This weekend sees the final round of the Heineken Cup pool stages and with several pools wide open it looks sets to be a cracker. Northampton, Toulon and Toulouse have already booked their places in the quarter-finals but who will join them?
Leinster face a tough trip to Paris to take on Racing Metro 92 in pool two but the Irish province sit five points ahead of chasing Clermont and look set to qualify. Elsewhere, pool three is done and dusted with Munster and the Ospreys out of the running for the knock-out stages thanks to their defeats last weekend.
Toulon marchons from that group and are likely to be joined by last season’s losing finalists Biarritz from pool four. However, Ulster are locked on 17 points with the French side and will be praying Bath will do them a favour and beat their gallic counterparts to hand the Irish province a home quarter-final. Ulster will be eyeing a bonus point win at Aironi to secure passage to the last eight for the first time since they won the competition in 1998/99.
Pool five is the tightest pool to call, with Perpignan and Leicester locked on 17 points and the Scarlets just two points behind. After coming out on top in their tricky trip to West Wales, Leicester fans will have let out a huge sigh of relief, knowing that a home game against Benetton Treviso is all that stands between them and the knock-out stages. But can the Scarlets bounce back from last weekend’s xx trouncing to beat Perpignan in their own back yard and cause the upset of the round? It would be great for Welsh rugby but sadly I can’t see them sneaking a win at the Stade Aimé Giral.
Finally in pool six, reigning champions Toulouse have oozed class and progress to the quart-finals with five wins from five having done just enough in every game. They face second place Wasps at home who are effectively out of the running for one of the two runners up spots thanks to their defeat by Glasgow in the last round.
But who do you think will win this weekend and join the Saints, Toulon and Toulouse in the last eight? Here are my predictions, but as always please feel free to discuss and add yours in the comments below.
Racing Metro 92 v Leinster - Leinster by 9.
Saracens v Clermont Auvergne – Clermont by 7.
Aironi Rugby v Ulster – Ulster by 22.
Biarritz v Bath – Biarritz by 12.
Castres v Northampton – Northampton by 9.
Edinburgh v Cardiff Blues – Cardiff by 6.
Munster v London Irish – Munster by 7.
Ospreys v Toulon – Ospreys by 4.
Leicester v Benetton Treviso – Leicester by 30.
Newport-Gwent Dragons v Glasgow – Dragons by 8.
Perpignan v Scarlets – Perpignan by 12.
Wasps v Toulouse – Toulouse by 6.
If you're on Twitter you can follow me @Bamberio.
Friday, 21 January 2011
Thursday, 13 January 2011
Toulon v Munster
This is a do-or-die game for Munster who are on the verge of missing out on the quarter-finals for the first time since 1998. If Toulon win they will top the pool which would deny Munster a straight passage into the last eight for the 13th consecutive season. Therefore it’s not overstating it when I say there is massive pressure on the visitors but Munster will take heart from last season’s trip to Perpignan. Their 37-14 win in the south of France shows what the men from Limerick can do when their backs are against the wall. Paul O’Connell is available for selection after serving his four-week ban for a flailing arm/face slap and could make his first start in nearly a year. If Munster are to come away from the Stade Mayol with a win the key area they need to tighten up on is discipline. They must reduce the number of penalties they give away and read how the referee is policing the breakdown and adapt their game accordingly. If they fail to do this and a certain Mr Jonny Wilkinson is wearing Toulon’s number 10 shirt they will be punished by multiples of three points all afternoon. Will the sum of Munster’s parts and wily ways be stronger than the superstars of big spending Toulon? It’s time for le crunch.
My prediction: It’s a really tough one to call. Munster always seem to pull it out of the bag when it matters the most so I’m going for Munster by 7.
Ulster v Biarritz
Ulster haven’t qualified for the last eight since they won the Heineken Cup in 1999. If Biarritz come out on top at Ravenhill the French side will top the pool making this another winner takes it all game. Stuart Barnes claimed this match is the biggest game for Ulster this century and I don’t think he is wrong. The home side claimed back-to-back wins over Bath in the previous two rounds to stamp their authority on this pool. However, Biarritz have won four of their last six away games to shatter the much peddled line that French teams are useless on the road. They also notched up an impressive 65-22 win over Agen last weekend. So will Ulster go into this game as favourites? Back-row Stephen Ferris is one of the key men for the Irish province with his pace from the base of the scrum. Half-backs Ian Humphreys and Ruan Pienaar will also have pivotal roles and have been a sensational combination for Ulster this season. However, this week they will once again face the guile, genius and amazing kicking game of scrum-half Dimitri Yachvilli. Clash of the day will no doubt be South African Pienaar versus the diminutive Frenchman.
My prediction: I’m not enjoying making my predictions this week. I would flip a coin to decide but it would probably land on its edge. I’m going to say Ulster by 4.
Scarlets v Leicester
Last weekend, Leicester reasserted their position of the top of the Aviva Premiership with a 27-16 win over Northampton Saints. The Scarlets are also in good shape and are currently second in the Magners league. When the West Walians travelled to Welford Road earlier in this competition, the ever hospitable Tigers served up a 46-10 thumping, running their visitors ragged in a six-try hammering. However, there is a certain hoodoo hanging over this game from a Leicester perspective: If the Scarlets win on Saturday they will knock Leicester out of the Heineken Cup at the pool stages for the second year in a row. Tigers fans, are you nervous? The West Walians have been playing well in the Heineken Cup this season, topping their pool after the first four rounds and scoring some sublime tries. However, they will need to combine their brand of attractive, expansive rugby with a hard, physical edge if they are to beat the Tigers and stack the odds in their favour of progressing to the quarter-finals for the first time in four years. Can Leicester be as good away from their fortress in the East Midlands?
My prediction: Leicester have hit their stride but the Scarlets are playing some scintillating rugby. I’m going to stick my neck out and say Scarlets by 8.
Glasgow v London Wasps
Wasps are two points behind reigning champions Toulouse in Pool 6 and are gunning for qualification. However, a defeat for the Londoners means Toulouse will top the pool ahead of their trip to Adams Park, making this a must win game for Wasps if they want to keep their dreams of qualification alive. Can the Aviva Premiership side put away one of arguably the weaker teams in the Magners league this weekend? In the 17-10 loss to Quins seven days ago, Wasps had the lion’s share of the possession in the second-half but failed to convert it into points. It was a massive cause for concern for coach Shaun Edwards and as a result Dave Walder has to start in order to give Wasps their best possible chance of winning this crucial clash. Back-row forward Andy Powell has won much deserved praise for his performances in the past couple of weeks and if Wasps can shore up their scrum then the scintillating pace of scrum-half Joe Simpson, a new call up to England’s EPS squad, will rip Glasgow to shreds.
My prediction: I realise I’ve not mentioned Glasgow at all in the preview of this game – for good reason. I think Wasps will win this one easily. Wasps by 15.
Here are my predictions for the rest:
Cardiff Blues v Castres – Cardiff by 12.
Clermont Auvergne v Racing Metro 92 – Clermont by 6.
Northampton v Edinburgh – Northampton by 14.
Bath v Aironi Rugby – Bath by 16.
Benetton Treviso v Perpignan – Perpignan by 22.
Leinster v Saracens – Leinster by 6.
Toulouse v Newport-Gwent Dragons – Toulouse by 19.
London Irish v Ospreys – Ospreys by 7.
Friday, 7 January 2011
Here are my previews and predictions:
Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints
Undoubtedly the biggest clash of the weekend is between East Midlands rivals Leicester and Northampton. The Tigers climbed to the top of the Aviva Premiership last Sunday thanks to their win over Exeter, replacing the Saints who had been in pole position since round eight. The last six matches between these two sides have all been won by the home side on the day, including the 27-19 victory by Northampton at Franklin's Gardens in round one. Despite a slow start to the season and being plagued by injuries the Tigers have lost only one of their last seven matches in all competitions. Richard Cockerill’s men seem to be hitting their stride, both in Europe and in the Premiership. Last weekend the Saints slipped up at home to Harlequins but have not lost successive games since April. Add to this the fact they are unbeaten in their last five away games in all competitions and Northampton are in relatively good shape to do their first league double over the Tigers since 2003/04. I’m looking forward to an absolutely epic clash up front between arguably the two best front fives in the league. Throw in a couple of Tuilagi brothers and the magic of Chris Ashton and this game looks set to be a corker.
My prediction: I really have no idea. My heart says Northampton but my head says the championship winning mentality of the Tigers will win through. Leicester by 3.
Saracens v London Irish
For me, one of the highlights of round 12 was watching old man Mark Cueto dazzle a flailing Gavin Henson and crash over for a try. Welcome back, Gav. It pretty much summed things up at Saracens at the moment: showing great promise but not quite living up to it. Sarries’ league form has been patchy in the last few rounds. The 28-22 reversal at the hands of Sale means they have claimed three wins and three losses from their last six Premiership fixtures. However, that is nothing when you look at London Irish. The Exiles don’t do things by halves and look to have gone one step further from the end of last season when their form faded away like the popularity of an X-Factor winner. (Remember Leon Jackson? No, me neither). Irish’s form has plummeted off the edge of a cliff over recent weeks, having lost nine games in a row. The sight of head coach Toby Booth sitting with his head in his hands after Olly Barkley snatched a one point win last weekend said it all. London Irish have slipped from the top of the league table in round seven to now sit in fifth place, picking up just one league point in their last five matches. Look away Exiles fans, but this is your poorest run in the league since 1997/98.
My prediction: Saracens by 6.
Bath v Leeds Carnegie
Bath ended their five game losing run last weekend thanks in part to the goal kicking of Olly Barkley. The cool as a cucumber centre slotted a last-gasp penalty to help Bath nick a win over out of form London Irish. The smile on coach Steve Meehan’s face was a treat, but the man whose smile was beaming much more brightly (albeit behind closed doors) was Leeds coach Neil Back. New Year’s Day proved to be a fresh start for the Yorkshire side who are currently super-glued to the bottom of the Aviva Premiership table. Carnegie outmuscled Gloucester 15-13 to record their first league win of the season and their third consecutive win in all competitions. In Leeds terms, that is form. However, Back’s men haven’t won at the Rec for five years and Bath have beaten Leeds on their last six meetings. Saying that, Bath are hardly a team in a run of form despite Bruce Craig’s millions. Arguably there isn’t a better time for Carnegie to engineer a smash and grab job on their ninth placed hosts and come away with four points.
My prediction: A win for either of these teams could set the tone for a much needed revival. A great deal depends on the weather – if it stays dry and Bath’s backline is given the chance to shine then I think Leeds will come unstuck. Bath by 9.
Harlequins v Wasps
Harlequins pulled off the shock of round 12 when they defeated Northampton at Franklins Gardens. In doing so they became the first team to beat the Saints in their own back yard this season. Quins have now won their last four games in all competitions and their form at the Stoop is good. The last time they lost there was on 11 September, ironically to the Saints. A win over their London rivals Wasps would be another massive boost for Conor O’Shea’s men having not triumphed over their close rivals in more than two years. When these two sides met in round one the score was deadlocked on 29-all and Quins will see this weekend as a great chance to go one better. However, despite the cold weather the Wasps have stirred to life and have only lost one of their last eight games in all competitions. Sadly this was in the not too distant past in the infinitely forgettable 13-6 defeat by Saracens at Wembley on Boxing Day.
My prediction: Fly-half Nick Evans is in great form for Quins and with home advantage and a massive confidence boost from beating the Saints, I think it will be Harlequins by 9.
Gloucester v Exeter Chiefs
Exeter started their first season in the Premiership with a shock 22-10 win over the cherry and whites in round one when the two teams met at Sandy Park. The history books reveal that the Chiefs are winless at Kingsholm in their two previous visits but much has changed since their last loss there in 2002. Gloucester will be smarting from their defeat by basement boys Leeds last weekend and if they lose to Exeter they will have lost three in a row for the first time since November 2009. However, Gloucester are unbeaten in the league at home since October that year when Wasps were the visitors. Exeter’s form might have slipped from the opening few rounds but they have still managed to take at least one league point from six of their last seven matches.
My prediction: Gloucester will be desperate to stop the rot and in front of the Shed I think they will do just that. Gloucester by 7.
Newcastle Falcons v Sale Sharks
Strugglers Sale marked the departure of head coach Mike Brewer with a shock 28-22 win over Saracens last Sunday. That result, along with a win for Leeds means the Falcons - who have won just one of their last eight league games - must be glancing nervously over their shoulders. The Sharks won 35-18 when the two teams met in round one and are going for a first ever league double over the Falcons. However, Newcastle have won their last three home games in all competitions with their crucial clash against fellow relegation candidates Leeds called off over the festive period. If Sale can win at Kingston Park it will be quite an achievement – last year they only recorded one league win on the road.
My prediction: It’s a tricky one to call but I think Sale might edge this to heap more misery on Newcastle. Sale by 7.
Posted by Bamberio at 09:00
Wednesday, 5 January 2011
|I hate you Stevie Wonder|
I know, I know, it’s five days late. Well, it’s taken me that long to recover. No, not from stuffing my face like a fat kid over Christmas or overindulging in one too many shots of sambuca on New Year’s Eve (ouch my head). The reason why I’ve not posted sooner is because I have simultaneously been singing from the roof tops but then stopping to shake my head and think about what I have done. You see, on 1 January, Leeds Carnegie achieved something they’ve been as desperate for as Sam Allardyce waiting for a call from Italy. Neil Back’s men banished the winter blues by sealing their first Aviva Premiership win of the season by beating Gloucester 15-13. Great eh? For me, as a huge Leeds fan, it was brilliant. The best start to the year I could have hoped for. Carnegie were fresh from back-to-back wins in the Amlin Cup after their Boxing Day clash with relegation rivals Newcastle was called off and boy did it show.
Except I wasn’t at Headingley to witness by beloved team notch up their first league win of the season. Instead I was sitting in the back of a Volkswagen Touran speeding along the M62. Not exactly how I saw that one going in my head if I'm honest. You see, I was on my way home from celebrating New Year’s Eve in Preston with my friends. I know, Preston. Hardly glamour central of the world and a bit of a random choice, but we went to a comedy club and it was all fine until that journey home. Why? I wasn’t hungover, none of use were. There was no chundering out of the window or grimacing about the previous night's antics as we had all been very well behaved. It’s because I was missing the game. Following the score and updates on Twitter just isn’t the same, especially when it’s accompanied by the sound of your friends singing ‘Crazy for You’ by Let Loose at the top of their voices.
As we sped past Huddersfield I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I’d picked Leeds to win by three points but it was more in hope than with belief. Gloucester were enjoying a run of good form in the league and in Europe so surely it couldn’t be? Well, Twitter was telling me it might, as the score poised on a tantalising 10-10 at half-time.
Now not one to throw a tantrum about missing the game I quietly sat in the back of the car. After some speedy driving my friend dropped me off home at 2pm. Kick-off had been at one so I knew if I rushed I might just make it to catch the end of the match. I jumped in the car knowing I faced a race against time. So why did I bother? I could have just watched the highlights with smiley-faced rugby-novice Craig Doyle on ITV4 later on that night. Not an option. You see, it’s one of my superstitions of supporting a team. Call me weird if you like, but I have two big match-day superstitions. I can’t go to a game wearing something I’ve bought after the start of the season as it brings bad luck. I did it once to a Leeds Rhinos game and they lost. I accidentally did it again the following week and they lost again. Facing the wrath of my then boyfriend and the mounting coincidence it quickly became a superstition I hold to this day. The Rhinos won every other live game I watched that season.
The only other superstition I have is if my team has been on a run of bad form but win when I’ve not been watching them I can’t go to another game until they lose. That is why I’ve been totally over the moon that Leeds claimed their first league win but totally bummed out at the same time. Being a good fan, I want my team to win all of their remaining games and climb to mid-table mediocrity. Being a season ticket holder, this is annoying. However, this is Leeds I’m talking about and the next home game in the league is Leicester Tigers. Chances of them winning that game? Low. Chances of them winning if I don’t go….?
Damn you superstition.