Featured

2022 Heineken Cup Quarter finals

If Munster are European rugby’s aging rockers, slightly past their prime but with a pedigree that proves they know their way around a decent guitar solo then their opponents this weekend reigning Champions Toulouse are very much the stadium rock gods at the peak of their powers.  But much like rock and roll knockout rugby is a fickle beast who can rear it’s ugly head at any time, so a Quarter Final is never a forgone conclusion.  Munster have only lost once at home so far this season but this “home” game is 128 miles away from Thomond Park and that might be a problem, in fact a direct flight from Toulouse to Dublin arrives 20 minutes before a car driving from Limerick to Lansdowne Road and that’s without any serious traffic.  It’s not all bad news for the home team though, Luke Pearce will be on the whistle for this game and he’s never one to upset home fans so if the Munster Roar is in full effect Toulouse will have to be on their best behaviour to get any favourable decisions.  Toulouse’s away form has been a bit patchy this season, they lost away to Toulon two weeks ago and despite winning in Ravenhill they conceded 6 tries against Ulster over two legs whilst only scoring five of their own.  It would be a surprise if this isn’t one of the most intense games of the weekend and I would be surprised if either team ran away with it but I would also be surprised if Toulouse didn’t find some individual flair to decide this game.

Leicester have redefined the word “resurgent” this season after a few seasons struggling for stability off the field and searching for their true identity they are now top of the Premiership and they’re yet to lose at home.  For their part Leinster are also top of their domestic league and while they have lost 3 games away in the United Rugby Championship two of those were on their South African tour after they’d all but guaranteed a play off spot, the other was in Cardiff when a lot of their squad were preparing for Ireland’s 6 Nations campaign.  The intrigue in this match-up comes in the forwards, Leicester have found a lot of joy this season through their hooker Julian Montoya and the lineout has been particularly important to their attacking play on the other hand Leinster’s second row has attracted some concerns as they’re very athletic but lack a bit of bulk.  Leicester also have more athletic forwards than bulky forwards too though so it would be slightly surprising if they chose to try attack the heart of Leinster’s pack directly, technique and physical strength has been key for them this season.  I’ve been convinced that Leicester’s point of difference this season has been the recruitment of Aled Walters as their Head of Strength and conditioning, he previously worked with the Springboks and lead their S&C program when they won the RWC in Japan and one of the most memorable parts of this Tigers season has been how many games they have won at the death.  Leinster undoubtedly have the deeper squad and their stars like Jonny Sexton won’t have played as many games as their opposite numbers this weekend but the Tigers have the best conditioning coach in the business so if Leinster haven’t put them away early on then I think there’s a very good chance the home team perform even more heroics after the clock has turned red.

There’s no fun way to travel 410 miles and that’s exactly what Montpellier have to do for their game against La Rochelle and the weather looks like it’ll be perfect for running rugby on France’s West coast tomorrow which could turn this game into something resembling a game of basketball.  At the end of January Montpellier won in La Rochelle having already beaten Ronan O’Gara’s charges when they hosted them back in October on the back of seven Garbisi penalties.  Over the course of both games Montpellier have scored 50 points and four tries compared to La Rochelle’s 34 points and three tries so this promises to be a close affair, recently though La Rochelle have really tightened up their defence so I would expect them to move on to the semi-finals.

Racing 92 host Sale Sharks in the final Quarter final of the weekend and there is absolutely no reason the boys from the North West should win, but then there was absolutely no reason that Sale should even be in the Quarter finals and that is why this game is a nightmare for Racing.  The metropolitan elite should win this at a canter and that’s the sort of situation that brings untold amounts of pressure, Racing have won their last five games, but three of those were against their neighbours Stade who are struggling in eleventh place in the Top 14 table and the other two were against bottom of the table Biarritz and Pau who sit tenth.  The last game Racing played against reasonable opposition was in La Rochelle (who are only seventh in the league) on the 26th of March and they lost 19-0.  Sale haven’t exactly been ripping teams to pieces recently either mind you but they excel in games that have become staccato and scrappy which turn into error strewn affairs and with a coach in Alex Sanderson who understands how to pressurise opponents with defensive line speed and frantic counter-rucking.  If Racing can keep their heads and create a stable platform to attack from they will be in the Semi-finals again, but with Andrew Brace and his vociferous whistle it’ll be difficult for anyone to keep their cool and build momentum.  Brace officiating should negate any distinct advantage Racing would have in the scrum too, there’s a good possibility that as much as Racing want to play champagne rugby this game will be decided by place kicks and with Joy Neville TMOing alongside and Irish referee in a game that will may well decide who Leinster play in the Semi-finals there could be a large amount of controversy under the roof of the La Defense Arena.  I quite fancy this will be the most memorable game of the weekend and if anyone can benefit from some incomprehensible nonsense it’s Alex Sanderson’s Sharks outfit, they did score three of their four tries in the Quarter final after they had been reduced to 14 players after all.

Sale Sharks, top 4 material?

dsc_0454.jpg

A former Saracens physio once told me that Steve Diamond is mad and Diamond’s assertion that Sale Sharks “expect a top 4 finish” this season certainly appears to back that theory up (that really did happen, you meet some pretty interesting characters when you’re snowboarding in Canada)! Sale have just been taken over by CorpAcq Ltd (led by Jason Orange’s brother Simon) so positive intent and saying the things the money men want to hear surely lead Diamond to make such an outlandish statement. As an aside CorpAcq Ltd are, according to Bloomberg a “private equity firm specialising in buyouts and industry consolidation investments”, so a move into sports team ownership seems a little incongruous but that’s by the by.

Stability is a big part of building a successful team in any sport, the NFL’s New England Patriots have won have won 4 Super Bowl’s in the last 16 years under Bill Bellichick’s stewardship (with Tom Brady picking up 4 MVP awards) and while Sir Alex Ferguson was manager at Manchester United they collected 38 trophies in 27 years, since his departure they’ve won just 2. Stability, or in Sale’s case lack thereof is a very relevant issue going into the new season, they will have to bed 9 new players into their 2016-17 squad and to compound the difficulties that they may bring the end of the 2015-26 season saw the departure of 10 players. Of the 9 arriving players 5 of them have never played in England and only Dan Mugford has experience of playing for a Premiership team having been a member of Exeter Chief’s academy before moving to London Scottish. The other 4 have a remarkable 292 Aviva appearance between them but Rob Webber lays claim to a whopping 170 of them and Halani Aulika weighs in with a hefty 89 of his own, so all in all they’ve got a fairly inexperienced group to integrate. The most inexperienced of the group is without a doubt Josh Charnley who joins from Wigan Warriors Rugby League team, although at 25 he has plenty of time to learn and as a winger (an exceptionally good winger in the 13 man code) I can’t see adapting to union being a problem for the Chorley born try machine (149 in 151 appearances since you asked), he’s also a goal kicker and with the departure of the inconsistent boots of Danny Cipriani his ability could come in handy.

Cipriani’s departure could in itself be a problem since they’ve signed USA International Fly Half AJ MacGinty who will compete with Mugford for the 10 shirt, MacGinty is the more senior of the two at the ripe old age of 26 (Mugford is just 24) and after winning the Pro 12 with Connacht last season MacGinty will be full of confidence, but it’s hard to compare the Aviva Premiership and the Pro 12. With Nick MacLeod returning to Wales to play for the Dragons and Joe Ford moving to Yorkshire Carnegie Sale have technically lost 3 Fly Halves and signed just 2 so young prospect Tom Morton could find himself pressed into duty but having represented England at under 18 and under 20 level he may well prove to be Sale’s secret weapon in the upcoming season. Another promising player Diamond will be looking forward to working with is Laurence Pearce, the former Leicester Tiger is a rampaging back rower but in TJ Ioane, Daniel Braid, Magnus Lund, David Seymour, Cameron Neild, the hotly tipped George Nott and most importantly the even more rampaging Josh Beaumont Sale have quite a queue of talented back rowers just waiting to play.

Sale may well improve on their 6th place finish this season but with at least 4 teams who have gone through much less upheaval during the offseason (including Saracens, Exeter Chiefs, Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers <even Bath have only signed 7 new players, although their coaching situation is becoming comical> and Harlequins, although they have new coaches joining their staff too) it will be an incredible achievement if they manage to crack the top for the first time since they finished as Champions in 2005-06.