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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?