HEINEKEN/AMLIN, RABO AND LIONS

Well, we’re coming closer to the end of the rugby season, and we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty. Firstly, the semi-finals of both the Heineken and Amlin European Cups take place this weekend.

 

Also, the RaboDirect Pro12 is reaching its final stages, with only 1 round to go before the semi-final qualifiers are decided. The IRFU are coming closer to picking a new Irish coach, and it’s only a week until Warren Gatland choses his Lions squad!

 

HEINEKEN/AMLIN

There are 2 titanic contests to look forward to in the Heineken. In the first, Munster face French giants, Clermont on Saturday (6 pm. Not sure if that’s French or Irish time to be honest). Then on Sunday, Toulon face off against Saracens.

 

Munster staged a remarkable come-back when they beat Harlequins in the quarter-final, after having a poor season leading up to the game. It was the provinces best performance since winning the Heineken Cup in 2008.   

 

Munster will be a depleted side coming into the match, with Donncha O’Callaghan, Doug Howlett and Stephen Archer ruled out of the game. There are also doubts about the fitness of Peter O’Mahony and Keith Earls.

 

Munster have had a run of losses in the Rabo tournament since their win against Harlequins but they have been resting their star players. They will go into the match as underdogs, but have proven that they can’t be counted out in the big games.

 

Clermont are currently leaders of the Top14 table, and have being one of the best club sides this season. They were unbeaten in the Heineken pool stages and crushed Montpellier, 36-14, in their quarter-final.

 

They have their own injury concerns, though, with captain Rougerie ruled out of the game. They’re top players won’t have been rested, either, and played a very tough Top14 game against Toulouse earlier in the week.

 

Clermont also may have a problem at out-half, with both their no.10s recovering from injury. Clermont were knocked out of the semi-final of last year’s Heineken by Leinster! They will be favourites with a home advantage.

 

Toulon face Saracens (Sunday at 3) in the other semi-final, which will be played at Twickenham. Toulon overcame Leicester, 21-16, while Saracens knocked out Ulster, 27-16 in the other semi-finals.

 

Toulon are 2nd in the Top14, only a point behind leaders, Clermont, though they did lose their last Top14 match to 8th placed, Grenoble. They came out of a very tough pool in the Heineken and overcame one of the top teams, Leicester in the quarters.

 

Toulon have a great team, with a lot of international starts including Bakkies Botha, Rocky Elsom, Gethin Jenkins, Andrew Sheridan, Simon Shaw and Carl Hayman. They also have some great French players, like Michalak, Bastareaud and Lobbe.

 

Fly-half Jonny Wilkinson is having a great season, probably his best since winning the World Cup in 2003. His personal contest against Saracen’s Owen Farrell, should be one of the highlights of the match.

 

Saracens are on a role as well, topping the English Premiership, 4 points ahead of Leicester. They also did very well in the Heineken pool stages, coming first, ahead of Munster. They also dominated Ulster in the quarter-final.

 

Saracens have some star players, including some of the English team that almost won the 6 Nations, with some been Lions possibilities (Goode, Barritt, Stettle, Stevens). Toulon will start as favourites, though, with a superior team.

 

Incidentally, Munster are the only team of the 4 semi-finalists to have won the Heineken Cup, which they did twice, in 2006, and ’08. None of the other sides have even reached a final before, while Munster have appeared in 4 overall (losing in 2000 and ’02).

 

AMLIN CHALLENGE CUP

In the semi-finals of the Amlin Cup (Heineken A if you like), Perpignan face Stade Francais on Friday at 9, while Leinster face Biarritz on Saturday at 2.30. Leinster are the current favourites, while the 3 French side have had disappointing seasons.

 

Leinster have gotten over the disappointment of failing to progress past the pool stages of the Heineken, by beating Wasps, 48-28 in a great quarter-final performance. They’ve also done well in the Rabo, reaching second-place.

 

Leinster should have their full complement of players, with only David Kearney likely to be absent (Kearney is still suffering the affects of a wayward kick by Paul O’Connell).

 

Biarritz have had a difficult season. They had a mixed Heineken Cup, failing to qualify to the quarter-final stages, and are at 11th place (out of 14) in the Top14, over 30 points behind Toulon.

 

They did well in beating Gloucester, though, in the Amlin quarter-final, 41-31. They also have some great players with Traille, Baby, Yachvilli and Harinorduqouy. Leinster will be favourites going into the match.

 

Perpignan and Stade Francais will contest the other semi-final. They’ve also had difficult seasons. Both topped their pools in the Amlin quarters, but are ranked 7th (P) and 9th (SF) in the Top14. Perpignan have the edge going into the match and will start as favourites.

 

Incidentally, if any of the 3 French sides win the Amlin Cup they will also win automatic Heineken Cup qualification. Leinster are permanent members of the Heineken.

 

RABODIRECT PRO12

The Rabo is coming close to qualification time, with only 1 match to go for each of the teams. Connacht face Zebre on Friday, 26th April at 7.30. The other 6 games take place on Friday, May 3rd all at 7.45.

 

When the final games are completed, the top 4 teams in the table will square-off in the semi-finals. Currently those 4 are, in order, Ulster (76 pts), Leinster (73), Glasgow (72) and Scarlets (66). 5th placed is Ospreys with 62 points.

 

With 4 points for a win, Osprey have a slim chance of qualifying, provided Scarlets lose their game. Ulster have a good chance of remaining top, with the big question being whether Leinster can remain 2nd, as they’re only 1 point ahead of Glasgow.

 

IRELAND COACH

Leinster’s Joe Schmidt is front-runner to become the new Ireland coach. He’s trying to come to an agreement with the IRFU (Irish rugby’s governing body). The main stumbling block seems to be the IRFU’s hands-on approach to the job.

 

Apparently, the IRFU want to have more input in the style of play of the team than Schmidt is comfortable with. It seems that he’d prefer a more autonomous role, with very little input by the committee.  

 

(it reminds me of when Warren Gatland was Irish coach, pre Eddie O’Sullivan. He got annoyed with the ‘input’ given by committee members. According to him, a lot of the committee had been players in the 1950’s/’60’s and hadn’t made allowances for the change in the game. ‘In my day…’ sort of thing’. He quit/was sacked in 2001/’02).

 

Of course, if Schmidt does take the job, it will leave Leinster in a bit of a quandary. The new season starts in mid-July, which would give Leinster’s board only about 10 weeks to find a new coach!

 

BRITISH AND IRISH LIONS 2013

Amazingly, it’s only a week until Lions coach Warrant Gatland is due to pick his squad of the tour of Australia, which kicks off on June 1st, with a match against the Barbarians in Hong Kong. 4 years has flown by (since the 2009 Lions tour.  

 

This is the highlight of the year for me, as it is for a lot of fans, and players. Several injured players have made welcome returns to their clubs/provinces and have increased their chances of being picked to tour.

 

Paul O’Connell dominated in the Heineken quarter-final against Harlequins, and looks to be in his best form in years. A great performance in Saturday’s semi-final should clinch his place.

 

Jonny Sexton has made an equally impressive return to form for Leinster. Before he was injured in the 6 Nations he was front-runner for the test no.10 spot and looks to be back in the running.

 

Tommy Bowe has been doing great things for Ulster, and after missing the whole 6 Nations, has almost made his tour selection a sure thing. Richard Strauss is also making up for lost time.

 

Sam Warburton is the firm favourite to be made captain. His main rival for the role, England’s Chris Robshaw is currently injured which makes Warburton an even closer favourite. At the start of the season his odds were 33-1 (I wish I’d put a bet on!).

 

If Warburton does get the captaincy, he will be the first Welsh Lions captain since Phil Bennett in 1977. His team didn’t do so well, losing the test series against New Zealand, 3-1.

 

There have only been 2 Welsh captains of the Lions. John Dawes did much better in 1971. Winning the series, 2-1 with a draw, also against New Zealand, becoming the only Lions squad to win a test series in New Zealand. Incidentally, that team played a few games in Australia before moving on to face the All Blacks.

 

Of course, once the Lions squad is picked there will still be a few games to go, including the Heineken, Amlin and Aviva Premiership Finals, and the Rabo semi-finals and final. Hopefully none of the chosen players will get injured in those games but it’s doubtful that there won’t be at least 1 injury.  

 

The overlong season is one of the most controversial points of the Lions tours, with the domestic tournaments not finishing until the 25th May, 24 hours before the Lions squad fly out.

 

In the space of only 10 days, the players could conceivably, play in a Rabo/Premiership final in Dublin/London, fly to Hong Kong, play against the Barbarians, than fly to Australia and play against an Australian club/franchise!

 

That’s a crazy schedule, and what makes it worse is that it’s been decided by the Lions committee itself, which makes it seem that they’re almost not too interested in winning the test series! As usual, they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

 

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