European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 3 Review

The good, the bad and the downright ugly 

Bless me father, I have sinned, it has being a couple of weeks since my last European Rugby Challenge Cup blog. Here are my transgressions and a look at the playoff picture heading into the fourth round of pool games. 

Overall Ranking Standings

If the playoffs were determined after round three, the following quarter final pairings would be as follows: 

  • La Rochelle vs. Zebre Rugby
  • ASM Clermont vs. Worcester Warriors
  • Sale Sharks vs. Northampton Saints
  • Ospreys vs. Benetton Rugby

Tale of French Interest and Indifference

As usual in this competition, there have being varying levels of interest from the French clubs. Perpignan, Bordeaux Begles, Agen and Stade Francais have decided that this is not a season priority so no surprise that they are out the back and threading water in this competition until January. To the sponsors relief, ASM Clermont and La Rochelle have decided to give the competition a serious go this season and their performances to date have being outstanding to watch. Pau continue to embrace the tournament and are right in the mix in their pool but their ambition and desire for European competition is not reflected with the vast majority of the sides and needs to be looked at by tournament organizers. 

English interest is high 

Sale Sharks are the leading English side in the rankings after round three and with their fixture list including meetings with the disinterested Perpignan and Bordeaux Begles, they should be pretty close to a top seed berth. Chris Ashton and Faf de Klerk have being outstanding in this level of competition as Ashton looks to secure the top try scoring gong before the quarter final stage such is his scoring regularity at present. 

Northampton Saints will advance to the last eight of the competition given that they have Dragons who are struggling for form and performance along with the hapless Timisoara Saracens side. Saints though were wholly exposed in their defeat to ASM Clermont and their domestic form has being inconsistent at best; a side who will do well to get deep in the playoff stage of the competition. 

Harlequins look a good solid bet to go far in this competition but the defeat to Benetton Rugby on the road has raised serious questions on their credentials. Two home games against Grenoble and Benetton Rugby will need to be won with a bonus point each to have any chance of playoff qualification but with Agen in their pool, they still have an outstanding chance of sneaking a last playoff place. A dangerous side if they do get in late. 

Bristol Bears experienced the power and offloading of La Rochelle last weekend and with a road trip to the French side, it looks like their interest in this tournament will be over by Christmas. Bristol Bears league survival is paramount this season, expect squad personnel changes aplenty for the return fixture with La Rochelle. 

Worcester Warriors are involved in the pool of death with Ospreys and Pau for company. A difficult encounter with an abrasive Paul outfit beckons this weekend and depending on results elsewhere could be out the back door and staring elimination from the competition as Ospreys look to pounce on the disinterest of Stade Francais on the road. 

Injuries mounting for Connacht Rugby

The 22-10 home win to Perpignan was another opportunity for a bonus point spurned; the conditions during the contest were horrific with driving wind and rain making the match into a slug fest. Connacht Rugby have used the competition to blood academy talent to first team action but it has also resulted in additional injuries which the club are proactively seeking emergency loans. The scrum-half position depth chart is exposed with injuries at present so it could be a step too far for the Irish province to make the playoffs given the points tallies of other teams around them. The lack of home bonus points so far may come back to haunt the province come January 19th. 

Ospreys look to strike decisive playoff blow 

Ospreys as mentioned are involved in a competitive pool. Pau and Worcester Warriors are providing good opposition as Stade Francais have waned badly in the competition. Ospreys on the road this weekend to Paris and one would expect them to win this contest; it would be a key win given the Ospreys problems away from the Liberty Stadium this season. Ospreys have quality in the pack with Wyn-Jones and Tipuric in the ranks. The Welsh side should advance to the playoffs and with George North in the back line, they will fancy a cut off any of the sides still left in the competition. All to play for some while the vast majority continue to thread water for this competition to end to refocus on domestic league priorities. 

Irish Rugby Grassroots Blog Series

A blog series on the Irish schools and local rugby grass root clubs which are nurturing and developing the current provincial academy and senior squad members. The numbers produced were based on current academy and senior squad players who have gone through the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland educational systems. The statistics generated may surprise some. This blog post collates the articles which focused on this topic: 

Ulster Rugby: What Second Level Schools and local grassroots rugby clubs are developing the homegrown talent for the provincial setup?

Strong Ulster Schools and Grassroots Rugby structures

This blog series will look and recognize the secondary schools and local rugby clubs who are to the fore in underage rugby player development. They are at times the forgotten piece of the jigsaw. Without these schools and rugby clubs, there would be no talent pool outlet for the Irish provinces and national team to prosper. 

This article focuses on Ulster Rugby. The statistics are based on the indigenous born players who have come through the Irish or Northern Ireland educational system. The statistics may surprise some but it is an exercise which provides key trends going forward. 

Ulster Rugby Squad: Age profile 

The Irish born player age profile in the current first team squad is around twenty-five years. The current first team squad’s eldest player is Rory Best  (36). The playing squad has a good blend of youth and experience. The emergence of academy talent such as Eric O’Sullivan, Robert Baloucoune and Angus Kernohan this season bodes well for the club long term. 

Schools Demographic:

The school county breakdown for the Ulster Rugby squad is: Antrim (23), Dublin (7), Armagh (1), Down (1), Limerick (1), Cork (1), Tyrone (1), Offaly (1), Donegal (1), Fermanagh (1). 

Schools County Demographic

Schools Representation: 

Schools Breakdown

Schools Observations:

  1. The conveyor belt of talent from the Ballymena Academy is self evident in these numbers; currently provide nine players in the current provincial setup. 
  2. The emergence of talent from Fermanagh, Donegal is good to see as well as the influx of Dublin school based players up to Ulster Rugby in recent years. 

Grass Roots Rugby Club Association: 

The local rugby club scene is well represented in the Ulster Rugby squad ranks with Ballymena, Ballynahinch, Banbridge, Dungannon, Malone, Queen’s University well represented. 

Grass-root club vs. provincial breakdown

Leinster Rugby: What Second Level Schools and local grassroots rugby clubs are developing the homegrown talent for the provincial setup?

Leinster Rugby schools and local club structures incredibly strong

This blog series will look and recognize the secondary schools and local rugby clubs who are to the fore in underage rugby player development. They are at times the forgotten piece of the jigsaw. Without these schools and rugby clubs, there would be no talent pool outlet for the Irish provinces and national team to prosper. 

This article focuses on Leinster Rugby. The statistics are based on the indigenous born players who have come through the Irish or Northern Ireland educational system. The statistics may surprise some but it is an exercise which provides key trends going forward. 

Leinster Rugby Squad: Age profile 

The Irish born player age profile in the current first team squad is around twenty-five years. The current first team squad’s eldest player is Jonathan Sexton (33). The playing squad has a good blend of youth and experience. The emergence of academy talent such as Doris, Keenan, O’Brien, Penny this season bodes well for the club long term. 

Schools Demographic:

The school county breakdown for the Leinster Rugby squad is: Dublin (36), Kildare (10), Westmeath (2), Limerick (1), Offaly (1), Wexford (1), Wicklow (1), Carlow (1), Tipperary (1). The Dublin schools system is a key driver to the success of the Leinster senior and academy squads. 

Schools Representation: 

Schools Breakdown Demographic

Schools Observations:

  1. The conveyor belt of talent from the Dublin schools is self evident in these number but St.Michael’s contribution is duly noted with sixteen current Leinster Rugby squad members coming from the school. 
  2. The emergence of talent from outside Dublin is seen too with Carlow, Offaly, Kildare, Wexford and Westmeath represented. This trend should continue to develop with the province primed for further success on the field. 

Grass Roots Rugby Club Association: 

The local rugby club scene is well represented in the Leinster Rugby squad ranks with Dublin rugby club associated with a good portion of the current squad. University College Dublin and their ability to nurture academy players to senior provincial ranks a key example.  It has being a gateway for players to get the required club rugby experience before being called to provincial rank action. 

Grass-root Club / Provincial Squad Breakdown

Munster Rugby: What Second Level Schools and local grassroots rugby clubs are developing the homegrown talent for the provincial setup?

Munster Rugby homegrown provincial  talent is strong

This blog series will look and recognize the secondary schools and local rugby clubs who are to the fore in underage rugby player development. They are at times the forgotten piece of the jigsaw. Without these schools and rugby clubs, there would be no talent pool outlet for the Irish provinces and national team to prosper. 

This article focuses on Munster Rugby. The statistics are based on the indigenous born players who have come through the Irish or Northern Ireland educational system. The statistics may surprise some but it is an exercise which provides key trends going forward. 

Munster Rugby Squad: Age profile 

The Irish born player age profile in the squad is around twenty-six years. The current first team squad’s eldest player is Duncan Williams (32). The playing squad has a good blend of youth and experience. The emergence of academy talent such as Bill Johnston, Gavin Coombes this season bodes well for the club long term. 

Schools Demographic:

The school county breakdown for the Munster Rugby squad is: Cork (22), Limerick (11), Tipperary (7), Dublin (6), Waterford (2), Kerry (1), Antrim (1) and Kildare (1). 

School County Breakdown

Schools Representation: 

Cork Schools grassroots prominent in the current squad

Schools Observations:

  1. The conveyor belt of talent from the Cork  school system is self evident in this squad makeup: PBC (9), CBC (7) are well represented along with several other Cork county schools. 
  2. Rockwell College continue to produce high quality talent. They currently provide four Munster Rugby squad players at present including JJ Hanrahan. 

Grass Roots Rugby Club Association: 

The local rugby club scene is well represented in the Munster Rugby squad ranks with the Cork and Limerick rugby club juggernauts all well represented.  

Grassroots Club Demographic

Heineken Champions Cup : Round Three (Overall Rankings / Playoff Picture)

Overall Rankings After Round Three

Perhaps a little early to be posting this overall ranking standings table but it just shows how much rugby is still left to be played and how a result here or there could affect the playoff berths. 

Ranking As of December 9th, 2018

If the tournament pool stages concluded this weekend, the following quarter finals would be: 

  • Saracens vs. Ulster Rugby 
  • Racing 92 vs. Glasgow Warriors
  • Toulouse vs. Leinster Rugby 
  • Munster Rugby vs. Edinburgh Rugby 

There will be twists and turns in the pool stages but it looks clear that Saracens and Racing 92 will be vying it out for the top seed given their remaining schedules. Either way, the first and second seed even at this early stage looks already locked down given the remaining schedules of these teams. 

Playoff Picture:

Pool 1:

After that, it becomes muddied. Toulouse secured a vital road trip win to Wasps who are as good as out of the contest. The key contest now for Toulouse in the pool is their road trip fixture to Leinster Rugby; a potential winner getting a home quarter final up for grabs. Bath Rugby and Wasps could be vulnerable to a couple of hidings before the end of this pool phase.

Pool 2:

Munster Rugby have an arduous series of road trip fixtures. An away assignment to Castres who always give teams a torrid time and then a trip to Kingsholm to meet a Gloucester Rugby full of confidence after taking the scalp of Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park. Pool 2 has twists and turns to go yet before the weekend of January 19th. 

Pool 3:

Saracens in particular have shown the defensive organization and attacking guile in their pool phase. Cardiff Blues and Lyon look detached already so potential bonus points on offer for both Saracens and Glasgow Warriors who should secure a best runner up berth. 

Pool 4: 

Racing 92’s offloading game at home particularly has being a joy to watch. Ulster Rugby’s win at Scarlets give the Irish province a chance to secure a best runner up berth and they may need to beat Racing 92 at Kingspan Stadium to secure playoff rugby next April. Scarlets are out, disappointing campaign and Leicester Tigers could join them if they do not beat Racing 92 next weekend. 

Pool 5:

Edinburgh Rugby hold sway in the Pool 5 standings but do have a road trip to RC Toulon who will be keen to avenge a massive loss to the Scottish club in round two. Montpellier are as good as out so Newcastle Falcons may have a potential chance of securing a best runner up berth. All to play for in this pool. 

Heineken Champions Cup: Munster Rugby 30 – 5 Castres

Murray creativity key
Windswept Thomond Park

Munster Rugby are three points clear in Pool 2 after a three try second half performance over a hard working but limited Castres outfit at Thomond Park. Hawkeye Sidekick was at the Limerick venue and provides his thoughts on proceedings. 

Late scratches force Munster into squad reshuffle

The day started with excitement and optimism for Munster Rugby supporters heading to Thomond Park for this European Cup fixture; a fixture to see the debut of Conor Murray and Joey Carbery half-back partnership as well as Chris Farrell who was in superb form last weekend.

As the fans started to arrive to the hallowed rugby venue, it soon emerged that Carbery would play no part in the contest (hamstring) and after a lengthy consultation with medical staff during team warm ups, Chris Farrell was also forced to sit this fixture out. 

Two key personnel withdrawals for the Irish province but in JJ Hanrahan and Sam Arnold, the side still look loaded with talent and creativity to execute an efficient attacking game plan. Tyler Bleyendaal and Jaco Taute were called into the match day squad and the training drills pregame were executed in a heavy torrential downpour, the visibility reducing with each passing minute.

Tricky weather conditions leads to unforced errors 

The windy conditions were extremely tricky for both sides. The opening exchanges typified with the visitors unable to deal with Murray’s first three box kicks given the cross field breeze at play.

Munster Rugby as well were struggling with the conditions as well as Mike Haley kicked out in the full early doors. The game looked for all intensive purposes to be a pack arm wrestle early doors. 

The pack battle was fascinating in that opening period. Munster Rugby with John Ryan and Dave Kilcoyne prominent in the scrum set piece were winning penalties and setting the attacking foundation for the side. JJ Hanrahan was presented with a regulation three pointer to open the scoring in the first ten minutes of the contest. 

Munster Rugby were looking to create a high tempo game but Castres were resolute in defensive duties and their breakdown work at times stifled the hosts ability to create quick ruck ball.

The line out exchanges ebbed and flowed in the windy conditions. Munster Rugby resorting to the long throw at the back of the line out more than once which did not have the desired effect. The line out was shaky at best for the hosts and with it squandered several opening period opportunities. 

Munster Rugby forcing the play too much

 The second quarter was all Munster Rugby; predominantly camped in the Castres 22 but there was a lack of composure in the attacking lines from the hosts; forcing passes which were not on due to the weather conditions and the back line running lines were at times ponderous and static with minimal supporting runners.

The passage of play whereby Conor Murray realizing that Castres had over committed players to the left hand side switched play but there was a total breakdown in communications with Tadhg Beirne who knocked on. It summed up the host’s lack of precision with ball in hand.

Castres were happy to hit the dressing rooms at half-time only 6-0 down. JJ Hanrahan slotting over another close range penalty after good play from the Munster pack in the second quarter. All Munster Rugby dominance but the pressure built up not yielding the desired points on the board. 

Sharp start to the second half from Munster Rugby 

With management instructions ringing in their ears, Munster Rugby started the second half with renewed tempo and vigor putting pressure on Castres to force a series of scrums just on the Castres 22. Murray to the fore as his line break saw a deft offload to Rory Scannell to crash over. JJ Hanrahan slotting over the extras and the game was out to a thirteen point lead. 

Castres offered a lifeline but fail to take 

Immediately after the concession of the opening try, Castres rumbled into life and were rewarded a penalty which was missed but Murray knocked on in the dead goal area. Castres with a five meter scrum but the resultant ball carries were utterly dismissed by the hosts. Beirne prominent as Castres lost possession on the Munster Rugby 22′. The box kick clearance from Conor Murray marked the end of the contest as Castres again needed to put in the tackle count as Munster Rugby started to probe further. 

Munster Rugby start to create line breaks 

More quality work from Conor Murray setup the second Munster Rugby try of the afternoon; created space inside for CJ Stander to cross over the try line. The score settled Munster Rugby nerves to a certain extent and more good pack pressure resulting in JJ Hanrahan slotting three points to make the score 23-0. The game was over as a contest. The key question was whether Munster Rugby could score an additional two tries in the last fifteen minutes?

The third try arrived with around five minutes left in the contest and it was probably the best move Munster Rugby conjured up in the whole contest. Superb line break and offload from Arnold to Scannell, Scannell to Mathewson who then setup Hanrahan away for the third try. 30-0 as JJ Hanrahan kicked the regulation conversion.

Bonus Point is elusive 

If the Munster Rugby faithful were thinking of a late bonus point try, it was quickly snuffed out as JP Doyle was central to a baffling officiating decision. Andrew Conway was adjudged to have taken a Castres player out before receiving the ball just five meters from the Munster Rugby try line. A dead cert penalty try but Doyle botched the call and gave Castres a penalty instead. A penalty try would have seen Munster Rugby restarting and more than likely securing field position for a possible bonus point try. Oh well! 

Castres’ pack mauled the ball to within ten meters of the line and then decided to launch the ball wide and resulting in a try out in the corner despite the best efforts of JJ Hanrahan. 30-5. Full Time. The bonus point not secured and whether this proves to be a missed opportunity, we won’t know until January 19th. 

Thoughts 

The officiating at times descended into anarchy. Doyle lost control of this fixture in the opening period; no repercussions for Castres at the scrum as Munster Rugby dominated and won a series of scrum penalties. The players decided then to settle old scores and a couple of flash points ensued. The Conway decision summed up a bad day in the office for the officiating crew; it was an easy call. If Conway was getting yellow, then surely it implied preventing a certain try. Penalty try. Castres fans were scratching their heads like the home faithful. 

Munster Rugby adapted to the late personnel scratches but there was a nervousness in their attacking play. There was precious line breaks in the opening period and the line out malfunctioned at a rate of knots. Cleote acting as first receiver had mixed result; ball was potentially a little delayed and did not provide colleagues with the time and space to impress. Cleote and Beirne in breakdown work were on point. 

A reality check for Munster Rugby in their attacking play. Defense was solid if not overly stretched to breaking point such was the limited ball that Castres had in the Munster Rugby 22′. The mission is clear for Munster Rugby; a road trip series against Castres and Gloucester Rugby will determine their European Cup ambitions. Roll on next weekend! 

Connacht Rugby: What Second Level Schools are developing the homegrown talent for the provincial setup?

Connacht Rugby age profile and astute talent acquisition bodes well for the future 

During a post game night on the tiles after Connacht’s win over the Dragons a couple of weeks ago, one of the lads in the crew asked where did a particular player who was introduced play at schools level. We were stumped and it raised a further question for me on which second level schools were feeding the provincial and ultimately national senior teams setups? 

This blog series will look and recognize the secondary schools who are to the fore in underage rugby player development. They are at times the forgotten piece of the jigsaw. Without second level schools, there would be no talent pool outlet for local rugby clubs, professional provincial and national team setups.

This opening article focuses on Connacht Rugby. The statistics are based on the indigenous born players who have come through the Irish or Northern Ireland educational system. The statistics may surprise some but it is an exercise which provides key trends going forward. 

Connacht Rugby Squad: Age profile 

The Irish born player age profile in the squad is around twenty-six years. The current first team squad’s eldest player is Robin Copeland (31). The playing squad has a good blend of youth and experience. The emergence of academy talent such as Conor Fitzgerald, Colm De Buitlear this season bodes well. Paul Boyle as well has burst onto the professional rugby scene this year and with astute coaching from Andy Friend and staff, optimism abounds in the Sportsground. 

Schools Demographic:

The school county breakdown for the Connacht Rugby squad is: Galway (12) and Dublin (10), Tipperary (4),  Sligo (3), Westmeath (3), Mayo (2), Laois (2), Kilkenny (2) and representation from Cork (1), Down (1), Limerick (1), Antrim (1), Wexford (1)

Connacht Rugby — Secondary School County By County Breakdown
Connacht Rugby Squad – School Breakdown

Grass Roots Rugby Club Association: 

The local rugby club scene is well represented in the Connacht Rugby squad ranks with Corinthians, Galwegians and Buccaneers forming a good chunk of the squad currently. 

Local Rugby Clubs represented in provincial squad
Local Rugby Clubs represented in provincial squad

Schools Observations:

  1. The conveyor belt of talent from the Dublin school system is self evident in this squad makeup like in the other provinces. Blackrock College (5), Gonzaga College (2), De La Salle (1), Castleknock College (1), St.Michael’s (1). 
  2. Connacht schools are also well represented in the squad makeup. Garbally, Summerhill, St.Joseph’s provide nine players to the current playing squad. 
  3. The emergence of rugby talent in areas not typically associated with the game is seen in this schools breakdown. Ultan Dillane attended Tralee CBS (Kerry). Colm De Buitlear hails from Connemara. Matthew Burke from Ballinrobe. A pleasing trend for rugby union player development within the province. 

Guinness Pro14: Round Ten Reflections

Standout and abysmal performances in equal measure

With the November international series out of the way for another year, it was back to the brass tax of Guinness Pro 14 action; a round of fixtures which exposed team priorities, squad depth issues and worrying form for teams as they face into the second tranche of European games. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Performance of the week: Glasgow Warriors

There were a couple of standout teams in this round. Munster Rugby’s opening half performance against an under strength Edinburgh Rugby caught the eye. The Leinster Rugby juggernaut containing numerous academy and fringe squad players continued their ruthless try scoring exploits on the road to the Dragons. Connacht Rugby’s road trip at Bloemfontein has to be called out too but it is Glasgow Warriors win over Scarlets that is the defining display this weekend. When the hosts were reduced to fourteen players after Alex Allan’s red card early, it looked like a long day at the office for the Warriors but instead of contain, they produced a quite scintillating second and third quarter performance with two eye catching tries. Thomson lights out with the boot against a Scarlets which was loaded with first team players. A massive statement of intent. 

Player of the week: Keith Earls / Chris Farrell

The Moyross native helped himself to a eight minute hat-trick. The opposition may not have being up to much but take nothing away from the running lines and try scoring execution on show for those tries. Earls oozed class every time he picked up the ball. Munster Rugby’s running lines and offload game was a joy to watch and this has to be the template for the side going forward. Chris Farrell was incredible with his ball carrying duties and what a boost it is for Munster Rugby to have the Tyrone native back in the squad again. 

Walking the plank this week: Bernard Jackman 

A couple of weeks, I hated to point out that Dragons head coach Bernard Jackman was under pressure after an abject road trip loss to Connacht Rugby. A timely win last time out against Edinburgh Rugby looked to have eased those concerns but the manner of their home loss to Leinster Rugby has seen massive negative reaction from Dragons supporters.

Dragons were second best on all facets of play; their defensive line speed and organization was labored and the young Leinster Rugby players on show were only too grateful to exploit the space. 50+ points again and the pressure is back on Jackman.

Dragons is a project in progress but the manner of these defeats is a massive concern. The board will need to be strong here but Jackman could be increasingly isolated from the fan base which could spell doom. 

Disappointment of the week: Team Selections 

There was big disparity in certain team selections this weekend. Leinster Rugby’s side was without numerous first team personnel but it did not matter as they trounced Dragons showing their incredible squad depth.

However, other team’s squad depth is not as strong and for Edinburgh Rugby, it was a chastening experience in Cork on Friday night. Munster Rugby were rampant throughout and the three quarter and ten channel was isolated throughout.

The tournament has seen quite a few representational team selections in preference for bigger fixtures in recent rounds. Sad to see as it devalues the league completely. 

Euro 2020 Qualification Draw Reflections

Republic of Ireland up against it

When the Republic of Ireland were drawn in the dreaded Group C alongside Germany and The Netherlands today, the draw looked mission impossible for the draw hosts but thankfully given the host country status, Republic of Ireland were moved to Group D and renewing familiar acquaintances with Denmark, Georgia, Gibraltar and Switzerland. A competitive group but one that looks a bit better on paper than what Northern Ireland have to deal in Group C. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the draw. 

Group A: England stroll 

Nothing here to unduly worry England in this group. Kosovo should spring a couple of surprise results against their Eastern European rivals but this is a group setup for England to further experiment and use it to blood more underage prospects into the national squad. England to top the group and a toss up for the second placed berth. 

Group B: Competitive 

Take the minnows Lithuania and Luxembourg and this is a very competitive group. Portugal will look to be the favorites to the top the group but Serbia and Ukraine will pose problems for the Iberian side. Serbia disappointed in the World Cup 2018 and Ukraine will look to continue their good form in the League of Nations tournament. Will Serbia and Ukraine take points off each other and in doing so give Portugal a distinct advantage? I think this scenario may play out. 

Group C: Northern Ireland unlucky 

A group containing Germany and The Netherlands now faces Northern Ireland, an unfortunate chain of events given that it was the Republic of Ireland who were slotted in this group originally. NI will be well organized but they are up against it with two heavyweights opponents. Estonia and Belarus complete the group, little threat to the top three. Will NI shock a vulnerable Germany at Windsor Park to make this group interesting? Here is hoping. 

Group D: Acquaintances renewed 

Denmark and Republic of Ireland supporters will be sick of the sight of each other by the end of this campaign. Denmark have made their feelings known about the Republic’s style of play so it will be interesting to see what Mick McCarthy conjures up in this campaign. Switzerland look a solid bet to advance from the group; good squad core and with Xhaka and Shaqiri in good form, Switzerland will be tough opposition. Georgia are a dangerous fourth seed here; their recent form and ability to give opposition tough games in Tbilisi setting up an intriguing group. Throw Gibraltar into the mix as cannon fodder and this group looks like it will go down to the wire. 

Group E: Croatia look the class act 

A group which should produce plenty of easy football on the eye. Croatia and Wales will fancy their chances of progression but with a Slovakia side who will be competitive at home, a couple of surprising results could surface. Hungary and Azerbaijan look limited and should fall away quickly from this group. 

Group F: Spain to top this pool 

Spain look the class apart in this group. Enrique and the playing squad are gradually putting behind a shambolic World Cup 2018 behind them and this pool will offer a further chance for the side to build momentum and form. The second place berth looks interesting as Sweden, Romania and rejuvenated Norway will have merits for playoff progression. Faroe Islands complete the group and perhaps may nick a point or two from their Scandinavian brethren. 

Group G: Poland will be happy

Poland will be delighted with this group and should top the group. The chasing pack looks compelling with the likes of Austria, Israel and Slovenia in a three way battle for playoff progression. Macedonia potentially will provide away blues for teams in Skopje but their squad depth will hinder progress. Latvia look cannon fodder. 

Group H: Routine for Le Bleu 

France will be not losing much sleep on this group setup. Iceland will provide physicality and strong threat in the set piece but were well exposed in top seed opposition this year. Turkey or Albania may be poised to be the second place side in this group. Turkey are well overdue a tournament appearance. The other teams in this group are Andorra and Moldova, recent form indicates a slow painful group phase for both. 

Group I: Interesting Lineup 

Belgium the perennial team that tipsters will look for major tournament glory will be relatively satisfied with this lineup. Russia after an excellent World Cup 2018 were inconsistent in the League of Nations action. Scotland have  improved under Alex McLeish so the group looks evenly poised. Cyprus in Nicosia have never be taken likely either and could nick points from Russia and Scotland in particular. San Marino and Kazakhstan look out of their depth in this group. 

Group J: Italy rebuild to continue

A nice group for Italy to rebuild. The opposition will up their game against the Azzuri but Italy should advance as top dog in this group. Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina will probably fight it out for second spot with Finland looking to push their weight around given their recent upturn in form. Armenia away could be a tough task for all sides as well so the fight for playoff progression looks the intriguing headline in this group. Liechtenstein have improved but they look outgunned in this class of opposition.