pool their way come January. Jerry Flannery could make his first appearance this season after being included in the squad following his recovery from a back and calf injury. However, Sam Tuitupou will not feature in the game at Thomond Park. The centre has been banned for three weeks for a dangerous tackle on London Irish scrum-half Paul Hodgson. Toulon made hard work of their home tie against last year’s quarter-finalists, the Ospreys, but can they go one better and claim a win at the cauldron that is Thomond? Possibly. This game has all the potential to be an absolute classic, if the French decide to turn up…
My prediction: Munster by 7.

Pool 4

Aironi Rugby v Bath

Aironi look like the favourites to wear the tag of whipping boys this year. The Italians, currently propping up the Magners League in their debut season, lost 30-6 to Ulster at Ravenhill last week. The lowlight? A kick-chase by Ian Humphreys and some poor defending which saw the Ulster fly-half touch down for a speculative score. Bath were left reeling on Sunday when four second-half penalties by Dimitri Yachvilli inspired Biarritz to a 12-11 win at the Rec. The less said about Bath’s drop-goal that never was the better. Losing a home game in the Heineken Cup really piles on the pressure which means nothing less than a bonus-point win will do for Bath.
My prediction: Bath by 18.

Biarritz v Ulster

Biarritz may have beaten Bath last weekend but they certainly weren’t firing on all of the cylinders that took them to the Heineken Cup final in Paris last May. Yes, as the old saying goes, French teams don’t travel well, so beware Ulster this weekend – the raucous Basque crowd will expect them to deliver. Ulster are fresh off the back of a convincing home win over Aironi and a bonus point would be a great result. Biarritz are currently eighth in the Top 14 so Ulster might fancy their chances after a strong start to their Magners league campaign. I just hope Stuart Barnes tones down his adoration of Imanol Harinordoquy…
My prediction: Ulster by 6.

Pool 5

Leicester v Scarlets

Could this be the game of the weekend? I think so. Last weekend the Scarlets were rampant against Perpignan, Rhys Priestland scorching over for two tries and Regan King dazzling the Parc y Scarlets crowd with an exquisite pass the almighty BOD would have been proud of. Leicester have started the league season slowly by their own high standards, but they sealed a late bonus point win in Treviso thanks to the rampaging power of centre Alesana Tuilagi. The Tigers will no doubt be boosted as fly-half Toby Flood looks set to make his comeback along with flanker Ben Woods. However, centre Dan Hipkiss is ruled out with a hamstring strain in yet another injury blow. This is a really tough game to call as the Scarlets are red hot but not many teams come away with anything from a trip to Welford Road.
My prediction: Leicester by 3.

Perpignan v Benetton Treviso

Perpignan claimed a losing bonus point in the 43-34 defeat by the Scarlets after running in five tries at Parc y Scarlets last Saturday. Treviso, in comparison, had to settle for a disappointing bonus point after Leicester snatched a late win. The Tigers scored five tries which is worrying for Treviso as Perpignan are just as capable of putting them to the sword. However, a game against Treviso does not mean a sure fire win as fellow Magners league sides the Dragons, Leinster and the Scarlets will testify. I expect the Italians to give Perpignan a good run for their money but I don’t think they will take any points from this game.
My prediction: Perpignan by 14.

Pool 6

Newport-Gwent Dragons v Toulouse

The Dragons are looking to bounce back from a 21-13 loss at Glasgow in their first home Heineken Cup game against, oh, tournament favourites and holders Toulouse. The French side boasts international stars from one to 15, but the Dragons could be boosted by the return of Wales forwards Luke Charteris and Gavin Thomas. Despite this, Dragons head coach Paul Turner claimed the match-up is like Preston North End taking on Real Madrid. So he’s confident then. Last weekend, David Skrela kicked all 18 points in Toulouse’s hard-fought win over Wasps in monsoon-like conditions. If it’s dry in Wales this weekend there’s every chance we might be treated to some magic from a certain Mr Yannick Jauzion. Or Clement Poitrenaud. Or ….
My prediction: Toulouse by 16.

Wasps v Glasgow

Wasps fly-half Dave Walder almost inspired the High Wycombe based club to a historic win against European giants Toulouse in last Sunday’s clash. The torrential rain levelled the playing field with Wasps just falling short in the 18-16 defeat. Wasps’ prop Tim Payne will sit this one out after a receiving a two week ban for a handbag waving session with Brett Deacon and stamp on Jim Hamilton in the Aviva Premiership game with Gloucester last month. Glasgow ended their four game losing streak last weekend with a win over the Dragons at Fir Hill, Ruaridh Jackson slotting three penalties and a conversion. I think Wasps will win this one though – they know how to grind out results and securing a bonus point against Toulouse will have massively boosted their confidence.
My prediction: Wasps by 9.

What do you think?

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Heineken Cup Round 1: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly...

The Heineken Cup didn't fail to deliver in the opening round.  So much top quality rugby on display and I've had a brilliant weekend watching it.

But who shone amidst the cream of Europe, and who tried their best to secure their place on the "Brock James Heineken Cup Wall of Shame"?

Wonder no more...

The Good

The try of the weekend came courtesy of some unbelievable skill by Regan King.  Awesome.


video

Jonny Wilkinson and Paul Sackey linking up to seal a late win for Toulon with this:

video

Dimitri Yachvili, who kicked four second-half penalties to break Bath's hearts at the Rec.

Dave Walder.  Where would Wasps be this season without their underrated fly-half?  He almost single-handedly won them the game away at Toulouse.  OK, I'm going to overlook his last minute penalty miss as the rest of his game management was that good.

Topsy Ojo.  The London Irish wing is back to full fitness and is on fire, scoring a great interception try in the win over Munster.


The Bad

Goalkicking success (or the lack thereof) at Franklins Gardens.  Bruce Reihana and Shane Geraghty seem to be passing the "let's be inconsistently shit" baton between themselves at the moment.  Come on boys, no-one wants to be called the new Brock James, so pull yourselves together, please.  There are big problems in the goalkicking department for Northampton Saints, but this only falls into the Bad category as they did beat Castres.

Not quite what happened on Friday...
Erik Lund in Biarritz colours.  Not nice to see as a Leeds fan.  As for Iain Balshaw?  Couldn't care less.

London Irish drifting off.  A great win against European rugby supremos Munster, but the Exiles failed to close out the game and let the men from Limerick steal a last-gasp try to seal a losing bonus point.  What do bonus points make?  All the difference, that's what.  Toby Booth's men have made progression from arguably the toughest pool all the more difficult by not slamming the door in Munster's face.


The Ugly

Bath's failure to take a late drop-goal, bang in front of the posts, to regain the lead from Biarritz and win the game.  As it was, Olly Barkley didn't shout loud enough and Michael Claassens ignored him.  A Biarritz win, a home defeat for Bath and progression from the pool looking very tricky for Steve Meehan's men.

Stuart Barnes' nauseating man love for Biarritz number eight, Imanol Harinordoquy.  Listening to Barnes bleat on about his "amazing hands" made me sick in my mouth.  Twice.

Any more to add?

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Heineken Cup & Amlin Challenge Cup Round 1: Predictions

This weekend is packed full of rugby as both the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup kick off for the new season. 

There are 22 games in total, so I'm not going to do previews for them all as that would take hours, and quite honestly, I'm supposed to be working.  However, the games I am most looking forward to are: Toulon v Ospreys, Aviva Premiership leaders London Irish v Magners league table toppers Munster, Clermont Auvergne v Saracens and reigning champions Toulouse v Wasps, all in the Heineken Cup, and, of course, Bucuresti Oaks v my beloved Leeds Carnegie in the Amlin.  You can read my preview of that game here.

Here are my SportGuru predictions for the opening round:

Heineken Cup:

Glasgow v Newport-Gwent Dragons - Newport Gwent Dragons by 6
Northampton v Castres - Northampton by 5
Ulster v Aironi Rugby - Ulster by 9
Benetton Treviso v Leicester - Leicester by 21
Cardiff Blues v Edinburgh - Cardiff by 12
Clermont Auvergne v Saracens - Saracens by 7
Leinster v Racing Metro 92 - Leinster by 3
London Irish v Munster - London Irish by 6
Scarlets v Perpignan - Perpignan by 7
Toulon v Ospreys - Toulon by 12
Bath v Biarritz - Biarritz by 9
Toulouse v Wasps - Toulouse by 16

Amlin Challenge Cup:

Newcastle v Bourgoin - Newcastle by 12
Stade Francais v Rugby Parma - Stade Francais by 16
Agen v Gloucester - Agen by 3
Brive v Petrarca - Brive by 9
Sale v Cetransa El Salvador - Sale by 18
Bucuresti v Leeds Carnegie - Leeds Carnegie by 6
Cavalieri Prato v Connacht - Connacht by 6
Exeter v Montpellier - Exeter by 9
Rovigo v La Rochelle - La Rochelle by 6
Bayonne v Harlequins - Harlequins by 5

We'll see how I get on....  What do you think?

Strictly Wooden

I didn't watch last Saturday's Strictly Come Dancing because I was out and about in Manchester.  Foolishly I forgot to record the BEEB's glittering dance show so I could cringe at Welsh rugby "star", Gavin Henson, as he creaked around the dancefloor with all the charisma of a plank of wood.

However, I'm reliably informed (by my Mum) that he was actually pretty good.  This annoys me.  In my mind, Gav glides across the dancefloor with all the skill and agility of an IKEA wardrobe.

I do intend to watch the show this weekend, so before Gav shatters my illusions with an impeccable cha cha cha, here is what I imagine what he actually looks like on the show:

Best photoshopping ever.
Creak.

Amlin Challenge Cup Preview: Bucuresti Oaks v Leeds Carnegie

Mike MacDonald takes on Bucuresti Oaks
I know this article will have limited appeal as it's a preview for a game between a cobbled together Romanian side and Leeds Carnegie.  Hardly a glamour tie.  However, I wrote this preview for Rugbynetwork and thought I might as well post it on here...

Bucuresti Oaks will be no strangers to Leeds Carnegie when the two teams clash in their opening Amlin Challenge Cup game on Saturday.

The Yorkshiremen sealed back-to-back wins against the Romanian outfit in last season’s Cup campaign, paving the way for five wins from six in all competitions from December to early January. In the same fixture last season, Leeds recorded a hard-fought 10-6 victory at a snowy Arcul de Triumf, a late Rhys Oakley try saving Carnegie’s blushes. Neil Back’s men followed up this win with a convincing 47-0 hammering of Bucuresti at Headingley Carnegie a week later.

Leeds approach this game looking for a much needed boost after recording five straight defeats in the Aviva Premiership. This matches Bucuresti’s current form of five losses from five, with an injury crisis threatening to derail their chances of securing their first win of the season. Oaks have 10 players ruled out with injury for Saturday’s clash from their squad of 28. This has forced them to draft in two replacements in line with competition regulations.

Carnegie will be without Danny Paul after he was ruled out with a rib injury. The number eight picked up the knock in his first start in nearly a year against London Irish last Saturday. Prop Phil Swainston is also out with a wrist injury and number eight Alfie To’oala is sidelined whilst he recovers from an operation to correct an adductor muscle.

Despite shipping 40 points in both of their last two league games, there is hope for Leeds. A ridiculously high penalty count was instrumental in their demise at the Majedski Stadium last Saturday, where the Exiles punished the visitors for their mistakes. However, Leeds did score two tries and the game was more hard-fought than the result suggests. It is clear that Carnegie need to tighten their defence and banish errors, especially around the ever controversial breakdown, if they are to improve their points difference. With two points scored against them for every point they notch up, it doesn’t take a mathematician to work out Leeds are giving teams at least a 15 point head start.

Carnegie have been trying to play a more attacking brand of rugby this season but they are still missing that vital cutting edge. Maybe a game against a limping Bucuresti will allow them to fine tune this game plan and return home to face Stade Français with renewed vigour and an all important win? And yet, rumours of splits in the Leeds camp does not make happy reading for Carnegie fans, and a defeat against a patched together Bucuresti side could threaten to derail Leeds’ season altogether.

However, I am positive. Leeds are renowned for being slow starters and I think a win in Romania will help to kick-start their season.

My prediction: Leeds by 6.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Heineken Cup Flashback

European Cup rugby is back with a bang this weekend with both the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup kicking off for a new season.

I would be lying if said I wasn't a bit excited about it.  OK, if I'm honest, I cannot wait.  But will the French clubs dominate for the second year in a row?  Big-spending Biarritz and Toulouse battled out the Heineken Cup final last May whilst Toulon faced Cardiff Blues in Marseille in the second tier competition, the Blues eventually spoiling the all-French love in.

France also sealed an impressive Six Nations Grand Slam last season.  Not a bad year for our Gallic neighbours, eh?  Well, if you put the slightly embarrassing defeats by Argentina and South Africa aside...

Here are a couple of my Heineken Cup highlights from last season which sum up why I love this tournament so much.

First up, Takudzwa Ngwenya's amazing try for Biarritz in their quarter-final win over the Ospreys:


For my second choice, I almost went for a clip of Yannick Jauzion weaving his magic, but then I remembered just how much I loved this game.  The quarter-final between Leinster and Clermont Auvergne at a pulsating RDS was one of the most exciting games of rugby I have ever seen.  Enjoy.  (PS: Brock James, look away now...)


Roll on Friday night and Northampton v Castres...

Friday, 1 October 2010

Aviva Premiership Round 5: Previews and Predictions

Yes, seriously.
I think I must be getting ill.  Why?  Because I'm getting quite excited about the Ryder Cup - and I don't even like golf.  Or so I thought.  Watching a curly-haired Northern Irish boy battle it out with a tainted Tiger at soggy Celtic Manor, Wales, surprisingly looks like it's going to take over my weekend viewing. 

Well, with the big exception of tomorrow night, when I will be at Old Trafford to watch the Engage Super League Grand Final between St Helens and Wigan Warriors.  As a Leeds Rhinos fan it's difficult to support either team, so instead I'm going to support Pat Richards (Wigan) and Jon Wilkin (Saints), the game of rugby league.  And of course, beer.

Therefore, rugby union is taking somewhat of a back seat in my sporting agenda this weekend.  I'm even going to miss tonight's massive derby clash between Bath and Gloucester as I'm going to a gig.  I am recording it though, just in case it's a classic.

Anyway, here are my predictions for this week. 

I think Wasps will come away with a win under the Friday night lights of Edgeley Park, and looking at their current form I expect Bath to win at the Rec.  Quins looked efficient against Exeter in their 40-13 win last week and Newcastle were humbled by London Irish at home so I see that one going Harlequins' way.  The Exiles, currently top of the league, host bottom club Leeds at the Majedski on Saturday in a game that will probably see more one way traffic crashing over the Leeds' try line following last week's 48-6 hammering by  Leicester.  The Tigers will hope to put their injury woes to the back of their minds on their trip to Vicarage Road, where makeshift fly-half Billy Twelvetrees, or 36, needs to get the better of kicking maestro Derick Hougaard.  The Sarries number 10 kicked 55-metre drop goals for fun in last Sunday's 24-17 win over Northampton and controlled the game with ease.  Take note Northampton Saints, with a misfiring Geraghty/Myler you will probably still beat teams like Exeter with ease, but against the big boys and in the Heineken Cup you will have to solve the issues at fly-half if you are to win.  So no pressure for next week  when the HCup rolls into town then...

Sale Sharks v London Wasps: Wasps by 3
Bath v Gloucester Rugby: Bath by 9
Harlequins v Newcastle Falcons: Harlequins by 21
London Irish v Leeds Carnegie: London Irish by 26
Northampton Saints v Exeter Chiefs: Northampton Saints by 16
Saracens v Leicester Tigers: Saracens by 9