Dust has not even settled on the Webb Ellis Cup down in Auckland but the NH teams are already in European Cup mode with some mouth watering fixtures this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the five pools and tries to see if there are any genuine dark horses for the crown and whether any of Irish provincial teams will advance from their difficult pools.
Ulster on paper have probably the best chance of any of the Irish provinces to advance from their pool. The appointment of Les Kiss is a progressive move. Kiss will bring fresh ideas to the table and call the team to account for under performance. Ulster frankly under performed in this tournament last season against Leicester (rebuild mode) and Llanelli Scarlets (who were struggling for form and results). Toulon were a class apart but Ulster’s other performances lacked the precision and creativity which you would expect from a side containing the likes of Pienaar, Henry, Best, Henderson, Trimble and Bowe. The squad should perform well in this competitive pool. A new season brings added motivation and with the workmanlike but limited Oyonnax first up, a win will setup the Ravenhill team for a good European campaign. Toulouse and Saracens are the other teams in the pool. Toulouse minus Guy Noves are an unknown quantity this season. They have started their domestic season well but when you take into account the number of internationals out of the French league in the first six games of the season, a better judgement call on Toulouse’s form and squad will be served in the coming weeks. Toulouse can never be discounted but a bit like Munster, the name does not scare teams as much as it used to. Saracens are now at the stage of their development where top honors is the minimum standard now expected at the Allianz. Saracens’ brand of rugby is physical, abrasive and they make no apologies for that. However, Saracens will need to add an more expansive element to their play in the knockout round to reach the summit. Saracens to top the pool but have a hunch that Ulster will sneak into the last eight on the basis of wins against their French opposition who let us face it may become disinterested in the tournament if adverse results are earned early doors.
If European Cups were given out at Christmas, Clermont would be regarded as an rugby dynasty. Alas, trophies and medals are decided in May and June and the French club are the perennial bridesmaid of this competition. The draw has being kind with Bordeaux Begles, Exeter Chiefs and misfiring Ospreys in their pool. Clermont’s star studded squad should easily negotiate passage to the last eight before Christmas with the rest of the teams picking victories off each other in their home games. I cannot see any other teams progressing from this pool apart from Clermont. Ospreys injuries have being huge and a loss to Exeter first game out will consign them to European Challenge Cup competition in the spring. Exeter Chiefs will add color (supporters) and a nice brand of rugby to the neutral but their pack will be blown away by Clermont and the weak points exposed by these contests may be hard to resolve in the pool and beyond. Begles are the whipping boys of this pool, fancy them to take a win or two but their objective is their domestic league and survival. Clermont to top the pool with a 100% record.
This pool alongside Pool 5 are the toughest pools to predict. All four teams in this pool should produce expansive matches, back lines look explosive in this pool with the likes of Imhoff (Racing 92), North (Northampton), DTH (Scarlets) and Hogg (Glasgow). With expansive matches should bring tries and bonus points and the bonus points (try bonus or losing point) could be critical to see who comes out of this intriguing pool. Racing 92’s half-back options are embarrassing. Dan Carter at out-half along with the likes of Mike Philips will provide game management behind a pack which will be led by the consistently brilliant Chris Masoe at eight. Northampton Saints come into this tournament with revenge firmly on the mind. Their season last year collapsed after a disappointing quarter final home reversal to Racing 92. The Northants club never recovered from the defeat. Northampton’s squad is typically young and energetic but they have added experience in Victor Matfield to the pack. JJ Hanrahan’s development at out-half will be closely monitored. Llanelli Scarlets have started the Pro 12 in positive fashion but the acid test is now. Pro 12 season without numerous international players in opposition ranks has helped Scarlets to edge several games but their explosive back line with DTH Van der Merwe shining will be a threat. Scarlets pack is the issue. The scrum is an achilles heel which has not improved in the early part of the season and could prove crucial in their ambitions for the pool. Glasgow Warriors, it is time to put up or shut up. Warriors have consistently performed at a high level in the Pro 12 (won the league last season deservedly) but European Cup rugby performance has fallen well short. Gregor Townsend’s charges need to make a statement in this pool. There should be no excuses. The squad has had a couple of key note departures. DTH is a huge loss considering his form with Scarlets and Canada but the squad has the experience to cope with the loss. Scotstoun is a tough place to go and I expect Glasgow to win all their homes games. This pool is too close to call. A hesitant nod to Glasgow on the basis that this is the defining season in their development as a team. It will be an incredibly exciting group. Racing 92 European Cup ambitions is unknown. Interesting pool awaits.
Munster, Leicester, Stade Francais back in the 90’s would have being seen as a pool of death. How times have changed? Treviso will try hard. All other opposing teams will be respectful to the Italians but in all honesty they will all be looking for ten points against them in this pool. Munster and Leicester are teams whose lure and prestige has waned in recent years. The elephant in the room is Stade Francais. What is their ambition in this competition? They shocked everyone to come with a superb end of the season run to win the French Championship last season but after a less than stellar start to this domestic campaign, will energies be focused on the domestic league. I expect Stade to be competitive in Paris with the talent of Senatore, Parisse, Genia, Ioane on display but suspect that they will look to the second string at some of these European away fixtures. It leaves the door open for Munster or Leicester to top the pool. Munster this season have flattered to deceive; a couple of wins at the death this season in Pro 12 action have not disguised the fact that the pack minus O’Connell, O’Donnell, O’Mahoney have lost physicality upfront. The game management issue remains a concern. For all the good things that Ian Keatley brings to the table at out-half, there is a lingering doubt in terms of his ability at ten when the pressure is applied. His penalty kicking at sometimes best erratic, general game management at times put his team on the back foot. Munster will heavily depend on Conor Murray and CJ Stander to advance from this pool as the back line have failed to fire in the early part of the season. Thomond Park support ridiculed by head coach Anthony Foley in recent weeks will turn out to show their support but there is no identity in the team’s play; a mix mash of philosophies in back and pack play over several years has done little to appease home support discontent on the lack of direction in the club on the pitch. The entertainment factor is missing so Simon Zebo’s return at full back will be seen as a progressive step. Leicester Tigers on the other hand are built on the core fundamentals; strong pack, abrasive physicality sets the platform for the back line to win the gain line battle. Freddie Burns is the star man for Leicester. If the ex-Gloucester out-half fires, Leicester will be hard to stop. This pool will see Munster at their lowest ebb, they will be eliminated from European Cup action and I expect Stade and Leicester to fight for the top spot. Both teams will advance due to their ten point hauls against the luckless Treviso who conceivably will look at Thomond Park as the only genuine away match where they could get something from away from Italy.
The pool of death. Toulon, Leinster, Bath and Wasps. Toulon are the standout team here but the other three teams will not be short of motivation to upset the odds against the reigning champions particularly at home. Toulon’s squad is the result of strategic investment (monopoly) on world class players over several years. The signing of Paul O’Connell is evidence of this. The squad will be leveraged throughout this pool, no weak link which means tough assignments for the other teams in this pool. I will be interested to see how Leinster fare in this pool. After Matt O’Connor’s departure from the RDS last season, Leo Cullen now is handed the reins (a little earlier than expected). Leinster’s pack will be seriously tested in the scrum and lineout and needs to be spot on for the team to harbor any ambitions of pool progress. The prodigal son is back at out-half and Sexton will look to set the marker early in this pool by launching a back line on paper which looks explosive with Teo, Nacewa in their ranks. Bath are the dark horse in this pool. Their youthful squad with George Ford at out-half could pose serious problems in this pool. Anthony Watson on the wing was England’s standout player in the RWC. Bath’s expansive style should not be construed as deflecting from their pack which when required can set platform for their half-backs. Louw continues to lead the pack with an authority which is seldom seen in a player of his age. Attwood, Hooper, Wilson are superb forwards. Wasps are certainly not the also rans of this pool. Their experience in all areas will prove tricky opposition. The wily Haskell, Jackson, Gopperth will aid emerging leaders such as Joe Launchbury to be competitive, underestimate Wasps at their peril. Apart from Toulon, the other teams could potentially take results from each other meaning only one team comes out of the pool.
Saracens, Clermont, Glasgow, Leicester, Toulon (all pool winners)
Ulster, Leicester, Racing Metro (best runners up)