European Rugby Cup Competitions: Round Two Predictions

Crystal Ball Time

European Cup: Irish Provinces Round Two Preview

Tough road trips the order of the day

After a superb opening weekend for the Irish provinces last week (three wins and one draw), things went tougher in round two where all teams except for Munster Rugby are on their opening European Cup road trip. A weekend which should indicate plenty on how the season in Europe should pan out. Hawkeye Sidekick previews the action. 

Leinster Rugby good form to continue?

Sexton on fire

No disrespect to Wasps but Leinster Rugby’s first real test in Europe will be this weekend. A trip to Toulouse is always a challenge but given how Leinster Rugby are playing currently, it is a trip which the Irish province will look with confidence. 

Leinster Rugby team news is minimal to say the least. Rob Kearney misses out due to injury so Joe Tomane slots onto the wing while Jordan Larmour if provided sufficient time and space could destroy Toulouse from full back. It is as you were for the rest of the side which comprehensively routed Wasps 52-3 last weekend. 

Toulouse won at Bath Rugby last weekend on the road. Yes, they were let off the hook by Freddy Burns’ late horror show and Toulouse will be the first to admit that they got out of jail. The weather in the South-West of France in recent weeks has being horrendous; rain aplenty which should slow the pitch down significantly.

The pack platform is going to be vital and Toulouse’s disciplinary issues after last weekend could come back to haunt them. Kaino is such a big loss, imposing back row whose tackle count and ball carrying are sensational. If Leinster Rugby are patient here, they will see joy in the third quarter particularly as Toulouse start to tire and give away penalties. 

Leinster Rugby will be asked questions out wide with the likes of Medard in the ranks but Leinster Rugby have the ability to beat you in the loose, set piece or out wide. Leinster Rugby to go away here by ten points after an opening period arm wrestle. 

Verdict: Leinster Rugby

Munster Rugby look to kick on 

Grobler on the bench for Gloucester Rugby

Saturday lunchtime kickoff at Thomond Park. An opening European Cup rugby home fixture in Limerick and the venue will be buzzing. After a good draw on the road to Exeter Chiefs last weekend in stormy Sandy Park, Munster Rugby need to kick on and get their campaign fully up and running with a full eighty minute performance against Gloucester Rugby. 

The team news is interesting. Munster Rugby have made four personnel changes for the clash. A brand new front row is a shrewd move and reward for the likes of James Cronin and John Ryan on their cameos last week. Tommy O’Donnell as well gets the nod in the back row, his ball carrying was on point last week and setup Stander’s try. 

Gloucester Rugby make two changes to the side that beat Castres at home last weekend. Grobler must make do with a place on the bench and is replaced by Ed Slater. Matt Banahan replaces Charlie Sharples. The side showed good attacking cameos last weekend with Tom Marshall prominent. 

The key point here is the pack and who creates the platform. Munster Rugby have to start at a high tempo to allow Carbery to orchestrate his three quarters. A big game is required from Dan Goggin who needs to unleash his wide men at regular intervals. Gloucester Rugby were vulnerable on the flanks defensively against Castres last weekend at times. 

A fixture which Munster Rugby know that a win is required; a bonus point is attainable provided that the home side’s basic skill set is up to standard. Gloucester Rugby will look to bed in and try to stay in the contest until the third quarter; hoping that Danny Ciprani produces moments of brilliance. 

Verdict: Munster Rugby (BP Win)

Ulster Rugby face daunting challenge 

Daunting road trip

A trip to Racing 92 and the Arena beckons for Ulster Rugby this weekend. It was a good morale boosting win over Leicester Tigers last weekend but the level of competition this weekend is a significant upgrade. 

Racing 92 will look to impose their will on Ulster Rugby in the pack battle; the set piece battle has prompted Marty Moore’s introduction to the side. Kieran Treadwell comes into the lineup at the expense of Alan O’Connor. 

The worry is the absence of John Cooney at nine. The scrum-half has being outstanding again this season. No disrespect to David Shanahan but he will put under the cosh from the first whistle, struggling to see where Ulster Rugby create in the half-back channels and Racing 92 will look to create gain line breaks at will too. 

Racing 92 back line arsenal is vast. Finn Russell should see game time and then you have the likes of Simon Zebo lurking with intent. Ulster Rugby have to be completely switched on here from minute one; tempo will be sky high and the game will be uptempo given the closed roof and pitch. 

The Parisian side for me are one of the sides which could seriously put it up to Leinster Rugby this season in Europe. A statement of intent unfortunately may be issued at home and Ulster Rugby could feel the full force despite a positive opening period. Squad depth issues will be exposed for the Irish province.  

Verdict: Racing 92 (potential BP win)

Youth and Experience from Connacht Rugby

Interesting team lineup from Andy Friend

An interesting team lineup from Connacht Rugby. The term ‘youth and experience’ abound from this team sheet. A momentous day for Fitzgerald (ten) and De Buitlear (wing) who make their starting debuts for the province. Buckley, O’Halloran and Farrell return to the side to provide experience as well. 

This is such a key fixture in the context of Sale and Connacht’s aspirations for European Challenge Cup glory. With the French sides in this pool not genuinely interested in the competition, it is a two horse race to secure top spot in the pool. 

Sale Sharks have shown their intention loud and clear with a very strong team selection. McGuigan, O’Connor, Ashton and De Klerk will provide massive attacking threat. Rob Webber and Josh Beaumont will lead by example in the pack. 

Hopefully, the rookies in the Connacht Rugby side have good afternoons but this is a tough assignment given the selection of Sale Sharks. If Connacht Rugby can get a loser bonus point, then would be a good outcome. 

Verdict: Sale Sharks 

November Rugby Union Internationals: Squad Announcements

With less than twelve months to go to the RWC 2019 tournament in Japan, the squad announcements for the November internationals in recent weeks have being more scrutinized than an usual squad announcement. For some players, it is an opportunity to stake a late claim for RWC 2019 squad inclusion.

For others, misdemeanors and lack of form have usurped an international recall meaning squad inclusion is bleak for the World Cup next year. Hawkeye Sidekick runs the rule on the squads announced in recent days. 

England: Squad Selection Debate

England squad selection interesting reading

The England Rugby Union squad selection is always keenly observed and this announcement did not disappoint. Eight uncapped players join the camp and there were some surprising omissions. 

The new players coming into the squad for next month’s are Joe Cokanasiga (Bath Rugby), Nathan Earle (Harlequins), Ted Hill (Worcester Warriors), Zach Mercer (Bath Rugby), Ben Moon (Exeter Chiefs), Michael Rhodes (Saracens), Nick Schonert (Worcester Warriors) and Elliott Stooke (Bath Rugby). 

The omissions though are the main talking points. Danny Ciprani on the field has had a superb start to the season with Gloucester Rugby; his play making and game management have being on point but did the early season arrest scupper his squad selection? Don Armand is also excluded, the player is so consistent for Exeter Chiefs and his abrasive style of play I thought would have being invaluable for England for next month’s test against New Zealand in particular. 

There are several withdrawals in the form of  Jack Clifford (Harlequins), Ellis Genge (Leicester Tigers), Nathan Hughes (Wasps), Nick Isiekwe (Saracens), Jonathan Joseph (Bath Rugby), Joe Launchbury (Wasps), Chris Robshaw (Harlequins), Dan Robson (Wasps), Billy Vunipola (Saracens), Mako Vunipola (Saracens), Anthony Watson (Bath Rugby) so it is a genuine opportunity for the uncapped players announced today to take their opportunity with both hands but it is going to be tough with New Zealand and a re-energized South Africa coming up. 

New Zealand: Focus on RWC 2019

Steve Hansen looking to RWC 2019 with extended squad selection

New Zealand have named a very strong 32-man main squad. Dane Coles, Joe Moody, Brodie Retallick and Liam Squire all return.

Dalton Papalii is a new face to the All Blacks side and Matt Todd is a surprise selection given that the players is playing his rugby in Japan and the policy to only name players plying their trade in New Zealand. 

An additional nineteen players have being called up to train and prepare for the Japanese test match. Tyrel Lomax, Reuben O’Neill, Gareth Evans, Bryn Hall, Brett Cameron, George Bridge and Matt Proctor are all uncapped players; a chance to impress Hansen and coaching staff. 

A potent squad brought to the NH, there is no complacency in this player group. The focus and eyes are set on RWC 2019 on this selection. Anyone out of this squad selection can probably kiss their World Cup hopes goodbye apart from anyone injured (Sam Cane a classic example). 

Australia: Backs Against Wall Selection

Surprise midfield inclusion for beleaguered Australians

It has being a tough tough couple of months for Michael Chieka, backroom staff and Australian Rugby Union playing squad. Apart from a spirited second half fightback on the road to Argentina last time out, there has being precious little to cheer about. 

Changes were required, a chance to run the rule over new players and see if they are up to test match standard. Step forward 
Jed Holloway, Jake Gordon and Angus Cottrell to impress and they are joined by Samu Kerevi (center) and Jack Dempsey (back row) who return after a stint on the sidelines injured. Kerevi’s ball carrying ability in the three quarters has being keenly missed. 

The squad selection right now is the third Bledisoe Cup fixture in Japan but the nucleus of this squad will feature in the NH next month. 

Wales: Solid squad selection 

Two uncapped players in the Welsh squad

Two uncapped players in the Welsh squad for the November test match series. Holmes (winger) and Morgan (winger) come into the squad; both have had excellent starts to the season. 

The squad selection is teak tough with few surprises thereafter. Faletau and Scott Williams will be missed but there is substantial back row cover and the three quarters is boosted by the return of Jonathan Davies. 

Wales look formidable and test matches against Scotland, South Africa, Tonga and Australia (yet again). Patchell is following return to play protocols. A solid squad selection and one that should look to run the tables against their SH opposition. 

Scotland: Notable Inclusions Key

Scotland squad selection looks exciting

Three uncapped players join Scotland’s squad. Blade Thomson, Sam Johnson and Sam Skinner have being standouts this season and are noteworthy inclusions for Scotland. 

Alex Dunbar, Jonny Gray, Huw Jones, Greig Laidlaw, Sean Maitland, Willem Nel, Gordon Reid, Finn Russell, Tommy Seymour, Ryan Wilson and Hamish Watson all return to the squad as well to boost quality in the ranks. 

The interesting development will be on the club vs. country row with Thomson and Johnson having to request approval to play against Wales because it falls outside the test match rugby calendar. You may not hear the end of this before this fixture is over. 

France: In Bamba we trust 

Brunel calls up Bamba, drops Slimani 

November test match series has to be the catalyst for an upturn in results and performances from France. Key note inclusions are Demba Bamba (twenty year old prop) and Louis Picamoles who returns after being dropped after the Scotland game (disciplinary issue). Julien Marchand also comes into the side as well. 

Long term injuries Dupont (scrum-half) and Lopez (fly-half) make welcome returns to the squad. France are scheduled to play South Africa, Australia and Fiji in November. It will be interesting to see if there is any genuine improvement to the side. 

Argentina: Homegrown Talent Selection

A provincial 38 player squad was selected by Mario Ledesma who focus on homegrown talent is evident in that only Herrera (Stade Francais) and Figallo (Saracens) are the only players plying their trade away from Argentina. The majority of the squad are playing for Super Rugby side Jaguares. 

What to expect from Argentina? Aviva Stadium faithful will be pleasantly surprised by the game plan of Argentina next month. It is far more expansive with back line flair coming to the fore. Ireland have a tricky squad selection to decide on this fixture. 

European Cup Predictions: Round 1 Review

Interesting predictions last weekend. Newcastle Falcons tore up the form book. Poor old Freddy Burns was the key player for the Bath vs. Toulouse contest but I don’t think no-one could envisage how that game would unfold. More predictions lined up for tomorrow for round two. 

Nick McCarthy Move

Nick McCarthy moves to Munster Rugby from next season

The news had leaked out yesterday on print media but it was finally confirmed by all vested parties (IRFU, Munster Rugby and Leinster Rugby) today. Nick McCarthy moves to Munster Rugby on a two year deal starting from next season. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the news. 

Munster Scrum Half Depth Chart Full?

Nick McCarthy’s arrival means that there will be five scrum-halves in the Munster Rugby first team squad next season. Conor Murray will be on Ireland duty for a significant period next season so for the likes of James Hart, Neil Cronin (who signed a contract extension), Duncan Williams and now Nick McCarthy, it is an opportunity to stake the claim for the backup slot next season.

It does seem to be a bit excessive for a potential fifth scrum half in the first team squad but given the injury issues of Hart and Cronin early doors this season, McCarthy’s name presumably was mentioned given his need to play more regularly next season. 

Player Profile

The Ann Arbor, MN native comes with a solid resume. The scrum-half played his schools rugby with St.Michael’s who are a massive conveyor belt of provincial talent. McCarthy represented Ireland at U20 level in 2015 and this coincided with the player joining Leinster Rugby in 2015 playing three times for the province (cameo roles).

2016 was a similar story given the stacked squad depth at the club and another three brief cameos followed. 2017-2018 season saw the player gain more game time, starting three times during this campaign. McCarthy scored three tries and played a total of 462 minutes.

The 2018-2019 season has seen two appearances from the bench and with Luke McGrath and Jamison Gibson-Park vying for the scrum half starting berth, the decision to leave Leinster Rugby for playing reasons was an easy decision to make.

Player Skill Set 

It has being really hard to see consistent video footage of the player this season given the sufficient game minutes given (26 minutes). What we do know is that McCarthy has a solid skill set, fast distribution from the ruck a key trait. A solid kicking game to complement the passing game.

It was hard to scrutinize the player given the stop / start nature of his Leinster Rugby career. Munster Rugby have taken the punt on the player, it is up to the player to hit the ground running during preseason next summer to impress the coaches to give him the game time that he craves.

Another ex-Leinster Rugby alumni joins the rank, whether this player will make an impression is debatable given the number of first team scrum halves at the club.

The reaction of Leinster Rugby is of disappointment but the talent pool at the club is stacked and no doubt more scrum half prospects will replace McCarthy in the depth chart and look to stake their claim for action. Time will tell on how shrewd this signing will be from both the player and Munster Rugby.

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Round 1 Review

Unexpectedly predictable

The first round of European Rugby Challenge Cup is done and dusted. It was a round where the main contenders flexed their muscles while the teams that we thought would struggle did and badly. Hawkeye Sidekick is not surprised. 

What we learned:

Who wants to win this tournament? ASM Clermont, Harlequins, Bristol Bears, Benetton Rugby, Connacht Rugby, Sale Sharks, Ospreys, La Rochelle, Stade Francais, Worcester Warriors, Dragons, Northampton Saints.

Who want nothing to do with the tournament? Agen, Grenoble, Bordeaux Begles (four hookers brought to Galway, good job it lashed down for the game as the selection would have looked pitiful). 

Who have no chance of winning the tournament? Zebre Rugby (not advancing from the pool), Ensei STM (eighteen points shine of leaking one hundred points) and Timisaora Saracens (overwhelmed all over the park).

Standout Performance:

Harlequins, Sale Sharks, Bristol Bears and Worcester Warriors had keynote wins but the manner in which ASM Clermont disposed of Northampton Saints was quite emphatic. The French side ripped through the hosts at will scoring six excellent well worked tries. Northampton Saints saved face with two late tries to put some points on the board but this was as emphatic a win you will see all season in Europe. ASM Clermont look primed to be the key protagonist in this tourney. Forty-one points scored on the road; impressive. 

Low Point:

The news of abuse to Irish official Joy Neville from Perpignan team and fans last weekend. A decision according to the rule books is a red card. Neville involved the TMO and they made the call. The Perpignan natives got restless and their barrage of abuse to the Irish official was disgraceful. Perpignan’s season spirals out of control. They were already struggling to contain Sale Sharks on the ground when the red card came. A team who could easily down tool on this tournament on the back of that home loss. 

What to expect next week: 

Several epic hammerings look on the card. La Rochelle have a home fixture against Ensei STM where the French side scored eighty-two points last weekend against the same opposition. I think it is safe to say a similar mauling is on the cards; does the tournament no favors. The same goes for Timisaora Saracens who travel to ASM Clermont. Best of luck team, you are getting an absolute hiding of epic proportions. 

Pau and Stade Francais on paper looks a tasty French encounter. Stade Francais after losing to Worcester Warriors at home are in must win territory; will be interesting to see Pau’s team selection and performance after last weekend’s loss to Ospreys.

Sale Sharks and Connacht should be an excellent encounter. AJ McGinty facing his old Irish province, both sides will look to play on the front foot so expecting tries in that encounter.

Worcester Warriors and Ospreys also looks much more tasty compared to last week. Warriors were superb in their win in Paris; strong end to the game and they will look with confidence to face an Ospreys side whose pack wore down Pau to secure a decisive win.

Heineken Champions Cup: Round 1 Reflections

Drama galore in round one

The first round of Heineken Champions Cup games are in the books. The round had it all; last gasp drama in several contests with some unbelievable performances for all the good and bad reasons. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Standout Team: Leinster Rugby

It might be only one round into the competition but that Leinster Rugby performance last Friday night particularly second half will have put all opponents on notice of the levels required to even compete with the Irish provincial juggernaut.

I do not use the word juggernaut lightly; this side is stacked with world class talent and then the squad depth coming off the bench in the third quarter with the likes of Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy.

Wasps were facing an uphill task without the Nathan Hughes and Joe Launchbury but both players would have struggled to stem the tide of Leinster attack after attack. Wasps manfully tried to keep in the contest but once Luke McGrath scored that try just before half-time, the writing was on the wall. 

Skill set central came out in the second half. Sexton’s pass between the legs. Furlong playing like a season three quarter and his pop pass to James Lowe who is playing at a different level was an action reel highlight. The relentless nature that Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard was an ominous sign for all in Leinster Rugby’s pool. Toulouse and Bath Rugby will be sufficiently warned. A superb start to the competition. 

Standout Games:

Two games come to mind here. The after effects of Storm Callum had a massive impact in the South West England and West Welsh region. Two of the games held in these regions were standouts; the quality of fare immense given the atrocious weather conditions. Howling wind and rain and Exeter Chiefs / Munster Rugby along with Scarlets / Racing 92 provided superb entertainment. 

Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby was an old school arm wrestle. Neither side gave an inch. Munster Rugby worked the Exeter Chiefs tackle count, kept the ball in hand and must be complemented for their opening period performance playing against that gale force wind. Exeter Chiefs showed their potency with their try; superb pack. Jack Nowell on the wing was a constant menace. 

Munster Rugby struggled to breakdown a resolute Chiefs defense but credit the sub bench impact here. O’Donnell’s ball carry prior to Stander’s try was top notch. The front row replacements steadied a scrum set piece which looked to be going away from Munster Rugby. I thought James Cronin and John Ryan had powerful cameos. Ball handling issues and there was some soul destroying concessions when in range to score. Cloete’s disallowed try a perfect case study point. 

Exeter Chiefs to their credit refused to buckle and when Joey Carbery kicked the ball out on the full with minutes left, the scene was set for the hosts to win with a last gasp dropped goal or penalty. Credit Munster Rugby, the defensive shift at the end, camped on their own line and forced the error. A draw was a fair result. The return fixture in January looks epic already. 

Total ball break for Scarlets late on conceding a late penalty try to Racing 92. The game ebbed and flowed throughout. Both sides absorbed what the other threw but it looked like the hosts had done enough but Racing 92’s front five put the pressure on and unfortunately for Scarlets, they were unable to respond. Leigh Halfpenny had opportunities but the windy conditions made kicking a lottery. Incredible drama. Scarlets are suddenly in playoff rugby mode; need a win over Leicester Tigers next weekend. 

Knucklehead Moment:

Freddy Burns has had enough from the keyboard trolls this weekend for his horrific lapse against Toulouse so I am going to focus on RCT Toulon. How anyone in the RCT Toulon ranks thought with three minutes left to not go for the posts needs their head examined. I thought it smacked of arrogance and contempt for their opposition, delighted that Newcastle Falcons won thereafter. A superb triumph for Newcastle Falcons, a win to build the season around now. RCT Toulon are spiraling into the abyss this season; their lack of game management and leadership striking today. 

Unlucky Team:

Glasgow Warriors. They played all the rugby today against Saracens but were unable to break down a resolute Saracens side. The refereeing for me left plenty to be desired; the constant penalty concession by Saracens before half-time and no yellow card was weak officiating.

The Itoje incident is something that come back and haunt the England international yet this season; cheeky move and one that Glasgow Warriors should put on their dressing room wall for the return leg. Itoje needs to be careful; discipline is becoming an issue with the player and this antic (if seen by some as hilarious) will only put the spotlight further on the player. 

Glasgow Warriors were exposed in the pack battle; when they required go forward ball, they did not get it from their front five and that ultimately cost them the game but there sufficient evidence here that Glasgow can get back into this pool starting with a now tricky encounter against Cardiff Blues who had a superb 21-30 road trip win over Lyon who may give up the ghost on this competition.

Heineken Champions Cup: Leinster Rugby 52 – 3 Wasps

A performance of champions

It might be only in October but this performance and scoreline at the RDS will be keenly noted by all. This was a performance which showed patience, defensive nous and explosive attacking lines. This was a performance of a champion at the top of their play. This performance belongs to Leinster Rugby. 

You have to feel for the Wasps management and players on duty tonight. They valiantly went through the tackle count in the opening period despite playing with a strong breeze at their backs. Work rate was never an issue but the incessant waves of attack and minimal time with ball in hand was going to be punished and so it proved in the second half. 

Wasps will have felt good about the fixture heading into the last ten minutes of the opening period. Leinster Rugby despite their complete domination of territory and possession were only 7-3 up, a trademark lung bursting score from Sean Cronin. However, this game was opened wide open by the key call of the contest. 

Leinster Rugby yet again looking to create and the ball found its way to opening try scorer Cronin whose pass to James Lowe looked forward. Wasps fly-half Sopoaga attempted to intercept, missed and was sin binned. What about the forward pass? Wasps were down to fourteen players and the impact of the sin bin was two quick fire tries either side of half-time courtesy of Luke McGrath and James Lowe. The Wasps tackle count looked on the high side and the second half was a procession. 

James Lowe in particular was magical tonight. He is playing at a superlative level. His game management, defensive work and kicking game were on point but it is his ability with ball in hand that gives opposition nightmares and allows his colleagues the time and space to create around him. His running line for Leinster Rugby’s third try was sensational and his ability to finish off the move was of top quality. 

How does an opponent look to upset Leinster Rugby? Wasps approach to the breakdown yielded good results in the opening period (passive, picking their moments to compete) but then Leinster Rugby made the adjustments and negated Tom Young from this facet of play. Quicker ruck ball ensued with devastating results. 

What was most eye catching? The sight of Sexton passing between his legs to a colleague or Tadhg Furlong executing a perfect running line and pass to James Lowe. The skill set of this Leinster Rugby is remarkable. All players so comfortable with ball in hand; the players have no issue passing the ball from a ruck. 

The fact that Wasps did not make one single line break tonight was emphatic. The hosts continued to be unrelenting as the bench looked sharp in particular O’Brien who had an excellent breakdown steal. When you decide to only put on Scott Fardy with fifteen minutes left, enough said. This side is stacked. 

Wasps will be disappointed in the final quarter; their attacking threat was non-existent and their defensive shape and maul defense disintegrated before our eyes. Eight tries in total with back and pack players getting in on the act. 

A forty-nine point thumping, does nothing for the scoring differential but Wasps can rest assured that Toulouse and Bath Rugby will also endure miserable trips to Dublin this season. Leinster Rugby are evolving to an even greater juggernaut. Europe beware! 

European Rugby Challenge Cup: Preview

Excitement to be saved until next year

If you have read this blog, I have a love / hate relationship with the European Rugby Challenge Cup tournament. The concept is noble but there are glaring issues with how the format has played out in recent seasons; mismatched opposition thumped on the road, French sides for the most part not particularly interested instead focusing on domestic league affairs. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the good, the bad and downright miserable aspects of this tournament. 

The Good

Obviously, it is because of the arrival of several marquee European Rugby teams. The presence of Clermont Auvergne, Ospreys, Harlequins, Northampton Saints, La Rochelle to the competition this season will see some serious playoff fixtures come next April. For now, these teams will look to go through the motions, give squad players sufficient minutes and secure their playoff berth with the minimum of fuss. When you add the likes of Connacht Rugby, Pau and Stade Francais to the mix, the business end of this competition should be superb. I am hoping also that a progressive Benetton Rugby can continue on the upward curve and look to secure playoff rugby too. 

The Bad

The sheer indifference of some French Pro 14 sides to the competition. Who am I referring to? I am referring to the sides who are looking at a relegation scrap and decide that this competition is not a priority sending out representational sides particularly on the road. Agen last season were a case study point. Perpignan and Grenoble may go in the same direction depending how their November league form fares. It is a serious issue for the tournament organizers. 

The Miserable

I applaud the efforts of Ensei STM, Timisoara Saracens but unless there are some serious upsets, both these sides look primed for epic hammerings. What is the point and lesson for these sides having to endure heavy loss after heavy loss? I am struggling for answers. There should be a third tier competition for teams such as this and potential tournament organizer ingenuity to have developmental teams setup in Berlin, Bonn, Moscow, Madrid, Lisbon, Helsinki, Brussels, Amsterdam, Stockholm. These teams could be formed using players who are out of contract or representing countries playing in Tier Two competition. Ensei STM host La Rochelle in the early hours of Saturday morning, hopefully not a hammering but the return leg could be a 100+ point concession. 

Pool 1 Preview:

Northampton Saints entertain ASM Clermont with Nigel Owens officiating. It sounds like a Heineken Cup fixture but it isn’t. Clermont made to pay for an injury plagued second half of last season finishing just far enough away from the relegation spots. Northampton Saints also had a wretched season costing Jim Mallinder his job. The performances thereafter did not improve much and the off season has seen several keynote departures. Both sides will fancy their chances of rebuilding form and confidence in this pool with Dragons and Timisoara Saracens for company. Dragons at home will rise for the visits of Northampton and ASM Clermont but squad depth issues will be ruthlessly exposed. Timisoara Saracens are cannon fodder unfortunately. ASM Clermont and Northampton to advance from this pool. 

Pool 2 Preview:

A genuinely solid pool here. Pau were a side who embraced the competition and got to the last four losing away to Cardiff Blues. I have a soft spot for the team given the Munster Rugby association (i.e. Butler, Mannix). Pau will be up against it with Ospreys and Stade Francais who both look re-energized after poor seasons last year. Ospreys and Pau clash looks like a tasty pack battle. Stade Francais play Worcester Warriors and it will be interesting to gauge team lineups for each side. Warriors have had a couple of keynote domestic results but is relegation concerns going to determine team selection? Potentially one team getting out of this pool with plenty of twists and turns. Ospreys get the edge based on the fact that the French sides may cancel each other out in their home fixtures. 

Pool 3 Preview: 

My pet peeve on understrength team selections could rear their head in this pool. Perpignan who are propped at the bottom of Top 14 may use this competition to rest front line players for a November league push. Bordeaux Begles are infamous for sending over less than stellar match day squad so it is a straight fight between Connacht Rugby and Sale Sharks to secure top spot. Connacht Rugby have shown promise under Andy Friend and Sale Sharks have impressed this season with some key cameos particularly AJ McGinty. Connacht Rugby potentially get the edge to advance and potentially Sale Sharks as well if the French sides in this pool give up on the competition come round three. 

Pool 4 Preview: 

Ensei STM will be a daunting road trip for Bristol Bears, Zebre Rugby and this weekend’s opponents La Rochelle from a linguistics perspective but the playing side should straightforward. Yes, Stade Francais were upset there last season but it was an one off. Ensei STM are five points fodder for all other pool opponents. La Rochelle look the class act in this pool with Bristol Bears potentially advancing to the last eight of the competition on the basis of the fact that they secure ten points from Ensei STM. 

Pool 5 Preview:

This is a huge opportunity for Benetton Rugby to impress. The Italians are a live threat based on their Guinness Pro 14 performances. Grenoble’s ambitions in this competition are unclear and I fancy Benetton Rugby to win their opener. Harlequins and Agen face off at the Stoop and I would be shocked if Quins do not hammer Agen given the French side’s history in this competition. Harlequins to top the pool with Benetton Rugby potentially securing a playoff berth if other results go their way in January. It would be great news for Italian rugby if that happened. 

Guinness Pro 14: Round Six Statistics (Ireland Interprovinicals)

Connacht and Leinster supremacy

Better late than never! A compelling set of statistics to mull over ahead of European Cup action. Connacht Rugby and Leinster Rugby feature prominently in this latest stats report out for the starting lineups. 

Tackles Made: 

Tackle Count

The most telling statistic from the past weekend of interpros was the tackle count from the victors. Jarrad Butler led the way with a whooping twenty-five tackles. The Leinster Rugby back row juggernaut as always were prominent with Dan Leavy, Rhys Ruddock and Sean O’Brien all in the top ten chart. 

Ball Carries:

Ball Carries

The one thing you cannot say about Ulster Rugby last weekend was that they played for the full eighty minutes. These ball carry statistics illustrate this point as McCloskey, Stockdale, Henderson and Nelson fill the top four positions in this statistic. Munster Rugby enjoyed several periods of dominance despite their loss to Leinster Rugby and Niall Scannnell (15), Andrew Conway (15) and CJ Stander (13) lead the Southern province in this regard. James Lowe had a superb game for Leinster Rugby and his eleven ball carries were devastating scoring two tries in the process. 

Meters Gained: 

Meters Gained

The battle between McCloskey and Aki in midfield at Kingspan Stadium was sensational and these meters gained illustrate that both players gave as good as they got from the other. Jacob Stockdale looked sharp throughout and his seventy-three meters gained bodes well for province and international teams. Special note for Paul Boyle who had another outstanding performance with ball in hand. Sixty-nine meters gained and his prominence in ball carries was a key asset to Connacht Rugby in their long awaited win away to Ulster Rugby. 

Passes Made: 

Passes Made:

Statistics are a bit skewed given the early departure of Marmion and Gibson Park from their respective fixtures. Cooney’s passing statistics have being high all year, another huge effort in this facet of play. Carbery’s passing frequency showing his intent to launch his outside backs at every opportunity in comparison to Ross Byrne who ran a solid game plan at ten. No need to push the passes given the early lead established over Munster Rugby.