HEINEKEN CUP RESUMES
Well, with the November series over, the focus returns to the Heineken Cup, which resumes this weekend. All the provinces are featuring with Munster, Ulster and Leinster all facing crucial back-to-back fixtures.
MUNSTER face Saracens at 6 o’clock on Saturday, at Thomond Park. Saracens are currently leading the pool, with 2 wins and 9 points. Munster are 2nd with 6 points, having lost a game.
Munster need to win both these fixtures if they want to stay in the Heineken. After a slow start, Munster are in good form and most of their star players are back. Though Paul O’Connell is still injured, Donncha Ryan is improving all the time.
Saracens have a very good team, though, with former South African captain, John Smit, at hooker. Former England out-half, Charlie Hodgson is playing very well. His contest against Ronan O’Gara will be very interesting.
Saracens are also buoyed by a number of English stars, who helped cut New Zealand down over the weekend. Chris Ashton and Brad Barritt both scored tries, while Owen Farrell kicked 15 points.
Full back Alex Goode, and prop Mako Vunipola also had good games. All 5 of those players have been spoken of as possible Lions candidates. Saracens are currently 2nd in the English Premiership, and are a very strong team.
Munster will have the home advantage, though Thomond isn’t the fortress it once was. Saracens are the better team at the moment. Munster will have to dig deep and reclaim that magic of old if they are to win.
LEINSTER travel to France to face Clermont, on Sunday at 3 o’clock. Clermont are the top team in the Heineken at the moment, leading their pool with 10 points, the only team to get 4 tries in both their previous games.
Leinster are doing well at the moment, though their previous matches in the Heineken were much tighter, and they only beat Exeter, 9-6. (Clermont beat Exeter 46-12). Leinster will need to improve if want to hold on to the Heineken Cup.
Though Leinster will be buoyed by the return of Sean O’Brien, they will sorely miss Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney. On a positive note, Jonny Sexton is playing some of the best rugby of his life, and Jaimie Heaslip is on form.
Clermont have a strong side, though. As well as a lot of French stars (Rougerie, Fofana, Parra etc), Clermont also have, former Wales and Lions full-back Lee Byrne; former New Zealand flyer, Sivivatu; and Australian out-half Brock James.
Former Scotland and Lions lock Nathan Hines knows a lot about Leinster, having won the Heineken with them in 2009. Clermont are currently ranked 3rd in the French Premiership (Top 14).
Though Leinster beat Clermont in the semi-final of the Heineken last year (19-16), Leinster had a stronger side then. Clermont will want to avenge that match. Leinster will do very well to win this game.
ULSTER face Northampton on Friday at 8 o’clock. Ulster are actually leading the pool, with 9 points, to Northampton’s 6. Ulster are in great form at the moment, also topping the Rabo, with 10 wins out of 10 games.
Though Rory Best and Stephen Ferris are still injured, Ulster still have got some great players, with Craig Gilroy becoming a star. Some of their younger players also did well against Fiji while playing for an Ireland XV.
Northampton have a pretty strong side as well, though not as strong as 2011 when they almost beat Leinster in the Heineken final. Ben Foden at full-back and Dylan Hartley at hooker are their star players.
Ulster will need to maintain their form if they want to stay top of the pool, though they have the best chance of the 3 provinces, at the moment, of advancing. It will be an exciting weekend of Heineken rugby action!
WORLD CUP DRAW
The draw has been made for the 2015 Rugby World Cup and Ireland have been pooled with France and Italy. Not too bad a draw (New Zealand would have been worse), though France are in great form at the moment.
Ireland don’t have a great record against France in the World Cup, or overall actually (we’ve only beaten them 29 times in 90 appearances, with 5 draws and 55 defeats). We’ve lost to them in 2 quarter-finals (1995 and 2003, both heavy defeats).
We also faced them in a very tough pool, in 2007 (along with Argentina) and lost again. We were pooled with Italy in the last World Cup (2011) and did very well against them.
If we come 2nd in the pool we will face New Zealand in the quarter-final, which will mean an end to our campaign. If we managed to top the pool, though, we will face Argentina, which isn’t great either.
All this is pretty academic. We can’t judge how good (or bad) Ireland will be 3 years from now. It will probably be a different looking team, with O’Driscoll, O’Gara, O’Connell and Best likely having retired by then.
Due to Wales’s loss of form in recent games, they have dropped to 9th in the IRB rankings, which put them in the 3rd tier for the draw. This means they are pooled with Australia and England, which has been dubbed the ‘Pool of Death’!
Again, who knows where the teams will be in 3 years, but it’s still a tough pool, which could go anyways. England were in a tough pool in the last World Cup (against Scotland and Argentina) and managed to top it. The 2015 pool will be tougher.
Scotland, having plummeted to 12th, are also in a tough pool, though not as tough as the last one. They face South Africa and Samoa. On Scotland’s current form (ie crap) they don’t have much of a chance of advancing from the pool (they didn’t in 2011).
New Zealand are pooled with Argentina. I’d say Argentina will make big steps in the next 3 years, from featuring in the new Rugby Championship, though maybe not enough to beat New Zealand. Should be an interesting tournament!
Btw, we’ve never actually faced England in the World Cup, either at the pool stages, or in the knock-out stages. And we haven’t faced South Africa, either, though they did miss the first 2 tournament, due to the boycott against them (because of apartheid).
The draw took place in the Tate Modern museum in London, for some reason.
LIONS IN PERIL?
They aren’t really but most of the viable candidates for next year’s Lions tour to Australia have suffered a loss of form, or are injured. As well as that, all of the 4 Home Union teams are having difficulties.
England put in a terrific performance against New Zealand over the weekend, but their other efforts in the November series were quite poor. Ireland were great against Argentina, but not as good against South Africa.
Wales have suffered a serious loss of form since winning the Grand Slam, having lost all subsequent tests (including 4 tests against Australia!). The low point was another loss to Samoa, their bogey team, and been demoted to ninth in the world.
It’s ironic that Wales have suffered this drop since their coach Warren Gatland went on sabbatical to prepare for coaching the Lions. The Welsh performances got him the job as coach but they’ve suffered since he took it.
Scotland are in a calamitous state, losing to Tonga, and been shunted to 12th in the world. Ironically, though, despite their poor form, they’re actually the only country of the Home Unions to have beaten Australia in the last 12 months.
Hopefully the 6 Nations will see a return to form for the players (and a return), with better performances and better results for the countries as a whole. We’ll want to see the best from Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales before they combine for the tour.
Taking into account the injured players, I’ve drawn up a possible line-up for the Lions tour next summer. Things can (and probably) change before then, but these are the players I’ll have my eye on!
LEIGH HALFPENNY of Wales is the frontrunner at the moment, though he had to be stretchered from the field against Australia. He should be okay now. Kearney will go, if fit. England’s ALEX GOODE is playing very well at the moment.
It’s probably too early to talk about Craig Gilroy at the moment, but if he plays well during the 6 Nations he could have a chance. WALES’S ALEX CUTHBERT and GEORGE NORTH look to be certainties, along with TOMMY BOWE. There’s been some good talk about Scotland’s TIM VISSER as well.
O’Driscoll will travel if fit. Welsh centres JAIMIE ROBERTS and JONATHAN DAVIES also should go. England’s MANU TUILAGI and BRAD BARRITT did very well against New Zealand.
Jonny Sexton is in front at the moment. LEIGH HALFPENNY of Wales is very good, but is suffering a dip in form. England have 2 great out-halves in OWEN FARRELL and TOBY FLOOD. I’d bring both, with Farrell as a utility player.
Conor Murray has improved, though MIKE PHILLIPS of Wales is still front-runner, though he’s not a test certainty yet. BEN YOUNGS and DANNY CARE are doing very well for England. I’d imagine whoever is first choice will be picked for the Lions.
Jaimie Heaslip is playing well, and Lions coach Warren Gatland is a fan. There isn’t another candidate at the moment, though TOBY FALETU of Wales looked a good prospect during the 6 Nations.
Both England’s CHRIS ROBSHAW and Wales’s SAM WARBURTON have been touted as possible Lions captains. Warburton’s form is erratic, and he’s injury prone, but he’s the better of the 2. He would also be more familiar with Gatland as coach.
Robshaw has been critised for his decision making recently, but he’s a good player. Open-side flanker (7) will be a crucial position as Australia’s Pocock is one of the best in the world. Stephen Ferris should also tour, if fit. Sean O’Brien might revert to blindside.
Wales’s ALUN-WYN JONES (who was a 2009 Lion) should go. RICHIE GRAY of Scotland is also a candidate, along with England’s COURTNEY LAWES. Paul O’Connell will go if fit
DYLAN HARTLEY is in form at the moment, though he has a challenger in TOM YOUNGS. Richard Strauss did well against Argentina but will need to show better form. Rory Best will go if fit.
Cian Healy will go, along with GETHIN JENKINS and ADAM JONES of Wales. Mike Ross also has a chance.