Does the EPCR Disciplinary Panel process have player welfare at the forefront?

Disciplinary panel decisions cast cloud over EPCR and player welfare?

This was the season where rugby union was supposed to look out for player’s safety and welfare. Directives aplenty were issued at the start of the season with regards to tackling, the use of feet in the ruck but EPCR tournament continues to be scourged by that old chestnut in the dirty tactic rule book: gouging.

Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on what was a damning disciplinary panel session this week as Castres scrum-half Rory Kockott played the dice, pleaded guilty to making contact to the eye area of Chris Cloete to see if the panel blinked. They did and the repercussions of the verdict should be far, far reaching.

The Castres / Munster fixtures in Pool 2 have being horrendous viewing. Horrendous in that the Castres side even in the Thomond Park fixture refused to entertain the thought of playing any expansive rugby; conservationism would be a disgrace to the word as Castres were preoccupied in disrupting, blatant offside positioning and killing ruck ball. JP Doyle and officiating crew failing to stamp their authority on this contest. The players during the third quarter went to war to settle scores. The bitterness that ensued was brimming for the return leg.

Last weekend in Castres was one for the EPCR video nasty category. The game was feisty and cynical from the first hit. Wayne Barnes and officiating crew apparently unaware of the animosity between both teams prior to the kick off and with a hapless TMO in the booth, all hell broke loose.

Barnes, officiating crew and the TMO would be central characters in the disciplinary hearing yesterday as Rory Kockott and Marc-Antoine Rallier were hauled before the disciplinary panel to answer charges of eye gouging and dangerous tackling respectively.

The Castres representative legal advise was on point for Kockott. Plead early and look for the panel to blink. The tactic worked a treat. Kockott got away with a three week ban (was four weeks but given the player was very polite and a good boy at the hearing was reduced it by one week).

Rallier likewise must have being confident of his fate and an one week ban could be appealed by the club. Castres have nothing to lose on the Rallier case, a one week is facile.

What the disciplinary hearing brought up was the performance of the officiating crew on duty in Castres. The panel stating that both Kockott and Rallier incidents were red card offenses. The role of the referee, touch judges and TMO by default are called into question. One red card missed is bad enough but two is a systematic officiating failure. The mere admission of this has massive repercussions for the tournament organizers.

Munster Rugby on another day would have played against fourteen Castres players for sixty minutes and thirteen Castres players for approximately twelve minutes. The probability of tries scored by Munster Rugby would have exponentially increased and a pool win to seize control of Pool 2 and a chance of a home quarter final potentially may have ensued.

The result instead saw Castres win by a solitary point. Munster Rugby realistically having to win their last two games of the pool to even qualify for the last eight of the competition. A home quarter final looks remote; potentially massive loss of revenue for the club and Limerick area. CEO’s of other professional rugby clubs would be incensed by this chain of events; it will only take one owner to launch litigation and this competition will be in precarious ground.

What I also found astonishing about the Kockott verdict was that past behavior was not taken into account. It looks like the verdict yesterday was based on the player having a clean record which has being a mixed bag. Look to the start of the season, Chris Ashton was leveled with a seven week ban in an incident involving Rory Kockott.

The accusation from Ashton in his defense in this case was interesting; an alleged eye gouging incident from Kockott who has had a chequered history in South Africa (red card 2009), anyone recall that tip tackle against Racing 92 in 2017 which was only a yellow card and guess who was the match official that day, you guessed it Wayne Barnes. Obviously, there was the red card brandished for the incident with Ashton back in August. Player disciplinary record had to come into the equation but the panel chose to ignore in this case.

Castres’s Top 14 league win was applauded by many last season. The club is managed well financially and the players in the squad are hard working and a cohesive unit but this season, their on pitch behavior has being a plight on the game and any goodwill towards them has left the building.

Sale Sharks early this season warned of Castres and their cynical approach to the game. EPCR were well warned. The disciplinary panel procedure is not fit for purpose; will it require a player to be permanently blinded by a cowardly eye gouge to take the required action? Will it require a player heaven forbid to be paralyzed by a dangerous tip tackle to take the action. It appears that this will be the case unfortunately. Player Welfare is an after thought right now from the EPRC disciplinary panel in order to keep the organization on the good side of the established rugby club fraternity.

The EPCR disciplinary panel is bereft of consistent rulings. The vague language on press releases immediately after these meetings does little for the rugby supporter. I fear that a traumatic rugby incident is not far off and when it does happen, the EPCR will be cowering for cover. A dark day for rugby union in the Northern Hemisphere.

Let the cyncial and dark arts of the game be promoted; that is what the verdict yesterday signals. Castres will continue to do what they do, best of luck to Gloucester Rugby heading to France in January. EPCR disciplinary procedures are in utter crisis; yesterday’s events prove as much.

Guinness Pro14: Round 11 Preview (Friday Night Fixtures)

Festive derbies the order of the day

December 21st. Christmas is fast approaching and that means that it is the matter of local bragging rights as local rivals do battle. Friday night sees Ulster Rugby entertain a much changed Munster Rugby outfit at the Kingspan Stadium while Cardiff Blues will look to pile on the misery against Dragons. Hawkeye Sidekick predicts the likely outcomes.

Ulster Rugby bench impact to settle local derby 

The two team selections announced today were quite contrasting. Ulster Rugby have made just the three changes from the side that beat Scarlets last weekend in European action.

With Iain Henderson out for an extended period, it presents a massive opportunity for Ian Nagle to stake a claim for first team inclusion. Rob Herring deputizes at hooker for Rory Best who is on the bench while the exciting winger Robert Baloucoune slots into the back three for the try scoring Jacob Stockdale.

Munster Rugby have named thirteen changes from the side which narrowly lost in the Battle of Castres last weekend. The most significant team news is the return of Jean Kleyn in the second row, a player whose power and physicality would have being ideal for the uncompromising Castres pack last week.

Sammy Arnold gets another opportunity to impress his home province; hoping to right a few wrongs from last year’s corresponding fixture when the center was given a red card in the fixture. JJ Hanrahan takes over at ten and will look to impress further management.

The exchanges here will be abrasive and feisty but Ulster Rugby have the edge in the scrum this week. Eric O’Sullivan and Marty Moore should have the measure of Stephen Archer and Jeremy Loughman. The depth chart off the bench looks to favor the home side as well given that Rory Best will make a cameo in the third quarter.

Munster Rugby will look to stay in this contest for as long as possible, look to Hanrahan to provide field position in order for the line out to establish a platform, something not achieved in previous European Cup weekends.

Verdict: Ulster Rugby

Ulster Rugby to prevail with Will Addison and Henry Speight key with ball in hand. Munster Rugby will do well to get a loser bonus point from this contest; the side travels to Ulster more in hope than expectation as van Graan looks to target the crunch Leinster Rugby clash at Thomond Park on December 29th.

Cardiff Blues to inflict further misery on Dragons 

It has being an extremely turbulent season at the Dragons. The season has taken more dives than Tom Daley on a springboard. Bernard Jackman has come and gone as the side travels to Cardiff Blues who will look to regain confidence after two morale sapping losses to Saracens which have eliminated them from European Cup Rugby this season.

The team news is interesting. Cardiff Blues make three personnel changes for the visit of the Dragons. Two pack changes as Olly Robinson and Dillon Lewis come in. The third change is the welcome return of Tomos Williams at scrum-half. With Ellis Jenkins sidelines, Kristian Dacey resumes team captaincy duties until the end of the season.

Dragons makes five changes from the side which lost to ASM Clermont Auvergne last weekend. Ross Moriarty significantly misses the game due to injury so more onus on Cory Hill to set the tone for the pack. Keddie and Fairbrother come into the pack while there is further changes to a back line row who have struggled for cohesion on both sides of the ball all season.

Rosser and Sage come into the back line while Rhodri Williams secures the nine berth for the local derby fixture. The side still has experienced with Hill, Kirchner, Dee in the ranks but the team still looks well exposed in the back line unit where Cardiff Blues with Scully in the ranks could have proverbial field days.

Verdict: Cardiff Blues (BP Win)

Dragons are saying the right things ahead of this derby fixture but cannot help but feel that cohesion issues will plight this performance. Cardiff Blues on their fast surface will look to Anscombe and Williams to provide quick ball for the likes of Halaholo to launch a pacy back three. Only one result coming here. Blues with a bonus point try win. Dragons need to stand up here but given their defensive record, it is hard to state a case for them.

European Challenge Cup: Round 4 Permutations

Snow makes fixture scheduling interesting

This past weekend saw predictable victories for some of the fancied teams in this competition but mother nature also made an appearance in Romania where heavy snowfall prevented Timisoara Sarcens vs. Northampton Saints from being played; interesting to see when this game is rescheduled. This blog will look at the playoff picture in the competition. 

Collated Total Points Standings

Who is primed to qualify for the quarter final stage?

ASM Clermont Auvergne have stood out in the pool phase of this competition. They put 49 points on Dragons at home this weekend and pretty much secured of a top seeding for the quarter final appearance given that they have Timisoara in one of their last two fixtures. 

Sale Sharks and La Rochelle had shock defeats this weekend. They potentially should qualify but the losses to Bordeaux-Begles and Bristol Bears at home is a reality check for both. 

Who is on the cusp of the playoffs?

Worcester Warriors win over Pau at home coupled with Ospreys loss to Stade Francais has seen the English side top of their pool but plenty of twists and turns you would imagine will come in this pool. 

Connacht Rugby will be delighted with their road trip performance to Perpignan. Their academy players impressed and a quality last quarter saw a bonus point try secured. A key fixture against Sale Sharks in January will determine their playoff fate more than likely. 

Northampton Saints are currently out of the top eight at this time but with fixtures against Dragons and Timisoara Saracens, they will look to secure bonus point wins in both to consolidate their playoff position. 

Bristol Bears’ win over La Rochelle on the road this weekend has reignited their playoff hopes. Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby are flying the Italian flag as well, a couple of key January fixtures for both Italian clubs to determine whether they play European Rugby quarter final action in the Spring. 

Playoff Fixtures 

If the pool phase completed today (hypothetical given that Northampton Saints have a game more to play out) so it is a loose fixture permutation: 

If Northampton Saint fail to secure zero points (unlikely) against Timisoara Saracens, the draw would be as follows: 

  • ASM Clermont Auvergne (1) vs. Ospreys (8)
  • Sale Sharks (2) vs. Connacht Rugby (7) 
  • La Rochelle (3) vs. Zebre Rugby (6) 
  • Worcester Warriors (4) vs. Harlequins (5) 

If Northampton Saint secure five points (likely) against Timisoara Saracens, the draw would be as follows: 

  • ASM Clermont Auvergne (1) vs. Connacht Rugby (8)
  • Sale Sharks (2) vs. Zebre Rugby (7) 
  • La Rochelle (3) vs. Northampton Saints (6) 
  • Worcester Warriors (4) vs. Harlequins (5) 

Heineken Champions Cup: Round Four Permutations

Playoff pictures becoming a little clearer

Round Four is now in the books. A round where a number of teams ambitions in this competition were extinguished. It also saw a number of teams deliver standout performances to make them favorites to win this competition. Hawkeye Sidekick delves into permutations created after this weekend. 

Collated Points Standings

Who looks primed for qualification?

This past weekend saw Racing 92 produce an impressive bonus point win over a hapless Leicester Tigers side on the road. It looks on odds on that Racing 92 will be one of the top seeds and a home quarter final berth. 

Saracens are also in range to secure the top seed as well. Their victory on the road to Cardiff Blues was typical Saracens; absorbed Cardiff Blues best attacking moves and executed efficiently in the second half to secure a vital win. With Glasgow Warriors due to visit in January, the London club will look to set down another keynote marker. 

Toulouse and Leinster Rugby look odds on to advance from Pool 1. The key question is which side wins the pool and potentially a home quarter final berth. The January fixture between both teams will be epic and will go a long way in effecting the playoff chances of others. 

Edinburgh Rugby took a massive step to secure Pool 5 with a commanding win on the road against Newcastle Falcons. Blair Kinghorn impressed at full back. Edinburgh with a home game against Montpellier and a road trip to already eliminated RC Toulon could see the Scottish side look to secure a home quarter final berth. 

Who is on the cusp of the playoffs?

It is very much all to play for in Pool 2. Munster Rugby’s loss to Castres on the road has opened the pool wide open again. It looks like only one team from this pool will advance to the quarter final stage. Key fixtures in January to determine the winner. 

Ulster Rugby have had a splendid December. Their ten point haul against Scarlets has seen Dan McFarland’s charges move to fourteen points; another win should secure playoff rugby into next Spring. 

Glasgow Warriors continue to battle gamely to topple Saracens; another key note win against Lyon has the Scottish side well set to advance to the last eight. Saracens away will be tough, interesting to see how they will perform. Realistically, it is a best runner up spot. 

Disappointments of the round 

Leicester Tigers are heading into the abyss. Their unstructured defensive performance in the opening period was duly punished by Racing 92. The side are bereft of confidence and are realistically staring down the barrel of relegation. A club in complete and utter crisis. 

Scarlets transformation from European Cup contenders to European Cup whipping boys in one season is a shock. There were personnel departures but the squad depth in the camp should have seen Wayne Pivac’s charges impress better than this. The side will thread water until the end of the pool phase. 

RC Toulon. Money does not bring you happiness. The club have announced key signings next season but the club are struggling all ends up this season. No long term plan; no distinct avenue for Toulon youngsters to get into the first team. A mercenary club.

Draw Permutations 

If the pool phase was completed this weekend, the following fixtures would be scheduled: 

  • Racing 92 (1) vs. Ulster Rugby (8) 
  • Saracens (2) vs. Glasgow Warriors (7)
  • Toulouse (3) vs. Leinster Rugby (6) 
  • Edinburgh Rugby (4) vs. Munster Rugby (5) 

Battle of Castres Reflections

Lack of composure the prevailing theme 

Castres inflicted a first loss to Munster Rugby in Europe this season. A solitary point (13-12) between the two sides after an extremely physical, feisty and at times cynical contest. The prevailing word after watching the rerun of this contest was ‘composure’ or more to the point lack of for the two sides and officiating crew on duty. 

Munster Rugby weak points utterly exposed 

The pregame notes from Munster Rugby before this round four fixture was that the team would improve their attacking precision and accuracy in the set piece. This optimism was unfortunately misplaced as Munster Rugby produced another inconsistent performance with the ball while the line out continued to struggle all ends up. 

Emotions run high as accuracy suffers

An occasion which was guaranteed to be feisty given the round three contest six days prior, Munster Rugby fell into the trap of engaging with a side who were content in stifling by any means possible. The physical confrontation saw Munster Rugby composure ditched at the team hotel and an arm wrestle ensued. Given the experience in the starting lineup, it was a surprise to see the team struggle in this facet of play. 

The emotional dimension to the contest saw Munster Rugby indiscipline surface at regular times. The lead up to the opening Castres penalty score was a coaching killer. Niall Scannell pinged for a late hit on Urdapilleta. It set the tone for the rest of the contest as the visitors continued to flounder with ball in hand. 

Team Selection causing squad morale issues? 

Team selection in Munster Rugby once upon a time was based on player form and the mantra that a player had to earn his starting berth. What JJ Hanrahan must have thought at the start of last week when told that despite his man of the match performance in round three, that he would have to make do with a place on the subs bench? It would make you think of what other fringe players in the squad are thinking going forward and has the recipe to unsettle the first team squad as the season progresses. 

Kicking off the tee woes continue

Joey Carbery had an indifferent game, not helped by a distinct lack of game time with the province in recent weeks. A solid opening penalty kick suggested that the number ten would have a standout game but unfortunately for Munster Rugby, his kicking thereafter from the tee was hit and miss. Carbery was subject to a heavy hit early in the contest, just wondering if there was any after effects thereafter? Murray was also off target with a long distance penalty in the second half. The kicking off the tee statistics this season has being poor and continues the trend from last season where Munster Rugby were bottom in Pro 14 successful kick conversion rate. 

Munster Rugby Attacking Game Plan?

The attacking game plan under van Graan has being quite difficult to understand this season. Is the game plan pack orientated or not? The sight of Chris Cloete as first receiver and play maker last weekend did nothing to unsettle Castres.

It was again left to Conor Murray to force the attacking play as Carbery’s involvement in attacking move was stifled. The threat from the three quarters was frustrating minimal; not helped by stifling slow ruck ball and incisive passing. It meant that the likes of Conway and Earls were starved of quality possession to impress.

Mike Haley has being solid at full back but there are clear cohesion issues when he hits the line. Haley looking for offloading options but lack of support runners when the full back has the ball has being noticeable in recent weeks. What is the attacking game plan and identity of this Munster Rugby side? It appears to be inconclusive this season.

Line out issues hurting Munster platform creation

Line out woes continued this weekend. For the number of options at Munster Rugby’s disposal, the set piece misfired at an alarming rate of knots. Under throws, indecisive line out starting positions were the flavor of the day from Munster Rugby who were unable to successfully setup the platform from this set piece. The Castres line out was by and large dominant and their maul came to the fore in the third quarter resulting in the Niall Scannell yellow card. 

Scrum is a crumb of comfort

The scrum was fascinating to watch. Munster Rugby on reflection will be happy with this facet of play from their starting lineup. John Ryan continues to impress; his scrummaging was superb. Dave Kilcoyne also had good moments in the scrum as well as abrasive ball carries. The squad depth was exposed though as Loughman went backwards on the final scrum. 

Castres – Limited game plan works 

The French side were up for this contest. The feisty exchanges at Thomond Park last weekend set the backdrop and yesterday’s fixture continued in the same vain. It was a limited game plan executed by Castres but they fed off Munster Rugby inaccuracy throughout. With each passing visitor knock on or penalty win, you could see the belief in the Castres team soar. 

The tactics also were quite cynical at times. The eye gouging incident on Cloete was dangerous in the opening period. There was a couple of off the ball incidents as well and the incident where Peter O’Mahony was launched into the air before Andrew Conway’s try scoring opportunity should have merited more action from Wayne Barnes. There was an edge to the encounter and the officiating crew on both match days failed to command the contest. 

Officiating Crew Struggle

The officiating crew assessor report on this fixture will be interesting reading. The TMO performance fell well short of what is expected in this competition. Wayne Barnes’ direct communication to Rowan Kitt for the Castres try exposed a shaky response from the official upstairs.

The TV angles for the try looked inconclusive but Kitt forced to give an answer from a clearly impatient Barnes awarded the try. When Peter O’Mahony reported the eye gouging incident, the officiating crew seemed indifferent to the accusation. The subsequent replays do not look good for Rory Kockott and one would wonder what the TMO was looking at. 

The touch judges on duty did not want to get involved in calling key off the ball incidents. Wayne Barnes was exposed by his officiating crew and at times, Barnes needed eyes at the back of his head to figure out what was going on. Paul Dix literally was a foot away from a Castres player who decided to kick Sam Arnold on the touchline; no action. 

The officiating standard in these Munster Rugby December fixtures have left plenty to be desired. The lack of offside calls, the breakdown mess all added to a disorganized fixture. The sheer lack of consistency by different officiating crews from different countries in rounds three and four of this competition is a serious issue for the EPCR to address going forward. 

European Challenge Cup: Round 4 Predictions

The usual good, the bad and ugly to feature in this round of the competition

If you follow this blog, I have quite a bit of contempt for this competition. No excitement, no television coverage of the tournament and put in the mix sides who are ill-equipped to compete at this level and you have a rugby tournament PR disaster on your hands. The organizers of this tournament should hang their heads in shame. 

This round will see the interested sides stride forward and secure their last eight spot with two rounds to go. For others, it will palpable relief that they are out of contention to focus on domestic affairs and for others, the trauma of the beat down (Dragons, Enisei-STM and Timisoara) that they will receive could take months to recover from. Hawkeye Sidekick predicts the winners, the losers and the massive losers. 

Heineken Champions Cup – Round 4 Predictions

Round 4 – Playoff dreams will be made or shattered this weekend

The decisive round four of the Heineken Champions Cup; a round where several teams will fall by the wayside with a key loss. Other sides will take advantage of sides who are already out the back door due to results last weekend.

The wannabes will be whittled down by the end of this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick provides his verdict on the fixtures scheduled. Gloucester Rugby and a bonus point try win (15 point spread) against a massively under-strength Exeter Chiefs outfit looks to too good to refuse. 

Dragons part with Bernard Jackman

Dragons starting Christmas head coaching shopping

November 3rd saw Dragons come to the Sportsground to face Connacht Rugby, it was a chance to run the rule over the Dragons and see what improvement if any had taken place in the Welsh region outfit. The fixture was a miserable experience for the Dragons; blotched try scoring opportunities and a porous defense seeing a 33-12 loss. 

Bernard Jackman comments post-game were that the side and players were improving but the manner of the performance, the despondency of the players on duty with each score conceded suggested that the Dragons board would need to evaluate the head coach sooner than the end of the season. The news today that both parties have parted ways is disappointing but probably a necessary move for both to reassess and move on. 

The announcement of Bernard Jackman as Dragons head coach in 2017 was seen as a surprise announcement by many Rodney Parade fans but respected rugby pundits pointed to his coaching tenure with Grenoble which eventually led to the head coaching role in the summer of 2016.

However, Bernard Jackman experienced a turbulent and challenging season as head coach; a huge injury backlog and lack of funds to bolster an already stretched squad saw the Tullow man depart the club in March 2017. The club was relegated from Top 14; there would be no momentum shift to the season.

The Dragons head coaching role was seen as a perfect opportunity for Jackman to relaunch his career and to put his stamp on the club, a club which had struggled in past seasons, a club who were looking for a new start and new beginnings, a club which looked to Jackman to develop a young squad with the promise of funds and key personnel player signings to bolster the squad. 

The opening season as Dragons head coach was always going to be difficult. The side struggled for cohesion and consistency last season, shipping 94 tries and scoring only 43 tries which was the lowest in the league. Only seven wins in thirty-one games last season but the signings of Richard Hibbard and Ross Moriarty in the pack was embers of optimism to drive the side on from a performance and results perspective this season. 

Unfortunately, Dragons have languished even further this season. The team on paper looks to have genuine talent with Eliot Dee, Richard Hibbard, Cory Hill, Ollie Griffiths, Ross Moriarty, Tavis Knoyle, Gavin Henson, James Tovey, Hallam Amos, Jordan Williams and Zane Kirchner.

No excuses on the performance levels which defensively have fallen well short of the standard required. Their home loss to Leinster Rugby a couple of weeks ago against a side admittedly consisting of Leinster academy and fringe players was a hammer blow for Jackman.

Even more so has being the statistics generated so far this season. Lowest try scorers (18) and highest tries against for the team (44) this season; no indication of an upturn in fortunes. The board pulled the trigger. 

Dragons board must have looked at the progress of the Italian sides such as Benetton Rugby and Zebre Rugby who have improved notably in recent seasons; the side have not gone in that upward curve and after a loss to Northampton Saints last weekend which spelled the end of their European Challenge Cup interest (realistically) this season, they have pulled the plug on Jackman. 

It will be interesting to hear from Jackman in the coming weeks on his departure from the Dragons. Both will look to rebound but for both, it looks like a long road ahead to redemption. Jackman is undoubtedly a good coach but the head coach role stints have being a mixed bag, cannot see a club or national side immediately offering a head coaching role anytime soon. The Tullow native will get back on the coaching ticket of a team (club / national) in due course but now is the time for reflection. 

Dragons unless they have someone already on their radar will now look to recruit a successor for Jackman which will be tough right now considering that coaches working in other clubs will not be released until the end of the current season (if lucky). It may be the case of looking to the backroom staff still at the club to steer the side through the rest of the season. Club in limbo which is far from ideal. 

Do the club go for an experienced head coach and are prepared to commit to their vision of the club long term (3-5 years), something they failed to do with Bernard Jackman? If so, then the likes of Mike Ruddock, Andy Robinson, Jim Mallinder come into the foreground. All have quality coaching credentials from a club perspective. 

If the club are looking for a good coach who has the potential for head coaching success, then Felix Jones (Munster) may fit the bill. Jones is well regarded in Munster and Irish rugby circles and but whether the Dragons go for another Irish appointment is unlikely. Jason Strange who is the attacking coach for Cardiff Blues may be an outside bet; good success at Welsh club level. 

Regardless of the appointment, there is no short term fix for the Dragons. The club are in a rut even after their lavish name change last season. The culture of losing is as prevalent as ever at the club. It will require shrewd player recruitment to establish additional squad depth in multiple pack and back line positions. Jackman may have gone but the Dragons needs to be examined top to bottom as everyone needs to be held accountable for the disastrous run of results not just this season but for the past decade.

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: