Friday, 17 December 2010

Heineken Cup Round 4: Previews and Predictions

Round four sees the return legs of last weekend’s Heineken Cup fixtures. Depending on the results in certain pools, some sides could nail-on their progression to the knock out stages while others will fall by the wayside.

But what lessons will each team take from the games a week ago? Will we see different sides triumph or will it be more of the same from round three? Here are my previews and predictions.

Leinster v Clermont

Last Sunday, Leinster came away from Parc des Marcel Michelin with a losing bonus point in the 20-13 defeat by Clermont – a great effort when you consider their injury list. Sean O’Brien stood out in the back-row with 38 carries, repeatedly breaking the gain line and putting in tackle after ferocious tackle. The physicality of Isaac Boss at scrum-half helped to neutralise the threat of opposite number Morgan Parra around the fringes of the scrum, and Leinster fly-half Jonny Sexton was once again impressive at 10. The stand-off was key in creating Shane Horgan’s try and kicked his goals well. On the downside, Leinster did give away two tries due to missed tackles with Julien Malzieu, Anthony Floch and Aurélien Rougerie again showing they are an immense force in the Clermont backline. On paper, Clermont should beat Leinster again but away from France they are vulnerable. Will Brock James crumble under the pressure of returning to Ireland? The fly-half threw away 26 points in last year’s quarter-final at the RDS. However, this game takes places at the brand spanking new Aviva stadium so maybe he won’t have to wrestle with those particular demons on Saturday. Sadly for the home crowd there are question marks over the fitness of Brian O’Driscoll and Jamie Heaslip and Rob Kearney and Luke Fitzgerald are still ruled out.

My prediction: It’s boring but it’s true: French teams sometimes forget to turn up when they’re away from home. Leinster by 6.

Bath v Ulster

Ulster beat Bath 22-18 last Saturday at Ravenhill in a game that seesawed right until the final minute. The Magners league side is in a rich vein of form in Europe, having won all but one of their last five Heineken Cup games. They currently lie second in their pool, two points behind Biarritz. Brian McLaughlin’s men now have an excellent shout of qualifying for the quarter-finals for the first time since winning the trophy in 1999. The fact that the Irish province have won all three of their previous meetings with Bath and are the form team away from home in the Magners league spells trouble for Steve Meehan’s men. However, Aironi’s shock win over Biarritz means progression from pool four is still up for grabs for both of these teams. Ruan Pienaar, Johann Muller, Stephen Ferris, Iain Humphreys and Andrew Trimble all impressed for Ulster last week. Can they lead Ulster to a double over a tepid Bath side who have won just one of their last six Heineken Cup games?

My prediction: Bath will need to step up and find another level of intensity to beat the in-form Ulster and I think they will find this at home. Bath by 5.

Toulon v London Irish

Toulon are the only side in their pool to get an away win, and if the Ospreys can beat Munster at the Liberty Stadium then Philippe Saint-André’s men will go top of pool 2. Last weekend the boot of Jonny Wilkinson kicked Toulon to a 19-13 win at the Madejski and London Irish boss Toby Booth has called the rematch a ‘do or die’ game for the Exiles’ Heineken Cup hopes. Toulon are a team packed full of superstars but last weekend the front row shone on a chilly day in Reading, with flanker Joe van Niekerk also putting in a great performance. The Exiles’ form has fallen off a cliff in recent weeks and they are currently bottom of their pool. Toulon, on the other hand, have won three games in a row and look to be hitting their stride. However, a win in France would catapult London Irish into second spot if Munster do the double over the Ospreys.

My prediction: The Exiles fell short at home and I can’t see them overturning Toulon in the south of France. Toulon by 9.

Leicester v Perpignan

Perpignan battered Leicester up front in the scrum last Saturday but the French side are an entirely different proposition away from home. Confidence is key to their performance and whilst they will come to Welford Road buoyed by last week’s win they will face a much sterner test. Leicester have a real winning mentality at home and Perpignan’s cause won’t be helped by the fact that full-back Jerome Porical is out after he rediscovered his form last weekend. Leicester Tigers never say die, and this determination saw them sneak a losing bonus point last week – something which could be crucial when the pool stages reach their conclusion. Richard Cockerill’s men still head up pool five on 11 points, but both Perpignan and the Scarlets are breathing down their neck on 10 points each. Only a bonus point win and denying Perpignan any points will be good enough for the home fans.

My prediction: Last weekend’s game was close with Perpignan edging out Leicester by 5. This week I think Leicester will get the win by the same margin. Tigers by 5.

Here are the rest of my predictions:

Biarritz v Aironi Rugby: Biarritz by 25.

Racing Metro 92 v Saracens: Racing by 9.

Benetton Treviso v Scarlets: Scarlets by 33.

Ospreys v Munster: Ospreys by 4.

Toulouse v Glasgow: Toulouse by 26.

Cardiff Blues v Northampton: Northampton by 5.

Edinburgh v Castres: Edinburgh by 3.

Wasps v Newport-Gwent Dragons: Wasps by 9.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Heineken Cup Round 3: Previews and Predictions

The Heineken Cup rolls into town this weekend to provide an early festive feast of rugby. I’ve picked out the key games for the previews but you can find the rest of my predictions below. In Pool One, Northampton hope to make it three wins from three against Cardiff Blues, while Pool Two sees Leinster travel to Clermont, the French side hoping to exact revenge after last year’s quarter final defeat at the RDS. Munster host the Ospreys in Pool three’s big clash and the final game I’ve chosen to focus on is Leicester’s trip to Perpignan – both huge games between the top teams in their respective pools. As always, please let me know what you think in the comments.

Northampton v Cardiff Blues

Northampton are almost unbeatable at the moment. I say almost as the only game they have lost this season was a league game at the hands of Saracens. The Saints are now on a run of nine unbeaten games in all competitions, which would probably have been 10 had their match against Leeds not been called off last weekend. Northampton nearly tripped up against Castres in the Cup in round one but now the Frankins Gardens based club looks like a much more organised and well-oiled machine. Prop Soane Tonga’uiha is joint top try-scorer in the league, and along with Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati, the Saints front row is a dynamic, ball carrying unit that dominates at the set-piece. We all know what the Saints’ backline is capable of, even without England boys Ben Foden and Chris Ashton. This is a massive worry for Blues boss Dai Young, who will be without Wales centre Jamie Roberts, Wales wing Leigh Halfpenny, full-back Ben Blair, lock Deniol Jones and prop Rhys Thomas. It’s an extensive injury list but Cardiff will be boosted by the return of the seemingly never aging flanker, Martyn Williams and John Yapp from Barbarians duty. The visitors also have key man Xavier Rush at number eight, and along with Casey Laulala at centre Northampton could have a few problems – but probably not enough to derail them.

My prediction: It’s a brave man or woman who bets against the Saints at the moment, especially at home. Northampton to win by 12.

Clermont v Leinster

Who can forget last year’s quarter final between these two sides at the RDS? Clermont fly-half Brock James imploded and missed kick after kick after kick to let Leinster progress to the semi-finals. Clermont’s away form has been poor this season but they are fantastic at their home ground, Parc des Sports Marcel Michelin. Defensively Clermont are aggressive and they beat Top 14 leaders Toulouse 32-25 last weekend. ‘Petit Generale’ Morgan Parra will be the key man for the home side, especially now he has taken the pressure away from Brock James in the goal kicking department. Leinster number eight Jamie Heaslip will need to neutralise the sniping scrum-half, and without Rob Kearney, Luke Fitzgerald, and a big doubt over the fitness of Brian O’Driscoll, Leinster will be pleased to come away with a losing bonus point. As an interesting sideshow, this game has the extra frisson of seeing Leinster coach Joe Schmidt return to the club he left last season after a stay of three years.

My prediction: Both of these sides lie seventh in their respective leagues and this game will be a fascinating rematch after last year’s tense quarter-final. However, away from home and with injury issues, I think Clermont will come out on top by 9 points.

Munster v Ospreys

This is certainly one of the biggest fixtures of the round. The Ospreys travel to Thomond Park in search of their first Heineken Cup win over two time Cup winners Munster. The Welsh club have beaten the Irish province there in the league on the way to the title last season, and if they are to win this weekend they must take the wily Munster forwards on at the breakdown. Paul O’Connell looks set to make his comeback for the home side after missing most of 2010 - a massive boost for Munster at this crucial point in the season. However, things aren’t quite as rosy for the Ospreys. Full-back Lee Byrne is ruled out with a broken thumb after he kind of forgot to get it checked out not once, but twice. Shane Williams is also sidelined with a shoulder injury while back-row forward Marty Holah serves a one match ban. Last week, Munster beat Cardiff Blues 15-9 in the league to stay in top spot while the Ospreys beat Edinburgh in a convincing 33-16 performance at the Liberty Stadium.

My prediction: This is first plays second in Pool three and a win for either side would put them in a strong position to qualify. Can the Ospreys break the Heineken Cup hoodoo at Thomond Park? I don’t think so. Munster by 8.

Perpignan v Leicester

A win in Perpignan would show that Leicester are really starting to fire. The Tigers won their first league game away from home last weekend when they beat then second place London Irish 23-14 at the Madejski. It was the perfect preparation for Richard Cockerill’s men ahead of their trip to the south of France, leapfrogging the Exiles into second place in the Aviva Premiership and reminding themselves they can win on the road. Perpignan are a lowly 10th in the French Top 14 and lost 23-13 last week away at Castres. However, the Stade Aimé Giral is an intimidating place to go and the Tigers will need to be at full strength to wrestle any points from the Catalonian bear pit. England fly-half Toby Flood is fit and will play alongside Ben Youngs at half-back. But the big threat can be found in the forwards as the home side have an impressive pack. Leicester will need to match Nicholas Mas and chums at the set piece but looking at the way they demolished London Irish’s scrum last week, including being awarded a penalty try, they could be in good shape. However, watch out - Perpignan number eight, Henry Tuilagi, will be exerting massive force in the back row and looking to get one over his brothers Alesana and Manu.

My prediction: Travelling such a long way is tough and Perpignan will be a real test for the Tigers. However, I think Leicester might just nick this one and all but seal their progression from the pool stages. Leicester by 3.

And here's my predictions for the rest:

Glasgow v ToulouseToulouse by 5.

Aironi Rugby v BiarritzBiarritz by 18.

Castres v EdinburghCastres by 9.

Saracens v Racing Metro 92Racing by 6.

Scarlets v Benetton TrevisoScarlets by 8.

Ulster v Bath Ulster by 10.

London Irish v ToulonToulon by 9.

Newport-Gwent Dragons v WaspsWasps by 8.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Exeter Aiming to Keep on Track

Stay on TrackHave a gander at this video of Exeter Chiefs during an off roading team building session.

Skipper Tom Hayes, Jason Shoemark, Chris Budgen and head coach Rob Baxter all reflect on their season so far and look forward to this Sunday’s game against London Wasps.

If the Chiefs win at Adams Park they will leapfrog their hosts into sixth place in a remarkable start to their first season in the top flight.

Aviva Premiership Round 10: Previews and Predictions

Wear your thermals this weekend...
It’s day six of the snow-induced chaos and already three Aviva Premiership games have fallen victim to the artic conditions. Both Friday night fixtures have been called off meaning Bath’s trip to Newcastle and Gloucester’s trip to Sale will have to be rescheduled.  Leeds v Northampton has also been postponed due to health and safety fears about ice around the ground.

Here are my previews and predictions for the games that have survived the snowy weather (at the time of posting).

London Irish v Leicester Tigers

London Irish are having something of a mid-season wobble at the moment. The Reading based club has lost four consecutive games in all competitions since their league win over Sale a month ago. However, the Exiles’ home form in the league has been 100%, claiming four wins from four at the Majedski. The fact that Leicester, reigning champions and hot on Irish’s heels in third, have failed to win any of their away games this season will not have gone unnoticed. In this fixture last year, Irish ran out 18-12 winners, so home form and recent history looks to favour Toby Booth’s men. Saying that, the Exiles were outclassed in all areas against Northampton on a chilly night last Friday. Defensively they looked frail and a rampaging Soane Tonga’uiha destroyed them at scrum time and in the loose. I’m sure the Leicester pack will be salivating at the prospect of taking on a team following such a demoralizing defeat, even without key man Tom Croft who is ruled out with a shoulder injury.

My prediction: I’m tipping Leicester to start firing during the cold snap. Tigers to win by 12.

Saracens v Harlequins

This week the news from the Saracens camp all been focused on the departure of their controversial director of rugby, Brendan Venter. The former Springbok centre is set to return to South Africa and has moved into a newly created technical director role and is replaced by first-team coach Mark McCall. Whether this has damaged preparations for this weekend’s game or not remains to be seen, but I think it must have created at least some form of distraction. Saracens’ form has dipped slightly in the past month. The men in black have only claimed one win in their last three games which has seen them fall to fifth in the table. However, Sarries have won their last two games against Harlequins who arrive at Vicarage Road on the back of an emphatic 51-18 win over Leeds. The result was only the second time Quins have ever clocked up a half century in a league game – the other was the 60-14 hammering of Worcester in April last year. A win for Conor O’Shea’s Quins would be their first away from home in the Premiership since their trip to Leeds 12 months ago.

My prediction: Despite the off field shufflings at Saracens, I think they will edge this game. Sarries by 9.

London Wasps v Exeter Chiefs

Exeter are currently seventh in the league after a brilliant start to their first season in the top flight. Whisper it quietly, but a top six finish and Heineken Cup place must surely have crossed the mind of head coach Rob Baxter. If the Chiefs are to end the season in the top half of the table they need to beat teams like Premiership and European rugby stalwarts, Wasps. The two sides have already met this year in the LV= Cup. On that occasion Exeter ran out 29-6 winners at Sandy Park. However, after an unsteady start to their league campaign, Wasps have notched up three straight wins and have risen into sixth place. The Londoners’ only league defeat at home came at the hands of leaders Northampton on 24 October. Can Exeter pull another shock out of the bag? Quite possibly. The newly promoted side are unbeaten in their last five games in all competitions, and have not lost on their travels since the trip to title favourites Northampton on 2 October.

My prediction: This is the most difficult game for me to call this week. Exeter have been brilliant so far but Wasps are slowly coming to the boil. I’m going to go with home advantage and say Wasps to win by 5.
What do you think?

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

So long Mr Venty Spleen (sort of...)

Last night it was revealed that Brendan Venter, everyone's favourite pantomime villain, is heading back to South Africa.

With a swoop of his cape and a maniacal laugh, the 40-year-old Saracens' director of rugby is exiting stage left and returning to his homeland citing "family reasons."

When you see the name Brendan Venter it is usually accompanied with the words "colourful", "headstrong" or sometimes even "arrogant."  However, I will miss all the hoopla surrounding one of the most controversial figures in rugby when he jets off back to the southern hemisphere.

The former centre's knuckles must be red-raw from all the raps he's received during his 18-months at Saracens.  Firstly, he was served with a four-week suspended sentence in January for criticising referee David Rose.  Then he was slapped with a 10-week match-day ban in May for "provocative and inappropriate gestures and comments" towards opposition fans - also known as doing the wanker sign, allegedly.

This forced Venter to watch Saracens play, and subsequently lose, last season's Premiership final from the discomfort of his own living room.  Add into the mix criticism for the way he ate a biscuit during a disciplinary hearing and the fine he was given last month for remarks made after a Heineken Cup tie, and you can see why the media is sad to see him go.

However, there does seem to be another side to Venter's personality.  I saw an interview with him on The Rugby Club a few months ago which went some way to quash the image usually presented of the former Springbok.  Sarries players spoke of him warmly and talked about how Venter, a qualified doctor, had visited them at their homes when their children were sick - such is the family focus at Vicarage Road.

It's not a side of Venter that is seen very often.  I suppose it ruins his panto villain image and he can't be having that - especially at this time of the year when Z-list celebrities are dusting off their Widow Twanky costumes.

Therefore, I think it is real a shame that Venter is stepping down and moving into the newly created role of technical director.  He will continue to advise from afar while first-team coach Mark McCall becomes director of rugby and Andy Farrell takes McCall's old job.

Vilified and commended for his style in equal measure, it is no doubt the Aviva Premiership will be a much duller place without the ever controversial Brendan Venter.

PS: He's behind you.