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May 1, 2012

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 05/01/2012

Time to stop whingeing

The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary lauds the power of Leinster after their victory over Clermont Auvergne on Sunday.

"A few hours after the final whistle had sounded on a dramatic afternoon at Bordeaux’s Stade Chaban-Delmas, two figures stood talking in the watery evening sun.

Clermont lock Nathan Hines was leaning back against a vehicle in the car park, subdued and chastened by recent experience, fielding questions from his coach, New Zealander Vern Cotter. It was not difficult to imagine the nub of the conversation.

How did Leinster do it? How do the Irish do it? Two sides through to the Heineken Cup final for the first time ever: what’s the story?

Hines was well qualified to pass comment. Last season he was in Leinster colours when they beat Northampton in that about-turn final at the Millennium Stadium.

On Sunday it was his turn to suffer as Leinster regrouped from a torrid first half to earn a tilt at winning their third title in four years. That is as fine an achievement as there has been in the annals of the tournament."

April 30, 2012

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/30/2012

Operation Twickenham is green for go

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reflects on a great weekend for Irish rugby in the Heineken Cup.

"Move over Europe. Truly, this is Ireland’s time in the Heineken Cup. After two all-French finals and one all-English, come Saturday May 19th in Twickenham, the Cup will runneth over with a first all-Irish final. All roads lead to London.

"Hence, Ireland will provide the European champions for the fifth time in seven years and sixth time overall while, as a consequence, after their emotionally and highly charged debut campaign, Connacht will return to the competition again next season and a four-handed Irish entry.

"All of this was ensured yesterday when, despite not being at their fluent best and hanging on by their fingernails at the death in a throbbing Stade Chaban Dalmas, Leinster came through possibly their most daunting test of character with a 19-15 win."

April 29, 2012

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2012

Banishing the what ifs

Ulster's Pedrie Wannenburg and Ruan Pienaar celebrate victory over Edinburgh © Getty Images

Eamonn Sweeney celebrates Ulster's charge into the Heineken Cup final - and shares his commiserations with a brave Edinburgh - in The Sunday Independent.

"Ulster will know how Edinburgh feel this morning.

"They'll know what it's like to hear everyone praising your effort, your ambition and your enterprise and offering What-Ifs in consolation. What if Roman Poite had spotted the ball was out of the Ulster scrum before Pedrie Wannenburg's try; what if Edinburgh hadn't made handling mistakes ; what if they'd managed to score their try five minutes earlier.

"What if nothing.

"Because it was Ulster who used to be the what-if team, the side being patted on the back and told their day would come as they were edged out by the big guns. They're well aware of the absolute uselessness of moral victories. What counts is having the nous to get ahead on the scoreboard and stay there. It was always good enough for Munster, for Toulouse and for Leicester and yesterday at the Aviva it was good enough for Ulster."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2012

A question of neutrality

Eddie Butler previews the Heineken Cup semi-final between Clermont Auvergne and Leinster in The Observer.

"At least there is a measurable neutrality about today's Heineken Cup semi-final between Clermont Auvergne and the defending champions, Leinster. The Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux, formerly the Stade du Parc Lescure, where Bath beat Brive in the 1998 final, is 200 miles from Clermont-Ferrand and every centimetre away from the Massif Central is half an inch closer to a more familiar seaboard scene for the Irish. Clermont Auvergne do not lose in the mountain fortress they call home, the Stade Marcel Michelin, their unbeaten record there stretching to 41 games.

"Clermont fans may still be expected to outnumber travelling Leinster supporters 10 to one, but at least the neutral stadium, named after Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the Gaullist prime minister who served under president Georges Pompidou and who was mayor of Bordeaux, does not offer the volcanic eruption of the Michelin at full bore. Which is another lucky break for the Irish province, since their two "neutral" semis in Ireland, in their winning years of 2009 against Munster and 2011 against Toulouse, were played at Croke Park and the Aviva Stadium. I suppose if they'd been staged in Baggot Street they could have been closer to the heart of Dublin, but not by much."

April 28, 2012

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 04/28/2012

A vintage year for Clermont?

Brock James will be a key figure for Clermont if they are to progress © Getty Images

The Guardian's Robert Kitson previews the weekend's action.

"Sometimes Heineken Cup semi-finals provide richer drama than any showpiece final can offer. Wasps' epic win over Munster in Dublin, Leicester's penalty shoot-out against Cardiff Blues and Munster's extraordinary victory over Toulouse in Bordeaux in 2000 all spring instantly to mind and another potential classic looms this weekend. When Clermont Auvergne and Leinster collide on Sunday, it will rival Barcelona v Chelsea.

Leinster, chasing an unprecedented third European title in four years, would be short-odds favourites to beat anybody else. With Brad Thorn having rumbled into town to lend the pack some All Black steel, the defensive organisation and attacking verve behind the scrum have made the defending champions all but irresistible. They have lost once in their last 25 matches and will break Munster's record of 13 successive Heineken Cup wins if they reach yet another final."

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 04/28/2012

Leinster on the road to immortality

The Irish Independent's David Kelly assesses Leinster's chances of shocking Clermont on Sunday.

"Cold reason is the underlying basis for optimism in assessing Leinster's chances in Europe's most anticipated club game of the season.

Soccer's Champions League may not have got the final many wanted, however, rugby fans and the wider sporting public should be happy that at least the oval ball equivalent has tossed up a semi-final that would have graced Twickenham on May 19.

Even the bookies can't find a cigarette paper thin enough to separate Leinster and Clermont, they are that evenly matched.

Running a finger through the team line-ups, it's difficult to spot a position where the direct opponents are glaringly mismatched."

April 27, 2012

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/27/2012

Duelling pianos

Will Clermont's Nathan Hines get the better of Leinster's Brad Thorn this weekend? © Getty Images

The clash between Leinster's Brad Thorn and Clermont's Nathan Hines will be central to the outcome of their Heineken Cup semi-final clash on Sunday, writes the Irish Times' Liam Toland.

"Without, the grand piano that is Brad Thorn and the upright piano that is Nathan Hines is the clash of the weekend, in the match of the weekend – possibly the match of the tournament.

"For Leinster to win they must dominate physically – of that there is no doubt – but to get past ASM Clermont Auvergne in Bordeaux they must get their hands free. If Leinster get sucked into multiphase-offering breakdowns and not freeing their hands in the heavy traffic that is Aurélien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana, Jamie Cudmore, Julien Bonnaire et al, then like Saracens and many others, they may dominate possession but they will not win.

"Where can Leinster damage Clermont? Few opportunities offer themselves but the big Georgian David Zirakashvili is one. His work-rate around the park is sensational, in the John Afoa tackle count range, and he’s impressive defensively in open play, as he showed against livewire Saracens hooker Schalk Brits."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/27/2012

Talei sowed seeds of success

The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports that Netani Talei was close to quitting Heineken Cup semi-finalists Edinburgh but is now glad he kept faith.

"With his estranged wife in Fiji with his children and wider family that reassurance came long distance. Skype became a close friend. As Talei was pushing for an opportunity, the media were raving about a new face, 21-year-old Stuart McInally, a No 8 with the strength and skills recent Scottish packs have lacked.

"Talei sat and watched, wondered, and waited. McInally was Man of the Match in the opening Heineken Cup win at London Irish and Talei was not even in the squad. The Fijian was handed the No 6 jersey against Racing Metro and scored a try to spark a famous comeback but watched the next game away to Cardiff from afar. But after watching his side badly beaten up front and McInally get injured, Bradley called on Talei.

The Fijian put Edinburgh back on the front foot with his blend of skill and power, and won Man of the Match honours in each of Edinburgh’s remaining three pool wins over Cardiff and London Irish at home, and away to Racing, with key tries in the last two games."

April 22, 2012

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/22/2012

Time to rip up the rule book?

Ripping up the rule book for their Heineken Cup semi-final showdown with Ulster may prove the right move for Edinburgh’s radical, according to the Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison.

"Genteel and Georgian, Edinburgh was at one time known for producing nonconformists who blazed their very own trail, and now the capital’s rugby club have torn up every rule in the book on their way to next Saturday’s Heineken Cup semi-final in Dublin. Not since Renton, Spud, Sickboy and Begbie leapt on to the screen in Trainspotting has Edinburgh produced such charismatic anarchists.

"Successful sides are supposed to put up a decent showing in their day jobs whereas Edinburgh lie one off the bottom of the Pro12. Winners invariably have age and experience on their side while Edinburgh field a bunch of boys – Matt Scott, Grant Gilchrist, Tom Brown and Lee Jones – who are effectively in their freshman year, with David Denton not much older. Heineken Cup winners defend like Confederate general Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson; Edinburgh defend like Michael Jackson.

"OK, the last point is a little unfair given their heroics in holding Toulouse to just one try but still Edinburgh conceded a painful 54 points to Leinster’s second string last weekend in the Pro12 league. As dress rehearsals go it wasn’t an ideal run in Dublin, the venue for next Saturday’s semi-final, but we’ve learned not to read too much into Edinburgh’s league results. Ulster have already walloped Michael Bradley’s men twice this season, home and away, with an aggregate scoreline of 80-36."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/22/2012

Edinburgh could yet raise more eyebrows

The Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford casts an eye over the Heineken Cup semi-finals next weekend.

"Ulster against Edinburgh in the semi-final of the Heineken Cup on Saturday. I know. Edinburgh. In the semi-final of the Heineken Cup. It takes some getting used to.

"One, because they are the first Scottish side to reach that level, ever.

"Two, because many of the players doing so well for Edinburgh this season combined so ineffectively for Scotland in the Six Nations.

"And three, because they beat Toulouse, one of the great institutions of European rugby, in front of a Murrayfield crowd approaching 38,000, a number almost as gob-smacking as the victory itself, to get there.

"And now the big question. Can Edinburgh back it up against Ulster, a team, according to Edinburgh head coach Michael Bradley, “built to win trophies”, away from home in Dublin?"

April 21, 2012

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/21/2012

Hines sight

Clermont Auvergne lock Nathan Hines has also played for their Heineken Cup semi-final opponents Leinster © Getty Images

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley talks to Clermont Auvergne second row Nathan Hines ahead of his side's Heineken Cup semi-final showdown with Leinster next weekend.

"Deep down, before the semi-final draw was even made, Joe Schmidt always felt he would run into his former Clermont employers and likewise Nathan Hines sensed it would be his erstwhile team-mates at Leinster. And, sure enough, so it has come to pass. To win the best tournament in Europe you invariably have to beat the best. “If we wanted to go far in Europe we knew one time or another we would have to cross paths,” reasons Hines.

"Schmidt reckons Hines has more on him than vice versa, a notion that makes Hines laugh and also prompts him to repeat Schmidt’s line that: “I could never remember the lineout calls when I was there, let alone a year later! To be fair, him and Vern (Cotter) spent a lot of time together and they will try to out-fox each other. It just comes down to the day, doesn’t it?”

"The Australian from Wagga Wagga who played 77 times for Scotland is likely to be directly opposed by the All Blacks World Cup winner who has also played league for Australia, Brad Thorn.

"With the latter likely to pack down alongside Leo Cullen and Hines partnered by the abrasive Canadian Jamie Cudmore (sparring partner of Paul O’Connell amongst many, many others) the combined age of Leinster’s secondrow would be 71, with Clermont’s a sprightly 68."

April 11, 2012

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/11/2012

Entertainment gap

Hugh Farrelly reflects on coaching and entertainment value in the Six Nations following the latest round of Heineken Cup action in The Irish Independent.

"Another gripping weekend of Heineken Cup action and one which, unfortunately, highlighted the entertainment gap that now exists between European rugby's flagship club and international competitions.

"The Six Nations has tradition, national pride and the continent's best players grouped together but, while there were some decent contests in this season's championship, it is struggling to compete with the Heineken Cup in terms of drama and intrigue.

"Last weekend's quarter-finals are a case in point. You had the excellence of Leinster and Clermont, the exuberance and to-hell-with-reputations success of Edinburgh and the history-altering ferocity of Thomond Park."

April 9, 2012

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/09/2012

Reversing international form

Brian Moore analyses the differences between Heineken Cup knockout games and the Six Nations in The Daily Telegraph.

"The Heineken Cup quarter-finals raised a few eyebrows and reignited a few hoary arguments about its composition, where it sits in the pantheon of world tournaments and its relationship to international rugby, particularly the Six Nations.

"The easiest answer is that it is the best club tournament in the world, despite being anomalous as it has features both clubs and provinces. It is never less than compelling and, crucially, the gates demonstrate that it works for the paying public.

"The intensity and technical aspects of the later knockout rounds have reached the level of Six Nations games but, at that point, comparisons become of limited or no use because differences remain that prevent Heineken games from ever having the importance of internationals, and nor will they pose players the same problems."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/09/2012

All about the Benjamins

The Guardian's Rob Kitson was at Vicarage Road to see Clermont Auvergne hammer Saracens on Sunday, an he believes it's all down to the cash at the French club.

"A significant slice of unwanted English history was made on a damp, grey Easter Day in Watford. Aside from the years when they boycotted the tournament the Premiership clubs have never previously failed to have a presence in the semi-finals of both European club competitions, as will be their fate this season. The defeat by the Michelin-funded giants of Clermont Auvergne on Sunday was not entirely without honour but the English are now officially down and out with the Eurotrash.

"The reasons why were neatly summed up before this game even kicked off. While Sarries may be masters of their own backyard, Clermont have a spectacular array of costly artillery and the financial largesse to replenish it annually. The top bananas of the Massif Central do not always travel well but the all-star backline of Sitiveni Sivivatu, Aurélien Rougerie, Wesley Fofana and Julien Malzieu gives a clue to the spending power at their disposal. The English, with their substantially lower salary cap, can assemble that sort of cast in their dreams only."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/09/2012

The end of an era

Simon Thomas predicts a tough couple of years for Cardiff Blues after Saturday's humbling Heineken Cup loss to Leinster in The Western Mail.

"It's the end of an era for the Blues and a sad one at that, one which leaves you fearing just what the future holds for them.

"As the players trooped disconsolately onto the team bus after their Heineken hammering at the Aviva Stadium, you came to realise just how many of them have now played their final European game for the region.

"For one reason or another, Gethin Jenkins, Martyn Williams, Casey Laulala, Paul Tito, Ben Blair, Rhys Thomas, Richie Rees, Dan Parks and John Yapp are all moving on at the end of the season, with maybe more to follow suit yet."

April 8, 2012

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 04/08/2012

Brawn over beauty

The likes of David Strettle will need to be at their best if they are to beat Clermont © Getty Images

The Observer's Eddie Butler writes that Saracens must front up against Clermont Auvergne if they are to stand any chance of beating the French giants.

"It is not easy to think of a return to Vicarage Road, Watford from anywhere as an upgrade, and especially not from Wembley and the crowd of 83,761 that last Saturday set a new record for attendance at a club game. But Saracens are back at their dilapidated home – characterful, in need of some modernisation, as the estate agents might put it – and their fixture on Sunday eclipses that top-of-the-table domestic clash with Harlequins.

The quarter-final against ASM Clermont Auvergne in the Heineken Cup is grand enough in its own right, but it also sets Saracens apart as the sole representatives of the English system in Europe's knockout stages. The players may have better things on their minds right now than the relative ease with which the three Irish provinces in the last eight qualified for the Heineken Cup in the first place, but it does appear that Saracens will be more widely embraced as ambassadors of a victimised Aviva Premiership than as the defending champions of that league. At a time of victories determined by tiny margins, a sense of unfair play may help."

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 04/08/2012

Lifting the burden of expectation

The Sunday Independent's Hugh Godwin talks to Sarries flyer David Strettle ahead of their quarter-final showdown with Clermont Auvergne.

"Dave Strettle is one of life's energy-givers; the sort of bloke who wouldn't think twice, or possibly even once, about meeting the press wearing a Superman baseball cap. Knowing Strettle's club, Saracens, it may have been for a bet, or just the wing being allowed to be himself. Either explanation fits a set-up where a group of young coaches, among whom Andrew Farrell is being coveted by England, "treat the players like mates", as Strettle puts it.

Saracens' team spirit, forged famously on private-jet trips to the Munich beer festival and zooming around Miami in rented motorhomes in mid-season breaks, faces one of its greatest tests today when a highly talented, cosmopolitan Clermont Auvergne side hit Watford for the only Heineken Cup quarter-final to feature an English club. While Leicester, Northampton and the rest fell by the wayside, the Premiership champions won a group featuring the Ospreys, Biarritz and Treviso. The enticing prize is a semi-final in the winners' home country – for Saracens, that would mean Twickenham."

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 04/08/2012

Quick Fix

The Irish Independent's Brendan Fanning writes that Munster will need to come out of the blocks fast if they are to beat Ulster.

"If you buy into the idea that Munster need a shellacking in the league the week before they go into Heineken Cup knockout in order to get themselves right, then they are in a great place.

Two years ago, for example, they were tryless and not far off hopeless when losing to Leinster only to go out the next weekend and blow away Northampton with a four-try performance.

Mind you, they managed to reverse the result against Leinster last season and then held it together to beat Brive away a week later. So best not to read too much into those seven-day turnarounds. Focus instead on whether or not they have it in them to fix what was wrong against Leinster, because if Ulster are anyway decent then Tony McGahan's mob will need to be very good indeed."

April 7, 2012

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 04/07/2012

The return of BOD

Leinster will hope Brian O'Driscoll is at his best against the Cardiff Blues on Saturday © Getty Images

The Daily Telegraph's Will Greenwood writes a character profile of Ireland and Leinster legend Brian O'Driscoll.

"Cameramen get paid to watch what happens. They set up, pick their shots, monitor audio levels and make sure that everything is captured. They do not say a lot, and usually roll to their own beat.

But occasionally they capture a moment or subject absolutely perfectly – and not always on film. I was in Dublin last week for an audience, or rather a television interview, with King Brian. Some call him “BOD”, and while the religious invocation is a nod to his ability, Ireland’s evergreen centre Brian O’Driscoll is no god.

For a start he has had to suffer the mortal failing of being injured. Secondly, his critics are more than happy to tell him that he has failed to deliver an Ireland team on the biggest stage of all, the World Cup.

When O’Driscoll decided to get his shoulder fixed, an operation that meant him sitting out most of the current season, there were plenty of people only too happy to predict that their country’s rugby saviour was going to become yesterday’s man; Lazarus without the bounce-back."

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 04/07/2012

Edinburgh need to fight fire with fire

The Scotsman's David Ferguson calls on Edinburgh to front up against Toulouse in their Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown.

"Murrayfield will today play host to the biggest game of professional rugby in Scotland since the game was declared “open” in 1995 with a fervent hope that it would produce a long-lasting benefit to Scottish sport.

Following Edinburgh into today’s Heineken Cup quarter-final is a palpable excitement and it could not be better timed, the astonishing sale of 35,600 tickets providing belief that pro rugby could have a future in this small country just when Scotland have slid to a record low of 12th in the world rankings.

With buses and cars heading for Murrayfield from the north and east, all down the west coast and various parts of the Borders, to add their support to the hardy few thousand of Edinburgh regulars, fresh hope is springing across the country from this match.

Toulouse have been in the Scottish capital many times, winning and losing, and even being arrested, in the case of their passionate head coach Guy Noves who insisted on climbing over stewards and into the Murrayfield stands to celebrate his side’s Heineken Cup win over Stade Francais in 2005. But they remain rugby’s “kings of Europe”."

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 04/07/2012

Ulster's time to shine

Hugh Farrelly, of the Irish Independent, talks up the threat of Ulster ahead of their match with Munster on Sunday.

"Only a blinkered few would dispute the fact that Leinster have been top provincial dogs in Ireland since their Heineken Cup semi-final win over Munster in 2009.

That was the afternoon that saw the power shift from south to east in Irish rugby, as Michael Cheika's work came to fruition and was then expanded upon brilliantly by his successor Joe Schmidt, with two European titles providing tangible evidence.

Munster were consigned to the status of second province, but they have held off Ulster's challenge for that role pretty securely, picking up league titles in 2009 and 2011, coming through this season's Heineken Cup pool stages as top seeds and continuing to provide a greater number of front-line players than Ulster for the national side."

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 04/07/2012

Saracens look to break new ground

The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary provides his take on Saracens as they go for a spot in the Heineken Cup semi-finals.

"As he has done for many years, Saracens chairman Nigel Wray on Friday attended the captain’s team run, a familiar presence ahead of tomorrow’s Heineken Cup quarter-final against Clermont Auvergne. After the game he will go into the dressing room, win or lose, and shake the hand of every player.

Are these personal touches alone, this sense of extended family in which players, wives, even parents receive a handwritten letter of welcome from Wray, enough to explain why Saracens are so high-achieving from a low base, defending Premiership champions and the only team left in the Heineken Cup? Of course not.

Might it then be the hard-nosed South African influence in the boardroom as well as on the pitch? Or the cutting edge use of technology which saw the club investing £200,000 a couple of months ago in iPads, developing their own app so that the Friday team talk can be browsed for inspiration at any moment up to kick-off, or clips of the Clermont line-out studied?"

April 6, 2012

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/06/2012

Atonement doesn't get much better

Edinburgh's Sean Cox talks atonement and his excitement for Saturday's Heineken Cup clash with Toulouse in The Scotsman.

"For Sean Cox, atonement doesn’t get much better. The Edinburgh second row’s Heineken Cup campaign started with a citing after he came off the bench during the opening group game at London Irish and traded blows with an opponent whose dangerously high tackle had taken out colleague Dave Denton.

"A one-match ban followed but for Cox, 27, there was a pledge to “make amends in other pool games”. And he stuck to his word. Wins over Cardiff, London Irish (again) and Racing Metro have featured strong performances from the ex-Sale Shark, who also learned the feeling of what it is like to miss out – something he doesn’t intend experiencing again for the duration of this blue-riband competition."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/06/2012

The mists of time

Hugh Farrelly talks to former Ulster and Ireland skipper Paddy Johns about Paul O'Connell and the weekend's Munster-Ulster clash in The Irish Independent.

"It is an All-Ireland League match lost in the mists of time, but the Dungannon versus Young Munster clash in 2001 saw two of Ireland's greatest second-rows go head-to-head -- one winding down a long and illustrious career, one just starting out.

"That was the afternoon former Ireland, Ulster, Saracens and Dungannon second-row Paddy Johns got his first look at Paul O'Connell up close, and the fiery-haired beanpole in the middle of the Young Munster line-out made a hell of an impression.

"I remember it well," says Johns. "I was coming to the end of my time and he was just starting out, only a kid really, but you could see he had it, that he was going to be something special. He was head and shoulders the best player on their team and it has been no surprise to me to see what he has achieved in the game."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/06/2012

The quiet achiever

Shaun Edwards looks at the future as well as the here and now, beginning with Saracens' Brad Barritt before the weekend's Heineken Cup clash with Clermont Auvergne in The Guardian.

"I've seen the future and it runs, tackles, scores tries and is called Gaël Fickou. Think of a cross between a young Damien Traille and Wesley Fofana.

"He's a centre who plays for Toulon, although not on Friday night against Harlequins, because he's currently in Madrid as part of rugby's equivalent of the league of nations – the under-18 world championship. In comparison with this weekend's other big rugby event, the Heineken Cup quarter-finals, it couldn't be more different with the accent on mucking in, sharing hotels, eating together. But next year who knows?

"Fickou will play for France sooner rather than later and it's not too much of a mind-stretch to seeing him lining up alongside Jonny Wilkinson – assuming Toulon continue as they are currently progressing in the Top 14 – when next season's Heineken kicks off in the autumn. But if that's for another day, watching Fickou this week got me thinking about centres, such as Gavin Henson and Jamie Roberts, who have been in the news ahead of this weekend's four matches."

April 4, 2012

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/04/2012


Robert Kitson, writing in The Guardian, revisits the idea that the RaboDirect PRO12 is geared to give its combatants an edge in Europe.

"The quarter-final phase of the Heineken Cup is frequently described as the best weekend of the European rugby year. Watching the continent's best teams locked together like muscular scorpions certainly captures the imagination. Leinster are close to filling the Aviva Stadium for the visit of Cardiff Blues, there is not a spare seat for Munster versus Ulster and even Edinburgh expect in excess of 30,000 for the visit of Toulouse. Saracens and Clermont are not about to bring Watford to a standstill, but filling Vicarage Road has always been a murderous task.

"Nagging away in the background, though, is an uncomfortable question. Is there a genuinely level playing field in European club and provincial rugby, or does the last eight line-up highlight a flaw in the tournament's structure? Perhaps you would expect a hint of jealousy from those clubs not involved, but the presence of five clubs from the RaboDirect Pro12 is not impressing many coaches in England and France. There is a widespread view the Irish, Welsh, Scots and Italians benefit from a system spring-loaded in their favour."

January 24, 2012

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 01/24/2012

Blues success is limited consolation

Wales Online's Delme Parfitt answers questions on the Welsh sides' Heineken Cup performance.

"With another Heineken Cup pool campaign over, Delme Parfitt answers the key questions about the performances of the Blues, Ospreys and Scarlets in Europe’s elite competition, and assesses what it might mean for Wales’ Six Nations campaign

Q: Should we be happy with having one of our regions in the quarter-finals?

DP: Well, if we’d been offered that scenario at the start of the campaign we may well have accepted it given the blank we drew last time out, but there’s something of a flat feel about it all because few will give the Blues much hope of progress away to Leinster in the last eight.

The Ospreys’ failure, not to mention the manner of it, also leaves a very bitter taste.

It says it all that the Scarlets, in beating Castres on French soil and securing an Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-final berth, probably came out of the final weekend with the most credit.”

January 23, 2012

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 01/23/2012

Cash bonanza

The Scotsman's David Ferguson praises Edinburgh for their journey into the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and looks at the financial implications.

"Edinburgh have set up a revenge mission with Toulouse after securing a home quarter-final in the Heineken Cup, but will also trigger a cash windfall that could open the door to professional rugby finally taking off in Scotland.

As part of an historic shift in European rugby, Edinburgh are one of five teams from the Celtic league, now the RaboDirect PRO12, into the last eight for the first time in the tournament’s 17-year history. It is only the second occasion that England provide just one qualifier, Saracens, while France have only Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne.

The Scots defeated London Irish 34-11 at Murrayfield yesterday to top Pool 2 and clinch a home quarter-final with the same French side they faced on the previous occasion they reached the quarter-finals, in 2004. Then, they had to return to France and lost 36-10.”

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 01/23/2012

The grass is not always greener

Saints captain Dylan Hartley, talking to the Daily Telegraph's Brendan Gallagher, has fired a cheeky parting shot at team-mate Chris Ashton following his move to Saracens

"Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain, has questioned Chris Ashton’s decision to leave Northampton for Saracens, although the England hooker says there will be no lingering animosity when the pair meet at the national side’s Six Nations training camp on Monday.

Ashton watched Saints’ thumping defeat after being left out of the side in midweek, a decision which prompted him to storm out of a training session.

“It is his decision,” Hartley said. “The reason I signed again for Saints is that I don’t think there is any other place I would want to be as a young Englishman. I’m very happy here, but all the best to him. I will still be his mate.”

January 22, 2012

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/22/2012

Contrasting fortunes

Edinburgh’s players don’t make life easy for themselves but have the ability to beat anyone, Allan Jacobsen tells the Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison.

"History suggests that you need a big, muscular front five and, instead, Edinburgh boasts a mobile but lightweight pack. Common sense says that experience is all, but Edinburgh won that first match with a 19-year-old stand-off. Everyone knows that you don’t give a team like Racing Metro a 24-point lead but Edinburgh made short work of reeling them in at Murrayfield. Reason insists that a good league showing is important for building confidence but Edinburgh have won four out of 13 in the RaboDirect Pro12.

"Edinburgh have won their four Heineken matches by an average of three points, with the winning kicks in two of them coming as the referee checked his watch. No one can accuse the capital club of doing things the easy way and, if there is a suspicion that this side are concentrating on Europe to the detriment of the league, they would only be copying what the Irish provinces have done to good effect for the last decade.

"Jacobsen insists that he is as confused as the next man by the club’s lowly league position but, in explaining their Heineken form, he points to the contribution from the club’s youngsters, who have come in and shaken the place up with a winning mentality and a hunger for success. “There is a buzz about the club and it’s brilliant,” he beams. “We’ve lost a lot of experienced players over the last few years. We’ve brought some good ones in but you could argue that a lot of players weren’t replaced like for like. A lot of young guys have come through and stepped up to the mark. I think that’s brilliant. I think the young guys have really proved themselves this year, there is a lot of hunger at the club."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/22/2012

Why English clubs fail to live up to their billing

The Sunday Telegraph's Paul Ackford ponders the failure of England's leading clubs to make an impact on this season's Heineken Cup.

"There’s something else that Mark McCafferty [Premiership Rugby chief executive] feels strongly about. He, along with a number of senior figures among the French and English clubs, believes the current qualifying arrangements for Europe’s premier competition are flawed, and that the prospects of the French and English representatives are being unfairly skewed by a cosy Celtic-Italian coalition.

"Put simply, English and French Rugby Union teams have to bust a gut to qualify from their respective domestic leagues while any old middling outfit can get through from the RaboDirect Pro 12, a new name for an old sinecure, the Celtic alliance plus Italy. McCafferty and friends are so peeved about the perceived inequality that they are making, strong representations to European Rugby Cup Ltd, the organisation that runs both European tournaments.

“Our view is that Heineken Cup qualification should be based on league form,” McCafferty explains. “There are three of those – the Aviva Premiership, the Top 14 Orange in France and the Pro 12 – and you should take the qualifying teams from the best sides in those leagues. Then it’s a completely meritocratic system.

"This season the 24 teams in the six Heineken Cup pools are made up of 11 from the Pro 12, six from France and seven from the Premiership. It should be eight across the board."

January 21, 2012

Posted by Jonny McLeod on 01/21/2012

O'Gara ready for Saints showdown

Ronan O'Gara admits Munster have been far from their best in qualifying for the Heineken Cup last eight © Getty Images

The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary talks to Munster fly-half Ronan O'Gara ahead of their Heineken Cup clash with Northampton Saints.

“True, it is incredible that we’ve got to where we have this season because we’ve been on the ropes in nearly every match,” is O’Gara’s blunt assessment.

“It’s testimony to the character and belief that has been ingrained down the years. We’re a team in transition but there’s a good bit of experience there too and that’s been crucial to us surviving. It’s been hugely enjoyable perhaps because it’s been against the run of play, against the grain.”

January 19, 2012

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 01/19/2012

Money not the only reason behind Tigers' failings

The Guardian's Paul Rees reflects on a bad week for the Leicester Tigers.

"Richard Cockerill said this week that the salary cap in England was a prime reason why Premiership clubs were struggling to compete in the Heineken Cup. With the final round of group matches starting this Friday, only Saracens and Harlequins are likely English contenders for the quarter-finals.

"I do not think you have the financial clout to compete at the top end, especially if you have injuries," said Cockerill. "You do not have the money to have the depth of squad. That is not a criticism of anybody: that is the fact of it. In England, by and large, you have to be successful in Europe. If you do well in Europe, it is a bonus."

The £4.2m cap did not explain the manner of Leicester's defeat to Ulster at Ravenhill last Friday. The Tigers were short of a few of their internationals, but to lose 41-7 on a night that, in terms of the weather, was kind for Belfast in January, no rain or howling wind, suggested something that went beyond how many caps you had sitting on the bench."

January 17, 2012

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 01/17/2012


The Guardian's Rob Kitson reflects on yet another good weekend for the Celtic league in the Heineken Cup.

"Munster, Leinster and Ulster, Ireland's three leading sides, have played 15 Heineken Cup pool games between them this season and lost just once in total. All three sit top of their groups. England, in contrast, look likely to end up with just one qualifier – Saracens – from a starting list of seven. Which nation would you back to fare better in the forthcoming Six Nations championship?

Rugby union, clearly, is not quite that simple. It should also be pointed out that France, World Cup finalists and perhaps the strongest Six Nations team on paper, could be represented in the quarter-finals by just two clubs, Toulouse and Clermont Auvergne. The remaining quartet of Castres, Racing Métro, Montpellier and Biarritz have won just five of their 20 games to date. A sense of underachievement is not just confined to English club rugby."

January 16, 2012

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 01/16/2012

A job done

Hugh Farrelly, of the Irish Independent, reflects on Leinster's hard fought win over Glasgow.

"Not quite the Sunday roast many expected, but the champions duly claimed their berth in the Heineken Cup knockout stages, with the prospect of a Lansdowne Road quarter-final if they take care of Montpellier next weekend.

They had to scrap for it all the way, though.

Firhill is an austere outpost on the European rugby circuit, the home of Partick Thistle FC, nestling amid a cordon of concrete tower blocks, and the no-frills surroundings were ideally suited to a contest which bristled with intensity but was always more grunt than guile"

January 15, 2012

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/15/2012

Crucial win but Munster lack lustre

The Irish Times' John Sullivan reports from Thomond Park as Munster become the first side to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

"A fifth consecutive victory guaranteed Munster a place in the Heineken Cup playoffs but the absence of a bonus point against Castres at Thomond Park, coupled with the nature of the performance, will smart. A home quarter-final now rests on a result in Northampton next weekend, where the Saints will seek revenge after having their pockets picked here in November.

"The English club will be chasing a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup.

"A lack or precision, principally in the opposing 22, saw the home side spurn several excellent try scoring chances. A frustration was that they made a host of line breaks but just couldn’t convert them. Their dominance in the scrum provided a rich seam of penalties and they also nicked several lineouts but couldn’t properly translate the glut of possession into tries. Decision making was also questionable, at times, the home side guilty of kicking away ball and forcing passes.

"Castres couldn’t believe their good fortune and in snatches demonstrated reasonable continuity and muscularity. They might have had one or two more tries of their own without really threatening to win the match."

January 12, 2012

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/12/2012

The business end of affairs

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley previews the latest round of Heineken Cup action.

"And so to the meat of the season. As a prelude to the forthcoming Six Nations, the next couple of make-or-break, concluding weekends to the pool stages of the Heineken Cup take some beating.

"Aside from providing the usual complications and dramatics next weekend, they are also likely to define some clubs’ seasons. In the cup, it’s all about stayin’ alive beyond January and thus, the Six Nations as well.

"The return to European matters finds three Irish provinces leading their pools and thus never better placed to provide three Heineken Cup quarter-finalists for the first time. Munster are the only team with four wins from four – and all of them by six points or less – while Leinster are the only other unbeaten side."

December 31, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/31/2011

Predictions, predictions

Former England centre Will Greenwood offers some predictions for 2012 - on the domestic and international stage - in The Daily Telegraph.

"Precision, pace and dynamism everywhere that was built around a very solid set-piece. Jonathan Sexton looked as good as any fly-half on the planet and threw in a 45-metre dropped goal to cap his try. As always, Munster are in the mix, but my days of never doubting them are fading.

"Toulouse and Harlequins have produced an epic, I still love my Clermont boys while Saracens love being party-poopers. But for me, it’s Leinster to win it."

December 19, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/19/2011

Referees need to be handed warning

Referee Alain Rolland lectures Quins' team manager Grahame Bowerbank for playing the ball © Getty Images

The weekend’s Heineken Cup games were beset by the inconsistencies of referees, according to Daily Telegraph columnist Brian Moore.

"We should not get to the stage of other sports and blame them for all the ills of the game, but you have to say that at times the standard is simply not good enough.

"Take the eccentric performance of Alain Rolland during Harlequins’ thrilling 31-24 win at Toulouse. Early on Rolland watched a Toulouse forward pick up a Quins forward, drive him up and over a maul and drop him so he fell on his shoulder and neck.

"We know Rolland has a strict policy on dangerous play because he sent off Wales captain Sam Warburton for dropping Frenchman Vincent Clerc in a tackle in the Rugby World Cup.

"The Quins’ player was caused to fall from a greater height than Clerc but this time there was no yellow card, no red, not even a warning."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/19/2011

Upset masks two-tier Europe

Writing in The Times (via paywall), Mark Souster believes Quins' victory over Toulouse masks emergence of a two-tier Europe with England in the slow lane.

"Harlequins’ outstanding win in Toulouse yesterday lifted the mood of pessimism enveloping English clubs in the Heineken Cup — whether it signals a genuine revival in the country’s overall European fortunes or was simply a glorious one-off remains to be seen.

"After the first four rounds, the tournament is beginning to take shape and there did not seem to be a huge amount of festive cheer for the seven Aviva Premiership representatives. It may well be that only one, Saracens, makes it to the knockout stages. Nothing though is cut and dried, and Leicester and Harlequins still have realistic hopes of making the last eight. That said, the feeling still exists that it is not only on the political front that England is slightly out of step with the rest of Europe.

"The performances in general may be indicative of a post-World Cup malaise. Questions are once again being asked not only about the inequality in the tournament in terms of the annual battle for qualification, but also the handicap of the salary cap. Two years ago, when Northampton were the only team to make the quarter-finals, there was talk of that being a blip. It is perhaps more deep-seated than that."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/19/2011

Quins' credit rating rises

The Guardian's Rob Kitson reports from Harlequins' stunning Heineken Cup victory over Toulouse.

"Anglo-French political relations may be strained but no one could dispute Harlequins' glorious riposte to those who had lost faith in English clubs conquering Europe's wealthy elite this season. While Quins have been involved in several remarkable Heineken Cup contests in recent years, this was something else again. If rugby union indulged in credit ratings, Quins would once again be triple‑A material.

"It made a stunning change from the obituaries filed last week about England's tournament prospects. With Saracens in charge of Pool Five and Leicester defeating Clermont, there is life in the old bulldog yet. Only good sides defeat the French aristocrats on their own turf; only mentally tough ones can possibly recover from the serious beating they received at the hands of the same opponents nine days earlier. "It was the size of the heart against the size of the wallet and the heart won today," said Conor O'Shea, Quins' proud director of rugby."

December 18, 2011

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 12/18/2011

Season defining match

Wales Online's Gareth Griffiths talks to Scarlets boss Nigel Davies ahead of their huge clash with Munster.

"Scarlets coach Nigel Davies has labelled today’s Heineken Cup crunch clash against Munster as a potential defining moment in the region’s short history.

The Scarlets travel to a sellout 28,000 Thomond Park to face the mighty Munster, who have been crowned European champions on two occasions and won 17-14 in Llanelli in the first part of the double-header.

Davies believes it is time for his Scarlets side to come of age and make the transition from promising youngsters to serious contenders."

December 17, 2011

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 12/17/2011

Learning from your mistakes

Clermont's Morgan Parra gets to grips with Leicester's George Chuter © Getty Images

Will Greenwood, writing for the Daily Telegraph, looks at where the England club sides have failed in Europe.

"England’s big sides went out against the powerhouses of Europe and by and large they got mauled. There have been victories but no one can say they have stamped their authority on a group, and many of the sides we fancied have had their metaphorical trousers pulled down and been given a good spanking.

Last week Harlequins were schooled, Northampton battered, Leicester fed through a mincer. There were times in every match when the English sides looked as if they were the stronger, but those moments were fleeting. What I found most worrying was when the instances of genuine quality came, they tended to be reactive rather than proactive.

What this means is that when the key moments came, it was not the English sides who were dictating what happened, and that isn’t good enough if you want to win competitions. It is the step up in intensity and speed of thought that seems to be scuppering their efforts.

For me there were three prime examples of how they fell short."

December 16, 2011

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 12/16/2011

Vying for the same spot

The Daily Mail's Chris Foy talks to Saracens' Brad Barritt about his aspirations for both club and country.

"When Saracens face the Ospreys in Swansea, Owen Farrell will not be in the No 12 shirt that many expect him to wear for England. At the Aviva Premiership's champion club, that shirt belongs to Brad Barritt.

The Anglo-South African centre has made the place his own after three seasons of incredible consistency since moving from Durban to Hertfordshire.

When Charlie Hodgson arrived from Sale in the summer, it wasn't Barritt who shifted to accommodate him, it was Farrell."

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 12/16/2011

Have and have-nots

The Independent's Chris Hewett looks at the growing divide between the French clubs and the rest in the Heineken Cup.

"It has all the makings of a humdinger: Saracens, the English champions, travel to Swansea tonight for a Heineken Cup match with Ospreys, the strongest side in Wales, that will go a very long way towards deciding who qualifies automatically for the knock-out stage of the world's best club tournament. Unfortunately for those on the red-rose side of the Severn, there may not be many more humdingers ahead. Collectively speaking, the Premiership contingent are struggling badly in Europe, to the extent that 2011-12 may turn out to be 2009-10 revisited.

Two seasons ago, Northampton were the only English side to make the quarter-finals. It was, statistically as well as in every other sense, a low point for the professional club game in this country, so the growing threat of what might be called "cross-border calamity redux" is alarming indeed. Most alarmed of all are Northampton themselves, for they are already out of a competition that is only halfway through its pool phase. Bath, pioneering European spirits who broke new ground by winning the Heineken Cup in 1998, are on their last legs – defeat against Leinster, the holders, in Dublin tomorrow evening will end their campaign for another year – while Harlequins, the Premiership leaders, are by no means guaranteed to advance. Leicester, two-time champions? Ditto. As for Gloucester... let Bryan Redpath, the director of rugby at Kingsholm, tell it how it is."

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 12/16/2011

The eternal struggle

The Guardian's Paul Rees looks at the Ospreys' struggle to bring in the crowds.

"Ospreys ban fake tan" is one of the more enduring headlines of the season. It was not a flippant gesture but a statement of intent from a region who had spent millions on building a squad of international players, including expensive imports, but had seen little return in the Heineken Cup.

Coloured boots have gone the way of bogus tans for players who have not made 50 appearances for the Ospreys or won 15 caps. The policy of recruiting galácticos has been abandoned and, like Wales, the region are looking to blood young players with core values.

When Warren Gatland took charge of his first Wales international, in 2008, 13 of his starting line-up were Ospreys. That number had been reduced to four for October's World Cup quarter-final against Ireland and one of those, Shane Williams, has since retired from international rugby."

December 15, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/15/2011

Head-to-head records can be pivotal

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley previews a crunch weekend in the battle for this season's Heineken Cup.

"Whatever about completing back-to-back wins, it’s fairly imperative to emerge with a superior head-to-head record from the December rounds. In each of the last three seasons, all six pool winners and the two best runners-up have emerged from these games with a superior head-to-head record, be it match points, try tallies or points aggregate.

"In the last seven seasons, the only slight exception to this trend was in December ’07, when London Irish shared wins with Perpignan and won the pool by two points despite an inferior head-to-head record with the French side, based on tries scored over the two games. Even then though, Perpignan qualified with them as one of the two best runners-up. Similarly, Northampton traded wins but lost out to Toulouse on match points in 2004, but still qualified behind the French team as one of the best two runners-up.

"The back-to-back rounds were introduced along with the current format of six pools each comprising of four teams in the 1999-2000 season, with Munster grasping their importance in registering consecutive wins over Colomiers en route to earning a home quarter-final as pool winners and ultimately reaching the final, where they lost to Northampton.

"By contrast, although Leinster avenged their defeat in Paris to Stade Français at Donnybrook a week later, their inferior try tally enabled Stade to progress."

December 12, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/12/2011

Centurion O'Gara leads the way

Munster get over the line once more, but remain a team in transition, says the Irish Independent's Brendan Fanning.

"Having played more get out jail cards than are normally issued in the pool stages of the Heineken cup, Munster went to West Wales looking for the sort of performance that would not just give them control of Pool 1, but provide them with a confidence boost about their game in general.

"Last week scrumhalf Conor Murray was asked if it had been a good thing that they lost against a half-strength but feisty Ospreys side -- the question wasn't phrased quite like that -- on the basis that they got it out of their system. Offered the chance to ascribe the setback to a sort of bug that had to be flushed out, so better they do it in the Pro 12 than the Heineken, Murray gratefully toed the line and agreed. It was another get out of jail card, if you like. It's unlikely that the scrumhalf felt a week ago that his team had been cleansed by the experience.

"So this was about re-establishing themselves. The game in Swansea a week ago had been madcap and without structure, and the looser it became the more uncomfortable Munster looked. And what did we get in Llanelli? Another version of the same movie, albeit with a whole lot more entertainment. And the Munster fans got some reassurance about their set-piece, which was top of their wish-list."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/12/2011

Scarlets given Heineken Cup lesson

The Western Mail's Simon Thomas reflects on the Scarlets' Heineken Cup defeat to Munster.

"Having waited so long for a victory over Munster, the Scarlets will be all the more frustrated at having missed out on an opportunity to finally get the better of their bogey team.

"You have to go back to the Heineken Cup quarter-final at Stradey Park in April 2007 to find their last victory over the men from the south west of Ireland.

"Now the losing run has been extended to 13 games following Saturday’s Euro defeat – a result that has left Nigel Davies’ team facing an uphill struggle to make the knockout stages.

"Coach Davies was left to reflect on what might have been as he ran the rule over a contest which his charges could – and perhaps should – have won."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/12/2011

Mallinder backs Tom Wood for England captaincy

In the wake of his side's latest euro defeat, Northampton boss Jim Mallinder has backed his flanker Tom Wood for the England captaincy. The Guardian's Pau Rees reports.

"Jim Mallinder has in a few weeks gone from being favourite to lead England into the 2015 World Cup to having to salvage Northampton's season from the wreckage of a Heineken Cup campaign that is the exact opposite of a year ago, when the Saints had won three out of three.

"Defeat by mediocre opposition on Saturday left Saints at the bottom of their pool. Three victories in their remaining matches may be enough to secure a place in the Amlin Challenge Cup quarter-finals, but while just a few months ago Northampton appeared a model of stability compared with England, fault lines are appearing.

"The majority of their England players have yet to rediscover their zest of last season. The flanker Tom Wood is an exception but he followed the previous week's red card at Leicester with a trip to the sin-bin 18 minutes from the end. Wood saw yellow for encroaching as Castres rolled a maul on the Northampton 22."

December 11, 2011

Posted by Jonny McLeod on 12/11/2011

Irish excellence

The Irish provinces are once again the teams to beat in this season's Heineken Cup, according to Bath prop David Flatman Independent on Sunday.

This afternoon we at Bath take on mighty Leinster, the reigning Heineken Cup champions. The truth is that we have not quite hit our straps over the past few weeks so, despite being on our own patch, we go into the game as underdogs. Certainly I would expect the bookmakers to offer us relatively slim odds.

Such is the recent Irish dominance in European competition, these odds would be similar even if we were on top form. Leinster and Munster have become the new European rugby superpowers.

The reason the French teams did well was – and is – often put down to cash alone, and there is some mileage in this most basic theory. Their budgets are enormous and, consequently, their squads are flooded with high-end international players. One goes off, another comes on. This is tough to beat.

But the Irish provinces seem to thrive for different reasons and this, I think, is because they are set up to peak for the Heineken Cup. The Pro12 is a good competition littered with top-class players, but many of them don't play that often.

December 10, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/10/2011

'I'm not a rugby player, I'm a Munster rugby player'

The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly previews the latest Heineken Cup milestone for Munster's Ronan O'Gara.

"His commitment to the team is absolute and it is no surprise that the Heineken Cup final defeats of 2000 and '02 still rankle -- he wants another European crown to add his '06 and '08 medals.

"That's (medals won) not enough. We left two, well certainly one, Heineken Cup behind us. Winning is what you play for," said O'Gara this week. "I'll never leave Munster, not a chance. That's what makes me tick, the red jersey, playing for my club, with my friends. That's what I'm about. That's what defines me.

"I'm not a rugby player, I'm a Munster rugby player. When I do eventually retire that's what I'll be known as -- a one-club man. Being a part of this team very much helps in that regard. I have high standards but Paul O'Connell has maybe even higher standards than me. We drive each other on, all of us."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/10/2011

Another pressure-laden occasion looms

The Irish Times' John Sullivan previews Munster's latest euro date with the Scarlets.

"Ronan O'Gara commandeered the headlines by virtue of his drop goal heroics in Munster’s two Heineken Cup victories to date this season, a feat he would be content to replicate, not primarily for personal approbation, but if it was the precursor to a third consecutive win for the Irish province.

"This afternoon in Llanelli he’ll reach another milestone by becoming the second player – team-mate John Hayes was the first – to play 100 matches in the tournament. It’s a remarkable testament to longevity of excellence. In 13 years he’s been at the epicentre of many a triumph.

"As he stated in the build-up to the match the latest garland is something on which he’ll reflect when his playing days are past; his immediate focus is on driving his team to another win. It’ll be tough for a variety of reasons, some of which may be traced to Munster’s flawed performances in victory against the Northampton Saints and Castres Olympique; others attributable to the challenge that a rejuvenated Scarlets will muster."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/10/2011

Teams must exploit 'Fergie time'

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Will Greenwood believes Heineken Cup hopefuls must hold their concentration for the full 80 minutes.

"It’s called Fergie Time. Manchester United may not have managed it in the Champions League this week, but Sir Alex Ferguson’s sides so often manage a great escape when it comes to the final minutes. They understand that as the sands of time run out, the weight of expectation can all but crush those in the lead.

"Rugby is no different, even if the red zone comes after 80 minutes. The losing side have a desperation that makes them dangerous, and if you want proof of what can happen, then you only need to look at the first two rounds of the Heineken Cup when games and fortunes have turned around in ‘Fergie Time’.

"Go back a few Sunday afternoons, and Glasgow were behind at home to Bath. The clock ticked on, and they were going nowhere offensively. Fly-half Duncan Weir pulled back in the pocket for a speculative dropped goal. It was half charged down and if you had paused the moment there you would have seen there was no way Richie Gray, the Glasgow second row, should have got to it first. But that’s the beauty of ‘Fergie Time’ – it warps reactions and changes perceptions."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/10/2011

Barkley finds hope again

Bath's Olly Barkley emerges from dark times hoping to inspire victory over Leinster in Heineken Cup, the Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary reports.

"The manicured 140 acres, the landscaped gardens, the 17th century restored manor house, the hi-tech 3G pitch, the purpose-built gymnasium, Bath’s sumptuous headquarters at Farleigh House seemingly has it all, save for one thing: the kick-up-the-backside facility. The millions invested by owner Bruce Craig allied to the shrewd input of Sir Ian McGeechan have yet to bring tangible yield.

"On Sunday, defending Heineken Cup champions Leinster come to the Recreation Ground, the ground as brimful as it has been for three years with not a ticket to be had. Yet the locals are half-enthralled, half-fearful.

"Their team are maddeningly inconsistent. If they stumble as they did last weekend against Sale, throwing away a significant half-time advantage to lose at home, then it could get very messy. For all Bath’s riches and resources, the glory years are a memory rather than a prospect.

“We’re probably not deserving at the moment of what we have here,” said Olly Barkley, as frank as ever, admitting also that he was still some way short of match fitness after an eight month lay-off with a broken leg."

December 9, 2011

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 12/09/2011

All good things come to an end

Shaun Edwards, in his column for The Guardian, previews Harlequins toughest game this season as they prepare to face Toulouse on Friday evening.

"These are heady times at Harlequins. Fourteen wins on the bounce, by a long way the best start to a season by an English club, and on Friday night Toulouse are the visitors. Top of the Premiership versus top of the Top 14 and a chance that the traditional fortnight of back‑to‑back Heineken Cup rugby may kick off with an English win. Quins winning on the banks of the Garonne the following week is another matter.

First Harlequins must not be daunted by the aura that surrounds the French club. They may be the big moneybags of European rugby and they may be four‑times Heineken champions but, as Gloucester showed last month, if you get in their faces, they can be vulnerable. OK, Gloucester did not win but it took Clément Poitrenaud to make something from nothing for Toulouse to keep their home record. And Poitrenaud will not be around tonight at The Stoop."

Posted by Tom Hamilton on 12/09/2011

Ready for the aerial assault

Andy Howell, of the Western Mail, talks to Scarlets youngster Liam Williams as he prepares to face Ronan O'Gara.

"Liam Williams has done a Leigh Halfpenny and challenged Ronan O’Gara to pepper him with up-and-unders at Parc y Scarlets tomorrow.

Halfpenny issued his “bring it on” plea ahead of Wales’ World Cup quarter-final with Ireland in wet and windy New Zealand capital Wellington two months ago. And veteran outside-half O’Gara proceeded to have one of his worst games for the Emerald Isle as they crashed to a 22-10 defeat at the ‘Cake-tin’.

But exciting Scarlets full-back find Williams, who was in the Wales squad for last weekend’s Test with Australia, certainly won’t be taking Ireland and the Heineken Cup’s record points-scorer lightly when Munster pitch up at Llanelli.

“O’Gara has got a very good mix to his kicking game,” said the 21-year-old Wales Under-20 international. “He’s able to go long and hit grass but, if I’m back, he will put it up. I’m more than happy to take those balls."

December 7, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/07/2011

Heineken Cup quirk of fate

The top two teams in all six pools play each other twice before Christmas. But it could lead to dead games in January according to The Guardian's Rob Kitson.

"Perfect symmetry is rare in rugby union. Not this week. The middle fortnight of the Heineken Cup pool stages is always significant but the tournament is about to witness something unique. By a quirk of fate, the top two teams in all six pools will be playing each other home and away in rounds three and four. It is more than possible a number of pools will be virtually settled by Christmas.

"This is unusual to say the least. Traditionally, supporters are still sweating on pool winners entering the final minute of the final games in January. This time around six clubs – Scarlets or Munster, Edinburgh or Cardiff Blues, Leinster or Bath, Leicester or Clermont Auvergne, Saracens or Ospreys, and Toulouse or Harlequins – could secure near-certain quarter-final qualification way ahead of schedule if they achieve successive wins this weekend and next.

"It clearly remains a big "if". The beauty of Europe is that beating Toulouse, say, on a Friday night in south-west London is absolutely no guarantee of doing likewise on the banks of the river Garonne the following week. Last season six teams out of 24 managed to achieve a home-and-away double at this stage of the competition. The previous year it was seven. Would you bet on Bath beating Leinster home and away inside seven days? Thought not."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/07/2011

O’Gara goes from Stoop to conqueror

The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly previews Ronan O'Gara 100th Heineken Cup appearance for Munster against Scarlets.

"Munster's new coach Declan Kidney raised more than a few eyebrows in 1997 when he named his team to face Harlequins in London for the opening round of the Heineken Cup.

"Travelling to the Stoop was a daunting assignment by any standards, as Quins had a powerful side featuring world-renowned performers such as Will Carling, Keith Wood, Jason Leonard and Laurent Cabannes, but that did not stop Kidney giving a clutch of youngsters their European debuts.

"For Greg Tuohy, an athletic No 8 from Sunday's Well, it was to be his only taste of Heineken Cup action after a miffed Anthony Foley was restored to the back-row the following week against Cardiff.

"Tuohy's clubmates Conor Burke and John Lacey picked up a few more Heineken Cup caps each that season but were out of the frame by the time Munster made their breakthrough in 1999/2000.

"Other debutants, such as winger Anthony Horgan and flanker Alan Quinlan, would go on to experience long and productive Heineken Cup careers -- and then there was Ronan O'Gara."

November 21, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2011

Leinster fly as O'Gara lands it

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reflects on a dramatic Heineken Cup weekend for the Ireland's provinces.

"After landing a match-winning drop goal in overtime for the second successive game, against Castres in Toulouse, Ronan O’Gara could probably have floated home to Cork on Saturday night. In the event, fog in Cork obliged the squad’s charter flight to circle the city before being diverted to Dublin, though as Denis Fogarty suggested on board: “Let Rog land it. He can land anything.”

"So much for the theory that the weekend’s Heineken Cup activity couldn’t come close to matching the drama of the opening weekend. Not when O’Gara and Munster are around, and following on from the Scarlets’ irreverent bonus-point win at Northampton on Friday night, it sets up the first of the two back-to-back meetings between the Scarlets and Munster in Llanelli on Saturday, December 10th nicely indeed."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/21/2011

Spectre of Johnson hangs heavy over Leicester

The Guardian's Paul Rees reports from Leicester's Heineken Cup victory over Ulster.

"Out with the new and in with the old is a refrain being urged on Twickenham after the resignation of Martin Johnson as the England team manager. It has also been taken up by his former club, Leicester, as they achieved their first meaningful home victory of the season at a point in the campaign when they are usually defending an unbeaten ground record.

"They had been brittle in front of their own supporters but after Ulster led three times in the first half, at no stage for very long, the Tigers took control at forward. When Ben Youngs came on towards the end of the third quarter, the England scrum-half lifted the tempo and sharpened his side's focus.

"This was the old Tigers," said the Leicester director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, who, showing how wacky sport can be, was asked whether he thought he was in line to succeed Johnson, just a few weeks after he himself had been tipped for the sack. "We did just enough and left a good side with nowhere to go."

"The talk was mostly about Johnson, not least whether he would return to the club at which he spent his playing career, and who would replace him. "That job is far too soon for me," said Cockerill. "There are better qualified people than me around, like Jim Mallinder and Toby Booth."

November 20, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/20/2011

Lightning strikes twice for O'Gara

Action replay: Munster's Ronan O'Gara slots a match-winning drop goal against Castres © Getty Images

The Irish Times' John O'Sullivan reports from Munster's latest dramatic last-gasp Heineken Cup victory - this time against Castres.

"It was quite remarkable. Three seconds left on the game clock and Ronan O'Gara dropped back into the pocket just inside the Castres 10 metre line as his forwards sought extra inches and some 20 seconds later the Munster outhalf stuck a delightful drop goal for the second time in the space of a week to ensure a Munster victory.

"Last weekend at Thomond Park it took 41 phases to engineer a position against the Northampton Saints. Tonight in the Stade Ernest Wallon, there wasn't quite the same nerve fraying preamble but the outcome was no less enjoyable for the travelling supporters.

"O'Gara's strike was delightful and within a second of making contact with the ball he wheeled away with his hand in the air. Referee Wayne Barnes waited a little while longer to confirm the score and then blew his whistle for a second time to signal the end of the match.

"The Munster outhalf's ability to function under extreme pressure, to carry the weight, expectation and aspirations of his team on his shoulders and to unerringly deliver is extraordinary. It was at best a fitful performance from the visitors but once again they demonstrated the aptitude to find a solution."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/20/2011

Game of the year? More like match of the decade

The Scotland on Sunday's Iain Morrison reflects on Edinburgh's stunning Heineken Cup victory over Racing Metro at Murrayfield.

"C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.” That was Général Pierre Bosquet’s comment on the charge of the Light Brigade. You could say something similar about Friday evening’s extraordinary match at Murrayfield, although this time the light brigade in the home ranks scored a terrific win over Racing Metro’s stellar array of big guns.

"In 2015 a TV producer in a London studio will most likely sit down and compile the best bits of the first 20 years of the Heineken Cup and will somehow have to cut this match down to 45 seconds or so. I don’t envy him because there were approximately 80 minutes of highlights on offer. “You won’t see a better match all year,” Michael Bradley said to a crowd of journalists the like of which is usually found only when there is a free drink on offer. I hate to disagree with him but you won’t find a better match all decade."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/20/2011

Donald ignores the hype

Rugby World-Cup winner Stephen Donald is keen to play part in Bath's return to the glory days. The Sunday Telegraph's Steve James reports.

"His sudden summons from fishing on the Waikato River is a wonderfully alluring story but it does not automatically mean Donald is now the panacea to Bath’s problems.

"It is a point made by the humble Donald himself. “I don’t get carried away with all the hype in the press world,” he says, “I’m no star attraction.

"There’s the English captain [well, Lewis Moody was England captain before retirement], and people like that, so they are the stars. I’m just slipping in the back door.”

"But, of course, there will be many thinking very differently, because the trouble is that Bath, once serial winners, have been military medium for too long now."

November 19, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/19/2011

Galacticos aplenty as Toulouse hit Galway

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley previews Toulouse's visit to Connacht in the Heineken Cup.

"The day of reckoning is at hand, and as 100th games in Europe go, Connacht’s big day is becoming bigger by the day. Sure enough, as befits a game that will be graced by both the Taoiseach and the newly elected President, the four-time Heineken Cup winners, Toulouse, will also mark the occasion by bringing all their galacticos, including recently crowned World Player of the Year Thierry Dusautoir.

"Guy Noves has made 10 changes to the team which went through the motions a little in eventually overcoming Gloucester at home last week, but then again he can afford to. For as also befits the premier outfit in European club rugby, their annual budget is €26 million – by the sharpest of contrasts, Connacht’s is estimated at €3 million."

November 18, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2011

North in ascendancy

North is a hot property following an outstanding Rugby World Cup campaign © Getty Images

Scarlets' George North struggles to evade the limelight after superb Rugby World Cup showing with Wales. The Daily Telegraph's Steve James reports.

"Last weekend George North was nervous before the Scarlets’ home match against Castres. It was his Heineken Cup debut after all.

"Nothing unusual in such emotions, except that not many players take such a bow at 19 years old, with 15 international caps, seven of them at a Rugby World Cup where he was picked in many pundits’ team of the tournament, already in the personal cabinet.

“It’s been a nuts year,” North confesses. Indeed it has. A year ago he was on only a development contract at the Scarlets, earning peanuts, when he was summoned to play against South Africa at the Millennium Stadium. He duly scored two tries, and so began a remarkable story that not even shoulder surgery after his third cap (against New Zealand) last autumn could scupper.

"Sometimes, though, fast steep climbs can shock young minds. Not on the pitch, where North was a stunning man of the match against Castres and continues to amaze with his influence upon matches, but off it where North is not entirely comfortable with the attention he is receiving."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2011

Young stand-off shuns the limelight

Edinburgh prospect Harry Leonard will continue his rise against Racing Metro tonight but insists he’s no star yet, writes The Scotsman's David Ferguson.

"The most animated Harry Leonard gets during a chat in Edinburgh is when it is suggested that he is among a group of young men beginning to light up Scottish rugby.

"Up until that point, he’d been a fairly relaxed interviewee, looking back on his life so far from childhood in Brighton to the Heineken Cup, via Prestonpans, the long grass of Meggetland and training sessions with All Black Dan Carter.

"It was all very convivial but, the suggestion he was a rising star, brought the teenager out of his chair.

"No, no, no, you can’t say that,” said the 19-year-old, with a stare. “I’m not the latest ‘star’. Not in the slightest. I’ve only played three games, four hopefully this week and, hopefully, five next week. I just keep looking to the next job, next training session and next game.”

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/18/2011

Flavin stepping out of the shadows

At 32, Connacht hooker Adrian Flavin is hoping to catch Declan Kidney's eye during the province's Heineken Cup adventure, he tells the Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly.

"The heavy clouds, wind and rain may have painted a different picture yesterday, but this is Connacht's week in the sun. The Heineken Cup... Toulouse... the Sportsground ... you would never have joined those dots a few years ago, but Connacht's 'Jim'll Fix It' dream is about to become reality.

"The province has never known such attention. Media requests are flooding in, with Ireland internationals Gavin Duffy, Mike McCarthy and John Muldoon in heavy demand, along with young centre Eoin Griffin -- whose rise to prominence has earned him the tag of 'Grico' from a squad who do not allow anyone to lose the run of themselves.

"And that is the ethos of Connacht. This is no place for superstar notions or unchecked egos. It is a haven of hard work and unheralded aspiration, a home for the lesser lights of the Irish professional game, men who have toiled away for years in the shadows and are now ready to step into the glare."

November 14, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2011

Looking for a last-ditch winner? Call Rog

Munster's Ronan O'Gara celebrates his match-winning drop goal at Thomond Park © Getty Images

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reports from Munster's last-gasp Heineken Cup victory over Northampton at Thomond Park.

"Stand Up and Fight, and Until the Final Bell indeed. In a tournament that pours out the drama as if on tap (though you could never bottle it) no team has patented last-ditch dramatics, especially at their Thomond Park fortress, more than Munster, while no player in the game’s history has assumed this responsibility more than Ronan O’Gara – and no one has delivered more than the Cork maestro.

"However, at the summit of a pulsating weekend, even by theirs and his standards this was a bit special. With 77 minutes gone and a scrum inside the Northampton half, Munster were trailing in a cracking contest by 21-20.

"Not only were their Heineken Cup prospects seriously imperiled, but coming after last season’s failure and the Challenge Cup defeat to Harlequins, so too was the mystique they’d built up with a home record second to none.

"The fat lady was clearing her throat and not for the first time, Munster were staring into the abyss. But it’s when they stare into that abyss that Munster find themselves. To witness that 41-phase drive which culminated in O’Gara’s 40 metre-plus drop goal was to behold something that almost defied belief. You get goosebumps just thinking about it."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2011

Gray makes most of an unexpected twist in plot

The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports from Glasgow's dramatic Heineken Cup victory over Bath at Firhill.

"After a turbulent week for the young lock, Richie Gray emerged as Glasgow’s match-winner by scoring a stunningly bizarre try with the last act of this game to cap an historic weekend for Scottish rugby.

"The 22-year-old, who announced last week that he had agreed a move to Sale next summer, was first to the bouncing ball in the last seconds after Duncan Weir’s attempted drop-goal was deflected and then bounced backwards over the head of Bath full-back Nick Abendanon ten metres from the posts.

"Gray’s nearest challenger was the equally impressive Warriors flanker Rob Harley, but the 6ft 9in second row’s reach claimed the ball and he was then driven over the line as his and Harley’s force combined with that of despairing Bath tacklers.

"French referee Christophe Berdos went to the television match official, which only delayed confirmation of what everyone in Firhill knew, but Gray’s leap of delight when the whistle sounded sent the 4,000-plus support delirious."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/14/2011

Farrell must get a call up

The Daily Express' Steve Bale was impressed with the performance of Owen Farrell in Saracens' opening Heineken Cup victory over Treviso.

"Owen Farrell is far from the only Saracen worth England’s attention, if only there was anyone to give him or anyone else any attention at a time when there is a Six Nations squad to work out ready for the new year.

"Instead, English rugby is in a vacuum as well as torment, so another worthy showing by Farrell in yesterday’s uncomplicated bonus-point Heineken Cup opener in Watford against the outgunned Italian ‘superclub’ went largely unremarked – unless someone relevant was watching on TV.

"Farrell, 20, is the Premiership’s player of the month and was last night’s man of the match.

"He has his supporters for immediate inclusion among the next England selection, whoever makes it, along the lines of a number of Welsh players who flourished at the World Cup when Warren Gatland had the courage of his convictions."

November 11, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/11/2011

The West's awake to new possibilities

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reports as Connacht prepare to make their Heineken Cup debut.

"f Connacht feel any sense of due toward Leinster for their backdoor route towards their long-awaited debut in the Heineken Cup this season, they are entitled to quickly park it. Leinster and the other Irish provinces, under the IRFU umbrella, have long since owed Connacht one after decades of institutionalised bullying and maltreatment.

"Now though, after the Sword of Damacles hung over Connacht for almost a decade, under the more enlightened leadership of Tom Grace and others, the IRFU have removed the moratorium on longterm contracts and given the province and their newly-formed and progressive Professional Game Board (PGB) their full backing.

"However, for the PGB to make tangible progress in the badly-needed redevelopment of the Sportsground, Connacht needed the Heineken Cup after 16 years on the outside as the poor relations of Irish rugby. Cue the newly-built Clan Terrace. Just like that.

"Now too, the players and supporters no longer feel like the pariahs of European rugby. So it was that they reacted with such undiluted glee to meeting the ultimate European powerhouse, Toulouse, for Connacht couldn’t have asked for a more attractive fixture around which to shape their season-ticket, marketing and ground redevelopment strategies."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/11/2011

McGahan calls on Munster to raise the bar

The Irish Independent reports as Munster prepare to launch their latest assault on the Heineken Cup.

"For the first time since the tournament began 16 years ago, Munster will run out without an Anthony Foley, Alan Quinlan or David Wallace in their team, and last season's pool exit has eroded the air of impregnability and inevitability that habitually accompanies the province's European outings in Limerick.

"Northampton fancy their chances of emptying Munster in this one, as do some bookmakers, and a low-key build-up amid talk of a tickets flying around the province seeking takers has created a certain degree of first-day uncertainty ahead of their European opener.

"Coach Tony McGahan knows exactly what is at stake. Defeat would place his side under inordinate pressure heading to Castres the following week, with qualification immediately hanging in the balance. It is a tough station.

"Defeat by Leinster last Friday did not engender confidence, but there was enough in that match to suggest that Munster are not too far off where they need to be. McGahan is well aware of the pluses and minuses going into Saturday's clash."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/11/2011

It's hard to look beyond Northampton

Writing in The Guardian, Shaun Edwards believes it could be Northampton's turn to get the better of Munster in the Heineken Cup.

"A tough old group, which is hard on the young Scarlets team that probably does not have enough up front. Perhaps in another year, but it's hard to look beyond Northampton, who came within 40 minutes of winning the Heineken Cup last time, and Munster, the two-times winners who have bags of pedigree. They know each other well and this time it's Northampton's turn to go away from home first up and Thomond still has that aura about it, even if Harlequins did dent Munster's pride last season. That said, this is the group where anyone can beat anyone on their day and while Castres don't often get out of the pool stages themselves, they frequently have a say in who does and, despite going off the boil a bit in the past couple of weeks, are still third in the Top 14."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/11/2011

New stars, old warriors to the fore

The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary previews this season's Heineken Cup.

"The Heineken Cup adds colour to the canvas, intensity and vibrancy on the field of play, noise and passion around it. Given that we’ve already had the season’s climax in the Rugby World Cup, it is only right that the Heineken Cup should show that it too can hit a few sweet spots. There is a raft of new stars to follow, principally Wales's thrilling young World Cup brigade, but taking in battle-hardened warriors such as Toulouse’s Thierry Dusautoir or Biarritz’s Imanol Harinordoquy is never a task to cause regret.

"English and French clubs in particular relish participation for the simple reason there is no guarantee that they will qualify. For once, that feeling will be shared by the opposition at the Stoop this evening when Connacht, for too long seen as the country cousins of Irish rugby, take their bow in the Heineken Cup by dint of Leinster winning last season’s tournament.

"What is true for Connacht will also hold good for Harlequins. Old-stagers they might be but, burnished by ‘Bloodgate’ three seasons ago, it has taken them until now to reclaim the status lost that day. The manner of the narrow quarter-final defeat to Leinster in April 2009 triggered a period of calamity for Quins. Controversially, they were allowed to compete in the following season’s Heineken Cup. It was a pyrrhic triumph, for Harlequins lost all six pool games, slumping also in the Premiership and having to work their way back through the Amlin Challenge Cup."

November 10, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/10/2011

Munster and Northampton renew fierce rivalry

The Irish Independent previews the eagerly-anticipated Heineken Cup clash between Munster and Northampton.

"It's the tie-breaker. Munster and Northampton have met four times in the Heineken Cup and have two wins apiece in a well-contested rivalry that sees Munster just 12 points ahead on aggregate (80-68).

"It adds an extra spice to Saturday's Pool One encounter at Thomond Park (the venue for both of Munster's wins in this fixture) -- and it is not as if this particular rivalry is short on flavour.

"Their previous meetings have been sparky affairs, dating back to the final in 2000, when Munster felt Mick Galwey was unfairly sin-binned, through to their next encounter in Franklin's Gardens nine years later, when the visitors felt referee Christophe Berdos should have brandished yellow for persistent Saints infringement.

"The return clash at Thomond was another fractious affair, as was the quarter-final at the same venue, when Northampton unwisely talked themselves up in the build-up, predictably provoking a furious Munster response when the contest began."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/10/2011

Beating World Cup hangovers

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Brian Moore believes the sides that manage to shrug off the excesses of the World Cup will spearhead the challenge for the Heineken Cup.

"Whatever disappointments came from northern hemisphere sides in the World Cup, fans can find succour in the world’s best club rugby competition. While excitement is guaranteed; who will shine is altogether less certain.

"Irrespective of when they exited or how well or poorly they played, those players who went to the World Cup will vary in their performances in the Heineken Cup.

"It will not be lack of effort or application, but they were so focused on the World Cup that it is almost impossible for them to simply switch into club mode. Whichever sides’ stars find their form first will go a long way to deciding the crucial first few pool games. This is significant because as only one team per pool is guaranteed to progress, a bad start could be irredeemable.

"For example, will the French internationals be buoyed by knowing they pushed the world champions right to the edge or will they carry residual disaffection from knowing they could, possibly should, have won on that day?"

November 2, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 11/02/2011

ERC targets growth beyond Europe

Writing for the Irish Times, Gerry Thornley reports from the latest launch for this season's Heineken Cup.

"The Heineken Cup has a low, if improving profile, in the Southern Hemisphere, and on foot of French sides moving matches beyond their country’s boundaries on the continent, McGrath cites Saracens’ decision to host Biarritz in round five next January in Cape Town.

“It’s their initiative but we’re thrilled with it,” admitted McGrath. “The Heineken Cup doesn’t have the penetration it could have but its awareness is building. And what’s important is that less is more, so that when we expose it we want it to be something of value.”

“When we looked at going to South Africa, we wanted it to be a good quality product and we took the view that commercially it makes a load of sense. At that time, that match would be shown live in South Africa anyway, so why not take the product there? But way beyond that, and the commercial interests of ourselves and Saracens, we had discussions with the FFR (French), the RFU, with the South African rugby union and with the IRB, with the clubs themselves.”

This landmark fixture will expose the tournament beyond live television and, given the smaller time differences, South Africa is the most fruitful market for the ERC in the southern hemisphere."

June 10, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 06/10/2011

Heineken Cup Final could be worth more than €25m

The decision by the ERC to bridge a 10-year gap by staging the 2013 Heineken Cup final in the Aviva Stadium is likely to generate around €25 million for the local economy. The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reports.

"This estimate is based in large part on economic impact studies of the biennial Six Nations games between Ireland and England in Dublin, which the IRFU have been tracking since 1997: last March the figure for the economic impact, primarily in Dublin, was over €51 million.

"The IRFU estimates that the big international and provincial matches generate more than €200 million for the economy, which is almost certainly a conservative figure. Indeed, union chief executive Philip Browne reckons the 2013 final may generate “significantly more” than €25 million.

“At least 40 per cent of the tickets are sold in advance of knowing who the finalists are and a significant proportion of those tickets are sold in the UK, with a lesser proportion sold in France and Ireland. It could well be that you could have more people travelling to Dublin for a Heineken Cup final, depending on the teams, than you’d have for a Six Nations game."

May 28, 2011

Posted by Mark Doyle on 05/28/2011

Sexton is becoming the perfect 10 just in time for World Cup

In his weekly column in The Independent, former England boss Brian Ashton hails Jonathan Sexton's performance in last weekend's Heineken Cup final.

"After another punishing season of Premiership activity, I am quite willing to believe that fatigue played its part, especially as Leinster had been able to rest one or two individuals in the run-up. Even so, the Dubliners' metamorphosis was remarkable.

"Technically speaking, their first-half performance resembled that of an indifferent school side – the Under-14 B team sounds about right – yet after the break they were their formidable, overwhelming-on-all-fronts selves.

"Much has been made of Brian O'Driscoll's influence, but they now have something else working in their favour, off the field as well as on it: the Jonny Sexton factor. The outside-half is fast maturing into a genuine commander – certainly, Northampton could not live with the breadth and variation at the heart of his game – and, given the outstanding performances we have seen from him in recent high-profile matches, Ireland's forthcoming World Cup campaign should be very interesting indeed."

May 25, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/25/2011

Number crunching

Gerry Thornley meets the European Player of the Year, Sean O'Brien, and runs through some pretty impressive stats in The Irish Times.

"In starting all nine of Leinster’s Heineken Cup games, O’Brien played the first four at number six, the next two at eight and the three knockout games at seven, scoring four tries and picking up three man-of-the-match awards, and even before his storming performance in the final, he led the Opta rankings as the tournament’s top-performing attacking and defensive player.

"O’Brien had made more carries (115) than any other player, as well as more metres than any other forward. The 24-year-old had also beaten 19 defenders, a competition high by any back or forward, before taking that into the 20s in the final, prior to which only Joe Worsley (90) had made more tackles than O’Brien (84)."

May 24, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/24/2011

Building blocks

David Kelly plots the developments that have created the Leinster that we know today in The Irish Independent.

"It has taken only a decade but Leinster have constructed an empire. Two Heineken Cup wins in three years -- it could easily have been a hat-trick but for injury last season -- frank their status as the kings of Europe.

"Good teams win Europe's premier competition once. Great teams win it twice -- and more. When Toulouse lifted their second crown on Irish soil in 2003, many within Irish rugby were already meekly accepting that theirs would be a supporting act for the so-called giants of European rugby.

"Instead, Munster forged a path that Ireland and Leinster have followed. Seemingly insurmountable obstacles, whether French budgets that soar beyond €20m, or the vastly superior playing numbers boasted by England, have been spectacularly vaulted."

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/24/2011

Level playing field?

Mick Cleary reflects on Leinster's Heineken Cup triumph and the 'level playing field' debate in The Daily Telegraph.

"A game too far? No, half a game too far. But the drop-off was immediate and telling. We all rushed to acclaim this as the greatest of all Heineken Cup finals.

"Yes, we did have the rolling back of the stone by Leinster as they rose from the seeming dead. And, yes, in the all-consuming play of fly-half Jonathan Sexton we had an individual performance to rank with the finest that there has been.

"But the contest, which has appeared to be Northampton’s by half-time, was over by the hour mark. There was little drama in the eventual outcome, no late shifts in the scoreboard, no real uncertainty. The turn-around was that swift, that emphatic and that decisive."

May 23, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/23/2011

Leinster's epic continental shift

Leinster celebrate their latest Heineken Cup success © Getty Images

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reflects on Leinster's Heineken Cup triumph over Northampton at the Millennium Stadium.

"Never mind rugby, this was an epic comeback in any sporting context and if anybody in the Leinster machine recorded their ten-minute interval crisis management, they could release it and make a mint. Greg Feek having taken the pack through a DVD of their first-half scrum problems on his laptop, Jonny Sexton, sporting anorak that he is, had the presence of mind to cite Liverpool’s comeback from 3-0 down to Milan in the 2005 Champions League final in Istanbul during his animated rallying call.

"Brian O’Driscoll described him as like a man possessed during the interval, and thereafter Sexton played like one too. Those of us hailing him as the best outhalf in Europe had been given the most compelling proof on the most perfect of stages.

"Thus, this was the best final, best final comeback and the best individual performance in a final all wrapped up in one game. But for Sexton’s performance, on any anything resembling a normal day, Seán O’Brien would have walked off with the bubbly, though starting with the lap of honour, that was not in short supply."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/23/2011

Sexton the Irish captain in waiting

In his column for the Irish Independent, George Hook hails Leinster's match-winner Jonathan Sexton.

"Much will be made of the half-time discussion in the dressing-room that supposedly changed the course of the match. The reality was that Jonny Sexton had assumed leadership of the side long before the break. As his dejected colleagues gathered behind the posts after conceding another soft try, it was the fly-half that took control.

"Like O'Driscoll, Sexton leads by example. On Saturday, the future captaincy of Ireland moved from No 8 to No 10. Joe Schmidt had a dream team to work with, a group awash with individuals that can stand up and be counted in a crisis."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/23/2011

20 steps to Euro glory

The Irish Independent's David Kelly plots Leinster's path to Heineken Cup glory.

"...Meet Joe Schmidt - He admitted once again the other day that he feared the sack after a horrendous opening month. Once he began to understand the unique tenor of Irish rugby, he was unstoppable in providing direction and inspiration to his willing cohort of intelligent players. His calm assuredness at half-time in what was hitherto a disastrous final was key.

"Drico inks it - Last February, O'Driscoll's decision to extend his IRFU contract was one of the crucial junctures in stabilising the Leinster unit, ensuring that both Jamie Heaslip and Jonathan Sexton would echo their talisman's significant endorsement of the new coaching regime. Ending the issue after the completion of the pool stages ensured that idle speculation would not detract from the side's unswerving focus."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/23/2011

One masterful scrum

Daily Telegraph columnist Brian Moore believes that one "masterful" scrum was enough to break Northampton's spirit in the Heineken Cup Final.

"The Leinster pack shoved Tonga’uiha et al nearly 10 yards and the weapon that had subjugated Leinster was rendered obsolete; the effect on the morale of the whole Northampton team was devastating.

"This reversal of fortunes was caused not by altered front-row tactics, but because Northampton’s back row assumed Leinster would settle for static ball and their flankers stood up to see from where might come the attack. In the first half, all eight of their pack had committed to driving, but with an early score conceded and the tide of momentum threatening to build against them, they assumed wrongly. Whoever called the hold-and-drive at that scrum for Leinster deserves enormous credit because it was a tactical masterstroke.

"From then on, Leinster cut Northampton to shreds and the East Midlands side lacked the experience to halt the tide. After nearly 18 minutes, during which Northampton had almost no possession and Leinster had scored 17 points to take the lead, fly-half Stephen Myler kicked the ball back to Leinster. The rest, as they say, is history."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/23/2011

O'Driscoll digs deepest

Writing in The Independent, Chris Hewett reflects on the impact made by a 'half-fit' Brian O'Driscoll during Leinster's amazing Heineken Cup triumph over Northampton.

""Old age takes away from us what we have inherited and gives us what we have earned." If Brian O'Driscoll, the one indisputably great player in modern-day European rugby, had done nothing else during the course of the finest Heineken Cup final in a decade – in the event, he did pretty much everything, ranging from the dramatically good to the desperately poor via the profoundly indifferent – he proved the truth of that maxim. There were any number of reasons why Northampton lost themselves in storm-tossed seas after reaching the mid-point of the contest with the harbour in clear view, but O'Driscoll was the rock on which they foundered."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/23/2011

Five reasons Leinster turned the tables

Tactical changes introduced at half-time laid the foundation for Leinster's Heineken Cup victory but the Irish side's experience was also critical, according to The Guardian's Paul Rees.

"Northampton defied their stereotype from the off. When James Downey received the ball after 30 seconds, Leinster would have expected him to run at Gordon D'Arcy. Instead, he stepped away from his opposite number. The Saints were physical but they opted less for pick-and-go and more for pace and width. Ben Foden was influential and Stephen Myler played with his head up, running past Sean O'Brien to create his side's second try. Leinster were sucked into a game for which they were not prepared. Their back row was based on bulk rather than pace and they were turned over six times in the first 35 minutes. Shane Jennings's introduction at openside flanker helped to plug turnovers and O'Brien, hapless at No7, became hugely influential on the blind side. Northampton had their platform kicked away and Leinster, keeping hold of the ball, dictated the pace."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/23/2011

O'Driscoll is the bee's knees

Northampton can only imagine what would have happened if Leinster talisman Brian O’Driscoll had been at his “finest”, according to the Daily Express' Steve Bale.

"Northampton saw less than the best of Brian O’Driscoll in the Heineken Cup final but this peerless player - through force of personality as much as his boundless prowess - is good enough even on one leg.

"Ireland fly-half Jonathan Sexton was the obvious Leinster match-winner and, with his two tries and 28 points – and rousing half-time revivalism – a meritorious man of the match.

"But would it have happened, would Northampton have disintegrated from their 22-6 interval lead to this defeat, without O’Driscoll metaphorically taking hold of the game and reshaping it in his own image, as is his wont? No way."

May 22, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/22/2011

Crestfallen Saints

Leinster savour success while Saints suffer in defeat © Getty Images

Steve James in the Sunday Telegraph delivers his verdict on Leinster's thrilling Heineken Cup final victory over Northampton in Cardiff.

"The scenes at the end told the story in graphic detail. Every Northampton player slumped to the ground. Many of them were in tears. The despondency was almost tangible. They were broken physically and mentally.

"There is losing, and then there is losing when you have been utterly dominant for half of the game. And Northampton had been utterly dominant. They had led 22-6 at the break. Every scrummage had been a car crash for the Irishmen. Even when Northampton’s prop Brian Mujati was sin-binned, a seven-man effort was far too much for them as they were trundled backwards for some 20m at an embarrassing rate of knots. At that stage of the first half, that Northampton could lose was thoroughly inconceivable."

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/22/2011

Super Blues

Leinster have joined the list of European rugby greats after their remarkable comeback in the Heineken Cup final against Northampton on Saturday, according to Peter Bills in the Irish Independent

"To win the Heineken Cup is one thing. But to do it in less than 40 minutes is something else entirely.

"Leinster did it in Cardiff yesterday, clinching their second Heineken Cup in three years. And in doing so, they entered the pantheon of the Heineken greats, true champions whose exploits had sane men and women standing on their feet, roaring and shaking with excitement.

"This was a classic, almost certainly the greatest comeback in Heineken Cup history, especially in a final. From the depths of half-time despair at 22-6 down to the dancing delight of a compelling 33-22 victory and that champagne moment, Leinster showed themselves worthy champions.

"In footballing terms, it was Liverpool v AC Milan in the Champions League final all over again. Milan, 3-0 up at the break, were stunned and shocked that Istanbul night by Liverpool's roaring comeback in 2005. It was a similar tale at Cardiff yesterday."

May 21, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/21/2011

The bite of the underdogs

Northampton skipper Dylan Harltey lines up with Leinster captain Leo Cullen ahead of the Heineken Cup final © Getty Images

Leinster head into this afternoon's Heineken Cup final in Cardiff as favourites, according to former England and Bath head coach Brian Ashton in the Independent. But he believes Northampton can draw on their underdog status.

"The most intriguing question surrounds Northampton's ability to hit the ground running, mentally as well as physically, following last weekend's bruising defeat. Have the scars healed? They were out on their feet at the end of the Leicester game and little wonder, given the enormous pressure they were forced to absorb and the huge tackling load they found themselves carrying. Add the post-match distractions preying on the minds of the players and it's clear the coaching staff have had their work cut out.

"If I'm right in my suspicion that Northampton go into their final with Leinster as slight underdogs, they can draw on it: when you're cast as outsiders, why not use it as a two-fingered, up-yours motivational tactic? But they must take a positive approach. If semi-finals are notorious for generating an all-embracing restrictive mentality, finals should always have a sense of anticipation and potential enjoyment about them. They offer an opportunity to puff out the chest and show real courage in all its facets.

"Neither Northampton nor Leinster will be found wanting for courage in the physical sense. It is mental courage that is likely to be the key factor. There will have been much talk in the rival camps of bringing everything to the table today, of not leaving ammunition locked up in the armoury. But who can translate the message into action most effectively amid the hurly-burly and the hostility?"

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/21/2011

Judgement Day

Hugh Farrelly offers his take on the European Cup showdown in Cardiff in the Irish Independent.

"Judgment Day. That's according to Harold Camping, a former civil engineer from California (where else?) whose Bible studies have convinced him that Armageddon is upon us today and has won over thousands of followers to the same way of thinking.

"On May 21, 2011, two events will occur," says Camping. "One will be more wonderful than can be imagined; the other more horrific than can be imagined. A great earthquake will occur, so powerful it will throw open all graves. The remains of all the believers will be glorified... the bodies of all unsaved people will be thrown out upon the ground to be shamed."

"So, there you go. Against this backdrop, the result of a rugby match, even one as important as the Heineken Cup final, appears inconsequential.

"That being said, after all they have been through to get to this point, defeat for either Leinster or Northampton this evening (kick-off 5.0) is bound to seem like the end of the world."

May 19, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/19/2011

Dream Team

Hugh Farrelly selects his all time Leinster Heineken Cup XV in The Irish Independent.

"The advent of the Heineken Cup coincided roughly with the dawn of professionalism in 1995 and the role of the Irish province changed irrevocably.

"Rugby has been constantly evolving in the 16 years since, to the point where the game is significantly different in style even compared to the last Heineken Cup final Leinster played in two years ago. Imagine then, the differences between rugby today and the game that confronted Ollie Campbell's Leinster team in the 1980s, Bill Mulcahy's in the 1960s or Jammie Clinch in the 1920s."

May 18, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/18/2011

Sexton central from the start this time

The Irish Times Johnny Watterson talks to Leinster's Jonathan Sexton about how much has changed since he replaced Felipe Contepomi late in the 2009 Heineken campaign.

"Brought into the Leinster team at the semi-final stage after Felipe Contepomi had spannered his knee, Sexton was the 23-year-old rookie who carried the freight of great promise but little weight of experience or guile for a European final. That they were facing Leicester, proven dogs of war around Europe, drew the image of Sexton the gladiator rising up from the bowels in the lift to the Coliseum, the gates bursting open to be faced by a guy with half an ear and swinging a spiked iron ball at his head.

"As if Hollywood had a hand here too, Sexton’s contribution was bookended by insouciantly kicking a spectacular drop goal from the halfway line as well the winning penalty. No mistakes.

"This week he remains the same unflappable figure. But in two years he has advanced aeons and is central to Leinster’s cause. Coaches and players now demand from him. They expect him to control tempo, kick territory, bang over the points, lots of points. Sexton’s dynamic with the team has drastically changed."

May 17, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/17/2011

Thirst for more

David Kelly talks to Brian O'Driscoll, who is desperate to help Leinster into the ranks of Europe's elite this weekend, in The Irish Independent.

"Brian O'Driscoll was looking forward to spending Saturday afternoon in front of the TV. But that was not necessarily how it ultimately panned out.

"Instead of wallowing languorously on the couch as his beloved Manchester United eased to a record league title triumph, Leinster's talisman had to sit bolt upright with his swollen knee swaddled for protection.

"He may have punched the air in delight when United's ascent to English football's perch was confirmed but he dared not dance a jig. Besides, as he watched Alex Ferguson immediately project his mind from this success to Barcelona, so too were O'Driscoll's thoughts already drifting elsewhere."

May 16, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/16/2011

A bit lippy

London Irish's Bob Casey gives some insider details of the challenge posed by Northampton in The Irish Times.

"But there is so much more, not least in the ethos of the club. Director of rugby Jim Mallinder and forwards coach Dorian West champions old-school virtues: the team plays hard, celebrates with a few beers and are a tight-knit bunch. They can be a bit lippy and full of themselves – not yet backed up by silverware – and they wouldn’t win any awards for popularity. To some extents they are a product of their hinterland.

"Northampton wouldn’t be the most picturesque town – the surrounding countryside is breathtaking with stunning scenery and well-heeled enclaves – and there isn’t a vast array of amenities. Players tend to congregate together socially. Rugby is the main sport and the Saints are idolised. There is plenty of interaction with supporters down to the fact they’d be discussing what’s in a player’s trolley at the supermarket."

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/16/2011

All set up for a mugging

Hugh Farrelly previews the Heineken Cup final, where Leinster will be guarding against a bite from the underdogs, in The Irish Independent.

"It's all set up for a mugging. Northampton slip into Cardiff later this week as unfashionable underdogs, portrayed as a hard-working side with a dash of flair pitted against a superior force with stars in every position -- an easy psychological trigger for coach Jim Mallinder to press.

"Then there is the Romain Poite factor. It is hard to think of another referee better suited to Northampton's style of play, and the Saints will be delighted if the game breaks up into a pernickety procession of penalties, hindering Leinster's ability to find their flow.

"Without the squad resources of their opponents, Northampton are pretty battered after the long season, but that was the case in 2000 also, when they still found the energy to puncture Munster's European dream with a similarly-styled side based around forward muscle."

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/16/2011

A game too far?

Brian Moore believes that the Heineken Cup final could be one game too far for Northampton, and that Manu Tuilagi should be banned for his attack on Chris Ashton, in The Daily Telegraph.

"It looks like a case of two bridges too far for Jim Mallinder’s troops from Franklin Gardens. In another physical battle, Northampton could not be criticised for their effort but, in the end, looked exhausted as Leicester pressured the creative life out of their game. Their minds may be willing when they face Leinster in next Saturday’s Heineken Cup final but there has to be a doubt as to whether their bodies will respond to the physical challenge that the Irish forwards will undoubtedly issue.

"It would be a shame to see Northampton emerge from this season with nothing other than a few plaudits for their attempts to excite, but sport, as life, is not fair and it is probable that they will have to settle for this rather than silverware. It may not be the same for their East Midland’s neighbours and conquerors Leicester, who have the all-round game to cope with the attrition of Saracens, who beat Gloucester in the other semi-final."

May 15, 2011

Posted by Jonny McLeod on 05/15/2011

Final countdown

Peter Bills previews next weekend's Heineken Cup final between Leinster and Northampton in the Irish Independent.

"Do Leinster have too much experience at this level for Northampton? Where will the game be won and lost? What do Leinster need to do to win? Who will win?

"They certainly have the benefit of having been in the final two years ago so they should know what to expect. In that respect, experience is well and truly on their side as Northampton haven't been in a Heineken final since 2000. Leinster also have the advantage of experienced players in the right positions. Guys like Brian O'Driscoll, Gordon D'Arcy, Shane Horgan and Jamie Heaslip have played Test match rugby and also Lions rugby. Jonathan Sexton is a quality player. They are littered with players with a lot of game experience and they have a lot of leadership potential in those positions.

"In major games in any competition, your ability to re-start the game efficiently, to defend and to disrupt the flow of the opposition attack are all essential qualities. But then, both sides can do that and Northampton have been excellent in the last two seasons, the way they have progressed as a side and as a club. They have quality coaching and they will be very difficult to upset."

Posted by Jonny McLeod on 05/15/2011

More than luck of the Irish

Eddie Butler hails Irish rugby's resiliant record within European club rugby ahead of Leinster's Heineken Cup final clash with Northampton at Cardiff next weekend in the Observer.

"Back in 2000, when Munster were beaten 9-8 by Northampton in the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham, there were questions about Ireland's capacity to stay alive at the top level of professional rugby. How could the Irish provinces compete with the free-spending English and French clubs? How could Munster, turning grey together, replace the old guard when they finally dropped? Oh, woe was Ireland.

"How they tricked us then and how they continue to tease the world now. Munster kept going, fuelled by the slaps of fate – or the hand of Back – on their big days out, until they won the Heineken Cup in 2006, then again in 2008. This was not merely gratification for the rugby of one corner of Ireland, because as a driving force in Europe, Munster also dragged their nearest rivals with them, until in 2009, at one of the most spectacular fiestas thrown at Croke Park or anywhere, Leinster charged past the standard-bearers, 25-9. And went on to beat Leicester in the final.

"Leinster are now the powerhouse and the questions about Ireland's rugby resources and chances of survival have evaporated. It might appear that a professional sport in a troubled economy would struggle but in hard times everybody loves a success story. As the only professional sport in Ireland rugby seems a special case, resistant to collapse."

May 3, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/03/2011

Lessons learned

Brian Moore highlights the lessons that Northampton and Harlequins must learn from their weekend victories in The Daily Telegraph.

"In a gloriously flawed 80-minute performance against Euro giants Munster, Harlequins showed all that is good and bad about the club.

"The spirit demanded by Quins’ director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, for the Amlin Cup semi-final was apparent from the first whistle and at a venue that has reduced many good teams to a nervous pastiche of their normal selves.

"O’Shea also said in his pre-match interview that his side needed to convert more of the line breaks that they have made all season. He knows, as do the Quins players and supporters, that this is the reason for their failure to break into the top echelon of English club rugby."

May 2, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/02/2011

On top of the pile

Brian O'Driscoll salutes the crowd after Leinster's win over Toulouse © Getty Images

Hugh Farrelly salutes Leinster's victory over Toulouse as a crowning achievement for Irish rugby in The Irish Independent.

"When you have been following Irish rugby consistently for 30 years, the last 10 in a professional capacity, you think you have seen it all.

"Like being with an irritating girlfriend in the DVD rental shop, the prospects of a fresh, exciting experience are reduced by the level of over-exposure -- "This one looks good?" "Seen it." "What about this one?" "Seen that, too."

"There have been matches to thrill the soul over the years: the win in Cardiff in 1985; giving the Wallabies an almighty rattle in the 1991 World Cup quarter-final; Warren Gatland's near-miss debut as Irish coach in Paris in 1998; Munster v Saracens in 2000; and, of course, the Grand Slam clincher two years ago. However, in terms of drama, physical intensity and sheer quality of rugby, Leinster-Toulouse 2011 sits on top of the pile."

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/02/2011

This is not France

Oliver Brown puts aside Perpignan's limp performance against Northampton to examine their Catalan heritage in The Daily Telegraph.

"Would anyone have believed, on this evidence, that Perpignan rugby is officially twinned with the great Barcelona of Lionel Messi? Assuredly, their eclipse by Northampton was not a happy harbinger for their football cousins.

"While Messi and company seek to advance to a Champions League final in tomorrow night’s Clasico, the poor relations surrendered the chance to reach rugby’s equivalent quite dismally.

"The untrammelled joy for the Saints was matched only in misery for Perpignan — or Perpinyá, as we should probably call them. So passionately does this club cleave to its Catalan heritage that banners at the Stade Aimé Giral, their home ground, have been seen declaring: “This is not France.”

May 1, 2011

Posted by Mark Doyle on 05/01/2011

Breathtaking, heart-stopping

Writing in the Sunday Independent, Neil Francis hails the performance of Leinster in Saturday's stirring Heineken Cup win over Toulouse.

"I'm pretty sure Aristotle never played rugby but what he said centuries ago bears testament to what happened yesterday, and he described the core values of every player who played in such a scintillating match. He said: "Character is that which reveals moral purpose exposing the class of things a man chooses to do or avoid."

"I'm still trying to make my mind up whether I have seen a better game played on this planet; certainly at this level I have never had my breath taken away to such an extent.

"This match will have set a standard which very few teams will ever come close to. The fact that Leinster managed to run out winners shows the level they have moved to."

April 30, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/30/2011

You've got to want it

Tony Ward previews Leinster's Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse, and believes that their run to the cup is far more difficult than in 2009 in The Irish Independent.

"If the route to Edinburgh and outright success in 2009 was tough for Leinster, well two years on, it's all of that and quite a bit again. It's a measure of the increasing level of intensity of the Heineken Cup that the '09 champions' path to today's semi-final showdown at the Aviva Stadium has been rugged in the extreme.

"Home and away against Racing Metro, Clermont Auvergne and Saracens, followed by do-or-die matches against Leicester and Toulouse in the knock-outs, there could not be a more difficult path to the final for Leo Cullen & Co should they make it -- with due respect to Northampton and Perpignan, who meet in the second semi-final tomorrow.

"For the record, two years ago it was Wasps, Edinburgh and Castres, followed by Harlequins (Bloodgate and the day Leinster Rugby came of age), Munster and Leicester in that order. Winning (6-5) in a slug fest at the Stoop, followed by the annihilation of Munster at Croke Park and the systematic dismantling of Leicester in the Murrayfield final, saw Leinster cross the Rubicon and join European rugby's elite."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/30/2011

A team for all seasons

Mick Cleary analyses the weapons available to Toulouse prior to their Heineken Cup semi-final against Leinster in The Daily Telegraph.

"Toulouse are a team for all-seasons, as capable of winning through hard-core scrummaging as they are of free-wheeling attack. They can slog it out or sling it wide, at ease in all elements and all situations.

"That they have class is without question, from the Michelin-starred bistro on site at their training ground and upmarket merchandising boutiques that adorn La Ville Rose to their star-studded roster of blue-chip players such as Maxime Medard, Florian Fritz, Vincent Clerc and Cedric Heymans.

"But this is a team also of muscle and bone, their force on the field stemming from the narrow-eyed commitment of the likes of hooker, William Servat, understated flanker, Jean Boulihou, the heart-beat of the team, and the selfless Argentina workhorse, lock Patricio Albacete."

April 29, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2011

Jelly Roll

David Kelly salutes one of rugby's great entertainers, Rupeni Caucaunibuca, prior to Toulouse's meeting with Leinster in the Heineken Cup semi-finals in The Irish Independent.

"The great entertainer, Rupeni Caucaunibuca, is back -- and it's been worth the 'weight'. He was at it again last weekend. In the midst of a Toulouse cruise against Bourgoin, Caucaunibuca combined neatly with Cedric Heymans as the aristocrats made another trademark burst.

"After completing the one-two with the French full-back, the Fijian, known to all and sundry as Caucau, inevitably could not resist infusing the imminent dotting down with a decorative twist.

"You can view the results yourself on YouTube; suffice to say that Caucau's grand vision was not translated into reality as his spectacular somersault begat a terrific tumble. It was not so much belly-flop as jelly roll."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2011

A sinning Saint

Mick Cleary talks to Northampton's sinning Saint, Ben Foden, in The Daily Telegraph.

"Foden, who was formally upbraided by the Rugby Football Union as well, also revealed that England manager Martin Johnson had given him a stern warning about the need for improved behaviour.

"If any more reminders were needed that one of England’s most high-profile players, who has a showbiz girlfriend (Una Healy of pop group The Saturdays), would forever be under scrutiny, it came last week when Gloucester fans taunted him with cries of “taxi” every time the ball came near him at Kingsholm. Foden has been in penitent mood since.

“Yes, it was embarrassing and something that I deeply regret,” said Foden as he finished a team training run at stadium: mk where Northampton will take on Perpignan in the Heineken Cup semi-final on Sunday. “I got caught up in something that I ought not to have allowed to happen. There were other Northampton lads there but they weren’t involved. It’s on my head. I’ve been punished, I’ve learnt from it and it’s something I won’t be repeating.”

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2011

An end to French dominance?

Shaun Edwards believes that we could see an Anglo-Irish Heineken Cup final in The Guardian.

"Many have had their fingers burned predicting the demise of Toulouse, but how about this for risking a whole hand: put your money on there being no French team in this season's Heineken Cup final.

"Of course it's happened before – as recently as 2009 – but with so much worry about the power of the euro and the wealth of the French clubs, an Anglo-Irish set-to at the Millennium Stadium in three weeks would come like a breath of fresh air.

"Last season's all-French affair at the Stade de France, when Toulouse arm‑wrestled their way to a fourth title against Biarritz, brought a general sense of foreboding and suggestions that our much more restrictive salary cap would strangle the game this side of the Channel while adding a bit more pep to the exodus of players."

April 28, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/28/2011

Healy targets Toulouse

Cian Healy will be key to Leinster's chances against Toulouse © Getty Images

Leinster prop Cian Healy will be desperate to exorcise some demons against Toulouse in the Heineken Cup semi-final on Saturday, according to the Irish Independent’s Hugh Farrelly.

"As Cian Healy's career unfolds, May 1, 2010 could well be flagged as a turning point.

On that clammy evening in the Stade Municipal in Toulouse, the young Leinster loose-head was presented with a test of such physical and psychological enormity that it automatically arrived with the "making or breaking" moniker attached.

The then 22-year-old was turned inside out by Toulouse tight-head Benoit Lecouls, and with Daan Human performing similar acts of savagery on Stan Wright on the far side, Leinster's primary set-piece platform was in disarray from the off, handing the impetus to the home team and preventing Michael Cheika's men from establishing any sort of a foothold….

Toulouse have an array of formidable front-row options to choose from again this weekend, but they are coming up against a different animal this time around."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/28/2011

Cheika backs Leinster

The Irish Times’ Mark Rodden talks with Leinster’s former head coach Michael Cheika ahead of the Irish province’s match against Toulouse

"Cheika, now the head coach of Stade Français, believes his former club have a much better chance of reaching the final this season.

“It’s obviously a big advantage playing in Dublin as opposed to playing in Toulouse,” he says. “But I also think that Leinster are a better team this year and Toulouse are probably not as strong as they were last year. So the combination of those factors all together point pretty clearly for me to Leinster winning.”

April 26, 2011

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/26/2011

Sky's the limit for carefree Leinster

The recent return to full fitness of Shane Jennings is a massive boost for Heineken Cup hopefuls Leinster © Getty Images

Leinster back-row Shane Jennings talks to the Irish Independent ahead of Saturday's eagerly-awaited Heineken Cup semi-final clash with Toulouse at the Aviva Stadium.

"A buttermilk sky may have enveloped Leinster's training session in UCD yesterday, but it didn't seem like there were any clouds in their world. All its hungry constituents are fighting fit for Saturday's Heineken Cup semi-final with multiple champions, Toulouse.

"A game of bulldog indicates the carefree nature of the squad's preparations; yet the innocent childish larks have a serious side. As any coach knows, the playground favourite of old instils strength and unity into its teams. To every thing a purpose, even amid the giggles and high-pierced squeals.

"Not even the gentlest rib-tickling revealed even a remote concern within Leinster ranks at the appointment of Declan Kidney's bete noire, Dave Pearson, as the chief whistler for the eagerly awaited, sold-out Lansdowne Road contest."

April 25, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/25/2011

O'Driscoll skips Royal wedding for training

Leinster talisman Brian O'Driscoll will skip Friday's Royal Wedding in favour of Leinster training ahead of their Heineken Cup showdown with Toulouse on Saturday. The Guardian's Donald McRae writes.

"Brian O'Driscoll has sidestepped his invitation to the royal wedding on Friday in favour of a Leinster training session and admitted that he would never have lived down the backchat from his team‑mates if he had put William and Kate ahead of a huge European match in Dublin.

"Mike Tindall, as Zara Phillips's fiance, presumably has no option but to grit his teeth and turn up but O'Driscoll has found the perfect excuse to evade royal wedding duties. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the Leinster and Ireland centre admitted he could not miss the captain's run on Friday afternoon as his club prepares for this weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulouse.

"As big an honour as it was to be invited I can't ask for team runs to be at half-six in the evening so I can go to the royal wedding at Westminster Abbey," O'Driscoll said. "One thing I learnt early on my career is that personal gratification takes second place. The team ethos comes first even after 12 years. My wife [the Irish actor Amy Huberman] is going on our behalf as we also felt there was an element of our representing Ireland as well. It's going to be an incredible thing, with two billion watching, but I'll be at home, preparing for Toulouse."

April 20, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/20/2011

A phenomenon

Gerry Thornley assesses the size of Leinster's task in overcoming the mighty Toulouse in The Irish Times.

"As Leinster discovered in their 14-year quest for the mountain top, which was reached with back-to-back wins over Euro giants Munster and Leicester, and then having run into Clermont and Toulouse last season, nothing comes easy in the Heineken Cup. And so it is again.

"Having put away the current leading side in England, two-time winners and five-time finalists Leicester, in the quarter-finals, Joe Schmidt’s squad must now overcome the leading side in France in four-time Heineken Cup winners and six-time finalists Toulouse.

"Stade Toulousain are, quite simply, the most decorated club in the world, and that includes provincial powers. The Canterbury Crusaders may be the Super force of the Southern Hemisphere, but they are primarily a 21st century phenomenon. Toulouse have been a phenomenon, pretty much, since 1985."

April 16, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/16/2011

Biarritz betrayed the imaginative spirit of Blanco

Writing in The Independent, Brian Ashton reflects on last weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-finals.

"Poor old Serge Blanco. What could the great man of Biarritz have been thinking as he watched the Basque side's Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat by Toulouse on Sunday evening?

"Here was a remarkable individual who performed, almost on a weekly basis, astonishing feats for club and country: a rugby genius blessed with imagination, invention, pace, skill and courage – a master of the counter-attack who would back himself to make something happen when everyone else on the field was paralysed with fear. Quite simply, Blanco was one of the finest full-backs ever to play the game. Has any of his stardust been sprinkled on the Biarritz of today? Apparently not.

"Quite what he made of his team's approach down there in San Sebastian, heaven only knows. It amounted to nothing more than a collision-based driving game, based around an unending series of pick-and-go rumbles around the side by forwards who, quite literally, kept the ball close to their chests. Behind these behemoths, Dimitri Yachvili steered the close-quarter strategy from scrum-half, hoofing the ball in the air or down the short side in primitive kick-and-chase fashion."

April 11, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

Ulster pay a heavy price for mistakes

The Irish Independent's Niall Crozier reports from Ulster's Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Northampton in Milton Keynes.

"Ulster's Heineken Cup dream is over for this year. Yesterday afternoon at a sun-kissed stadium:mk they were beaten by opponents whose brawn ultimately made the difference.

"Northampton Saints have an awesome scrum, their line-out is sound, Courtney Lawes was immense, and they have a maul which wears opponents down.

"But Ulster contributed to their own downfall, with 17 of Northampton's 23 points attributable to avoidable errors. The Saints made the most of those lapses, punishing Ulster on the scoreboard.

"Having led 13-10 at half-time, Ulster failed to score a point in the second half, during which the screw tightened. Slowly they were strangled as Saints squeezed the life from them."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

Freshwater becomes unlikely hero

Perry Freshwater, the England prop, will remember his decisive second-half try against Toulon for a long time, "a golden moment at the Olympic Stadium in the autumn of his career" according to the Daily Telegraph's Brendan Gallagher.

"He certainly upstaged former England Test colleague Jonny Wilkinson who was making his debut in a Heineken Cup knockout match.

“I get paid to push not score tries, I can’t even remember the last time I scored,” said Freshwater after Perpignan overcame an error-strewn first half to salvage the day for the Catalans who took a big risk in moving the match to Barcelona.

“It was nice to score and one day I will look back on it with pride but I can’t overemphasise how important it was simply to win this game. For us, for a long time, it has been all about Perpignan reaching the Heineken Cup quarter-finals as a top-four team and getting a home draw so we take the match to Barca but I kept telling the guys that wasn’t enough. We needed to win the bloody thing.”

"Freshwater, a second-half replacement, was part of a much-improved forward effort from Perpignan after the break when they took a stranglehold of the game and manufactured a win that was considerably more comfortable than the scoreline suggested. As for Wilkinson it was a disappointing afternoon."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2011

Beaten at their own game

Writing in The Independent, Hugh Godwin reports from Leinster's Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Leicester in Dublin.

"Whatever it was that enabled Leicester to dominate European competition a decade ago, it was not playing to the letter of the law. That turn-of-the-century team waged the physical battle to its limits and had a few hard-eyed so-and-so's led by Martin Johnson capable of getting the rest of the job done with mental resourcefulness.

"Unfortunately there are only so many Johnsons to go around in a generation, or even a lifetime, and everyone from the kids waving blue Leinster banners at the renovated Lansdowne Road to the Dublin taxi drivers ferrying sad-eyed Tigers supporters to the airport yesterday morning had seen it in this Heineken Cup quarter-final. Leinster beat Leicester at their own game."

April 10, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

Tigers sent home to lick wounds

The Irish Times' Carl O'Malley reports from Leinster's Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Leicester in Dublin.

"The ground may be a little different but this was familiar territory for two old foes with a 10-game European Cup history equally shared into five wins apiece. The bragging rights had to fall in someone’s favour this evening and it was Leicester, for so long the experts in trench warfare, who gave that inch as their hosts booked a home semi-final against Biarritz or Toulouse.

"It wasn’t their fight that let them down, it never does, but in comparison to previous incarnations they were desperately lacking in ideas behind the scrum. That said, their opponents have evolved defensively in the time since they won this competition two years ago.

"Their organisation was impeccable and benefitted from admirable discipline and restraint when temptation could have led to trouble at the breakdown. They stayed on their feet, tacklers released and Leicester, more often than not, made their own mistakes."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

The Saint who has a date with destiny

The man mountain Soane Tonga'uiha has been a rock for Northampton this season and will be unmoved by Ulster tactics today according to the Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin.

"When Soane Tonga'uiha says it is destiny that Northampton will reach this season's Heineken Cup final, you are inclined to agree – and not just because a simple raise of the eyebrow from this huge son of the South Pacific might split the ceiling, cartoon-style, of the hospitality box where we meet. Whereas the Saints were knocked out at the quarter-final stage away to Munster in 2010, the Irish must come to them today, albeit Ulster travel to Milton Keynes rather than Franklin's Gardens. The winners are guaranteed a "home" draw in the semi-finals – Northampton would use the same venue – and Tonga'uiha says: "It's a massive plus for us. It's almost like it was destined for us to get to the final."

"Northampton won the cup in 2000 but there are no survivors playing today, and they hope the "learning curve" moment everyone in Europe appears to subscribe to was in Limerick 12 months ago. As the 20-stone Tongan-born, New Zealand-raised loosehead prop recalls, they played well but were beaten by age-old tactics. "We got into too many of those one-on-ones off the ball," Tonga'uiha says. "Munster had been around the block and we hadn't. We learnt we need to take it on the chin and move on to the next play. To stay composed and not panic if we're behind or down to 14 men."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2011

Authentic rugby in plastic surrounds

The Heineken Cup quarter-finals have found lovelier stages than stadium:mk but the Northampton-Ulster match must be taken seriously according to The Observer's Eddie Butler.

"It is a landmark fixture that pitches former champion against former champion. Twelve years have passed for Ulster and 11 for Northampton since they were Heineken Cup winners, but this is a quarter-final that should be approached respectfully. You don't make the last eight in 2011 lightly.

"And yet, you can't help but chuckle. This is a weekend of grand rugby, of Leinster against Leicester at Dublin's sparkling Aviva Stadium, of Biarritz and Perpignan transporting themselves deep into the spiritual heartlands of the Basque and Catalan peoples: to San Sebastián, a jewel of Europe's Atlantic coast, and Barcelona, giant of the Mediterranean.

"Northampton? Today they're playing at stadium:mk (sic) in Milton Keynes. It's a journey of 10 miles according to my, 15 for the Northampton Chronicle & Echo, who wanted to put a little more distance between the destinations when, in 2008 and in a different sport, Northampton Town first played against the MK Dons (once Wimbledon FC) in League One. The tone seemed to be that Northampton had thousands of years of history; MK had Ikea and concrete cows."

April 9, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Cullen fears 'pit bull' influence

Leinster skipper Leo Cullen is wary of the influence of Leicester coach Richard Cockerill ahead of their Heineken Cup showdown. The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly writes.

"Cockerill played hooker at Leicester for many years forming the renowned ABC front-row (the Tigers used to wear letters instead of numbers on their jerseys) with Rowntree and Darren Garforth and Cullen believes the Leicester coach is overseeing a team in his image -- direct and confrontational.

"He's your classic pit bull," said Cullen. "He was always pretty irritating to play against, and in his coaching style he's pretty prone to mood swings. As a forwards coach it was very much dependent on what we were like at the weekend.

"He actually pays real great attention to detail, spends a lot of time working with players individually, just on the smallest details from every game. He's a good, tough, hard character, 'Cockers.' There's a certain Leicester way of wanting to be a tough, physically imposing type of player and that's what he probably instils the most," added Cullen.

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Tiger feats more than a provincial matter

Sharing 10 meetings with five wins apiece, Leinster’s record against Leicester reflects their own European odyssey, writes the Irish Times' Gerry Thornley.

"Nothing quite defines Leinster’s 15-year history in the Heineken Cup quite like the 10 meetings with Leicester, especially the first and last. They have five wins apiece, dating back to 1996 when Leicester came to Lansdowne Road and won 27-10, and most recently when Leinster reached their Holy Grail in the Murrayfield final two seasons ago.

"A mere 3,500 turned up for that initial meeting in the Cup’s second season. Reflecting the flight of the wild geese to England, Eric Miller was playing with Leicester while the London Irish duo of Malcolm O’Kelly and Victor Costello, along with Saracens’ Paul Wallace, were “guesting” for Leinster.

“It was bizarre,” chuckles O’Kelly, who was playing in the first of his seven games against Leicester over 13 seasons. “We were getting beaten up and down England with London Irish, so we couldn’t get out of there fast enough. It was a savage team but it was like a re-union of sorts. We were just drafted in for these matches and there was no Celtic League.”

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Wilkinson enters the unknown

Toulon fly-half Jonny Wilkinson will compete in his first Heineken Cup quarter-final on Saturday - the Daily Telegraph's Brendan Gallagher previews their clash with Perpignan.

"Remarkably, after 14 seasons as a professional, it will be the first time the England fly-half has played in a Heineken Cup knockout game, having missed out on Newcastle’s solitary quarter-final appearance against Stade Francais in Paris in 2005 with a knee ligament injury.

"It is a poor return for one of the modern game’s great match-winners, brought about by a combination of persistent injury and his loyalty for over a decade to the Falcons, but now comes his chance to set the record straight.

"And the stage could scarcely be bigger or more colourful. Perpignan, proud Catalans first and French second, finally achieve a long held ambition by staging a big match across the border in the Catalan capital of Barcelona and although the Nou Camp would have been their first choice the Olympic Stadium at Montjuic is a splendid and emotionally charged second choice."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Raising skill levels

Writing in The Independent, Brian Ashton looks ahead to this weekend's Heineken Cup clashes.

"One would expect all eight quarter-finalists to enter the arena with an overview – in other words, a clear idea of how they might dominate field position and impose their will on the opposition. But there is an ever-present danger when fixtures as important as these come around. All too frequently, coaches and players clutter up the overview with so much detail that the performance becomes robotic. Instead of people manoeuvring their way through situations as and when they arise, they fall back on the so-called "game plan" memorised during the week's preparation. Do the wonderful footballers of Spain allow themselves to be locked into a pre-ordained plan? I think not.

"This evening's big game in Dublin between Leinster and Leicester will be extremely instructive in this regard, for it throws up a classic confrontation between two half-back pairings – Eoin Reddan and Jonathan Sexton; Ben Youngs and Toby Flood – who, at their best, understand the importance of clear thinking and sound decision-making under pressure. They met at the same venue as recently as last month, when England crossed the Irish Sea in what turned out to be a fruitless search for the Six Nations Grand Slam, but it would be a gross error of judgement to assume that these four individuals will perform in precisely the same way. Certainly, neither coach will fall into this trap."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/09/2011

Wilson relishes Ulster reunion

Former Ulster No.8 Roger Wilson has warned his Northampton team-mates to be wary of their Irish rivals ahead of their Heineken Cup quarter-final clash. The Guardian's Paul Rees reports.

"The No.8 spent six years with Ulster before joining Northampton in 2008 and, while the Saints are unbeaten in Europe since losing at Munster in last season's quarter-final, they have only just returned to form after a mid-season wobble.

"The Heineken Cup is different from the Premiership," said Wilson. " Knock-out games are about pressure and we have to be able to deal with it better than we did a year ago. I think we will and this is a game I have been looking forward to ever since I knew we were going to be facing Ulster. I have always wanted to play against Ulster since leaving for Northampton and I have had a lot of people looking for tickets. I know a number who are coming over from Belfast and it will be a special weekend."

April 8, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/08/2011

Newfound threats

Chris Hewett looks at Ulster's recruitment drive in The Independent.

"Outmuscled financially by the French – the Eurozone may be falling apart in the real world, but on Planet Rugby it goes from strength to strength – the last thing England's beleaguered Premiership clubs need as they attempt to restore their Heineken Cup credibility is a fresh threat from Ireland. Which is precisely what they face.

"Ulster, who take on Northampton in the third of this weekend's quarter-finals, have set their sights on matching their more illustrious provincial rivals, Leinster and Munster, after a decade of playing second fiddle, and while they will start as underdogs on Sunday afternoon, they will not be outsiders for very much longer."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/08/2011

Europe on the move

Shaun Edwards previews the weekend's Heineken Cup action, and is looking forward to some tribal warfare, in The Guardian.

"This is one of those weekends when rugby's tribes are on the move. Possibly even more than in the Six Nations, this is when the truly committed fan hits the road.

"Nearly 52,000 will pack the new Aviva Stadium in Dublin on Saturday for Leinster versus Leicester, which would be a record for a Heineken Cup quarter‑final had Perpignan and Toulon not already crammed a guaranteed 55,000 into Barcelona's Olympic Stadium 90 minutes earlier.

"Then, on Sunday, the full-house signs will be up again in San Sebastián, where the Basques of Biarritz choose to play their big European games – and they don't come much bigger than those against Toulouse – and at Milton Keynes, which may not sound as colourful as either the Estadio Anoeta or the Catalan capital, but will certainly generate as much heat when Northampton lock horns with Ulster."

April 5, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/05/2011

Tribalism and colour

Mick Cleary digs out the differences between the Heineken Cup and Super Rugby one last time in The Daily Telegraph.

"Super rugby is sport as entertainment, a high-tempo exhibition of skill played out before a predominantly home-grown audience. Heineken Cup rugby in the knockout stages is a different experience: the seething, raucous backdrop is invariably an element in the drama of the day. Confronting the opposition is the prime task. But taking on the crowd is very much part of the challenge, too.

"Ah, but is the rugby any good? An interesting question, although it should be no surprise that the top three ranked countries in the world, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, produce a better overall quality of rugby. It’s worth pointing out, too, that Super rugby can serve up duds, too. Would Crusaders or the Bulls beat Toulouse or Munster? Tight call, that one, but probably, yes."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/05/2011

Rugby's lesson for football

Robert Kitson previews the Heineken Cup quarter-finals and comes over all misty-eyed in The Guardian.

"If there was ever a week to persuade neutrals that rugby union is a more satisfying sport than football this is it. The Heineken Cup quarter-finals will spread the gospel to previously uncharted territory from Barcelona to Milton Keynes, offering as vibrant and enthralling a spectacle as European rugby can deliver. Even the Six Nations, in all its traditional glory, cannot provide quite the same kaleidescopic range of backdrops.

"Will Leinster v Leicester be as good an occasion as Ireland v England in the same stadium last month? You would be unwise to bet against it. Perpignan v Toulon in the Catalan capital of Barcelona? Atmosphere-wise, it will make the Stade de France feel like a wet Sunday evening in Lowestoft. Even the Amlin Challenge Cup, once a decidedly second-tier competition, will serve up four games with a genuine edge.

"A better matchday experience than football? It is, naturally, a subjective debate with strong arguments for and against. To disciples of either sport it is like comparing the relative merits of cats and dogs. Minds tend to be made up early and habits duly formed."

April 3, 2011

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/03/2011

Leicester's and Leinster's Heineken meeting is a delicious prospect

Eddie Butler of The Guardian looks ahead to Leinster's mouth-watering Heineken Cup showdown with the Leicester Tigers.

"It is certain that neither Leinster nor Leicester will have lingered for a second longer than it takes to utter a brief phrase of praise or consolation to their international players in the wake of what happened on the final Saturday of the Six Nations, when Ireland upset England's grand slam pretensions and there began a public inquiry into what this meant for victor and loser with regard to the World Cup. For in Dublin and at Welford Road province and club had to get on with the business of completing the remaining weeks of the season.

"Leinster, for example, had to prepare for Saturday's meeting with Munster in the Magners League, a fixture that, even if there were only a bag of dog biscuits for a prize, would still demand the full concentration of its participants. The result: victory by a point for Munster. The rivalry among the provinces of Ireland is one reason why their rugby as a collective continues to prosper.

"And the strength of Leicester is one big reason why England found themselves in a position to challenge for the grand slam in the first place. With Toby Flood scoring 22 points and Ben Youngs and Dan Cole also back in their club team, Leicester registered their biggest victory at Bath in 96 years a week after England lost to Ireland."

January 26, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/26/2011

Schmidt just the tonic

Gerry Thornley praises the impact of Joe Schmidt at Leinster as the Kiwi coach emerges from the shadow of predecessor Michael Cheika in The Irish Times.

"Michael Cheika was always going to be a tough act to follow, and the affable and honest Kiwi Joe Schmidt unfairly came under the microscope when Leinster lost three of their first four League games in September, all away from home while the Irish front-liners were gradually being re-introduced. But he looks like just what Leinster needed.

"Cheika, one of the brightest young coaches around, laid the foundations of a hardened professionalism and steely desire, but, with the emergence of Mike Ross and arrival of Greg Feek helping to stabilise the scrum, the former Clermont backs’ coach has added a more ambitious running and offloading game. In terms of their approach, they are the nearest thing to the All Blacks in Europe right now.

"He’s been helped, too, by the continuing emergence of more young jewels off the Leinster production line, but 24 points and 21 tries in such a Heineken Cup group was a remarkable effort. Only Leicester and Perpignan scored more, with 14 of the Tigers’ 25 tries and 10 of Perpignan’s 23 tries coming against Treviso."

January 24, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/24/2011

Munster put talk of their demise in the past

Munster ended an otherwise disappointing Heineken Cup campaign with victory over London Irish in Limerick - the Irish Independent reports.

"Twelve minutes left on the clock and Ryan Lamb's conversion of Sailosi Tagicakibau's try has pushed London Irish into a 14-7 lead. With Munster looking like they couldn't score in Newcastle on free Bacardi Breezer night, the Exiles were justifiably bullish that they could go on to become only the second visiting side, after Leicester in 2007, to record a Heineken Cup victory at Thomond Park.

"They had been pretty brutal. Plenty of effort, endeavour, possession and position but precious little execution. The fact that the first half ended scoreless was largely down to Munster's inability to finish off the opportunities they had ground out for themselves.

"When they got close to the line, there was the instant reversion to the blinkered forward-drive mode Munster know best. It does produce tries, and did for Damien Varley just after half-time, but there needs to be more variety to prosper against Europe's best.

"So, when London Irish got their second try, adding to their 58th-minute score from the excellent Seilala Mapusua, it looked like curtains for the home side, another nail in the coffin for the former champions -- relegated to red-button status on Sky Sports as yesterday's men. What happened next was remarkable."

January 21, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/21/2011

Much done, but still more to do

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley previews Leinster's Heineken Cup date against Racing Metro with the Magners League side looking to secure a home quarter-final.

"For Leinster, the job is almost done, but there is more to do. Switch their hitherto impressive Heineken Cup machine into over-drive one more time, treat the demands of an away night in France with the respect the encounter merits and play with their Test-like Euro intensity.

"For with one more win they will have secured a highly-advantageous home quarter-final.

"It may not have the demands of a must-win game, they may have already qualified, but history has shown us that earning a home quarter-final almost puts a foot in the semi-finals. To pass up the opportunity which knocks now would leave them kicking themselves."

January 18, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/18/2011

Europe tougher than ever

The scrum has been a major factor this season, just ask Soane Tonga'uiha © Getty Images

Robert Kitson dusts off the stats cap and delves into the try-scoring trends from this season's Heineken Cup Pool stage in The Guardian.

"A little bit of research for you. Did you know that, barring a late scoring avalanche, this year's Heineken Cup pool stage is on course to produce fewer tries than in any season since the current pool format began in 2000/01? Even if the final round produces a healthy average of five tries per game it will still yield the lowest aggregate total for seven years. It is enough to make Europe's attack coaches weep.

"There are all sorts of possible reasons why. The Italian teams no longer wave opponents through the way they once did. The weather has been extreme and no team, other than Bath at home to Aironi on Saturday, has topped 50 points in a single game. Standards of fitness are now pretty similar across the board; space is at a premium, even when the attacking side is granted more leeway at the breakdown. Last but not least, video analysis is now so intensive, and some gameplans so rigid, that defenders frequently know what to expect before the opposition do."

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/18/2011

Phoenix from the flames

Hugh Farrelly looks at Munster's fall and the unenviable task of ensuring their rebirth as a major European force in The Irish Independent.

"Reinvention is a process that has produced 'phoenix from the ashes' results for individuals as diverse as John Travolta, Kylie Minogue and even the ghastly Noel Edmonds -- now it is the prerogative for Munster coach Tony McGahan.

"The Australian inherited a team from Declan Kidney that had powered its way to two Heineken Cup triumphs -- glories he had contributed to significantly through his role as defensive coach -- and one imbued with confidence and self-belief about their way of doing things -- a tough ask.

"There are parallels to be made with Brian Clough taking over the streetwise, trophy-winning Leeds side of the early 1970s from Don Revie. The difference is the Leeds players never bought into Clough's radical and confrontational style and drew constant comparisons with Revie, while McGahan had the support and respect of the Munster squad when he came in."

January 17, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/17/2011

Munster's epic ends as tragedy

The Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly reports from the end of an era as Toulon end Munster's Heineken Cup hopes at the pool stage.

"Well that's the end of that then. After 12 years of memorable, competition-defining Heineken Cup knock-out action -- a storied period when the tale was Munster elevated to the point of mythology -- the dream is over.

"No quarter-final place and plenty of questions to answer. The speculation that Munster were an ageing team and a fading force had been forcibly refuted by the camp all season and backed up by their confident progress to the summit of the Magners League and hammering of Toulon in Thomond Park last October.

"Now, the evidence is irrefutable. Yes, the group was extremely difficult but Munster have emerged from tough pools in the past, upsetting odds and confounding critics just as they did when de-frocking then French champions Perpignan in glorious style last season.

"There wasn't a glimmer of a repeat performance here. Toulon got their tactics and selection (Jonny Wilkinson at out-half) spot on, Munster got theirs badly wrong."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/17/2011

Glasgow serve up a Heineken Cup shock

Glasgow dented Wasps' euro hopes with a shock victory at Firhill Arena on Sunday - The Scotsman's David Ferguson was there.

"Glasgow coach Sean Lineen was the least surprised man at Firhill yesterday after his side pulled off another of the great Heineken Cup upsets by beating Wasps, leaving the English Premiership side struggling to qualify for the quarter-finals.

"Lineen had seen it before, notably two years ago when Glasgow stunned Toulouse in France, while Wasps, fresh from winning the Heineken Cup, also came to grief in Edinburgh five years ago. Yesterday, he needed his charges to restore some pride in Scottish rugby after a campaign with just one win in four games and a demoralising thumping for Edinburgh at Northampton on Friday night.

"They did that in disposing of a star-studded Wasps side by 20-10 at Firhill in the penultimate round of Heineken Cup pool action, and what made Glasgow's achievement even greater was that they did it without first-choice internationalists Johnnie Beattie, John Barclay, Max Evans, Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe, Graeme Morrison, Chris Cusiter and Rob Dewey."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/17/2011

Irish's dreadful run ended by youthful energy

The Independent's Chris Hewett reports from the Madejski Stadium where London Irish brought an end to a 10-game win-less streak with victory over Ospreys.

"London Irish had nothing to play for in the Heineken Cup yesterday, but as there is more to life than the Heineken Cup – reputation, self-respect, contracts and careers spring to mind, among other things – the idea that they would adopt a horizontal position from the start and accept a thorough seeing-to, from a team whose European campaign was still a going concern, always seemed a little far-fetched.

"After a 10-match losing streak stretching back to October, the Exiles duly rediscovered the best of themselves to beat the Welsh glitterati with something to spare, handing Pool Three's automatic quarter-final place to Toulon in the process.

"They scored the game's only tries – the left-wing Sailosi Tagicakibau crossed in the first half after brilliant work from Delon Armitage; the unfeasibly quick Topsy Ojo did likewise at the start of the second following a clean midfield break from Daniel Bowden – and they won the big-hit tackling contest hands down."

January 14, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/14/2011

McCall to arms

Ulsterman Mark McCall is looking to reignite coaching career following ascension to Saracen's hot seat, starting tomorrow at Leinster. The Irish Independent's David Kelly reports.

"So which Irishman has the best coaching position in European club rugby?

"You reckon Munster's chief, having guided them to Magners League summit and second place in their Heineken Cup qualification pool? Sadly, Tony McGahan may have cut his coaching teeth here before winning a league title but he's a Queenslander by birth, from just outside flood-afflicted Brisbane in Warwick.

"What about Leinster's head guy? Regrettably, Joe Schmidt is a Kiwi and only pitched up on these shores in the summer before guiding Leinster to the top of their Heineken Cup group and third place in the Magners League table.

"Ulster coach Brian McLaughlin was part of a Triple Crown-winning back-room team but as a primus inter pares he is a belated work in progress, with his team, as ever, on the verge of either implosion or explosion.

"And Connacht's Eric Elwood is only taking baby steps with the fallow fourth green field of Irish rugby.

"So step forward Mark McCall. The 43-year-old Bangor native this week stepped into the hot seat at the second best club in the English Premiership following the return to South Africa of erstwhile head coach Brendan Venter."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/14/2011

Ruling deprives Edinburgh of hooker cover

Edinburgh have now encountered European rugby red tape after a bizarre ruling by ERC bosses yesterday left them to face Northampton tonight without any genuine cover at hooker and mired in the possibility of raising legal action.The Scotsman's David Ferguson reports.

"Edinburgh coach Rob Moffat had left the replacement position vacant when he named his side on Wednesday for the Heineken Cup match, but insisted that that was purely until receiving full confirmation from ERC that Crombie would be eligible to play which had still not come through from ERC.

"Crombie was released by Edinburgh in the summer as the club strove to work within the SRU's budget freeze but, with promising young players Fraser Brown and Alun Walker undergoing operations - from which they are still to return - Crombie agreed to provide cover. He played for Boroughmuir and, when Newcastle invited him for a loan spell at Kingston Park to provide cover there, he agreed on the proviso that he would still be available to Edinburgh if they required him.

"He played for Newcastle in the LV= Cup, but did not feature in any Amlin Challenge Cup squad, for which Newcastle would have had to register him. He remained on Edinburgh's Heineken Cup list throughout and this week, when Andy Kelly fell victim to an eye injury, Moffat called him into the squad.

"However, ERC told Edinburgh yesterday that they did not consider him eligible because he had played for another club this season, even though it did not involve European competition and there is nothing in the rules and regulations that debars this."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/14/2011

Giants feel the ground shifting

Former champions Leicester and Munster are both vulnerable as another intense fortnight of European rugby beckons, according to Shaun Edwards in The Guardian.

"It was John Connolly who described the Heineken Cup as perfect preparation for Test rugby. And with his pedigree – Queensland Reds, Stade Français, Swansea, Bath and Australia's 2007 World Cup team – he should know. But in case there are lingering doubts, just look at the games in Europe this weekend. It makes your palms sweat just thinking about some of them.

"There are things to be sorted everywhere; on a club level I can't remember so many pools being so wide open and on the players' level it will be in their minds that this weekend and next will be about impressing national coaches doing their homework for the Six Nations squads and teams.

"Just consider the Scarlets versus Leicester in Pool Five on Saturday and Toulon v Munster in Pool Three on Sunday. Monumental stuff, the kind of games that help form careers."

January 13, 2011

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/13/2011

'The biggest game you can get'

Toulon's Felipe Contepomi is set to face a familiar foe this weekend © Getty Images

The Irish Independent's Peter Bills talks to Toulon's Felipe Contepomi before he locks horns with old foe Munster in the Heineken Cup.

"He's swopped Temple Bar for Toulon, Molly Malone for the Med. But, as they say, you can take the boy out of Dublin, but you can't take Dublin out of the boy.

"A warm smile spreads across the face of Felipe Contepomi when you ask him about matches with Munster. He has a simple response. "One of the best things I have experienced in my rugby career," he says, recalling past battles between his beloved Leinster and Munster.

"They are the best memories. Those were very happy times for me."

"And now comes another barn-storming clash with the men of Munster, except that Contepomi will be wearing a different shirt this time. Will it seem strange?

"Possibly, he says, cheerfully conceding that he is still in regular contact with some of his former playing pals from Leinster, and Dublin will always hold a special place in his heart.

"But all eyes will focus on the Stade Mayol this Sunday when Toulon will attempt to put an abrupt end to Munster's Heineken hopes for this season. A black and white scenario? Contepomi thinks so."

January 12, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/12/2011

Leading by example

Leinster's Jonny Sexton threw a spanner in the works for Saracens back in October © Getty Images

Gerry Thornley believes that Munster could do with taking a leaf out of Leinster's book this weekend as the Heineken Cup reaches the sharp end in The Irish Times.

"Leinster and Munster head into their final two similarly tricky, defining Heineken Cup pool games – banana skins at home to faltering English Premiership opposition and rather more daunting treks away to nouveau riche French teams. They do so on the back of scratchy home wins dominated by pedantic Welsh referees, while indebted to their frontline Irish outhalves and place-kickers. Perhaps, the similarities end there.

"Whereas Munster are much better placed in the Magners League, that is secondary to the holy grail that is the Heineken Cup – pretty much to all Irish players, supporters and media alike. Thus, Leinster can secure qualification by beating Saracens at the RDS on Saturday, though as Saracens showed in round four when picking up their first win away to Racing, there is little likelihood of them rolling over. This is especially so given the history of the first meeting when Leinster won at Wembley in one of the tournament’s finest displays to date, although it may be a little diluted by Brendan Venter’s return to South Africa yesterday bearing in mind another of his rather lop-sided post-match loser’s rant which contained the bizarre claim that rugby would die."

January 11, 2011

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/11/2011

Selection conundrum

Doug Howlett was vital to Munster's home success against Toulon © Getty Images

Hugh Farrelly previews Munster's make-or-break Heineken Cup tie with Toulon in The Irish Independent.

"Most of the selection speculation this week will centre on whether Paul O'Connell starts on the second-row or comes off the bench, but the composition of the outside backs could be equally significant and the following are some of the options available to McGahan.

"Option A -- As you were

15 Warwick, 14 Howlett, 13 Earls, 12 Tuitupou/Mafi, 11 Murphy

"The formula which took the field against the Ospreys (when Mafi came off the bench for his cousin Tuitupou) and was supposed to against Glasgow when Mafi started at No 12. Having one of the Tongan cousins at inside-centre indicates a direct approach and would mean Johne Murphy on the wing when his rich vein of form promotes a switch inside to get him involved as often as possible."

December 21, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/21/2010

Leinster best placed

Sean O'Brien crashes over for Leinster © Getty Images

After the latest European battles, Gerry Thornley believes that Leinster are the best placed of the Irish sides heading forward in The Irish Times.

"Crucially, the integrity of the tournament has been maintained, with no match, as things stand, set to be deferred beyond rounds five and six in this arctic winter. It still seems more fiendishly difficult than ever to pick the eight quarter-finalists at this juncture, but Leinster are both best placed of the Irish trio going into the final two rounds, and look best equipped to ultimately win the trophy after two outstanding performances in a row against Clermont.

"Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Leinster did, after all, reach the semi-finals last season, only to be without Jonathan Sexton when also having the distinct misfortune to be drawn away in the semi-finals. You need a bit of luck in these things too, and as an aside it was interesting to contrast the way Sexton hurriedly had a plate inserted in his jaw the day after last season’s quarter-final in a failed attempt to have him fit for the semi-final three weeks later whereas without an operation and returning to the care of his specialist, Brian O’Driscoll was able to play again 20 days after suffering a cracked jaw against Argentina."

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/21/2010

Scrum like it hot

Hugh Farrelly looks at the importance of the scrum following Munster's demolition by the Ospreys in The Irish Independent.

"We were told a story recently about a special fixture that took place back in the 1980s to celebrate the centenary of the Munster Branch.

"It was a clash between a Cork XV and a Limerick XV and, though just an exhibition match, the deep-rooted rugby rivalry between the cities produced a ferocious affair with little holding back on either side. Limerick were captained by Munster and Ireland tight-head Ginger McLoughlin (you may have seen footage of him scoring a try in Twickenham) and the Shannon man advocated a direct, up the jumper approach.

"As the game progressed, the rate of attrition saw Limerick lose their out-half and they had to go the Cork bench for a replacement. Those were the days of Cork backs and Limerick forwards -- the ratios have come closer together in recent times -- and the story goes that Ginger was none too impressed by the new man's Corinthian approach to the game."

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/21/2010

Fine selection

Mick Cleary delves deeper into a rare occurrence - Leicester's refusal to dip onto the replacements bench against Perpignan - in The Daily Telegraph

"It was quite a Sunday double for the Leicester director of rugby and if he can do it, then why can’t others? Cockerill chose not to use any of the eight substitutes available to him, a nigh-on unprecedented act in the modern game. Ah, but Leicester didn’t win? True, but Perpignan’s last-minute equalising penalty had nothing to do with the fact that eight Leicester blokes were sitting swaddled like Michelin men on the sidelines. The Tigers’ starting XV were still punching their weight, driving hard in the scrum and in the loose.

"Shaggy-haired, breast-beating, fist-pumping Martin Castrogiovanni was a compelling sight at Welford Road, the prop glaring and roaring over the crumpled heap that had been the stable, upright Perpignan scrum a few seconds earlier. Interestingly, Perpignan’s difficulties in the scrum started when they hoicked off their hooker, Marius Tincu, early in the second half. The Catalan side used seven substitutes in all, yet had to rely on a late penalty to get the draw.

"The men with clipboards will tell you that subs do make a difference, that there is an impact, that fresher is fitter and better than battle-worn and jaded. Well, it wasn’t on Sunday."

December 20, 2010

Posted by Mark Doyle on 12/20/2010

Leinster inspire, Munster perspire

In his column in the Irish Examiner, Donal Lenihan analyses the performances of the three Irish performances over the course of the latest round of Heineken Cup action.

"The net result of the weekend’s deliberations is that all three Irish sides have qualification to the knockout stage within their control even if some, Leinster in particular, are in a better position than others.

"It was inevitable, given the quality in their squad, that the Ospreys were going to dent Munster’s European aspirations at some stage in this tournament, and Saturday was the day.

"The only consolation for Munster was that it could have been worse. At least they had the satisfaction of clinging on to that bonus point at the death. If the one secured at the outset of this pool at the Madejski Stadium against London Irish was fashioned by some quality work from David Wallace, Duncan Williams and Sam Tuitupou, this one owed more to very poor game management and decision-making by Ospreys captain Alun-Wyn Jones."

Posted by Mark Doyle on 12/20/2010

Craig's millions buy too much uncertainty for troubled Bath

Chris Hewett of The Independent feels that Bath's defeat by Ulster at the Recreation Ground on Saturday proves that there are some things that money can't buy.

"He may have been the most merciless back-row bandit ever to rob an opponent of his sanity and self-respect in a public place: certainly, the phrase "mad, bad and dangerous to know" was an insipid understatement when used in his connection.

"Roger Spurrell, the captain who launched Bath on their golden decade, travelled north from his beachside home in Cornwall at the weekend to cast an eye over his old club in their fight for Heineken Cup survival, hob-nobbing with the owner Bruce Craig in his private box, catching up with a few greying ex-playmates in the public bar, offering an opinion or two, listening to a whole lot more. It was good to see him again.

"Quite what he concluded about what he had seen and heard was anyone's guess - there was always something elusive about him, even in the early days - but this much was blindingly obvious: there was not even a trace element of the Spurrell spirit to be found among the current Bath players on Saturday.

"Against an Ulster side missing a talismanic flanker of their own in Stephen Ferris, struggling with their discipline around the tackle area and down to 14 men at the last knockings, the West Countrymen were so lacking in killer instinct that this "should win" game became a "can't win" game almost without them noticing."

Posted by Mark Doyle on 12/20/2010

Leinster provide the blueprint for Kidney to follow

Writing in the Irish Independent,, Peter Bills hails what he feels was a "seminal performance" by Leinster in Saturday's Heineken Cup clash with Clermont Auvergne at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

"If Leinster faces were creased in smiles after this marvellous match, those belonging to two other, quite separate, groups of rugby men were lined with furrowed brows.

"For this encounter, this seminal performance by Leinster, raised some pertinent and uncomfortable questions for two other rugby parties.

"The most obviously discomforted group was the French contingent. Here were the reigning champions of France, a club that had targeted the Heineken Cup this season as its most-wanted trophy, swept away by the pace, power and unrelenting intensity of the Leinster team."

December 17, 2010

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 12/17/2010

Critics should know better

Writing in The Guardian Shaun Edwards urges those lambasting the scrum to think again.

"The scrum is in danger of getting a bad name. It's becoming the butt of those rugby fashionistas who seem intent on portraying it as a waste of playing time and merely a method of restarting the game, rather than something very much at the core of the sport. They should know better and if last weekend didn't help them to see the light, then I suspect little will. We'll continue to get "Scrum time 8 minutes" flashed up on our television screens or retired backs poking fun, when a little thought would go a long way.

"At scrum time packs have been instructed to "Crouch, touch, pause" before they "Engage". The result has been endless collapses and resets, and when referees were then instructed to crack down on the resets, we got streams of penalties instead. Now, them that knows say that scrums have been turned into balancing acts as front rows struggle not to concede any advantage in the hit and increasingly they are suggesting removing the "pause" phase of the preliminaries because it's one complication too many, especially if the referee gets the rhythm wrong and delays too long before calling engage. Also because there is a de facto pause in the instruction anyway."

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 12/17/2010

Why it's wrong to stop Brendan Venter telling it like it is

The Daily Mail's Chris Foy launches a defence of Brendan Venter's infamous interview and says both sides need to take a step back from the dispute.

"There is a certain irony in the fact that Brendan Venter has provided rugby with yet another talking point by saying next to nothing in a post-match interview. Saracens’ out-going director of rugby has a habit of rattling cages and he was at it again last Saturday. He delivered a series of mumbled, non-answers on Sky – in protest at a huge European Rugby Cup fine last month for publicly criticising referees, and inspired by the film Mike Bassett, England Manager. From the out-pouring of angst and recrimination that has followed, you would think the ex-Springbok centre had kidnapped a kid or drowned a cute kitten. A dash of perspective is in order here.

"First and foremost, there is undoubtedly an element of pettiness at play. This circus sideshow has all the hallmarks of a lovers’ tiff – with both sides wanting to have the final word. And so ERC duly stewed on Venter’s rambling, verbal version of a two-fingered gesture, then delivered a statement condemning his behaviour, having already privately acknowledged that they had no scope to take action as, strictly-speaking, he had done nothing wrong. Their riposte merely served to prolong the pantomime when they should have realised that this was merely an example of a feisty character demonstrating his frustration in a way that was harmless enough and unlikely to be repeated."

December 16, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/16/2010

The calm between the storms

Munster boss Tony McGahan opted against a bit of referee bashing in the build-up to his side's re-match with the Ospreys, the Irish Independent's David Kelly reports.

"Following last Sunday's incendiary affair at Thomond Park, Munster completed their only contact session of the week in Cork Institute of Technology facilities yesterday ahead of their Heineken Cup re-match with the Ospreys in Swansea. Their physical preparedness is undeniable. Much of this week's challenge will be in the mind.

"Hence, yesterday there was little of the spikiness evidenced after Sunday's bruising win from Team Munster, merely a myopic focus on ensuring that they maintain their progress in this mine-filled Pool 3.

"Introspection trumps indiscretion, within Munster at least. McGahan could be forgiven, for example, some apprehension that the Ospreys' accusations of illegalities by Munster's tight-heads could influence Saturday's French referee, Roman Poite -- especially as Monsieur Poite has had a rocky history with Munster in the Heineken Cup."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/16/2010

French club rugby puts Les Bleus in the shade

While the spirit of liberty and independence runs through French rugby, the tricolore flutters alone according to The Guardian's Paul Rees.

"French rugby has long been regarded from outside as an enigma. It has been seen as an antidote to the trench rugby being waged elsewhere; racehorses rather than shire horses, as one writer put it in the 1960s, a feast of unpredictability.

"A few weeks after France were thrashed by Australia in Paris, taking their points conceded against two Tri-Nations sides this year to three figures after crashing to South Africa in the summer, seven French clubs lined up in the third round of the Heineken Cup.

"Racing Métro were at Saracens, Toulon were in Reading to face London Irish, Perpignan welcomed Leicester, Castres were at home to Edinburgh, Toulouse travelled to Glasgow, Clermont Auvergne entertained Leinster and Biarritz, who had not lost since September, went to Aironi, who had not won all season.

"Biarritz were the biggest bankers to win but they ended up the only losers. If they confirmed the stereotype of the French being poor travellers, Racing, Toulon and (again) Toulouse shredded it. All the leading French clubs have at least a handful of players from other countries: old shibboleths now have little relevance."

December 15, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/15/2010

Bad blood

David Kelly previews what is set to be a tumultuous Heineken Cup showdown between the Ospreys and Munster in The Irish Independent.

"From the moment that Brett Sinkinson stamped on Ronan O'Gara's ankle en route to Munster's Celtic League final romp in 2003, bad blood has coursed through the recent history of clashes between the two-time European champions and the perennial pretenders from Wales.

"In fact, it goes back even further. During the 2003 World Cup, Munster travelled to Neath with a callow side minus 13 internationals and Jeremy Staunton was singled out towards the end of a narrow 33-26 defeat.

"Bearing the visible scars of a terrific shoeing, a dejected Staunton prompted Declan Kidney to issue a stirring broadside to his deflated troops. "Look at the state of that man's face," Kidney said to a stunned dressing-room. "I don't mind if you get beaten on the scoreline, but don't ever let yourselves be beaten up again."

December 14, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/14/2010

Number crunching

Aironi bucked the trend with victory over Biarritz © Getty Images

Gerry Thornley crunches some numbers following another hard-fought round of Heineken Cup action in The Irish Times.

"As Heineken Cup weekends go, that was quite unusual. Although eight of the dozen games were won by the home side, most unusually in all bar two of the games (Biarritz’s stunning defeat to Aironi and Perpignan’s five-point win against Leicester) anyone backing the away side on the handicap betting with the bookies would have come out on top.

"Toulouse were the biggest winners of the weekend when beating Glasgow in Firhill on Friday night, and this set a trend as Racing Metro and Toulon defied their odds as six-point underdogs to actually win away to Saracens and London Irish. Apart from Glasgow, the only sides who didn’t obtain losing bonus points were Treviso and Cardiff, who lost by eight points at the Scarlets and Northampton. All other nine losers extracted bonus points, which was a record for the competition and confirms the impression that this is the most competitive Heineken Cup ever.

"Consider the previous record was set in the first round of this season’s competition when seven of the dozen games ended within the seven-point margin needed for a losing bonus point. In the previous 42 Pool rounds over the last seven seasons the most losing bonus points secured in a round were six on four occasions (round two 09/10; rounds four and six 08/09; round three 04/05)."

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/14/2010

O'Connell's crime was getting caught

David Kelly looks at the fallout from Munster lock Paul O'Connell's red card against the Ospreys in The Irish Independent.

"Paul O'Connell did not need the judgment of his peers to realise that Sunday's moment of madness offered as little wriggle room for escape as that afforded to the hapless, shirt-tugging Jonathan Thomas.

"But they were damning nonetheless, and their harsh scrutiny should mirror the post-mortem that will certainly be taking place behind closed doors within the Munster squad this week, as they prepare for their pivotal return clash with the Ospreys on Saturday.

"Indeed, Munster's Denis Leamy abruptly rejected any defence from his own camp by starkly outlining the bare facts of the matter yesterday."

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/14/2010

Scrum down

Mick Cleary puts forward his love of the scrummage following Perpignan's battle with Leicester in The Daily Telegraph.

"If you find that slow build-up of tension dull, that creation of climax as 600 kilos of beef and bone slug it out tedious, the feeling that at any moment one of the sides might crack and the slow, death-march towards the opposition line begin mind-numbing, then I suggest you watch rugby league, football or Strictly Come Dancing.

"The scrum is an integral part of rugby union, as loved by the sport’s connoisseurs as spin bowling is by cricket lovers, and it must remain so. Let us get rid of the notion that it is a mere restart, a chance to get play on the move again after an infringement.

"That’s cobblers. It is a fundamental part of the contest, a mano-a-mano contest to discover who is the more powerful, the more courageous, the more technically accomplished and, often, who wants it most."

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/14/2010

Think for yourselves

Robert Kitson offers his take on Saracens coach Brendan Venter's bizarre post-match interview in The Guardian.

"Voltaire never actually wrote the phrase most frequently attributed to him. Apparently his famous mantra - "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - simply paraphrased a passage in his Essay on Tolerance, specifically the key line: "Think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so too." How ironic that a man who best defined the concept of freedom of speech should end up being misquoted.

"At least his memory lives on, courtesy this week of a rugby coach whose name also starts with a V. For those who did not see it, Brendan Venter's post-match interview on Sky following Saracens's defeat to Racing Metro on Saturday is worth studying. This is what happens when an intelligent man tries to be a bit too clever and attempts to expose the stupidity of others without realising he is actually making an idiot of himself. The fact Venter had a point when he delivered his original rant about refereeing consistency in Europe back in October was rather lost on those who simply saw a man in need of urgent psychological help."

December 13, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/13/2010

Unprofessional and pointless

Sarries boss Brendan Venter is in the headlines once again © Getty Images

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, former England international and now award-winning author Brian Moore offers his take on the bizarre post-match interview given by Saracens boss Brendan Venter at the weekend.

"How you interpret Venter’s behaviour rests largely on whether you agree with his claim that both he and Saracens have been treated unfairly by referees generally and by European Rugby Cup particularly. So preternatural was Venter’s performance that it could evidence numerous things; the only common verdict being that it was, by any yardstick, unusual to the point of disturbing.

"Depending from where you begin your diagnosis, any of the following could be mooted as a reason for Venter’s exposition – mental illness; the influence of mind-altering substances; autism; incivility; arrogance; childishness; an ill-judged attempt at humour; an appalling lack of appreciation of his position or defiance towards ERC and the disciplinary measures visited on him for previous comments made post-match.

"People who know him were sufficiently concerned about his behaviour to state that something was not right with him and you have to wonder what Venter, who is also a doctor, would have made of a person exhibiting symptoms similar to those captured on camera. If Venter is not ill, then none of the alternative explanations is acceptable for a man holding his position in what purports to be a professional outfit."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/13/2010

O'Connell facing ban

Both Leinster and Munster face an anxious wait on the availability of their respective Lions’ captains and totems, Brian O'Driscoll and Paul O'Connell, according to the Irish Times' Gerry Thornley.

"The fallout for Munster was arguably the more unnerving. They appeared well set to press on and secure a bonus point win of their own when Johne Murphy crossed for their third try in the 63rd minute to put them 22-13 ahead. That they didn’t was due to a Dan Biggar penalty and a red card for Paul O’Connell which left them hanging on at the end and facing the possibility of their inspirational captain being suspended.

"Scarcely in the infancy of his comeback, and making just his second appearance for Munster since last January, O’Connell’s desperation to make up for lost time may or may not have contributed to him lashing out while being tugged from behind by Jonathan Thomas. In the process, he caught Thomas in the face with his forearm.

"O’Connell had his back turned to Thomas and it didn’t look like a red card at the time, but as ever slow-motion replays make instinctive offences look worse. The Lions captain had been on the pitch for 10 minutes but was then obliged to cut a familiarly frustrated figure for the final 10 minutes."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/13/2010

Wilkinson reminds Johnson of his class

The Times' Mark Souster reports from Toulon's valuable Heineken Cup victory over London Irish.

"Jonny Wilkinson made a happy return to England yesterday and, with 14 points, helped steer Toulon to victory.

"In the process he proved conclusively, if indeed proof was needed, that anyone contemplating writing the fly half’s international obituary would be wise to reconsider. Wilkinson is about to commit himself to a new contract in the South of France, a move that will make Martin Johnson, the England team manager, think twice about not considering players based overseas.

"Wilkinson’s perfect return of four penalties and a conversion — and his overall game management — contrasted sharply with the fortunes of Ryan Lamb, his opposite number, who missed two penalty-goal attempts and failed to put his stamp on the game.

"The overall impact was that in the tournament’s tightest group, Wilkinson’s contribution to his side’s win keeps them in the hunt for qualification for the quarter-finals from pool three while London Irish’s hopes have all been extinguished, despite the late retrieval of a bonus point.

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/13/2010

Scots made to pay for costly mistakes

The Scotsman's Gareth Black reports as Edinburgh's euro hopes take a dive against Castres.

"There goes another year where Edinburgh have knocked themselves out of the Heineken Cup before the half-way mark in the pool stages, but what really, really frustrates Rob Moffat, the coach, is that he knows this was yet another in the season's already long catalogue of results that got away.

"...As with Glasgow against Toulouse the previous night, the issue was the set piece. For the team in the west, the problem had been the scrums, but for Edinburgh it was the lineout that misfired badly, particularly when Scott Murray was on the field and picking the ball out of the air with all the enthusiasm of a player 15 years younger than he really is before being forced off by a calf injury."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/13/2010

Ospreys come up short again

Ospreys were handed another harsh lesson in what it takes to be a top team in Europe as they failed to overcome a misfiring Munster, the Western Mail's Andy Howell reports.

"Scott Johnson’s team did keep their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup for a fourth consecutive year by picking up a valuable losing bonus point during a bruising battle. But the truth is the Welsh flagship region were not good enough to win... again.

"Their back play was pitiful with their midfield triangle of outside-half Dan Biggar, James Hook and Andrew Bishop offering next to nothing in offence, while neither centre defended particularly well either.

"Without the individual brilliance of injured superstar Shane Williams, the limitations and lack of structure in the Ospreys’ three-quarters line, which has been an on-going theme for a number of years, was again evident."

December 12, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/12/2010

No hard shoulder to cry on

The Independent on Sunday's Hugh Godwin reports that Andy Powell has moved on from the infamous golf-buggy incident and is flying at Wasps ahead of his side's Heineken Cup clash with the Dragons.

"Andy Powell knew he would be treading the green, green grass of home this afternoon, and though the venue for Wasps' Heineken Cup match has changed from Newport Gwent Dragons' Rodney Parade to the Cardiff City Stadium, the sentiment is the same.

"The much-travelled Welsh No 8 is happy to visit when playing for his London employers, or when he is needed by his country, and one day he will settle down in his Brecon birthplace. Otherwise there is no going back. "I'll start talking with Wasps over Christmas," says Powell. "I'd like to see out my rugby-playing career here."

"Knowing the history of this 29-year-old Wasp who trains in Acton, plays in High Wycombe and lives in Westminster, where a taxi driver might think Rodney Parade is the Dragons' star player, he is, it is fair to say, very Welsh. He is, by turns, wistful, warm, impulsive, barmy. Twp, they'd say, in Welsh. In London, maybe, lively or lairy."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/12/2010

Clubs limp back to Heineken Cup

Such was the intensity of autumn engagement that many teams return to European action nursing injuries and fearing the worst. The Observers' Eddie Butler writes.

"You can't avoid the feeling that the return to Heineken Cup action this weekend lacks its customary edge. Europe still seems to be, if not reeling from, then certainly rocked by what happened in November's rounds of international matches. France, in particular, were left gasping in defeat by the Wallabies. The final few minutes of that game could well exert an influence for months to come.

"Now may be a good time to exploit French fragility. If only London Irish were not wobbling a bit themselves, they might fancy giving Toulon a bit of a run-around in Reading.

"If it is possible to travel to the formidable Stade Michelin in Clermont-Ferrand with a fair degree of confidence, then Leinster, whose coach, Joe Schmidt, used to be the backs coach at Clermont Auvergne, could well be in the right mood. They will be telling themselves that they have already won away, at Saracens, without Brian O'Driscoll.

"Dealing with the fall-out of November is going to be an issue everywhere. Wales managed a single draw from four matches in the month but have generally not been deafened by calls for a coaching cull, which must come as a bit of a relief for Warren Gatland."

December 11, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/11/2010

Thomond Park factor can give Munster the X Factor

Writing in the Irish Times, Gerry Thornley previews Munster's Heineken Cup showdon with the Ospreys in Limerick on Sunday.

"Thomond Park has often spooked visiting teams from almost the moment they step into the Munster citadel, and even though the Limerick venue and the city almost assumes a different persona on Heineken Cup days, familiarity through the Magners League makes the Ospreys more dangerous tomorrow.

"Compare and contrast, say, to the first-day nerves when Toulon came to Thomond Park (or indeed Racing-Metro to the RDS). For the Ospreys, the rout in the quarter-finals here two years ago probably remains their most sour memory of recent times, establishing Munster as something of a Euro benchmark for them, and this was put to good effect when they won in the league at Thomond last season.

"That was part of a three-game, week-long Irish tour which also took in a win over Ulster, and though they lost to Leinster, subsequently avenged that defeat in the Magners League Grand Final. Mentally, it was a very significant week for the Welsh region."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/11/2010

Phillips to meet Munster head on

The Ospreys' Mike Phillips has never shied away from a confrontation in his life and he certainly isn’t going to start now. The Western Mail's Simon Thomas reports.

"The Wales and Lions scrum-half prides himself on his ability to withstand any kind of physical and mental intimidation on or off a rugby field.

"The pressure of Grand Slam games, Lions Test matches and even the personal criticism he endured over his performances for Wales during the autumn are all part and parcel of his career.

"So Phillips’ assertion that the Ospreys’ Heineken Cup double-header against Munster, over the next two weeks, is the defining moment of their season shouldn’t be dismissed"

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/11/2010

Returning heroes must display the virtues of saints

Northampton's down-to-earth set-up should ensure England players don't let fame go to their heads. The Independent's Chris Hewett reports.

"The American jockey Eddie Arcaro knew a thing or two about success: he rode almost 5,000 winners, bagged two Stateside Triple Crowns – one more than anyone else, ever – and rattled off classic victories in the routine way a bingo caller might mumble his numbers into a muffled microphone.

"Once a guy starts wearing silk pyjamas, it's hard to get up early," he said when asked to reflect on the difficulty of keeping things in perspective. Right now, the best rugby team in England have a number of players in silk pyjamas.

"Ben Foden, the full-back; the wing Chris Ashton; Dylan Hartley, the hooker; the lock Courtney Lawes ... suddenly, these young men are the talk of every clubhouse in Christendom. And they all play for Northampton, who have some very important business on their agenda, not least this evening's Heineken Cup meeting with Cardiff Blues at Franklin's Gardens and the return leg in the Welsh capital in eight days' time. Will the red-rose quartet revisit the heights they scaled in helping England to that startling victory over the Wallabies last month, or will they, to pinch Arcaro's metaphor, stay in bed?"

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/11/2010

Racing Métro lead French revolution

France rugby's version of Manchester City - Racing Metro - have huge ambitions for the future, have dropped the good-time image and they also play in sky blue. The Guardian's Rob Kitson reports.

"It has, by Parisian standards, been a quiet revolution. Nothing too flashy or triumphalist, no provocative celebrations. Even so, in years to come rugby historians will regard the past seven days as hugely significant in terms of the European club game. A sky-blue power is starting to emerge within French rugby and the implications on both sides of the Channel threaten to be seismic and long-lasting.

"An exaggeration? Not if a multimillionaire named Jacky Lorenzetti has his way. The real estate magnate is one of France's wealthiest men; three years ago he was estimated to be worth about €700m (£587m). Having sold 93% of his company, Foncia, at the height of the property boom in 2007, he has poured bucketloads into Racing Métro 92, an amalgamated club better known for Racing's evocative past than their more recent accomplishments."

December 10, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/10/2010

Boiling point

Chris Hewett offers his pool by pool form guide ahead of the latest Heineken Cup showdowns in The Independent.

"Damned clever, the Heineken Cup. Europe's premier club tournament launches itself in mid-autumn with a fanfare of trumpets and an entire season's worth of razzamatazz, yet it keeps its true nature hidden until the dark days of winter, when the contenders play a series of back-to-back matches that invariably dictate the future course of the competition.

"The central section of this season's pool stage begins tonight with Glasgow welcoming Toulouse, the champions, to the Arctic outpost of Firhill Stadium, but if the temperatures north of the border are at rock bottom, the mercury will rise very rapidly over the weekend when the leading clubs from four of the six pools meet in a series of highly significant contests."

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/10/2010

Galacticos and ghosts

Wasps coach Shaun Edwards previews the latest round of Heineken Cup action in The Guardian.

"This is it. A fortnight of the best in club rugby. From Perpignan in the deep south of France to Limerick in the west of Ireland, via Viadana in Lombardy, the cream of Europe goes head to head. In my experience only back-to-back Tests with the Lions creates such concentrated pressure.

"This is when teams with a history use their heads and when the new kids on the block discover whether they are learning fast enough. An away win is heaven; even a bonus point on the road and you're doing somersaults. Lose at home and you're looking at a bleak Christmas.

"If you think I'm exaggerating then look at the fixture list: Northampton v Cardiff Blues, Saracens v Racing Métro, Perpignan v Leicester … and that's just tomorrow. On Sunday Munster welcome the assembled stars of the Ospreys to Thomond, London Irish have Toulon, Jonny and assorted galácticos at the Madejski while Clermont Auvergne host Leinster and the ghosts of last season."

October 18, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/18/2010

Tolkienesque Waldrom

Leicester's Thomas Waldrom celebrates his try against the Scarlets © Getty Images

There are 24 teams in the Heineken Cup. No more than a fortnight into the tournament, it is transparently clear that two-thirds of them are making up the numbers, according to The Independent's Chris Hewett.

"Welford Road was an absolute bear pit yesterday: between them, the Tigers' coaches Richard Cockerill and Matt O'Connor generated more heat and noise than 82,000 England supporters ever produce at Twickenham, and even if the visitors had been tougher, nastier and less weak-minded than Scarlets, they would still have found it a scary place to be.

"The Welshmen are fast building a reputation as one of the best counter-attacking sides in Europe, but as they had no way of countering the Leicester pack in any phase of the forward game anywhere on the field, their opportunities to attack could be counted on the fingers of one hand. If they suffer a worse hiding than this any time soon, they will be within their rights to ask the almighty what it is he has against them.

"At the heart of the Midlanders' exceptional performance was Thomas Waldrom, their summer signing from All Black country. A useful career as a Super 14 back-rower with the Canterbury Crusaders, who win that elite competition at least as often as not, is testament to his powers, but it is doubtful whether the Christchurch faithful ever witnessed a better performance than the one he delivered here."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/18/2010

McGahan’s marvels

Munster offered a signal of intent with a shock-and-awe slaughter of mighty Toulon, so writes the Irish Independent's Hugh Farrelly.

"Another riotous entry on Munster's 'Hooked on Classics' album, this thumping victory over Top 14 heavyweights Toulon had all the characteristics of the province's best European days over the last 10 years.

A 'win or bust' prerogative against highly rated opponents. A cacophony of noise from a Thomond Park full house determined to play their part in proceedings.

Refereeing injustice, as Wayne Barnes and his team ignored a preposterous pass that allowed Toulon open the try-scoring while Munster waited for the whistle to sound.

A pantomime villain in Felipe Contepomi, whose slow second-half trudge to the sin-bin elicited the loudest roars of the day.

Peter Stringer firing the ball out with dizzying speed and accuracy and executing a trademark ankle tap when Toulon broke free. Ronan O'Gara kicking the ball over from all angles and exuding the control that saw him honoured as this competition's most effective operator last season.

And, an overall intensity from the men in red jerseys that totally swamped the opposition, sounding out a war cry that will be heard all over Europe."

October 16, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/16/2010

Leinster on road to Wembley

The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley previews Leinster's Heineken Cup clash with Saracens at Wembley.

"A near 50,000 crowd at Wembley for the Leinster galacticos, albeit without their greatest galactico of all; the men in red fighting for their lives in round two in front of a 27,000-packed house in their Thomond Park bear pit, the Springbok-infused Ulstermen sampling the delights of the Basque country in Biarritz and mouth-watering matches wherever else you look.

Even by Heineken Cup standards, this is not an average weekend.

Proving that he is not, after all, super human, no doubt to his great disappointment Brian O’Driscoll will not be adorning the new Wembley as Keith Wood and co did 11 years ago – when uncle Fester scored one of Ireland’s tries in the 29-23 win over Wales. In his stead, Joe Schmidt has opted to play Luke Fitzgerald in the number 13 jersey against Saracens today, thereby recalling Shane Horgan to the wing (as well as Cian Healy to the frontrow)."

October 15, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/15/2010

Ulster invest in South African steel

The Irish Times' Gavin Cummiskey meets Ulster lock Johann Muller, one of four Springboks giving the province a new edge.

"It has long been established that the toughest place to go and win a game of rugby is New Zealand. Just ask the 2005 Lions. Or the 2007 Springboks.

"Before the last World Cup, then South Africa coach Jake White made the brave decision to sacrifice the Tri-Nations away matches to New Zealand and Australia in an attempt to find the best 30-man squad. With Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha put on ice, Johann Muller got his opportunity. If it wasn’t for these two brilliant locks we would know more about the man who will carry the battle to Imanol Harinordoquy and the Biarritz pack on Sunday.

"When Bobby Skinstad cried off from the Christchurch Test in 2007, the captaincy went automatically to Muller. Despite the 33-6 defeat to the supposedly world champions elect, White had seen enough to know how valuable the big man would be as a squad member."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/15/2010

Can Cardiff gives Castres the Blues?

Blues must up their game but they must feel there is a chance of a crucial win at Stade Pierre-Antoine, according to Shaun Edwards in The Guardian.

"Tonight Cardiff Blues and the Ospreys, two of the more favoured sides before the competition got under way, play matches which could go a long way to deciding how far they go in the competition. Ospreys because defeat at home to London Irish means a struggle to get out of Pool Three, where no second team is likely to go through. Cardiff because they should be sensing the chance of a vital away win against a side that can blow hot and cold.

"That said, the Blues were a long way off their best against Edinburgh, winning by a point, and Martyn Williams is now among the ranks of the missing while, but for a disputed try, Castres might have pulled off the shock of the first round at Northampton. I'm not suggesting the trip south will be easy, hardly anything is in Europe these days, but there's the sniff of a chance."

October 14, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/14/2010

Time to put the hard hat on

Munster’s Donncha O’Callaghan in no mood to let down the fans ahead of the Toulon's visit to Thomond Park. The Irish Times Keith Duggan reports.

"This isn't quite a last stand for Munster but around the famous ground in Limerick this week, there was a growing sense that Munster – team and raucous fans – will have to concoct one of those days if they are to prevail against Toulon.

The French team, shimmering with wealth and a motley crew of superstars are seeking to inflict a third defeat in succession on the Irish club. A defeat here could seriously debilitate Munster’s season even as if just beginning. The losses to Leinster in the Magners League and London Irish in their opening Heineken Cup match were competitive.

Still, three on the trot would make for a black October. And the Munster players are in a familiar place: smarting and desperate for a return to what they know best.

“It is what gets you across the line,” Donncha O’Callaghan said of the Thomond Park atmosphere that has acquired an international mystique since European club competition caught hold."

October 13, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/13/2010

Culture clash

Writing in the Irish Independent, Hugh Farrelly previews Munster's Heineken Cup meeting with Toulon.

"Bankrolled by Mourad Boudjellal -- who made his millions in the cartoon business -- Toulon have been throwing their financial weight about for some time, having had the likes of Tana Umaga, George Gregan and Andrew Mehrtens on their salary sheet as they set about gaining a foothold in the top flight of French rugby.

"Since that was achieved, the same financial clout has allowed Boudjellal to assemble a squad of superstars that would do justice to one of his comic- strip fantasies, with Jonny Wilkinson, Felipe Contepomi, Carl Hayman, George Smith and Joe van Niekerk representing some of the most talented and well-established names in the world game.

"Munster have had a smattering of glamorous overseas signings over the years -- Christian Cullen, Doug Howlett and Jean de Villiers -- but their success has been driven by parochial power through an identification with the jersey and province rather than from acquired overseas talent."

October 12, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/12/2010

English could be left behind

Saracens' Alex Goode on the charge in France © Getty Images

English clubs could be left behind by the combined financial clout of the French giants, according to Mick Cleary in The Daily Telegraph.

"Don’t be fooled by Nigel Wray’s affable exterior. As any fan of Reggie Perrin knows, you don’t get to achieve what Wray has in business without having a cold-eyed grasp of bottom lines and a hard-nosed attitude as to what needs to be done.

"The Saracens chairman knows only too well that if his club do not get themselves sorted out with a new stadium or considerably better facilities than those on offer at Vicarage Road pretty damn soon, they will be also-rans.

"Wray was a guest of Clermont-Auvergne for Saturday’s Heineken Cup opening Pool Two game. It was a splendid occasion, from the moment the capacity crowd of 16,000 began jumping in unison to club anthems long before kick-off to the alarming, if absurd, sight of a 10-strong phalanx of security guards rushing out at the final whistle to pack in around Scottish referee Peter Allen as he left the field. Colour, noise, a whiff of menace – French rugby at its intoxicating best."

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/12/2010

Munster should call on Warwick

Tony Ward believes that Munster should turn to Paul Warwick to get their Heineken Cup camapign off and running in The Irish Independent.

"For Munster, it was in many ways mission accomplished at the Madejski. They did not play particularly well yet, in typically resilient fashion, eked out a bonus point that, in the end, they had every right to. London Irish coach Toby Booth has a bit to learn yet in his take on bonus point relevance.

"However, Tony McGahan does have cause for concern. When Paul O'Connell, Jerry Flannery, David Wallace, Lifeimi Mafi and Tomas O'Leary are fully fit and back in the mix, the two-time winners will be a different proposition but, for now, it's all hands to the pump in a qualifying path they know so well."

October 11, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/11/2010

Hammer the hammer

David Kelly believes that Leinster's marshalling of Sebastien Chabal was vital to their opening Heineken Cup success in The Irish Independent.

"Ronan O'Gara was once asked about the best practice when confronted with a totemic opponent. "Hammer the hammer," came the reply. Sebastien Chabal is such a talisman. Munster hammered him en route to their maiden Heineken Cup triumph. Ireland hammered him en route to their 2009 Grand Slam.

"And on Saturday, despite early encouragement for the Captain Caveman of modern rugby against Jamie Heaslip, Leinster repeatedly hammered him in a most impressive opening statement in their latest European foray.

"At an RDS which rocked to its ancient foundations despite the indecently early kick-off, Leinster traded blows with their aristocratic visitors for a half-hour before a scintillating four-minute scoring burst that transformed a cagey 3-3 into an authoritative 18-3."

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/11/2010

A bit of Moss Keane spirit

Brian Moore believes that London Irish must find some added grit if they are to progress in Europe in The Daily Telegraph.

"For a start, both London Irish and Keane’s beloved Munster warmed up for a good 40 minutes on the pitch before kick-off.

"Keane had many anecdotes attributed to him. Most need no exaggeration, including one in which he was sitting in the changing room at Lansdowne Road lighting up, whereupon the trainer came in and told him to get on to the pitch for a warm-up. “Feck off,” was the reply, “I’m warm enough. I had the heater on in the car on the way”.

"It would have been delightful to see Keane grace a competition such as the Heineken Cup which, although the poorer cousin of football’s Champions League, is its superior in terms of the quality of pool games that precede its knockout stages."

October 10, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/10/2010

A vital point

Ronan O'Gara is welcome to the Madejski © Getty Images

Brendan Fanning looks at Munster's precious away bonus-point against London Irish in The Sunday Independent.

"On the flight to London yesterday morning the Aer Lingus hostess asked a man in a Munster jersey who was struggling to get his gear into the overhead locker if he had got over the shock of last weekend. Clearly she was a Leinster fan. Quick as a flash he looked at her and said: "Hold on a minute -- we could've flown Ryanair you know!"

"There and then you thought that Munster would have to be every bit as sharp if they were to survive at the Madejski Stadium where 20,188 turned up to see a tie the home club had been wishing for every time the names were being pulled out of the hat in this competition.

"Munster were a long way from sharp, but having trailed 6-20 early in the second half they did what they have done so often in the past and worked their way back into the game. The reward was a bonus point with literally the last play of the game, in which Ronan O'Gara threaded through a lovely ball for Sam Tuitupou to latch onto."

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/10/2010


Bath prop David Flatman looks ahead to Sunday's meeting with Biarritz at the Rec, insisting that it's an early season must-win in The Independent on Sunday.

"Can you have a must-win game in October? Well, we have, and it's today. And the good news is that the team we have to beat are currently trailing French Top 14 leaders Toulouse by just four points.

"OK, so let's be frank. The club will not disappear if we come off second best but somehow this Heineken Cup clash at home to Biarritz feels like more than just a competition opener. Our start to the season has pitched and dived and, as is the way in sport at any level, it is the dives that stick so resolutely to the walls of the players' minds.

"This is an unfortunate phenomenon but one that can be tackled in just one way: by winning. Losing repeatedly does so much more than cost a team a few points in a table. It serves to perpetuate the plunge in morale, to exacerbate the sense of inadequacy and to feed the demons of defeat that lie hungry, waiting for a chance to feast on a man's fear."

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/10/2010

A referee by your side

Eddie Butler can't escape the spectre of rugby's referees, despite his best efforts, in The Observer.

"In my time away from these pages, dear readers, I have travelled high and low. I have been up Mount Kilimanjaro on the adventure of a lifetime and been washed by the monsoon waters of the lower Usk valley before the sporting milestone that was the Ryder Cup. And everywhere I have been it seems that the rugby referee has gone too. We talked about him at 20,000 feet over Africa, and discussed him even as Europe's golfers demanded that there be no other topic of conversation than their advance down a knife-edge towards victory. You think you've escaped, but there's the ref, by your side.

"His is not an easy lot. Just about the only line of common sense to survive the folly of the project known as the Experimental Law Variations after the 2007 World Cup came from the head of referees at the International Rugby Board, Paddy O'Brien, when he said that the whole aim was to reduce the subjectivity of the referee and thus make him less the centre of attention. It was a noble goal, but one missed by a country mile.

"On Friday night it was hardly the fault of John Lacey, a former wing with Shannon and Munster, and now a ref on the rise, that Northampton and Castres should allow nerves to undermine their deservedly lofty European ambitions. There was nothing any referee could do to cure a Bruce Reihana duck hook, apart from spare him the embarrassment, I suppose, by awarding his side no penalties."

October 9, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/09/2010

Rugby's finest marksmen

Toulon's Jonny Wilkinson will grace the Heineken Cup stage this weekend © Getty Images

The world's finest kickers will be out in force on the Heineken Cup's first weekend. Who will dominate the competition? The Independent's Chris Hewett previews the action.

"The poor misguided souls who sit on the International Rugby Board have tried everything under the sun – everything, that is, except the blindingly obvious – to wrest the game away from the goal-kickers and place it in the hands of the try-scorers, spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on "experimental law variations" that were laughed out of court and changing "refereeing interpretations" at the tackle area more often than an incurable germaphobe changes his underpants.

"And what can we expect on this opening weekend of the sport's most captivating tournament? A masterclass in the art of booting an oval-shaped ball between a pair of vertical sticks.

"It is still a kicker's game, whatever the governing body would have us think, and until the IRB gets really serious about creating space for runners by restoring the essential dynamic of the boots-on-bodies ruck and abolishing tactical substitutions that allow a player to be replaced at the first sign of breathlessness or the moment he finds himself being dominated by his opposite number, the big matches will continue to be decided by "les buteurs", as the French call them."

October 8, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/08/2010

Time for English clubs to step up

Who will lift the Heineken Cup this season? © Getty Images

As the Heineken Cup kicks off, Premiership sides face a tough test to upset the continental elite's growing dominance according to the Independent's Chris Hewett.

"In one sense, the performance of the English clubs in last season's Heineken Cup demonstrated a profound understanding of the meaning of Europe: they were as flat as the Netherlands, as anonymous as Luxembourg and as bankrupt as Greece. According to the men who run rugby at Premiership level, it was nothing more than a "blip" – a word no doubt heard in the boardroom of Lehmann Brothers when business first took a turn for the worse. It was no "blip", as the statistics demonstrate all too clearly.

"The English contingent participated in only five of the first seven Heineken Cup tournaments from 1995: those renowned visionaries at the Rugby Football Union prevented them playing in the first year; the clubs stopped themselves playing three years later. The return? Four titles, at a delivery rate of 80 per cent. The record since 2002 tells a very different story: two victories in eight attempts, both by Wasps. Over the same period, there have been three all-French finals.

"Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premier Rugby, excuses last term's damp-squibbery by pointing to the parlous state in which the English contenders found themselves at the start of the competition. He has a point, but not much of one."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/08/2010

I'm worried about Munster

Leinster and Munster must beat the best teams in Europe just to get out of their Heineken Cup pools, writes the Irish Times' Liam Toland.

"If you're going to win the Heineken Cup then you have to beat the best in Europe. This certainly makes sense but unfortunately both Munster and Leinster must beat the best in Europe to simply get out of their groups. Ulster, by contrast, have a great chance to build on an excellent start in the Magners League.

All three provinces have not hit the heights that will come with more rugby and continuity of selection. In the meantime, timing is all important and as Bayonne entertain (bash) Harlequins, fellow Amlin Challenge Cup Pool One side Connacht should be easing past Italians I Cavalieri Estra in Stadio Lungobisenzio.

Timing is certainly key for Ulster, with the best of starts, at home to Aironi Rugby, while fellow poolers Bath inflict some pain on Biarritz Olympique.

As always, the middle two fixtures is the making of the Heineken Cup season, not necessarily based on who you play but who you don’t.

In most cases the Irish provinces can control their own destinies but for Munster and Leinster such tough groups can be made all the easier if London Irish and Toulon and Saracens and Racing Métro 92 neutralise each other in the middle weeks."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/08/2010

Johnson blasts ‘go-slow’ Mike Phillips

Wales scrum-half Mike Phillips has been given a rocket about slow service from the base of the scrum by Ospreys director of rugby Scott Johnson. The Western Mail's Andy Howell reports.

"Johnson’s blast will be a real wake-up call to a player who, after his exploits with the Lions in South Africa last year, made it clear he sees himself as one of the best No 9s in the world.

"Now, as the Ospreys prepare to open their Heineken Cup campaign with a mouthwatering clash against Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon in the south of France tomorrow, Phillips, who has only just returned from a knee injury that disrupted his pre-season, has been left in no doubt he needs to raise his game several notches.

"Asked why the 2008 Grand Slam hero was pedestrian getting the ball away from the breakdown, the former Wales and Australia skills coach replied: “I wish I knew why, to be honest, mate."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/08/2010

Welsh giants to stop the French juggernaut?

The English sides must do better and Ospreys and Cardiff Blues could be the stiffest threat to a Clermont-Toulouse monopoly in this season's Heineken Cup according to the Guardian's Rob Kitson.

"Barely has one European side departed a sodden Wales than 24 teams from the same continent begin the long, mud-spattered haul towards Cardiff next May. As with the Ryder Cup, it pays not to assume a predictable journey. Logic suggests the 16th edition of the Heineken Cup will again be drenched in celebratory French champagne but, as in matchplay golf, the spirit of the Marquis de Sade is never far away.

"Exquisite torture is a fair way to describe a tournament which grows ever harder to win. In the case of Pools Two and Three, simply qualifying for the last eight will demand such reserves of willpower that survivors will feel they have withstood half a dozen hurricanes. Clermont Auvergne, Racing Métro, Leinster or Saracens? Munster, Ospreys, Toulon or London Irish? Even those clubs who finish third will be suffused with quiet pride."

October 6, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/06/2010

Novès ready to drive Toulouse on

It is easy to get seduced by the sheer exoticism of a club like Toulouse, according to the Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary.

"The Heineken Cup champions boast a Michelin-starred clubhouse restaurant, extravagant clothing boutiques, blue-chip sponsors and of course glamourpuss players such as Frédéric Michalak.

If you want a true insight as to why Toulouse will once again start this Heineken Cup campaign as one of the front-runners then look no further than the twitchy, fretful, stubbled-chinned, slightly down-at-heel head coach, Guy Novès.

He never rests, he never lets us rest," says Michalak, Toulouse's pin-up fly-half. "He is competitive in his very being, and that is why we are too. He is never satisfied. Believe me, never."

There are echoes of Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in Novès's relationship with Toulouse. In fact, the umbilical cord cuts even deeper given that the wiry Novès was once a wing for Toulouse, one who won two French titles. But the passion, the urgency, the relentlessness, the bottled-up rage that Ferguson brings to the task is also the hallmark of Novès."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/06/2010

Biggar relishes tilt at his boyhood idol

Dan Biggar aims to gun down his boyhood hero Jonny Wilkinson when the Ospreys open their bid for European glory with a glamorous tie in the Pool Three “group of death” at French big spenders Toulon on Saturday. The Western Mail's Andy Howell reports.

"Was Jonny a boyhood favourite?

“Yes. definitely,” beamed Biggar. “Back in 2003-02, he was probably the best player in the world. At that time, he was certainly someone I liked to model my game around. He was certainly someone I looked up to as a role model, so just to be able to step on the same pitch as him is almost a dream come true.”

But, typically, Biggar, 21 in 10 days time and with just six Wales caps to his name, quickly added: “Those things are nice but I won’t be thinking about that on Saturday. It’s a massive challenge but I’m not daunted by it. It’s one I’m very much looking forward to, just being on the same pitch as someone of the quality of Jonny Wilkinson. I will be looking to give as good as I get against Jonny but, obviously, it’s going to be a very tough task.”

October 4, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/04/2010

Blues best bet for Welsh success in Europe

Could the Blues taste European success again this year? © Getty Images

Writing in the Wales on Sunday, Barry John tips Cardiff Blues to lead the Welsh charge in Europe.

"If any Welsh side is going to make it out of their pool, I fancy the Blues to do so. Xavier Rush is playing well and Casey Laulala is a tremendous playmaker, while young Lloyd Williams looks a real talent at scrum-half.

"He’s very sharp and very quick when he sees a gap around broken play. The back-to-back games against Northampton in December will be make-or-break for the Blues.

"But if they get through that it could be knock-out games in Cardiff all the way, with the final being at the Millennium Stadium. If I were Dai Young, I would put that all down in the dressing room. I’d say, ‘Boys, don’t worry about your passports. There’s no need, we are staying at home!”

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/04/2010

Europe's big spenders await Premiership's response

Writing in The Guardian, Paul Rees previews the start of this season's Heineken Cup.

"Steve Borthwick's absence from the British leg of the Heineken Cup launch in Cardiff last week was fittingly symbolic: the English went missing in Europe last season, failing to provide a semi-finalist for only the second time in the 13 years they had taken part in the tournament.

England do not have a team in the top three of the European rankings and only two, Leicester and Wasps, are in the leading 10. The Premiership clubs are envious of the spending power of their French rivals, as well as the regions in Wales and the provinces in Ireland, while Italy's two teams in the Magners League, Treviso and Aironi, have playing budgets of €8m (£6.9m).

Leicester's opening game this Saturday is in Treviso. "A few years ago you would have expected to win there comfortably, but they are no longer the poor relations," Richard Cockerill, the Tigers' director of rugby, says. "They have already beaten Scarlets and Leinster at home in the league and you have to treat them with a huge amount of respect. When you first looked at the pool you thought it was better than others, but it will come down to form."

October 1, 2010

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 10/01/2010

English clubs at competitive disadvantage

Salary caps and relegation are exercising the mind of London Irish star Nick Kennedy © Getty Images

London Irish lock Nick Kennedy assesses the challenges facing his club at European level in his Telegraph blog.

"In France the authorities decided to curb their teams’ previously infinite salary budgets for the new 2010/11 season and duly restricted teams to a paltry £7.1million limit. Yes, that’s right, £3million more than their Anglo Saxon opponents. At London Irish we have a squad of 34 players and a quick look at the website of our pool opponents Toulon, shows no fewer than 47 first team players.

"Having nearly twice as money to pay in salaries and therefore larger squad sizes means that French teams can perform more consistently in both domestic and European competitions. They are able to field one side for their Top 14 games and then a whole new, well-rested one for the Heineken Cup games. This is a luxury that English teams definitely do not have. Irish sides tend to prioritise the Heineken Cup much more than their domestic league as in Ireland the Heineken Cup is considered the Holy Grail. It is very rare that the top players will play week in week out in the Magners League and then start a Heineken Cup game.

"English clubs can rarely afford to rest players for Premiership games; the schedule is so tough and the standard so competitive that no team is safe from dropping down to the Championship as recent relegations have shown. If a team in the Magners League has a bad season there is always next year, that isn’t the case in England. The Heineken cup is a challenge we thoroughly look forward to, but not until next week."

September 30, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 09/30/2010

Vive la difference

Paul Rees offers his take on Steve Borthwick's absence from the Heineken Cup launch in The Guardian.

"Millwall supporters in the 1970s used to chant: "No one likes us, we don't care." They probably still do but in rugby union it is Saracens, the club itself rather than fans, who take a delight in being different.

"Never afraid to target the eye of authority, Saracens hijacked the launch of the Heineken Cup this week by telling their captain, Steve Borthwick, to sample the delights of the Munich beer festival rather than answer a summons from the organisers to perch himself on a high chair in a lounge in the Millennium Stadium. Lunch rather than launch.

"All the other five English clubs in the tournament supplied the required head coach and captain. Sarries were represented by their director of rugby, Brendan Venter, who made no apologies for Borthwick's absence. He wanted all his players to relax and bond after their victory over Northampton before matches against Leicester and Clermont Auvergne."

July 21, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 07/21/2010

Glasgow boss Lineen demands focus

Glasgow Warriors head coach Sean Lineen is not looking any further than the opening match against the Dragons after the Heineken Cup fixture schedule for 2010/11 was announced. The Scotsman's Gary Heatly writes.

"Many Warriors' supporters may have an eye on the glamour double header against reigning champions Toulouse in December, but Lineen is urging his side to focus on the Firhill match against the Welsh side on Friday, 8 October.

"He said: "We can't really look beyond the first game. The Dragons know our strengths and weaknesses and they'll be confident about coming up here and getting a result. There is a healthy respect there. We both try and play rugby and I think this is the first time we've had them at home first up. They are a good side and they certainly had a good season last season."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 07/21/2010

Ospreys face up to tough Heineken Cup mission

If the Ospreys are going to finally lift the Holy Grail of European rugby this season, they are going to have to do it the hard way, according to the Western Mail's Simon Roberts.

"Welsh rugby’s new flag bearers in Europe, Heineken Cup quarter-finalists in the last three years, will start their ‘Pool of Death’ campaign by taking on the most talked about team in European rugby.

"Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon, who have been dubbed ‘the Harlem Globetrotters of European rugby,’ will host the Magners League champions in the glamour tie of the opening round of the Heineken Cup. The clash will bring together two of the genuine ‘rock star’ teams of European rugby, packed with world-class talent and some of the biggest names in the game.

"...Scott Johnson, the Ospreys Director of Coaching, already believes only one team will qualify from Pool 3, but he is undaunted by the prospect of an away trip to France.

“It’s a tough group and I think it’s a similar story to last year, whoever goes through from that group will be in a pretty good place,” said Johnson."

May 25, 2010

Posted by Mark Doyle on 05/25/2010

Leinster and Munster face even tougher task

In his weekly column in the Irish Times, Gerry Thornley looks at the qualifiers for next season's Heineken Cup and concludes that it could easily prove the most competitive in the tournament's history.

"Ronan O'Gara would have had mixed feelings as he travelled to Paris on Friday for the evening banquet which celebrated the dream team of the Heineken Cup’s last 15 years, and his own award as the competition’s outstanding player thus far.

"He’d have posed for the photos, shaken hands, accepted the applause and congratulations and mused that he should have been practising his kicking at the Stade de France that day.

"Nothing about the Biarritz performance, for all its remarkable grittiness, would have dispelled the feeling in the minds of O’Gara and his fellow Munstermen that they really should have been there. Leinster could at least console themselves they had only conceded their crown to the eventual four-time winners on their own Toulouse turf, and wonder what might have been had Jonathan Sexton been fit, not to mention Luke Fitzgerald and Seán O’Brien."

May 24, 2010

Posted by Mark Doyle on 05/24/2010

There is life after England

Speaking in The Independent, Magnus Lund reveals that Biarritz, in spite of Saturday's heartbreaking Heineken Cup final defeat by Toulouse, are not about to give up on their dream of winning the biggest prize in European club rugby.

"The Heineken Cup is now the stuff of obsession for Biarritz, just as it became the be-all and end-all for Munster after two falls at the final hurdle. 'We have to dust ourselves down and go again,' said Magnus Lund, the flanker so completely forgotten by England that he can barely remember the last time they showed an interest in him.

'We still want this, and we want it badly. We're a small team as far as our supporter base is concerned, but we're a big team in heart and spirit. We have unfinished business here.'

"Lund was exhausted as he chewed the fat an hour or so after close of play, and well he might have been. In the thick of it from the very start and still setting about anyone in Toulouse colours at the last knockings, the former Sale back-rower's tackle count was in the stratosphere, just as it had been when he last played for his country, against the Springboks in the thin air of Pretoria almost three years ago.

"He had no reward then, either: England lost by 50 points in a game they knew they could not win. Saturday's defeat was not of the same magnitude, but as there was no inferiority complex about Biarritz and they came within a single score of glory, the frustration was doubly intense."

Posted by Mark Doyle on 05/24/2010

Toulouse highlight need for Irish sides to rebuild

Writing in the Irish Independent, Peter Bills argues that while Toulouse underwhelmed in Saturday's Heineken Cup final success over Biarritz, the victors' match day 22 underlined a serious gulf in playing resources between France and Ireland's elite teams.

"In many respects, Saturday's Heineken Cup final reminded us that the northern hemisphere continues to lag behind its southern counterpart for attacking intent, entertainment and running rugby. The primary philosophy in this part of the world remains defence, forcing mistakes by opponents and kicking or dropping goals to triumph on the scoreboard.

"Toulouse tried to play some rugby, make something of it and live up to the occasion. But frankly, the final was often a boring, inferior product in which even the winners struggled to rise to the occasion. No wonder Toulouse coach Guy Noves wore the look afterwards of a distinctly unimpressed business manager who had just endured a pretty ordinary day at the office.

"But there was another issue that emerged from this final that should cause furrowed brows in other European countries like Ireland. Beyond dispute, the power in European rugby has swung decisively to France and you only had to look at the squad Toulouse compiled for this final to see that point vividly emphasised."

May 22, 2010

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 05/22/2010

Golden age for France

France's international success is filtering down to their already strong club game © Getty Images
This season's French whitewash points to a golden age for Les Bleus and the French clubs, Rob Kitson explains why in The Guardian.
"Deeper still are the pockets of those funding them. Toulouse's official budget for the 2009-10 season is €17m (£14.8m). The world's most talented back, Juan Martín Hernández of Argentina, has just signed for Racing Métro 92, where Sébastien Chabal and Francois Steyn have already been lured. The Top 14 is the place to be for financial and rugby fulfilment. Toulon barely blinked when they recruited Jonny Wilkinson, partly because of the tax breaks available for étrangers when they first arrive in the country. From the start of next season clubs will, admittedly, be limited to a salary budget of €8m, but that is still double the Premiership salary cap. "Rugby is now the trendiest sport in the country," confirms Dan Luger, the former England winger now living in Monaco. The unprecedented number of tickets sold for Sunday's Amlin Challenge Cup final between Toulon and Cardiff Blues in Marseille will bear him out.

"But how has this happened? Only last year France had one representative in the last eight and trailed in third in the Six Nations. This time they won a grand slam at a canter and their Heineken Cup teams, albeit with some imported muscle, have been rampant. Leaving aside a below-par Brive, the rest lost once in 18 games on French soil this season, not including the all domestic quarter-final between Toulouse and Stade Français. Munster's big pool win in Perpignan was the exception. Shaun Edwards, coach of Wales and Wasps, argues that a post-Lions season is always tougher for the four home unions. Others, though, sense a long-term wind of change blowing across the Channel. "I don't know if it will right itself," said Jim Mallinder, Northampton's director of rugby, last month. "The gap is certainly there and it's quite evident. It has become increasingly difficult [to compete]."

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 05/22/2010

Toulouse trust unsung hero

Writing in The Telegraph, Will Greenwood salutes Toulouse's quiet man, the only question is, can you tell who it is yet?

"How many players from the Toulouse team can you name? Put the paper down, try to work them out, then carry on reading. I bet some names came more easily than others. The back three of Vincent Clerc, Clément Poitrenaud and Cédric Heymans would have rolled off your tongue. Yannick Jauzion would be mentioned in the first breath. Byron Kelleher and Jean-Baptiste Elissalde would have got called early on. In the forwards, Thierry Dusautoir, France's Grand Slam-winning captain, would be hard to forget. William Servat, perhaps the best hooker in the world right now, is a name most of us would recognise even if we couldn't place his face.

"But I would be willing to bet considerable sums of hard-earned cash that the blindside flanker for Toulouse never entered your mind. Even if I told you his name, you would probably have no idea who the hell he was and what he looked like. Which is a shame, because when Toulouse played in three consecutive finals from 2003 to 2005, and won two of them, he was there. When they lost to Munster in 2008 he was there as well. And when they face Biarritz, he will be there.

"His name is Jean Bouilhou and he is a Toulousain legend who is unknown by 99 per cent of rugby supporters. A one-club man, he has been at Toulouse since 1999. He is the rock which allows the Toulouse superstars to earn their plaudits and their sponsorship deals."

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 05/22/2010

The man behind the mask

Hugh Farrelly is fulsome in his admiration for Biarritz No8 Imanol Haridordoquy who will again play through the pain barrier this afternoon, in The Irish Independent.

"Big talk requires big actions to back it up and Harinordoquy has not disappointed for, while acknowledging the athleticism, pace, skilful hands and physicality of one of the world's finest No 8s, if there is one quality that defines him, it is bravery. It was a privilege to witness his performance with a broken nose and broken ribs in the semi-final win over Munster. The man had no right to be playing, was wearing a ridiculous face mask necessary to protect the nose that had been operated on the previous week and required treatment on four occasions for the damage sustained to his ribs.

"Yet, Harinordoquy would not leave the pitch until Dimitri Yachvili kicked Biarritz ahead for the first time and the No 8 departed to an incredible ovation from the Biarritz faithful. The only comparable display that springs to mind is Ireland flanker Philip Matthews playing for almost 60 minutes with a dislocated shoulder in the torrid 15-15 draw with France in 1985. The Ulsterman realised the only available substitute was prop Mick Fitzpatrick and played with one arm until he could go on no longer.

"Harinordoquy is made of the same stuff. The ribs are still cracked but he scoffed at the notion that they might rule him out of today's final. Toulouse go in as overwhelming 2/7 favourites but the fact Harinordoquy is 7/1 favourite to scoop the man of the match award tells its own tale."

May 16, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/16/2010

Biarritz have a mountain to climb

Writing in the Sunday Times, Stephen Jones believes that Biarritz will be up against it when they tackle Toulouse in the Heineken Cup Final next weekend.

"When people in rugby discuss elite coaching, they always refer to the concept of shelf life. The game moves on so rapidly, and changes in its elements, that it is deemed almost impossible to hold the coaching reigns of a top team for longer than five years, and very few coaches do. It is also true that the video analysts of every opposing team work you out anyway, so to pop up full of surprises is almost impossible.

"So for Guy Noves to have held the coaching post at Toulouse for 17 years is almost beyond extraordinary. He was a shoo-in as ERC Coach of the 15 years of the Heineken Cup. On Saturday, Toulouse play Biarritz in the final at the Stade de France, aiming to become the first team to win the trophy four times. They are already the only team to win it three times. Noves, very much the driven touchline prowler and not the stand-seat analyst, has become as big an institution as the event itself.

"He does sometimes get things wrong. His is a harsh environment, because if Toulouse do not win at least one from the Heineken Cup and the French Top 14 every season, then it is deemed a disaster. Toulouse lost to Perpignan in the semi-final of the Top 14 on Friday so for them, Europe is the only game in town."

May 8, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/08/2010

Scrum like it hot

Bath prop David Flatman revels in the return of the scrum as an attacking weapon in the wake of the Heineken Cup semi-finals in The Independent.

"As French rugby sails full steam ahead towards the promised land, leaving the game in the British Isles paddling around in the shallows with its trousers rolled up to the knees, it is time to identify the things separating them from us.

"Their clubs have more money, for a start, along with greater pulling power: domestic championship attendances are now within 6,000 of the average gate in the top flight of professional football. They play for the most part in superbly appointed municipal stadiums, they have comprehensive television coverage and – very important, this – they all have a scrum.

"Yes, we're back in the age of the dear old set-piece: the 16-man game within a game where an inch gained here and there allows a team to win by miles. Last week, both Toulouse and Biarritz prevailed in their respective Heineken Cup semi-finals because they tore up the opposing scrum."

May 6, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/06/2010

Awful Biarritz betray game's great virtues

Writing in the Irish Independent, Peter Bills finds fault with the way that Biarritz booked their place in this season's Heineken Cup Final.

"Time was, when losing a game of rugby was a minor inconvenience when set against a raucous night of drinking and partying. Sometimes, defeated teams joined their conquerors for a night of celebration, content that the spectacle was so exalted they had participated in a wondrous piece of entertainment.

"Right, now let's put that aside, and talk of Munster's defeat to Biarritz last weekend. No wonder the dining area where the Munster players ate after the game resembled more a funeral parlour. To misquote that renowned Irish outside centre Oscar Wilde, to lose a Heineken Cup semi-final may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose it to a team playing no rugby just looks careless."

May 4, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/04/2010

A triumph for total rugby

Toulouse's Byron Kelleher and David Skrela celebrate their Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Leinster © Getty Images

Writing in his column in the Daily Telegraph, Brian Moore hails the rugby lesson handed down by Toulouse and Biarritz in the Heineken Cup semi-finals.

"There are those who like to classify games as darkness versus light, ambition versus force, and they would see the progress of the two French teams into the Heineken Cup final this weekend as a triumph of evil over good. They are wrong.

"The successes of Toulouse and Biarritz against Leinster and Munster respectively were based squarely on their efforts up front, but that was far from the whole story. In any event the question must also be put: so what? If teams are able to apply huge physical force and no little skill in the forward exchanges, why should this be deemed inferior to the skills shown by players whose athletic bent is fleetness of foot?

"In truth, the distinct impression from the two semi-finals was that the French teams could have played pretty much as they liked and would still have won. There was no discernible lack of effort from either of the Irish provincial sides, though Munster have not played as poorly as they did on Sunday for some time, but they were bested in the set pieces after being competitive early on."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/04/2010

Munster and Leinster are hit by Les Bleus

Away semi-finals on French soil proved a couple of bridges too far for Ireland’s European standard-bearers according to the Irish Times' Gerry Thornley.

"In truth, Munster fell away more disappointingly than Leinster had done 24 hours beforehand in what was a comparatively poorer quality encounter in San Sebastian. In a reprise of the first semi-final, being obliterated in the scrums was one thing, but having their normally prolific lineout dissected was simply too much to cope with.

"Despite looking dangerous whenever they ran at Biarritz and taking the lead through a Keith Earls’ try, such were their starvation rations that they were increasingly forced to do so from virtually impossible positions. By the end, Munster cut a slightly sad and well beaten force.

"Though again played in a constant din of drums, it was a far cry from the energy-sapping heat of the quarter-final which Biarritz won here five years ago. The rain drizzled under cloud-filled skies, and at around 13 degrees it was even a little chilly. Even so, by the end, the 6,000-plus Red Army had been drowned out and Munster looked well beaten, mentally as much physically."

May 3, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/03/2010

Now we know how the cowboys felt

Biarritz fans create a wall of sound at the Estadio Anoeta in San Sebastien © Getty Images

The Irish Independent's Billy Keane reports from Biarritz's victory over Munster in San Sebastien.

"Now we know how the cowboys felt when they heard the Apache war drums. This was very much a home game for Biarritz. They outnumbered Munster five to one and their club arranged for thousands of red and white plastic batons to be placed on the supporters' seats.

"The damned things created a permanent wall of sound. It was like living next door to Ringo Starr. They were all shouting "BO" which is short for Biarritz Olympique and does not in any way refer to the personal hygiene of Munster's fans who are always spotlessly clean.

"Biarritz had all the possession but they dropped more balls than kindergarten for jugglers, but somehow they won through the deadly accurate boot of Yachvili. Biarritz were just bigger and they wrecked our set-piece but they were there for the taking."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/03/2010

Harinordoquy symbolises French dominance

The Guardian's Rob Kitson reviews the Heineken Cup semi-finals.

"It would also have been a travesty had Dimitri Yachvili or Imanol Harinordoquy finished on the losing side before a typically delirious Basque audience in San Sebastián. If Byron Kelleher set a dauntingly high standard with an exemplary display of scrum-half play for Toulouse on Saturday, Yachvili raised the bar with a performance which did much to sooth the hurt of his team's previous defeats by Munster, most notably in the 2006 final in Cardiff. Six penalties from six attempts took him through the 500-point barrier in the tournament but the deftness of his handling and shrewdness of his option-taking were arguably even more impressive.

"It also helps to play behind a pack so obviously in the ascendant and in tandem with a No8 of Harinordoquy's quality. With extravagant facial strapping protecting a broken nose, the bounding Basque resembled a cross between Zorro and Concorde and spent much of the game doubled up in agony caused by a rib problem. On half a dozen occasions the medics arrived to cart him away, only to be sent packing. There have been few braver performances this season and the Biarritz coach, Jack Isaac, was suitably grateful. "The fact he put the mask on and ran out for us boosted the group," he said. "It was a reflection of the courage all the boys showed today."

May 2, 2010

Posted by Mark Doyle on 05/02/2010

Balshaw gets used to laissez-faire Biarritz

Speaking ahead of Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final showdown with Munster, Biarritz fullback Iain Balshaw tells Peter Bills of The Independent that he is enjoying life in France despite sometimes being left frustrated by his side's inconsistency.

"Iain Balshaw was a callow 18-year-old who was just beginning his career with Bath when fellow full-back Jon Callard scored all 19 points in the West Country club's 19-18 win over Brive in the 1998 Heineken Cup final in Bordeaux. The teenager must have envisaged many more European glamour ties.

"Now a thirty-something, he may finally get his chance to play in a Heineken Cup final – but with the French club Biarritz, who meet Munster in the semi-final in San Sebastian this afternoon. It may be his last chance."

May 1, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/01/2010

Basque pride can lift Biarritz

Will Biarritz be celebrating another famous European triumph this weekend? © Getty Images

Writing in the Irish Independent, Hugh Farrelly believes Biarritz have the required class to overturn the Munster marauders in their Heineken Cup semi-final in San Sebastien.

"Biarritz, although devastated by the loss of Traille, have a single-minded focus going into tomorrow's encounter with plenty of motivational factors. Top of the pile is the fact that their Top 14 campaign is over and the Heineken Cup is their only target.

"This is accentuated by the carrot of a Paris final and a possible showdown with Toulouse. Then there is the memory of their defeat to Munster in 2006, a result they have an overwhelming desire to overturn.

"And finally, there is the solidarity that comes from being locked away in their private training camp in Hendaye and the determination that comes from not wanting to let their supporters down in a Basque citadel.

"Tactically, the Biarritz selection suggests a 50-minute bench-emptying exercise. Hang in with Munster until then and then release Barcella, Florian Faure, Julien Peyrelongue and Philippe Bidabe -- not a bad plan."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/01/2010

Champions Leinster face daunting task

Writing in the Irish Times, Gerry Thornley previews Leinster's mouth-watering Heineken Cup semi-final clash with Toulouse.

"This is it then. The Champions of Europe put their crown on the line against the Kings of Europe. As the final touches were being put to Le Stadium yesterday, even empty it almost represents as daunting an assignment as it looks. Leinster couldn’t have a tougher May Day rendezvous.

"The forecast of rain beforehand, and perhaps during, along with a drop in temperatures is unlikely to dampen the ardour of the rouge et noire supporters, who will bop to the familiar chant of “Qui ne sauté pas, n’est pas Toulousain”. He who doesn’t stand up is not Toulouse.

"The first advances of blue drank beers in the outdoor bars of the pink city yesterday evening on a cloudy day, with temperatures around the 20 degrees, but Leinster having returned over 1,000 tickets of the 5,000 allocation they settled for, they’ll be outnumbered by around seven or eight to one."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/01/2010

Scrum-halves hold key

The Daily Telegraph's Will Greenwood believes Munster's Tomas O'Leary and Biarritz's Dimitri Yachvili hold the key to their Heineken Cup semi-final showdown.

"If you want a clash of styles think McEnroe and Borg. What about Botham and Boycott, or Davis and Higgins? Can anyone doubt the class of these greats? Yet they seem to be diametrically opposite in how they go about achieving their goals.

"On the one side we have people who have been called ice-cool, straight-laced, unimaginative, and even deadly dull. On the other you have explosive, swashbuckling, nerve-jangling, death-defying exponents of their chosen sports, who live on the edge but also get over the line first. It is the beauty of sport that there is no right or wrong way to do things. There is only winning and losing.

In San Sebastian, Spain, we have two contrasting players who hold the key to Biarritz and Munster's Heineken Cup hopes. And while they do not enjoy the personality extremes of the rivals above, they are scrum-halves at opposite ends of rugby's evolutionary road."

April 30, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/30/2010

Days like these are fast running out

Leinster captain Leo Cullen has been involved in no less than three Heineken Cup semi-finals and he tells the Irish Times' Johnny Watterson how each one had its own character.

"This week Cullen watched a piece of video of Leinster’s early season Heineken Cup match against London Irish at the RDS. His reasoning was as much to do with extracting what Leinster did so badly in that wobbling start to their campaign as much as it was to take some of the encouraging tracts to France. From the match he concluded that you rarely get what you expect to get.

"Back then Leinster were in no position to claim they could successfully defend their trophy. But Cullen is not squeamish about watching some car crash moments. He is the Leinster captain for a reason and one of them is his ability to use experience wisely. From the muck you can sometimes dig out a diamond."

April 29, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/29/2010

Looking to the Bull

Ronan O'Gara will be looking to John Hayes for advice this weekend as Munster take on Biarritz. Read Hugh Farrelly's take on their leadership conundrum in The Irish Independent.

"Leadership is not about making speeches; leadership is defined by results."

"The words of the late Peter Drucker were destined for business ears, but could be accurately applied to Munster and their captain Ronan O'Gara ahead of Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final assignment in San Sebastian.

"Biarritz will be boosted by the confirmation they will not be required to deal with the totemic presence of Paul O'Connell, who, as expected, was ruled out with a groin injury yesterday. However, in O'Gara, Munster have a leader who goes into Sunday's showdown with a clarity of thought and focus, augmenting a pragmatic grasp of the task-in-hand."

April 25, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/25/2010

Playing away

Brendan Fanning salutes the difficult birth of the Heineken Cup final as a stand-alone event in The Sunday Independent.

"It was 2003 and still the early days of the Heineken Cup as a stand-alone affair, where its organisers had taken a leap of faith and nailed down where the final would be played before they had nailed down who would actually play in it. And they needed some local involvement to give the thing a kick-start. Some reassurance if you like.

"With the way the draw had panned out, giving Leinster a home run from the quarters to the final, that reassurance was at hand. Then they went and lost to Perpignan in the semi-final. Oh dear.

"Everyone was shell-shocked afterwards. Not so distraught however that we couldn't mine some black humour from the situation. On the basis that one man's catastrophe is another man's opportunity -- and how we have seen that reinforced over the last eight days -- the prospect of a junket to the South of France presented itself. Perpignan versus Toulouse in a Lansdowne Road final? Now there was a gig that needed selling."

April 23, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/23/2010

Star understudy

Hugh Farrelly takes a look at the impact made by Mick O'Driscoll in place of the iconic Paul O'Connell as Munster saw off Northampton in The Irish Independent.

"How do you replace an icon? Ask Mick O'Driscoll. The build-up to the recent Heineken Cup quarter-final against Northampton was a head-wrecking exercise for the 31-year-old Munster second-row.

"Paul O'Connell had not played since Ireland's anti-climactic finale against Scotland at the end of March and the media frenzy centred on whether the Munster's captain's groin injury would allow him to face the Saints.

"Northampton were coming to Thomond Park bullish after a run of victories across the water and spoke confidently -- and imprudently -- of how the Limerick ground held 'no fears' for them after their January visit for the pool game they felt they should have won."

April 15, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/15/2010

Heineken Cup semis deserve bigger billing

Writing in the Irish Independent, Peter Bills believes European Rugby Cup officials need to think bigger when it comes to promoting the Heineken Cup.

"It's an absolute nonsense that the two Heineken Cup semi-finals will be staged in Toulouse and San Sebastian. Toulouse v Leinster will be in the French club's backyard and Biarritz v Munster, in the Real Sociedad soccer stadium just across the border in the Spanish coastal city of San Sebastian.

"A weekend out in Toulouse and San Sebastian for rugby fans? What on earth could be wrong with that, you may think. Well, what is wrong is exactly what was wrong several years ago. ERC is still not thinking big enough for this fantastic tournament.

"...In truth, 2010 won't be remembered as a classic for the Six Nations. But it almost certainly will be for the Heineken Cup, cementing its increasing reputation as one of the best rugby tournaments in the world.

So why the gripe at ERC? Simply this. Once again, they have missed a golden opportunity to showcase their tournament to a vastly wider audience."

April 12, 2010

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/12/2010

Peter Jackson's quarter-final review

Writing on the official Heineken Cup website, Peter Jackson takes a look back at four epic European encounters.

"At the denouement of the best weekend the Heineken Cup has ever seen, a thunderous sound accompanied Toulouse on their lap of honour. The chant from a raucous choir of more than 30,000 could be heard all over the city: 'Ils sont ou les Parisians?' Where are the Parisians?

"Stade Francais, twice beaten finalists, were nowhere to be seen after being counted out of the tournament and the same taunting question will be asked by the Toulousain faithful when the 24 qualifiers line up on the starting grid next season.

"When it comes to the big European occasions, nobody does it better than Toulouse. At the end of a three-day event featuring colossal matches in Dublin, San Sebastian and Limerick, the most decorated club in Heineken history responded by trumping the lot, as if sensing the need to remind everyone else that the competition matters more in Toulouse than anywhere else."

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/12/2010

Pressure Tells in Dublin

Writing on Heaven's Game, former Wallaby coach Bob Dwyer dissects Leinster's Heineken Cup clash with Clermont Auvergne.

"The Heineken European Championship is the premier club competition in world rugby; indeed it should be the blue-print for club rugby the world over.

"Traditional club tribalism is magnified with the excitement of international flavor. The hordes of travelling fans bring their ‘foreign’ cultures and the host city buzzes with the anticipation of the event.

"With this prestige, however, comes pressure and this was never more obvious than at the Royal Dublin Society grounds on Friday evening for the quarter-final clash between the champions, Leinster, and the excellent Clermont-Auvergne, from the heart of France."

Posted by Mark Doyle on 04/12/2010

Northern Hemisphere rugby needed RDS battle

The clash between Leinster and Clermont was high on drama, had massive hits and an insane Brian O’Driscoll offload for Jamie Heaslip’s first try, Bob Casey writes in the Irish Times.

"There been 52 quarter-finals in the Heineken Cup before the weekend and 39 were won by the home side. Keeping with the average of one away winner per season it rose to 43 from 56. It got me thinking why is it so difficult to win on the road? Sure, it is just another pitch.

"ASM Clermont Auvergne have arguably the best squad in Europe yet they have never returned home with a British or Irish scalp. They have played 23 away games in this competition, winning only six.

"It could be something to do with the mind-numbing journey their players and coaching staff embarked upon last Thursday morning ahead of Friday’s game at the RDS."

April 11, 2010

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 04/11/2010

O'Gara walks old dog Munster further up long road

Writing in the Sunday Independent, George Hook argues that belief was the determining factor in Munster's Heineken Cup quarter-final win over Northampton Saints on Saturday afternoon.

"This Munster win was a victory no more or less than a triumph of experience over a talented team that simply did not know how to win a game that they could have and will feel should have won. Northampton were capable of playing the game at a high tempo aided by a skilful offloading game with astute change of angle.

"Once again, despite not playing to their highest standards, Munster just rolled with the punches and waited for the opportunity. Dylan Hartley, the Northampton captain, was disconsolate after the game and when asked the simple question, "why did you not win?", he was honest enough to admit that he had no idea why his players did not deliver on their undoubted advantages.

"Jonny Sexton may have been the hero of Friday night but he must have marvelled at the game management of Ronan O'Gara. The Munster out-half has his detractors, but he remains the best tactical brain in world rugby."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2010

Yet another harsh lesson for the Ospreys

Defeat to Biarritz in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals was heartbreaking for the Ospreys, but also a harsh lesson in what happens when you don’t take your chances. Delme Parfitt writes in the Wales on Sunday.

"It was an astonishingly entertaining game. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many line breaks in a game of that magnitude, there was almost a sevens feel to it at times. But playing their part in what was a great spectacle will be no consolation to the Ospreys who have now gone out at this stage three years on the trot.

"Did they deserve to win? Not really. They could have won, but didn’t grasp the opportunity.

"This was definitely the one that got away and I now fear the repercussions. They have to lift themselves for a tilt at the Magners League play-offs in the final weeks of the season and that will be far from easy because after this they will be shattered physically and mentally."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/11/2010

Munster edge out Northampton

The Observer's Michael Alywin reports from Munster's thrilling Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Northampton.

"They will not admit it, but there seemed to be doubt circulating round Thomond Park before this one. There wasn't any after it. The roars were all the louder for the relief. Four tries did for Northampton, who despite contributing fully to another riveting quarter-final in this competition, could not quite summon the authority that fairly oozed from Munster's every pore.

"So Northampton return to England to tell the others all about life in the quarter-finals in this season's Heineken Cup. Alas, there will be no one to report back about life in the semis. It is going to be a ding-dong between the French and Irish, which may be a fair reflection of where things are in European rugby just now, but there will no doubt be prolonged wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Premiership, as well as repeated calls for a hike in the salary cap.

"But pronouncements of the decline of the Premiership should be treated warily, even if results have not gone the way of the English this year. Munster in Munster may represent a bridge too far for this young Northampton side, but they gave half the Ireland team enough of a run for their money to remain confident about the future."

April 10, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2010

Cheika's warriors prove too hungry for Michelin stars

Writing in the Irish Independent, Vincent Hogan reflects on Leinster's dramatic Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Clermont Auvergne.

"Quite a night in the old horse arena where those one-time 'Ladyboys' of Europe brandished enough stubble to sand furniture.

"Leinster fought the wonderful fight in a bear-pit atmosphere, not even a hat-trick of tries from French wing, Julien Malzieu, sufficient to derail their defence of the realm. Seldom has the Heineken Cup decanted whiter heat. Seldom has a winning team dug deeper to survive.

"The night ended to shrieks of terror, Brock James slipping into the pocket for Clermont Auvergne and waiting for delivery from a glacial-slow ruck. Eventually, the ball arrived and his drop-goal attempt set off sure and straight, before lurching drunkenly off-target.

"Leinster, wheezing like escapees from a mine shaft, fell proudly over the line."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2010

Holders fortunate to survive

The Irish Times', John O’Sullivan reflects on a fraught night for Leinster which tested the nerves of the home fans.

"It wasn't a night for the faint-hearted, an understatement that the Leinster supporters only fully appreciated on the final whistle. Victory was measured in millimetres. The European champions survived but it was a massively uncomfortable experience for their supporters and one suspects, for the management team.

"Ecstatic scenes at the final whistle were as much about relief and, while victory will largely eradicate the palpitations of the previous 80 plus minutes, it shouldn’t camouflage a night when, had Clermont a place-kicker, they would have managed a famous win.

"That’s not to denigrate the courage and at times breathtaking quality of the Leinster performance but they made it so hard for themselves. Ill-discipline, a creaking scrum in the second half and the concession of two soft tries almost cost them."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2010

How to win in Europe: a lesson from Austin

Writing in The Indepdendnet, Brian Ashton reflects on his own Heineken Cup experiences.

"The last time I was involved in a major European club occasion, I took Bath to San Sebastian for a Heineken Cup semi-final with Biarritz.

"We travelled with bags of expectation, but fell short. There were reasons, looking back: at that point in 2006, Bath were on a transitional shift from the extremely limited style of rugby they had played over the previous three or four years to something more ambitious. But the fact remains that when it came to the crunch, we – and I include myself in this – failed to summon the courage to play the kind of challenging game required to win a match of that magnitude.

"Nothing has changed. Now rugby has reached the knockout stage of this season's Heineken Cup – the "real deal" time of the season, where there are no second chances – it strikes me that many leading sides still talk about playing challenging rugby in the days leading up to a game, and still find reasons not to do it once they find themselves on the field. The question that interests me is this: to what extent is the gap between intention and delivery determined by what happens in the days before the match?"

April 9, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/09/2010

Testing his chin

Vincent Hogan salutes Munster's Kiwi flyer, Doug Howlett, prior to their Heineken Cup showdown with Northampton in The Irish Independent.

"Picked by Graham Henry to play for his province while still in Auckland Grammar School; head prefect and captain of the school athletics team; a sub-11 seconds 100 metres sprinter; scorer of two tries on his All Blacks debut; scorer of a hat-trick on his first time out in Super 12; the founder of an 'Outreach Foundation' for under-privileged kids.

And, suddenly, his mortified face was being beamed across the world, mouthing words of apology for criminal damage drunkenly inflicted on a car. So, that day of introductions in Cork pretty much leaked all formality in an instant. Anthony Horgan remembers. "There's nothing held back in a Munster squad and we were straight into him. He was absolutely hammered.

"And you could see straight away from his reaction that he was sound. Some people could be a bit bitter about that, but he just took it all on the chin."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/09/2010

Methodical Myler

Shaun Edwards believes that Northampton's performance against Munster could provide some answers for England fans in The Guardian.

"Some time today Jim Mallinder will end the speculation and show how he intends his Northampton to go about beating Munster at Thomond Park tomorrow – a game not just about the Heineken Cup, but also about how a few England and potential England careers are progressing. One cat already seems to be out of the bag.

"The big argument has been about who Mallinder starts at outside-half and if you believe his captain Dylan Hartley then it's been settled in Stephen Myler's favour. In a less-than-subtle aside on Wednesday Hartley more or less anointed Myler by saying he felt the 25-year-old controlled the game better than Shane Geraghty.

"No diplomatic niceties there, but then again that's the manner of the team. All over the park they have abrasive specimens."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/09/2010

Do Clermont have the answers?

Stuart Barnes previews Leinster's Heineken Cup quarter-final showdown with Clermont Auvergne in The Times.

"Champions Leinster think they are ready for this quarter-final test. Last weekend saw them beat Munster at Thomond Park, minus one Brian O’Driscoll. As morale boosters go, this was fuel-injected.

"Meanwhile, in France, the stellar-named team from the Auvergne were slipping to a 19-10 defeat in an ugly match in Paris against a Stade Francais team who were as unappealing on the eye as their garish shirts but good enough to beat Clermont with a basic territorial kicking game.

"Clermont may have supplied over a third of the French Grand Slam team but they have the questions to answer come kick off on Friday night. Or do they?"

April 8, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/08/2010

Heineken Cup gets better and better

Leinster captain Brian O'Driscoll delights in his side's Heineken Cup triumph last season © Getty Images

A swift glance at the sheer quality of players in this weekend's Heineken Cup fixtures shows this season as special according to Rob Kitson in The Guardian.

"Will this be a vintage Heineken Cup season? Despite – or maybe because of – the relative lack of English representation in the last eight, the answer is potentially yes. None of this year's quarter-finalists have fluked their way through to the knockout stages and you could stitch together a fantastic XV from those involved. Take, for example, the assorted midfields: Brian O'Driscoll, Yannick Jauzion, Mathieu Bastareaud, Jean de Villiers, Gordon D'Arcy and James Hook are all players either gifted or influential enough to grace any era.

"Sometimes – and heaven knows it is easy to do – we forget how good some of these guys are. And, crucially, just how swiftly the game changes. Last week a panel of notables unveiled the shortlist for an ERC European Dream Team, drawn from players who have decorated the European club game in the past 15 years. It was a decent list (see below), as you would expect.

"But what struck me looking down the candidates was the absence of virtually anyone under the age of 30. Barely a dozen of the 60 players mentioned will be involved this weekend. Could it be that the judges, who included Lawrence Dallaglio, Ieuan Evans, Fabien Galthié and Michael Lynagh, were swayed more by sepia-tinted memories of the great men they played and drank with, rather than the up-to-the-minute evidence of their own eyes? Or was the game – ahem – simply better back then?"

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/08/2010

Time for the young Saints to shine

The Sunday Times' Stephen Jones previews the Heineken Cup quarter-finals as Northampton make the daunting trip to Munster.

"You could not call it the moment of truth because this burgeoning Northampton side still have lots of improvement to make. But it is an indication of their progress that they go to Thomond Park, Limerick on Saturday with a place in the semi-finals of the Heineken European Cup at stake. However, they will be up against one of the greatest cup-fighting teams in the history of the European event.

"All eyes will be glued to the action. A tranche of young players at Northampton have been exciting the Saints supporters over the last two years, if not the England selectors. On Saturday, against the full fury of Munster, on and off the field, we will learn so much about Courtney Laws, Ben Foden, Chris Ashton, Steve Myler and also about Dylan Hartley.

"Indeed, we will learn far more in one afternoon than from a whole season watching players in the England development structure with all its weaknesses. If some or all of these young men thrive in the hostile atmosphere then, almost en bloc, they will deserve a starting place in the England team in Australia in June."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/08/2010

It’s time for Ospreys to deliver

Writing in the Western Mail, Delme Parfitt insists it’s now or never for Wales’ most high-profile team - the Ospreys.

"For most of the season I’ve been backing the Welsh outfit believing this would be the year they would eventually break though the quarter-finals and get to the semis at least. But my faith in the Ospreys has been tested from the start. Their second-half displays against Leicester and Clermont in which they capitulated were worrying, but they got what they needed in the end. Then Clermont tore them apart in France in January, but I remained steadfast.

"The Ospreys, at their strongest, boast a side made up by a majority of Lions and should be able to do something special. They have even discovered an effective position for Hook to show his class. Why then has my optimism all but evaporated?

"Well, defeat against the Dragons is part of it because it wasn’t losing so much as being completely outplayed. A battling win in dreadful conditions against the Scarlets was neither here nor there. It showed the region had a pulse, but that doesn’t mean it’s in rude health."

April 7, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/07/2010

Great expectations

Revived Munster lock Paul O'Connell is in bullish mood as his side aim to live up to their own high standards in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals this weekend. The Irish Indepdendent's David Kelly reports.

"Such is Paul O'Connell's exalted status in the global game, it seems that teams can apparently be undermined whether with or without his presence.

With: Against Scotland in Ireland's miserable Triple Crown challenge, the charge from former gilded members of the international fraternity was that O'Connell assumed too much responsibility and his performance suffered as a result.

"He was overly fatigued by the mental and physical travails of non-stop rugby, we were told, and presented himself too often for crash ball and attacked his targets with a lot less intensity than usual. After the often unbearable mental pressures wrought by assuming the Lions captaincy, so soon after Ireland's Grand Slam triumph, not to mention his captaincy of the Magners League-winning squad, O'Connell's often caricatured super-human powers were now facing inevitable diminution.

"Without: As Munster succumbed to a chastening home defeat to Leinster last weekend, we were suddenly demanded to accept that the opposite had now become the case. Munster missed their captain's dynamism, his decision-making and overall leadership. From dispensable to indispensable within a month? Little wonder he threatened to scoff at the underlying motive behind the question."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/07/2010

Rise of the Celtic hordes

The success of Magners League sides is the envy of the English league according to The Independent's Chris Hewett.

"The number of close games in the Guinness Premiership is greater than in any of the world's other major leagues: far greater, according to recent statistics compiled by the people who run the tournament. Winning margins are smaller, points are harder to score, tries are significantly more difficult to come by and crowds, seduced by the brutal competitiveness of it all, are on the increase, to the extent that gates in top-flight English rugby are fast closing in on Super 14 levels, much to the puzzlement of the southern hemisphere supremacists who consider rugby in this neck of the woods to border on the medieval.

So everything in the garden is rosy, right? Wrong. For the first time since they first banded together in 2001, the Celts are the ones ahead of the game in these islands. There is now clear blue water between the Magners League and the Premiership, and the evidence is to be found in the one competition that involves everyone: the Heineken Cup. When the quarter-finals are played this weekend – the most eagerly-awaited weekend of the season for the union connoisseur – three Celtic sides, two Irish and one Welsh, will be involved. The English? They have Northampton, and no-one else. It is the country's worst performance in Europe since 1999, when, because of a mass boycott, they failed to perform at all."

April 6, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/06/2010

Is the bar too high?

There's a big weekend ahead for Leinster and Munster © PA

Gerry Thornley looks ahead to an interesting weekend in Europe for the Irish provinces, and wonders if the bar has been set too high, in The Irish Times.

"So, make or break time again. Three wins out of five in the Six Nations, and just two defeats in eight Tests, along with three Irish quarter-finalists in Europe and two contenders for the Magners League play-offs cannot be deemed a bad season. But, because the bar has been set so high – last season especially – were Irish interest in Europe to end this weekend it might seem an anti-climactic end to a disappointing campaign.

"That will apply to the players as well as the supporters. Victories this weekend would go some way to soothing the disappointment of the defeat to Scotland, especially. This would even help sustain interest in the intriguing run-in to the league (including Connacht’s hard chase of Ulster for the automatic Heineken Cup place) if Leinster, Munster and Connacht could sustain their involvement in the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup for another three weeks.

"Helpfully, all three secured home advantage, and much has been made of the preponderance of home wins at this stage of the Heineken Cup, with 39 of 52 quarter-finals being won by the home side. However, while there were only two away wins in the first five years of this format (ie, 18 home wins to two away wins) in the last eight seasons there have been 11 away wins – including at least one each year."

April 4, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/04/2010

Ospreys eye Heineken Cup glory

The Ospreys are the only team in the competition left flying the Wales flag but winger Shane Williams insists his side have reached the quarters on merit and want to go further. Read his thoughts in The Observer.

"Playing in the latter stages of the Heineken Cup comes down to a state of mind. Teams such as Munster, Toulouse, Leicester and Leinster know what it takes to succeed at a stage in the tournament when every team has real quality.

This is the third successive year the Ospreys have qualified for the quarter-finals. We lost at Saracens the first time having turned them over in the EDF Energy Cup not long before and 12 months ago we were beaten out of sight in Munster.

We have to put those painful memories to profitable use against Biarritz in San Sebastián on Saturday. They may not have pulled up many trees in the Top 14 this season and they may not be playing on their home ground, but they defeated Toulouse in Spain last Saturday and they have players of genuine class throughout their side."

February 1, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 02/01/2010

Uneven playing field

Bath prop David Flatman casts his eye over the Heineken Cup quarter-final draw in The Independent.

"Toulouse and Stade Français will provide the most luscious of this season's Heineken Cup quarter-finals. At the risk of being crude, the sheer amounts of cash on display will make it a ritzy affair. Who needs Ronaldo and Real Madrid when these French giants are in town? Of course, the panache of the Toulousain three-quarter line combined with the perma-quiffed mane of Parisien hooker Dimitri Szarzewski will add to the occasion and a crowd of typical soccer proportions will complete the spectacle. Not quite an afternoon at The Rec but it'll have to do.

"The prospect of Leinster, Europe's reigning and worthy kings, welcoming perhaps the most complete and in-form Clermont team we have seen also makes the mouth water. Even as recently as a couple of years ago you would have bet the wife on the French getting all homesick and caving in as soon as their hosts showed a hint of willing. But no more. These chaps come to play and have already proved that winning high-pressure matches on the road is now a big part of their repertoire – not a common trait in the Top 14. In fact, one might argue that the only team as well prepared are Leinster themselves. Still, might pop to Ladbrokes for a marital flutter anyway.

"Munster are, of course, a monstrous force at home and will go into their match with Northampton as favourites but at no stage in this competition have they looked like real title contenders. I am confident that every member of this Saints squad believes they can win and, in truth, they have nothing to lose. Having played against the Saints already this season I can vouch for their confidence and tenacity as a group. They have a well-established playing staff, a top-class set-up and, most importantly, a handful of blokes who have the talent and front to win you a rugby match. Euan Murray will garner penalties at scrum time and Ben Foden, fed by Shane Geraghty, will always make defences shiver (can we not mention him skinning me in the 79th minute at Franklin's Gardens please?)"

January 28, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/28/2010

Let it go

Stephen Jones has no time for the protestations of Leicester following their Heineken Cup defeat to the Ospreys in The Times.

"Let us get one thing straight: in playing terms, Leicester Tigers do not deserve to be anywhere near the quarter-finals of the Heineken Cup this season. Not only were they thrashed by a vastly superior Clermont team not so long ago, but they were decisively beaten by the Ospreys in Swansea last Saturday, and it was a defeat which could easily have become embarrassing if only the Ospreys had not become so anxious as the win beckoned.

"Now we have the situation where Leicester are effectively trying to get back into the competition in the courts. Lee Byrne's arrival for a grand total of around 55 seconds as the 16th man in the Ospreys ranks towards the end of the game means that Leicester are now urgently trying to have the match replayed.

"It is worth remembering the sequence of events, not so much of the Byrne return, which had a piffling impact on the action, but on Leicester's reaction to it. The first Tiger to go on the record regarding the incident was Richard Cockerill, the head coach. Soon after the game, Cockerill was honest enough to say that the better side had won and words to the effect that he would be unhappy if Leicester's progress in the competition was down to an honest mistake made by the Ospreys on the touchline."

January 27, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/27/2010

Inadequate rules

Paul Rees, writing in The Guardian, believes that the laws preventing teams from fielding 16 men are inadequate in the wake of the Ospreys' indiscretion against Leicester.

"If Lee Byrne's unsanctioned reappearance for the Ospreys in the final quarter of the Heineken Cup match against Leicester after he had been off the field having a cut toe treated did not amount to Bloodgate revisited in terms of intent to cheat, it raised anomalies in the administration of the tournament and the rules of the game.

"Leicester have cried foul and called for the match, which they lost 17-12, to be replayed on the grounds that Byrne had prevented Ben Youngs from continuing with a potentially try-scoring break just after coming on as the 16th man. They also claimed that the reason they were not awarded a penalty that the rules said should have been theirs — after the referee, Alan Lewis, had been made aware of Byrne's trespass — was that an Ospreys player had told him that the Tigers also had an extra man on the field. Ospreys and Byrne have today been charged with misconduct and must attend a hearing on Friday.

"Law 3.2 of the International Rugby Board's rules of the game states that before or during a match a team may make an objection to the referee about the number of players in their opponents' team; as soon as a referee knows that a team has too many players, the referee must order the captain of that team to reduce the number of players accordingly. The score at the time of the objection remains unaltered. Sanction: a penalty at the place where the game would restart."

January 26, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/26/2010

The Italian problem

Tony Ward reviews Ireland's Heineken Cup campaign and touches on the continuing problems faced by Italian sides in The Irish Independent.

"It's the equivalent in Olympic currency of three golds and a silver for our provinces in Europe.

"Munster, Leinster topped their pools and ensured home quarter-finals in the Heineken Cup, and Connacht did the same in the Amlin Challenge Cup. Ulster finished a close second in their Heineken Cup group and were desperately unlucky to miss out on the consolation of a place in the last eight of Europe's shadow competition.

"It is said you reap what you sow but, in Ulster's case, I'm not so sure as, yet again, the pools with an Italian presence - Treviso and Viadana - provided the two best runners-up, in Northampton and the Ospreys. That is the one real weakness in the system. Draw an Italian team in the pool and straightaway you're in with a double-route chance of qualification for the knock-outs.

"It re-emphasises the need to get the Italians' act together, to get the professional game there up to speed with the rest. We all want the Italian game to succeed but right now it is a huge albatross around the neck of the ERC."

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/26/2010

Looking amateur

Mick Cleary wades into the debate surrounding the Ospreys' 16th man in The Daily Telegraph

"Yes, there was a huge difference in degree in what Quins tried to pull off last season and what Ospreys did on Saturday at the Liberty Stadium. One was wilful and duplicitous: the other was rash, impetuous and damned careless.

"Mind you, that is to give Ospreys the benefit of doubt. We can only assume they made an accidental hash of getting Byrne back on the pitch after being treated for several minutes for a blood injury to his foot.

"When England transgressed in similar fashion in the 2003 Rugby World Cup, it was clear that they were so intent on never allowing themselves to get in the situation whereby they might be reduced to 14 men, no matter how briefly, that they over-stepped the mark, shoving wing Dan Luger on to the field against Samoa."

January 25, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/25/2010

Ending on a high

Chris Paterson was again the hero for Edinburgh © PA

David Ferguson hails a victory for Edinburgh that means more than you might think in The Scotsman.

"There was much of a meaningful nature to take from what was, in Heineken Cup terms, another wonderful but ultimately meaningless finale to the pool ties for Edinburgh on Saturday.

“Soaked to the skin by another battering from the heavens – Edinburgh have experienced the excesses of snow, wind and rain in their last three European fixtures – a squad of visibly tired players trooped from the Murrayfield turf heads bowed but much brighter in heart than thepink-shirted Parisian foe they had put to the sword with more greater dominance than the scoreboard suggested.

“Edinburgh showed they had learned from their hammering in Paris at the onset of the 2009-10 Heineken Cup and were improved at the breakdown, Ross Rennie fashioning turnovers superbly until he was replaced after 33 minutes with an injured knee – the other one to that which has kept him out for much of the past two years, it was stated afterwards – while the forward pack dominated the set-piece for long spells and had the Stade forwards back-peddling furiously in driving mauls that moved 20 or 30 metres.”

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/25/2010

The talent gap

Brian Moore believes that little has been learned by the England management after a disappointing Heineken Cup campaign for the clubs, in The Daily Telegraph.

"The percentage has remained fairly static since the advent of professionalism and to choose this moment to visit the ills of the current English game on this statistic lacks logic. There may be a case regarding the longer-term development of English rugby but that has to take into account all the previous results, including the winning of a World Cup and reaching another final.

"The fact is that the form shown by both the teams and players in the Guinness Premiership has, at times, not even reached the standard of the Magners League. The inability of either to sustain a coherent pattern of play and produce a consistent run of victories indicates that it is not just in the Heineken Cup that the deficit in performance has been apparent.

"The one bright note for England was the indication given by Northampton’s contingent of prospective young England players that they can make the step from club to international rugby, but their narrow loss to Munster also highlighted that in some crucial respects they are not yet the equal of their Celtic counterparts and that only experience will bridge the gap."

January 24, 2010

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 01/24/2010

Rugby must beware leaping from the lenient to draconian over gouging

Eddie Butler believes rugby's law makers must be careful as they consider harsher punishments for eye gouging, in The Observer.

"As a punishment for feeling his way a bit too close for comfort around the eyes of Leo Cullen, (Alan) Quinlan missed the Lions tour to South Africa, which was probably as bad as any sanction could be. The flanker had been selected to niggle the South Africans to distraction, a wonderful bonus in the twilight of his career. And suddenly it was gone.

"On the other hand, 12 weeks were deemed to be paltry for the crime that was already leaping up the charts of nefarious popularity. Before the summer was out there would be even more lenient sentences – eight weeks – slapped on Schalk Burger, for gouging Luke Fitzgerald in the second Lions Test in Pretoria, and Sergio Parisse for gouging Isaac Ross in the New Zealand-Italy Test.

"Now, it seems, enough is enough. No more holidays. Rugby is getting tough on gouging, with Julien Dupuy sentenced to 24 weeks for what he did to Stephen Ferris in the third round of the Heineken Cup between Ulster and Stade Français, reduced on appeal to 23; David Attoub – wait for it – to 70 weeks, for assaulting the same player. Ferris must have wondered what he'd done to deserve this double-socketry."

January 23, 2010

Posted by Mark Doyle on 01/23/2010

Jordan Crane: 'The gouging claim from Ospreys was pretty cheap'

In an interview with The Independent Leicester Tigers forward Jordan Crane gets a few things off his chest ahead of Saturday's pivotal Heineken Cup showdown with the Ospreys.

“The last acts performed by the England No 8 Jordan Crane on Heineken Cup business in Wales were an educated swing of the right boot worthy of Diego Maradona himself, followed by the biggest theatrical yawn since The Phantom of the Opera.

"Whatever happens in Swansea this afternoon, there can be no repeat of last season's bewildering events in Cardiff: no extra time, no confusion over the rules of engagement, no penalty shoot-out. There will be drama, though. A contest between Leicester and Ospreys, the great no-love-lost rivals of European rugby, pretty much guarantees it.

"After the two sides met at the Liberty Stadium at the same stage of last season's tournament, the Ospreys coaching team openly accused Julian White, the Leicester prop, of gouging. As it turned out, the wrong man had been fingered, so to speak. "I thought it was pretty cheap of them, if I'm honest," says Crane a year on. "How can you just sit there and come out with things about someone with no evidence to back up your allegations?”

Posted by Mark Doyle on 01/23/2010

Kennedy determined to rise to the challenge

Gerry Thornley of the Irish Times talks to London Irish lock Nick Kennedy ahead of Saturday's crunch Heineken Cup clash with Leinster at Twickenham.

“Delving into Nick Kennedy’s past provides a gateway to the present. To untangle the man behind the rugby player it’s instructive to examine his genealogy both in the context of ancestry, but perhaps on a more engaging level, the events that shaped his sporting career.

“Kennedy could have played for Ireland; indeed he was invited to do so. His grandmother on his father’s side hailed from Co Limerick and prior to winning a first England A cap he received a phone call from the then Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan asking if he would consider declaring for Ireland.

“Born in Southampton, educated at Claire’s Court School in Maidenhead, the British School in Brussels – he would spend three years in Belgium and three in America before returning to Brussels for a year – and then on to Portsmouth University, he didn’t have to agonise for too long. The fact that his father, Shaun, is an ardent England rugby supporter facilitated his decision, certainly in terms of family harmony.”

January 22, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/22/2010

It will be no Thomond lark for the Saints

Friday night's clash between Munster and Northampton at Thomond Park is a perfect example of why the Heineken Cup reaches parts other competitions cannot. Gerry Thornley writes in the Irish Times.

"If it's the penultimate Saturday in January it must mean Anglo-Irish summit meeting at a throbbing Thomond Park with a whiff of cordite in the air.

"...This game would have been made for the absent duo of Denis Leamy and Jerry Flannery, and then there’s the appointment of Romain Poite, whose only previous Munster game was his controversial handling of the All Blacks win here last season, when utterly oblivious to the home crowd. He is nothing if not the boss.

"Northampton also remain the only side Munster have never beaten in the Heineken Cup, although this will merely serve as additional motivation for Munster. One imagines they’ll have stored away the memories of Northampton’s celebrations from their win at Franklin’s Gardens in October and noted the highly confident noises emanating from the Saints camp in the lead-up to this game."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/22/2010

Small Talk with Will Greenwood

The former England rugby star talks to the Guardian about being terrified of birds, drinking for two days after winning the World Cup and being bullied by Austin Healey.

"So, you couldn't tell us how many cans you drank after winning the World Cup? That's a very good question. Some people are useful at drinking just because of their sheer size, but I've never been that great. Again, it goes back to my Stick Man legs, I've nowhere to put it. However, when you win a World Cup it's fascinating, because when you go out and you think: 'Well, I'll have to go to bed about 2am or 3am at this rate,' and literally two days later you're still going. And, you know what, I didn't even feel like I had been drinking. It was just such a euphoric high with your great mates, having achieved something you'd always wanted to do. If you were to put in a room what was drunk, no one would believe you. I suppose it's like that adrenaline rush of strength that you get, that ability to go out and have a good time and not even notice the hours drifting past.

"The Cargo Bar in Darling Harbour is just one of those special places that I'll probably never go back to again, but if I walked past it as a 75 year-old I would be able to close my eyes and see Lawrence Dallaglio on the DJ deck, Tindall on the dance floor. You know, guys tucked away sharing a quiet pint, lads who like a dance floor, lads who didn't like a dance floor. It's one of those 'go-to' moments in your head."

January 21, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/21/2010

Tight knit

Jean de Villiers is beginning to get into the swing of things with Munster, according to David Kelly in The Irish Independent.

"When he had first pitched up at the province last September, De Villiers was expecting to feature from the bench against the Dragons, but illness to Keith Earls saw him unexpectedly introduced to the fray from the start.

"At one stage, Ronan O'Gara discreetly passed on a certain call to him. De Villiers shook his head incomprehensibly. O'Gara relayed the instructions again. And again. "Sorry," said De Villiers to the out-half. "Can you speak a little slower? I can't understand a word you're saying."

"Much more was lost in translation as De Villiers struggled to integrate into the new society, supporters' frustrations exacerbated at Munster's poor form and the centre's seemingly effortless sashay into the South African squad for the November international defeat to Ireland, where his display superseded any in a club jersey to that point. Imperceptibly though, he has turned the corner, from his debut try against Treviso in November, through to the more settled midfield partnership with Earls which has blossomed along with Munster's blistering recent form."

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/21/2010

Must try harder

Stephen Jones predicts doom and gloom for English clubs in Europe this weekend in The Times.

"Approaching the final week of a superb group phase of the Heineken Cup, the omens for England are grim. At present, it is impossible to predict an English victory in the final in Paris at the end of May, as the most competitive and compelling league in any code of rugby in any country has struggled this season to produce an outstanding club contender.

"Leicester, Northampton and London Irish have the best chances, but consider how frail their hopes really are. Leicester have to beat the Ospreys on Saturday by scoring four tries for the bonus point.

"Let's be honest, Leicester have many mighty qualities but they are categorically not an attacking machine and against an Ospreys team that have their own pretensions, it is difficult to see the Tigers scoring a feast of tries."

January 20, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/20/2010

Gidley gets an airing

Brian O'Driscoll revealed all about 'Gidley' following his side's victory over Brive © Getty Images

Brian O'Driscoll talks to David Kelly and reveals the inspiration behind Shane Horgan's amazing flip pass against Brive in The Irish Independent.

"They call it the 'Gidley'. Not quite a secret weapon but all the same a ploy requiring audacious skill and dead-eyed cohesion. Shane Horgan's sumptuous flicked pass to Brian O'Driscoll in the dying moments of Saturday's breathless finish against Brive became the latest adornment to a back-line's box of tricks which seems almost everlasting.

"A tribute to Aussie rugby league star Matt Gidley - a former team-mate of Ireland's World Cup flop Brian Carney - Leinster's erstwhile backs coach David Knox introduced the trick into the squad's training drills and the star-studded back-line haven't stopped delivering since. "We have a little competition to see who can get the most in a season," revealed the Ireland captain yesterday.

"Perhaps feeling the need to avoid publicising the private competitive edges which have driven his squad to the summit of the European game, O'Driscoll didn't volunteer the possessor of the 'maillot jaune' in terms of doing the 'Gidley'."

January 18, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/18/2010

Leinster dust off cobwebs

Writing in the Irish Independent, David Kelly reports on Leinster's latest win in their defence of the Heineken Cup crown.

"There was a rather comical image captured by the cameras in the RDS on Saturday night which typified an altogether surreal evening's entertainment. As Shane Horgan prepared to score what seemed an inevitable first-half try, a cloth-capped gentleman rose to his feet in raucous acclamation.

"Unfortunately, Horgan was superbly manhandled by an Anglo-French reception and driven back from the try line, a point seemingly lost to everyone except the befuddled spectator, who continued his warm acclamation until the slow, dawning realisation that things weren't quite what they seemed.

"It was that kind of night and many more were left scratching their heads in bemusement. To top it all off, Horgan, a microcosm of a team who fluttered with apparent ease between the proverbially sublime and ridiculous, would complete the 80 minutes of predominant torpor by creating arguably Leinster's try of the season thus far."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/18/2010

Leinster's threshold lowered notably

It ain't over till the fat lady sings. The Irish Times' Gerry Thornley reflects on the latest Heineken Cup action.

"After another Irish four-timer, an Irish presence is also guaranteed in the Heineken Cup knock-out stages, with Munster or Leinster assured of at least being one of the two runners-up. Indeed, if Munster beat Northampton at Thomond Park, Leinster would also be through as in that scenario 20 points would assure them of one of the two best runners-up places.

"More pertinently though, as the current top two ranked sides, the Irish heavyweights will be looking to ensure home quarter-finals, which they can achieve next weekend with victories in their Anglo-Irish pool finales.

"For their part, Ulster need a bonus-point win away to Bath next Saturday and hope Stade Français pick up nothing from their trip to Edinburgh to qualify as pool winners. They could go through as one of the best runners-up, but that looks unlikely, though a win over Edinburgh would give them a very good chance of a place in the Challenge Cup, and were it to come with a bonus point it would guarantee that much."

January 17, 2010

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/17/2010

Perpignan for starters

Can Northampton keep their Heineken Cup dreams alive? © Getty Images

Eddie Butler previews Northampton's bumper two weeks as they prepare to take on Perpignan and Munster in The Guardian.

"This is an economy preview, with two for the price of one. It's just that Northampton find themselves squeezed without much consideration into the Heineken Cup schedule. This afternoon they face Perpignan, the reigning Top 14 champions of France, at Franklin's Gardens, and on Friday play the reigning Magners League champions, Munster, at Thomond Park in Limerick.

"The snow that spared the Saints a trip to Bath eight days ago couldn't have fallen at a kinder time, but it's still an alarming prospect to face so many champions so few days apart. On the other hand, there is always the consolation of knowing that Perpignan will not be at their most rabid, having lost away to Treviso in round one, and twice to Munster in rounds three and four, and having declared their interest in this year's Heineken Cup "over".

"They arrive without their front-row of internationals: Perry Freshwater of England, Marius Tincu of Romania and Nicolas Mas of France. There's no Nicolas Durand at scrum-half and no pairing of David Marty and Maxime Mermoz in the centre. Jim Mallinder, coach of Northampton, can resist complacency by saying that Perpignan will be dangerous whoever is selected, but this could have been a whole lot more arduous."

January 16, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/16/2010

English clubs face humiliation

Who will lift the Heineken Cup silverware this season? © Getty Images

Make no bones about it, this weekend and next could be horrific for English clubs, according to Will Greenwood in the Daily Telegraph.

"We are not just talking about earning tough away trips in Heineken Cup quarter-finals. If things go badly, there may not be an English team in the knockout stages.

I doubt there will be a lot of other nations shedding tears over this, but it could raise some interesting issues because there is only one English team in with a real chance of winning their group, and that is London Irish. The others are hanging on by a thread.

Northampton need Munster to have a shocker against an Italian side. Leicester need the Ospreys to down Clermont Auvergne, something they have briefly threatened to do, but never really looked like pulling off. Bath and Sale need two traditional French powerhouses, Stade Français and Toulouse, to implode. Gloucester gave up the ghost when they were humbled in Glasgow.

Argue all you like about the maths, English teams are staring down a barrel. You show me a way anyone but London Irish will win a group and I will show a way they won't."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/16/2010

Xavier Rush: 'Refs have made it impossible to play the game'

The fans' favourite at Cardiff Blues, Xavier Rush blames rugby's ills on officials. He tells The Independent's James Corrigan why they threaten to ruin his Heineken Cup hopes, and why he's tempted by a move to Japan.

"There is much to discuss with Xavier Rush, what with the do-or-die mission facing Cardiff Blues against Sale this afternoon and all the talk of the Welsh capital's favourite No 8 moving to Japan. But one subject seems to resonate with the former All Black more than any other. It is the current debate over refereeing. Officials of a sensitive disposition should perhaps look away now.

"Referees are a lot more pedantic than they used to be," says Rush. "And what gets me is that they all seem to come from the same mould these days. Back in the day, you would know what sort of game you'd be in for – there'd be one ref who'd like it to flow, another who'd be tighter. Now they're all like clones."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/16/2010

Foden sticks by cavalier approach

Fullback Ben Foden has vowed to live or die by his running rugby for Northampton and England. he talks to Rob Kitson in The Guardian.

"The way Ben Foden sees it, rugby is a simple game. "As soon as I catch a ball the first thing that comes into my head is that I want to run," announces the D'Artagnan of the English game, eyes sparkling at the mere prospect. "People come to rugby because they want to see fancy tries and the ball run in from 60 metres out, players who take on opponents and create something. I'm glad I have that ability. It sets me apart and makes me stand out from the crowd."

"Hmm. Foden can sidestep most things and modest self-effacement appears to be among them. But what the heck. In a sport dangerously full of roundheads it is wonderfully refreshing to meet a young man determined to live or die by his cavalier instincts. The bleak Northamptonshire tundra may still be cold and snowy but the cheerful 24-year-old full-back, complete with his shimmering talent and pop star girlfriend, stands out like a mobile disco in the Arctic Circle. Whatever he does against Perpignan in Sunday's pivotal Heineken Cup fixture at Franklin's ­Gardens, it will not be dull."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/16/2010

Leinster not in the mood to let up now

Leinster resume their season and their defence of the Heineken Cup after an unscheduled festive hiatus with what is the proverbial banana skin, according to Gerry Thornley in the Irish Times.

"They’ve everything to lose against a team with nothing to lose, and they’ve slipped up in games like this before. With the benefit of his crystal ball though, Michael Cheika helpfully played the vast majority of this line-up in their last outing, against Ulster on St Stephen’s Day.

"...Perhaps the more pertinent comparison is with Brive’s last outing, away to Leinster’s pool rivals London Irish at the Madejski Stadium in what was also effectively a dead rubber for the French side. With nine of the team which is lining up tomorrow they conceded a try inside 10 minutes, and another well before half-time, yet made London Irish sweat for their bonus point until Delon Armitage’s 80th-minute try. That sounds the warning bells more than anything, and one can also recall Castres visiting the RDS last year when, despite having lost their opening two games, they denied Leinster a bonus point before beating them a week later."

January 15, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/15/2010

Ferris not giving up on Ulster's dream

Ulster's Stephen Ferris, fresh from confirming his allegiance to the underperforming province until the end of his current deal in 2011, has hinted that he may stay on even longer in his desire to recapture the side's glory days in Europe. He talks to the Irish Independent.

"Ulster were the first Irish winners of the Heineken Cup in 1999, but they have failed to reach the knock-out stages since, and few would bet against the current crop beating the odds this time around as they require bonus-point wins from both tonight's tussle and next week's trip to the Rec against Bath -- not to mention favourable results elsewhere.

"However, such is Ferris' loyalty to the province, who aided his transformation from a life of toil as a manual labourer into one of Europe's biggest stars, he is determined to remain as long as it takes to resuscitate Ulster's reputation as a serious rugby force. "The Heineken Cup to me is something I really want to win in my career," said Ferris. "Hopefully, I'll be here for another few years, because I really want to win a Heineken Cup with Ulster."

January 12, 2010

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/12/2010

Big freeze leaves provinces facing uphill task

Given the ramifications in terms of lost revenue and lack of match practice ahead of Heineken Cup resumption, the need for some form of underground protection should be of paramount importance to Ireland's provinces. Tony Ward writes in the Irish Independent.

"I have not the faintest idea what it would cost to install under-soil heating, whether at Ravenhill, the RDS, Thomond Park, or the Sportsground, but whatever the investment it would be money well spent.

"Certainly, deprived of match practice, the Irish sides are at a disadvantage with knock-out qualification in Europe now entering the final straight. Michael Cheika's decision to run with a full-strength line-up against Ulster was timely in retrospect. Brian McLaughlin too made good use of the Northerners' clash with Munster in the New Year by giving his first-teamers game time, meaning the real victims of the weather are Tony McGahan and, to a lesser extent, Michael Bradley.

"McGahan, who went with a second-string selection at Ravenhill, now finds himself in the position of seeing more than half his side for Saturday's crucial game away to Treviso go into battle without a match since December 20 against Perpignan, while Bradley's Connacht welcome Montpellier in the Challenge Cup on Friday without playing since December 26."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/12/2010

Ireland's Six success tied to provinces' pool progress

Few weekends define the Irish season quite like the final two pool rounds in Europe come January, so writes Gerry Thornley in the Irish Times.

"Although the tensions between the Ireland and provincial managements over player release have intensified this season, it remains a mutually beneficial relationship in which the Ireland team feeds off the provinces and vice versa.

"Nothing ensures a positive frame of mind when the Ireland squad come together prior to the Six Nations more than the knowledge the provinces have a tangible interest in Europe the ensuing April. This constitutes the barometer for the first half of the season. It rewards the seven months or so of pre-season and 15 or so matches they’ll usually have played at that juncture and it gives real meaning to the rest of the season."

December 19, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/19/2009

Visitors braced for daunting assignment

Muster step into the Catalonian cauldron that is the Stade Aimé Giral tomorrow afternoon with a whiff of cordite in the air. Gerry Thrnley writes in the Irish Times.

"Having scraped past Perpignan by their wits’ end and the skin of their teeth last week, they face the French champions who have won their last 23 home matches. Even by Munster’s standards, this is a daunting task. Outscored by three tries to nil and unable to deny Perpignan a bonus point last week, defeat without a bonus point could leave Munster third in Pool One entering the final two rounds of games, and also knowing that if they finished level with Perpignan the Catalans would have the better head-to-head record.

"They’ve been in tighter corners, mind, and on the balance of things possibly encountered a more potent side in Clermont Auvergne over the last two years. Then, it was Munster’s resilience and no little flair away from home in securing bonus points which were critical; two years ago finishing level on 19 points with Clermont but progressing on the head-to-head record."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/19/2009

Rougerie's power the key for Clermont

The Sunday Times' Stuart Barnes says Leicester will have to exploit weaknesses in the French mentality if they are to gain revenge for last week's defeat to Clermont Auvergne.

"This is a case of do or die for Leicester, having lost last week’s fixture in France by five points to nil. The problem is, from the perspective of the Tiger’s fans, there seems, on the evidence of Sunday’s match, little the English champions can do to stop the French runners-up from killing them as they did in one of the most brutal beatings England’s most uncompromising club has suffered in the entire professional era.

"Clermont were superior in the scrum, left Leicester, missing Tom Croft, for dead at the lineout and outmuscled and outsmarted them at the breakdown. Behind the scrum, despite a brave individual effort from Toby Flood, the French collectively outclassed Leicester at half back, ran through them in the centre and over them out wide."

December 17, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/17/2009

Performance of the ox

Eddie Butler salutes the performance of Ulster flanker Stephen Ferris and calls for heavy sanctions against gougers in The Guardian.

"The performance of last weekend, when there was in general a welcome return to some audacious rugby, was by Ulster. Ian Humphreys weighed up safety and risk and decided to give the first the weekend off and take the second for a spin around Ravenhill.

"If you are brave enough to grow such a beard you are surely of a kind for whom heading west into the prairies with just a wagon and an ox is an everyday experience. Of course, he had Stephen Ferris at his side - or, in fact pulling his wagon - a No6 who once again revealed that he could become one of the very best players of his generation.

"Ferris played so well that not just one but two Stade Français players felt compelled to poke him in the eye. There is nothing more to be said about the crime of gouging, except to say that the disciplinarians who dole out bans in mere weeks bear full responsibility for its persistence, and that in the case of Ferris, its use in Ulster was a mark of respect for the performance of the ox."

December 15, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/15/2009

A rousing weekend

Tony Ward hails the resurgent Ronan O'Gara and a great weekend for the Irish provinces in European competition in The Irish Independent.

"The mantra of 'it's only half-time' will, of course, be the message ringing around all four training camps in the build-up to the second of December's back-to-back games -- fixtures that are set to define the European rugby season in this part of the world.

"The calculators may still be required come the fourth weekend in January, but certainly as a mid-pool injection, the weekend outcome could hardly have been better from an Irish perspective.

"True, Munster squeezed across the finishing line a short head in front but given the quality of the opposition, it's a win they will take and head for the Stade Aime Giral with confidence high and qualification still very much in sight.

"That they eked out the win says so much about that insatiable desire and resilience central to the Munster psyche, as well as the Thomond Park factor. It was all driven by the master craftsman and point-scorer supreme in the No 10 shirt, Ronan O'Gara."

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/15/2009

Zero tolerance

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Mick Cleary calls for zero-tolerance as gouging returns to the headlines after last weekend's Heineken Cup fixtures.

"Ferris himself noted that if it had been a punch, then he would have said nary a word, in line with rugby's macho code of omerta in such matters. But gouging is something else altogether: sly, nasty, craven and spineless. It seems to be on the increase, a truly bizarre state of affairs given that the game has never been cleaner.

"There are far fewer flashpoints in a match, due primarily to the increased vigilance afforded by the all-seeing eyes of television. They miss nothing, so even if the match referee does, there is recourse to a citing commissioner.

"Also factor in that when a player is sent to the sin bin, never mind dismissed, it usually costs his side on the scoreboard. Peer pressure has become a deterrent. Might not, though, the self-imposed clean-up actually be the cause of rising frustration in a player? Dupuy's behaviour on Saturday is a case in point. He had already been shown a yellow card by the time he allegedly went for Ferris."

December 12, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/12/2009

Cockerill is a caged Tiger still keen to shout the odds

Leicester's coach is serving a four-week ban for criticising officials, but he won't quieten down at a key stage of the season according to Rob Kitson in The Guardian.

"As Richard Cockerill discovered the other day, his status as Leicester's head coach does not guarantee absolute respect. There he stood, attempting to break the news that a foul-mouthed rant at match officials last month had resulted in a four-week match-day ban. "Sorry," he told his players. "I'm afraid I won't be with you on Saturdays until after Christmas." The eruption of delight, air-punching and cheering apparently put even last season's raucous title celebrations in the shade.

"It is hard to imagine Sir Alex Ferguson seeing the funny side. But such is life at Leicester on Cockerill's watch. The ex-England hooker was the sort of player opponents loved to hate and some things never change. The World Cup-winning lock Ben Kay admits there are moments when he cannot believe the little pest is his boss. "I am surprised, to be honest," he said. "There were a few raised eyebrows when the club brought him back as a coach, knowing how hot-headed he used to be in training. As it's turned out, he's been a revelation in that regard, although the pills do occasionally wear off."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/12/2009

Kingsley Jones: 'In my day we'd all just play injured'

Sale's biggest names have moved on, and there's a queue for the physio's room. But as he faces Quins in the Heineken Cup, coach Kingsley Jones tells The Independent's Chris Hewett why he's happy to stick with home-grown talents.

"Jones, who succeeded that quintessential French rugby man Philippe Saint-André as top dog at the end of last season, agrees with many of the theories put forward to explain the calamitous plague of orthopaedic trauma that has swept through the European game since the middle of August, thereby accelerating the development of a new species of professional sportsman: Homo horizontalus. The static rucks, the gang-tackling, the obsession with hitting opponents high rather than low ... all have played their part, he agrees. But he also has a pet theory of his own – semi-serious, perhaps, but far from ridiculous."

December 11, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/11/2009

The high ball

Will Greenwood is losing patience with players failing to deal with the high ball in The Daily Telegraph.

”Over the past weeks I have seen enough bad play under the high ball and kicks to make me very nervous. It is as if people have forgotten that if they let the leather egg hit the deck anything can happen. The key is to keep it up, no matter what.

“I expect five defensive players to put themselves in positions to catch high balls and box kicks. This is not a controversial view, so I am at a loss as to why so many teams struggle with the concept.

“There are the back three of two wings and a fullback. Then there is the scrum-half, who in most teams sweeps in behind the defensive line as the opposition move the ball wide, looking to pick up the chip over the top.

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 12/11/2009

Win or bust

Writing in The Irish Independent, Hugh Farrelly hails Tony McGahan's decision to drop Jean de Villiers ahead of Munster's must win clash with Perpignan.

"Munster did not need De Villiers, nor did Irish rugby, the Keith Earls-Lifeimi Mafi centre combination was the best in Europe last season up until the Heineken Cup semi-final and the South African's inclusion meant four of Munster's five outside backs were ineligible for Ireland -- hardly a healthy situation for provinces feeding the national cause.

"The Springbok comes across as a genuine individual and is obviously a quality, if one-dimensional, player but when overseas players are signed on lucrative short-term contracts, there is a pressure to excel -- a pressure Rocky Elsom met for Leinster last season in a position where he did not affect the plans of Ireland coach, Declan Kidney.

"The De Villiers-Mafi partnership struggled through five Magners League and two Heineken Cup matches, continually described as a "work in progress".

"Now McGahan has called time and gone back to last season's drawing board in the knowledge that there is no longer any latitude for a wait-and-see approach."

December 9, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/09/2009

Keynote games

Robert Kitson previews must-win games for Leicester and Leinster in the Heineken Cup in The Guardian.

"Last weekend all remaining general public tickets for this season's Heineken Cup final in Paris sold out six months in advance. There are two instinctive reactions: 1) Are there really still six months of the season to go? (Answer: Yes, you lightweight); and 2) Can't wait. When it comes to refreshing jaded rugby palates, nothing does the trick quite like the lure of Paris in late spring and the glorious certainty of significant drama en route.

"So never mind the buzzwords of recent weeks: slow ball, breakdown, endless kicking. Good riddance, for now, to England's deficiencies and depressing law interpretations. Just place yourself instead in the boots of last season's finalists, Leinster and Leicester. Back in October a trip to Parc y Scarlets might not have unduly concerned Leinster; suddenly their hosts are two from two and, thanks to London Irish's victory at the RDS, it could yet be checkmate for their Australian coach, Michael Cheika, if they lose in west Wales without a bonus point. Leicester, having drawn at home to the Ospreys, will effectively be stuffed Tigers before Christmas if they contrive to lose home and away to Clermont Auvergne over the next two weekends. Ticking away in everyone's mind, too, is the need to score tries to enhance qualification prospects. It is a wonderfully combustible mix.

"In some cases, sides have no option but to come out firing, regardless of weather or opposition. Home defeats for Harlequins and Bath and, qualification-wise, it will be over and out. Gloucester have precious little margin for error, as do Perpignan and Clermont. It may surprise some to hear that Toulouse have lost their last three away games in the French Top 14, most recently at Brive. What price a cheeky little home win for the Blues in Cardiff on Saturday afternoon?"

December 6, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/06/2009

It is time to move on from shoot-out misery

Last season's semi-final exit was a bitter blow, but Cardiff Blues flanker Martyn Williams is determined to put it behind him. Read his thoughs in The Observer.

"The Heineken Cup is the best club tournament in the world and it has long been an ambition of mine to win it. To come so close to making the final last season, becoming the first team to lose out in a kicking contest, was hard to take, but you have to move on.

"At least the rules have changed and shoot-outs will not have forwards like me taking aim. Even though I had hardly ever done any kicking, I did not feel any nerves and was confident of putting it over. I had reckoned without a tee: on the occasions I had a go in training, I had used a cone.

"As I saw a tee being hurled in my direction, my heart dropped. I was not sure how to place the ball and the result was a shocking kick. I felt terrible, and still do, and my mood did not improve in the following week when I attempted 10 kicks after a training session and landed the lot."

October 18, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/18/2009

Winning losers

Eddie Butler accentuates the positives after Northampton Saints slipped to a Heineken Cup defeat against Perpignan at the "demonic" Stade Aime Giral in The Observer.

"Much as Treviso's 9-8 home win in round one over Perpignan, who are only the reigning champions of France, was greeted as one of those boosts for the game in general – and for Italian rugby in particular – the applause in Northampton was possibly qualified by the thought that somebody might have to pay for it.

"And so it was in the demonic Stade Aimé Giral, as deafening in its appreciation of an opposition kick at goal as Thomond Park, Limerick, is silent, the slighted champs of the Top 14 threw everything at last week's rather noble victors over Munster. Actually, it is hard to see a bald, genial, English Kiwi, bearing the name of Perry Freshwater, as a son of Satan – unlike the splendidly untamed Jean-Pierre Perez in the Perpignan back row – but the large loose-head prop played his part in the demolition of the Northampton scrum.

"Add to the frenzy of the Perpignan forwards the sheer class of Maxime Mermoz in the centre and the industry of Nicolas Durand at scrum-half and it could all have unravelled for the visitors. They said they had done their homework and knew what to expect, but nothing can ever really prepare you for a descent into the Aimé Giral."

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/18/2009


Stuart Barnes admires the turnaround at colourful Top 14 giants Stade Francais in The Sunday Times.

"In their florid pink shirts, Stade Français could have been a poetic fancy conjured up by Baudelaire after a heavy night on the hashish and absinthe. And for the first five matches of the season one of the most glamorous of all the French clubs performed as if they could not shake off the bleary effects of the night before.

"Stade were languishing 13th in the Top 14. Think the Tigers perched precariously above Leeds in the Premiership and you understand the shock. The Parisians didn’t have a defence as much as a sieve. In those five games they conceded an average of 31 points, including an infamous 40 at home to Montauban, whose modest aspirations are for nothing more than mid-table security.

"That defeat was followed by another 30-point fiasco in Biarritz and that . . . that was followed by action more drastic than anything achieved until then on the field.

"Max Guazzini, their extravagant owner, with a showtime penchant for Moulin Rouge girls and jousting knights, showed the less playful side of his character, dismissing head coach Ewen McKenzie, once an Australia prop, and assistant coach Christophe Dominici, a former Stade and France wing."

October 16, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/16/2009

Saints head in to the unknown

Stuart Barnes previews Northampton's trip to face Perpignan at the Stade Aime Giral in The Times.

"Pathetic would be a gross overestimation of Perpignan’s effort against Treviso. There is complacency and then there is Perpignan. Terrific as the result is for Treviso and Italian rugby in the short term, it leaves one of the teams which should be amongst the leading contenders for the Heineken Cup on the brink of European obliteration.

"Munster away and a visit to Franklin’s Gardens promise little but pain. Somehow they have to find their self belief – not to mention their form – and undo the Italian job by winning at least one of these fixtures. Before that however, comes the small matter of maintaining their awesome home record. God, I hate that lazy Americanisation "awesome" but with 15 straight home wins and 26 victories from 28 home ties it's as good a term as any.

"Northampton, if they are going to emerge from this pool, are being forced to do it the hard way through absolutely no fault of their own. A week prior to the Munster match the European giants were humiliated by Leinster but such was the quality of the Saints performance that they deservedly rode the Irish side's inevitable backlash to win the match.

"This week, Perpignan will have been flogging themselves after the humiliation that occurred north of Venice. Whether they have already thrown the Heineken towel in or not, they will be desperate to respond in style after last Saturday. Northampton will have to beat the champions of France on Friday night, not some set of imitations."

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 10/16/2009

Missing my fix after six years of Heineken Cup

Writing in The Guardian, Shaun Edwards says the Challenge Cup is enjoyable, but he feels he's missing out as he looks forward to the weekend's Heineken Cup action.

"I still feel a little like the bloke who wasn't invited to the party and is left on the sidelines. No disrespect to Paris, Bayonne, Rome or any other of the fine sides like the table-topping Saracens who tussled with Toulon last night, but after six years of Heineken Cup rugby, winning the competition twice, I'm missing it like hell, especially as once again it's proved to be a competition that constantly surprises.

"Those with even short memories will recollect me predicting success for at least two of the Irish regions. The argument went along the lines of the Heineken Cup being made for sides who could rest important players and then get them to peak condition for a limited programme.

"Leinster, I remember, had done particularly well in recruiting the likes of the international scrum-half Eoin Reddan from Wasps, the prop Mike Ross from Harlequins and the Lions second-row Nathan Hines. The feeling was that with an Irish back line that included Brian O'Driscoll and other Lions in Luke Fitzgerald and Rob Kearney, the beefed-up pack would go even better than it did last season when Leinster pipped Leicester in the final in Edinburgh.

"Now their competition hangs in the balance and should they go down at Brive there will be more than a few red faces returning to Dublin on Saturday night."

October 15, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/15/2009

A theatrical gem

Stephen Jones' latest Rolling Maul blog for The Times takes in the superb game witnessed at Franklin's Gardens, between Munster and Northampton.

"It wasn’t the greatest day, last Saturday, despite an explosive start. An old Irish hack, Fanning, who thinks he’s my friend, and that playing a few games for Clontarf makes him an authority, demanded a lift from Heathrow to Franklin’s Gardens for the Northampton-Munster match. He told me to pick him up at the Holiday Inn. There are 23 Holiday Inns at Heathrow. He was in the 21st, whining that I was late. We had to miss lunch, and steamed up the M1 at, er, 69.9 mph

"The game was at the godforsaken hour of 6pm. Why? I know it’s a waste of time asking for your sympathy, but by the time we’d finished work, it was well past ten, no way you could even think of stopping for a decent meal; straight back down the M1 in the wet, and a ghastly fish and chips at Toddington Services, an old-style services from the Dark Ages. At least I got rid of Fanning at about midnight so I didn’t have to listen to him drone on into Sunday. I got back too late even to see Smarmy Lineker say goodnight.

"But there was a bit in between the late dash up and the sad return home, that provided just a little something in the way of a lift to the spirits. The Match, and The Occasion. It was just the most thrilling event, Lions tour apart, I’d been to for a long time. It was, put simply, professional club rugby at its very best, as an entertainment, a bitingly-ferocious contest, a demonstration of many things that are wondrous about rugby, and a theatrical gem."

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/15/2009

Diluting the competition

Paul Rees takes a look at the EPS agreement's influence over the opening round of Heineken Cup action in The Guardian.

"Harlequins were so driven by the desire to reach the Heineken Cup semi-finals last April that they tried to cheat to get there. But having survived calls for their expulsion from this season's competition they rested their three England elite squad members for their first match – an eminently winnable one, against the Cardiff Blues – and left the Welsh capital without even a bonus point.

"The next day, Sale arrived in Toulouse missing a number of senior players and found themselves 36–3 down within 50 minutes. On Saturday, London Irish will take on the Scarlets missing Paul Hodgson and Steffon Armitage. Why are clubs fielding weakened teams in Europe's premier club competition?

"Under the new agreement between Twickenham and the Premiership clubs, which is worth £150,000 a year for every national squad member the teams provide, such players have to miss a match between the fourth and seventh weekends of a season. This coming weekend is the seventh."

October 14, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/14/2009

Booth determined London Irish will buck trend

In terms of job satisfaction it would be difficult to think of a better environment in which to work as a rugby player than London Irish, according to Mark Souster in The Times.

"The man in charge, Toby Booth, preaches the need for his side to enjoy themselves, not to forget that they are in the entertainment business and to win where possible with a smile. He sums up his ethos as “good versus evil” and he preaches the virtues of attack over defence. There are no prizes for guessing in which camp the exiles belong.

"In what has been largely a drab season to date in terms of quality, one dominated by aimless kicking, safety-first rugby and a desire to slow down opposition ball at the breakdown, London Irish have produced the only real splash of colour. They are the top tryscorers in the Guinness Premiership, but also possess the meanest defence, the latter a fact that is routinely overlooked."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/14/2009

Hogg blanks Paris pummelling

Allister Hogg did not appear to be in a trance as he spoke to the media at Murrayfield Stadium yesterday, but the Scotland No.8 was struggling to convince reporters that he had overcome the horror of Edinburgh's opening Heineken Cup defeat, David Ferguson writes in The Scotsman.

"Hogg has been here before. He came off the bench with Scotland having been stunned by losing 21 points to Italy in the opening seven minutes of 'that' RBS Six Nations match in 2007, and has played in games with the likes of New Zealand where he shared teammates' frustrations at giving up the early initiative only to rally in the second half. In Edinburgh's colours, he too has rued many wasted first halves, as recently as two weeks ago when the Magners League game at the Ospreys was tossed away early on by mistakes.

"He insisted that it was wrong to blame Edinburgh's open style of play for contributing to their downfall, that basic errors were the chief reason, and insisted there should be no tightening-up of their attacking philosophy."

October 12, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/12/2009

Does the Heineken Cup lack quality?

The weekend's Heineken Cup was a mixed bag of tense finishes and flashes of brilliance but insufficient sustained quality, writes Brian Moore in the Daily Telegraph.

"Leinster's problem came from the fact that they won the kicking duel by a good margin. However, because they gained ground during the exchanges and stayed in Irish territory, they seemed to assume the superiority would somehow automatically turn itself into points. When it didn't, nobody had the presence or nous to abandon the tactic until they were behind and it was too late.

"Furthermore, whilst the superior length of kicks gave Leinster better field position, they could not challenge either scrums or line-outs on the Irish ball. There is little point in putting in raking 60-metre kicks if you do not compete at the subsequent line-out. Several times no Leinster forward even jumped for London Irish throws inside the visitors' 22."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/12/2009

Edinburgh lose the game and their heads

Writing in The Scotsman, Iain Morrison picks through the pieces of Edinburgh's Heineken Cup mauling at the hands of Stade Francais.

"It is happening a little too often for Edinburgh's dismal performance against Stade Francais to be dismissed as a bad day at the office. Edinburgh leaked four tries to the Ospreys last week, they conceded four to Leinster at the same stage of the Heineken Cup last year and Stade had their bonus point inside the half hour on Saturday.

"If the 12,000 capacity crowd in Stade Jean Bouin had lined up and demanded their money back they could have been forgiven because the second half of this match was an utter non-event which Edinburgh actually won 7-3. It's just as well that Stade's millionaire owner Max Guazzini had gifted a block of tickets to Edinburgh supporters who certainly deserved a refund."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/12/2009

Leicester rescued by dream debutant

Billy Twelvetrees crowned his dazzling first start with a touchline conversion to save ravaged Tigers, Simon Turnbull writes in the Independent on Sunday.

"There were 10 minutes to go before kick-off at Welford Road yesterday when Billy Twelvetrees was handed the Leicester No 12 shirt. Dan Hipkiss had fallen victim in the pre-match warm-up to the Tigers' backline curse that had already accounted for three men in morning fitness tests (Aaron Mauger, Harry Ellis and Matt Smith), the in-form England centre having complained of suffering from what Richard Cockerill, Leicester's director of rugby, described as "aching joints and swollen testicles".

With Toby Flood, Sam Vesty and Geordan Murphy all on the long-term injured list, that left Twelvetrees with a debut occasion in front of a 20,000 crowd against the Ospreys – James Hook, Tommy Bowe, Shane Williams, Lee Byrne and all – in a Heineken Cup Pool Three opener. Having been released from Leicester's academy in 2008, and re-signed for the club last May after a season with Bedford in National League One, there might have been a question of whether the 20-year-old with the Pacific Islander name – but with home roots actually from Pulborough in West Sussex – happened to be equipped with the cojones for the big occasion."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/12/2009

Shane Geraghty shows his skills

Writing in the Guardian, Michael Alywin sings the praises of the Heineken Cup after witnessing Northampton's victory over Munster.

"It makes you wonder how we cope when there is no European rugby. Yes, the Guinness Premiership is tense and competitive, the Magners League improving, the Six Nations historic. But the fizzy competition beats them all for drama, intensity, quality and cross-border rivalry.

"This was the kind of soaring epic that only the Heineken Cup seems able to provide. When Munster are in town it does strange things to people, and Northampton were never going to treat this as anything less than their biggest guaranteed fixture of the season. If they carry on playing like this, though, they will find even bigger fixtures further down the line."

October 11, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/11/2009

Upsetting the old order

Eddie Butler, writing in The Observer, revels in London Irish upsetting the old order at the RDS on Friday.

"The countenance of the game between the daring defending champions and the devotees of adventure from across the water was so delicious that it was inevitable Leinster-London Irish should become an exercise in keeping the warts at bay. It was going to be beautiful; it turned out to be lumpy. But the 9-12 scoreline represented an outstanding victory for London Irish and a shake-up to the order of Europe.

"Leinster found themselves frustrated at every turn, with Brian O'Driscoll contained by the midfield of Elvis Seveali'i and Seilala Mapusua, with back-up from wing forward Steffon Armitage. Apart from a dash with his first touch in the opening minute, when he followed the scent that only he can sniff near the contact area, O'Driscoll was held up. The harder he tried, the more he was tackled and the more he came up rubbing his head.

"Frustrated is one of those words that, in rugby, implies a spot of bother. This came in the first half, with Nick Kennedy claiming Shane Jennings had gone for his eyes. The gouged of last season's semi – Leinster at the hands, or fingers, of Munster – were the gougers of this season's opener. Surely not."

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/11/2009

You lot say hi to 'The Fly' for me

Bath prop David Flatman muses on the significance of Ravenhill following his side's Heineken Cup defeat to Ulster in The Independent on Sunday.

"As the final whistle blew, we celebrated for a matter of seconds before our thoughts drifted back to our fallen friend. The changing room was both relieved and sombre at the same time; sombre, that is, until I checked my phone. Expecting a message of congratulation from my parents at home, I was staggered to see Wally's name pop up on my screen. "I'll get through this, boys, don't worry," he said, "just you lot say hi to 'The Fly' for me." The fact he was comfortable enough to text was promising but that did not stop me being confused; what was The Fly?

"The Fly, as it turned out, was the nightclub to which we all flocked that night for a celebratory drink. Ulstermen and Saracens alike shared jokes, beers and kebabs (I had salad) late into the night and Wally was toasted more than once. This week's visit was similar in terms of atmosphere, although somewhat more restrained (a 9am flight home can't help but temper one's enthusiasm).

"Ulster, or rather Ravenhill, retains all that is sacred about the rugby ground. To play there is to enter one of Europe's most hostile, oppressive environments where everything – weather included – seems stacked in favour of the home team. The howling, growling wind and the horizontal, seemingly grit-infused rain conspires to make forward progress remarkably difficult. But as soon as the match is over, the animals become gentlemen and all of rugby's bad intentions seem to evaporate into the Belfast mist as the men with whom one was just brawling enquire as to your movements for the evening."

October 10, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/10/2009

Quicksilver Shane

Robert Kitson, writing in The Guardian, talks up Northampton centre Shane Geraghty's England chances.

"He does not look like a destroyer of defences. Blond, pale, more wisp than battering ram, he even seems slightly unsure about his own ability to run a game. If you had to guess Shane Geraghty's profession you might go for trainee chartered surveyor or mild-mannered snooker player. He has Irish roots but there is also some English reserve. Until, that is, you throw him a ball in a bit of space, at which point a thrilling transformation takes place.

"At his best, Geraghty is one of the few playmakers currently resident in England capable of earning a curt nod of mutual respect from Matt Giteau and Berrick Barnes. Before he can go head to head with the elusive Wallaby pair next month, though, the string-pulling pivot has to prove himself worthy to do so. They no longer do formal Test trials but a Heineken Cup pool encounter against Munster is the most sulphuric of acid tests.

"Tomorrow is a big day, too, for Northampton, hoping to take what their director of rugby, Jim Mallinder, sees as an important stride in their development. Since these two clubs met in the 2000 Heineken Cup final, Munster have won the tournament twice and never failed to reach the last eight. The Saints have been relegated and seen more coaches come and go than National Express. They have had to graft tirelessly on and off the field for the status they are now slowly regaining."

October 9, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/09/2009

Off-field trouble

Paul Rees recalls a few blood 'n' thunder clashes between French and Welsh sides in the Heineken Cup ahead of Brive's trip to face the Scarlets in The Guardian.

"Brive return to the Heineken Cup tomorrow after an 11-year absence. They do so, perhaps fittingly, in Wales. There they face the Scarlets in Llanelli, but the milieu they step into to is far different to the one they were used to in the early years of the competition.

"The Heineken Cup was then known for confrontations between Welsh and French sides on and off the field. Local police forces were put on alert, arrests and charges were far from the exception and the board of European Rugby Cup Ltd became used to sitting in judgement on warring Celts and Gauls.

"Cardiff's first match in the inaugural tournament in Bègles in 1995 became so violent that their second row, Derwyn Jones, at one point shouted: "Circle the wagons." Llanelli and Pau were each fined £20,000, half of which was suspended, in 1997 after a match ERC said was smeared with examples of gratuitous violence. Brive and Pontypridd fought a notorious encounter the same year: two players were sent off and a brawl erupted that night in a bar packed with players from both sides."

October 7, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/07/2009

'Bloodgate' referee had suspicions

Referee Nigel Owens talks to the Harlequins coaching team during the infamous 'Bloodgate' match © Getty Images
The referee of the Heineken Cup 'Bloodgate' quarter-final between Harlequins and Leinster last April has revealed that he has plenty of doubts about the way he handled the whole affair. Gavin Mairs writes in the Daily Telegraph.
"Owens has replayed the incident in his mind many times after he allowed the Harlequins wing, his mouth full of fake blood, to leave the field and to be replaced by a hobbling Nick Evans in Quins' unsuccessful attempt to win the match with a last kick at goal.

"..."Maybe looking back now I am a bit disappointed that I didn't [do more] but you didn't expect this sort of thing to happen, even though I had my suspicions as he had been warming up," Owens said."

October 6, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/06/2009

There can be only one

Kenny Logan, writing for The Scotsman, believes that Scotland's Heineken Cup cause would be helped by allowing only one side in to the competition.

“Scottish teams don't have a good track record in the Heineken Cup, but it should be exciting for Scottish rugby fans as they prepare for the kick-off this weekend. Why? Because this is where you prove yourself and both Edinburgh and Glasgow have the talent to do something this year.

“Being honest, the wider world doesn't care how the Scottish teams do in the Magners League. Most of our players are used to performing on the international stage now and they know that clubs prove themselves in the Heineken Cup. And when that pressure has come we've failed miserably so far.

“The major thing holding us back is consistency. You only have to look at Glasgow's result in Toulouse last year to see how well they can play, but you can't then go to the Dragons and lose. Glasgow face the Dragons again this year and if they can't beat them, they can forget about a first appearance in the quarter-finals.

“You have to admit there are differences in strength in depth between the Scottish teams and the top 20 sides in Europe, who have academies, better facilities and finance to buy in top-quality players. We are also very much 'Scottish' teams, whereas the majority who step into the European cauldron next week will be a virtual 'League of Nations' roll-call. The competition is also tougher now – it's harder to reach the last eight than when Edinburgh did so in 2004 – but the Scottish teams are also much better now.”

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/06/2009

Sunday morning, it was very difficult to wake up

David Kelly meets Leinster's Michael Cheika and Munster's Tony McGahan to chew over the fallout from last weekend's huge Magners League showdown in The Irish Independent.

"Michael Cheika woke up on Sunday morning bathed in beams of bright sunshine and raucous birdsong filling his ears. For Tony McGahan, Sunday morning arrived dark and despairing, with a thumping headache assailing his senses.

"Sunday morning, it was very difficult to wake up," admitted McGahan yesterday, returning to the city where Leinster had so comprehensively touted their European supremacy less than a week before the 15th Heineken Cup competition fizzes refreshingly into view.

"You were hoping for a bit more darkness and that the morning wouldn't come. Yesterday was a long day as it always is after any sort of loss, especially so after the one on Saturday night. It certainly hasn't got any easier, we're still very disappointed with our performance."

"Nobody would be foolish enough to suggest that the balance of power has swung irreversibly towards Leinster following a decade of European dominance from the men in red.

"Certainly not anyone within Leinster, as Cheika avers. "I've said genuinely that not a lot of people expected us to win the Heineken Cup last year," he admits. "And I think even less people expect us to back it up."

October 5, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/05/2009

Alcohol dependency

Is rugby too reliant on alcohol sponsorship money? Paul Rees takes a look in The Guardian.

"One of the conclusions of those who answered a questionnaire from the task force set up to investigate cheating in rugby was that a win-at-all-costs mentality increased the risk of players succumbing to the temptation of drink and drugs.

"One player called for a restructuring of the domestic season, arguing that: "Boys are probably getting mentally fatigued with the length of the competition and looking for their own ways of freshening up." Sponsors provide a means, with the English and Celtic leagues and European rugby's premier club competition all sponsored by companies associated with alcohol. After the boos comes the booze.

"In England, the Illicit Drugs Working Group is working with Premier Rugby and the Professional Rugby Players' Association, in association with Diageo, the company that owns Guinness, to highlight the consequences of illicit drug-taking and irresponsible drinking. While the dangers of recreational drugs have been highlighted by high-profile cases this year, there is a perception that such indulgence is a corollary of drinking to excess.

"Are rugby's administrators sending out the wrong message by relying on the largesse of the likes of Guinness, Magners and Heineken? Should the British government follow their French counterpart and legislate against alcohol producers sponsoring sports, where would rugby union turn? The British Medical Association last month called for a ban on all alcohol advertising, including sport and music sponsorship, arguing that alcohol was one of the leading causes of death and disability."

Posted by Huw Baines on 10/05/2009

The heart of the club

Aurelien Rougerie, Clermont Auvergne's talisman, talks frankly about Top 14 heartbreak ans the Heineken Cup with Stephen Jones in The Times.

"If ever sporting misery was personified, its name last June was Aurelien Rougerie. He was inconsolable. He was called “an extraordinary player” by Bernard Laporte, the former France coach. Rene Fontes, the president of Clermont Auvergne, the club Rougerie captains and that begin their Heineken campaign next weekend, said: “Aurelien is our franchise player, as the Americans call it. He is our marquee player. Our hero. He is the heart of the club.”

"Make that broken heart of the club. Rougerie was captured on television at the end of the French Championship final at the end of last season. Clermont had just lost a magnificent match to Perpignan, the latest of their 11 finals, the most of any French club. They have won none of them. “Sometimes you feel that the current group, and maybe even this club itself, is fated not to become champions,” Rougerie said in the hour of defeat.

"Most of the truly great rugby clubs in any country are strongly identified with the community around them. Rougerie, 29, is effectively a local boy, from Beaumont, Puy de Dome, near Montferrand, where Clermont play. The club was created before the first world war by the Michelin Tyre Company, for the use of their employees, and the current stadium is still called Marcel Michelin, after its founder. Their desperation to finally win the French Championship typifies the dilemma of many French clubs when it comes to the Heineken Cup."

October 4, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 10/04/2009

The Heineken Cup: let battle commence

Weaknesses in the Guinness Premiership will give the Irish provinces a huge advantage in the race for the Cup according to Stephen Jones in the Sunday Times.

"This may appear perverse. My clear favourites for the Heineken Cup, which will burst out joyously all over Europe next weekend, from autumnal mists and mellow fruitfulness and through a thunderous rugby tournament, are Leinster and Munster, the two Irish provinces, in that order. Neither the Guinness Premiership nor the French Top 14 have a resoundingly convincing contender as yet to win it.

"But here’s the odd bit. Neither Leinster nor Munster would finish much above half-way in either league. They would have their tongues hanging out by November. In fact, it isn’t perverse. It’s true. The Irish teams, partly by default and partly by design, are set up for the Heineken Cup, not for any long-haul ordeal. The English and French clubs, entirely driven by imperatives, are essentially set up for success in their domestic events, however lofty their aspirations to European glory may be."

September 27, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 09/27/2009

Turning a corner

Eddie Butler, writing in The Guardian, believes that the Ospreys' victory over Glasgow has reaffirmed their Heineken Cup credentials.

"This was going to be about kicking, which I am sure you would have found riveting. I had this little log worked out, a grid-map of who was kicking from where to where at Firhill, the home of Partick Thistle, perfect for the experiment because of its crown‑green slopes and its narrowness, local conditions that would highlight the contrast between Glasgow and the Ospreys in the their Magners League encounter on Friday night.

"That was the idea, but what began as a rather dry investigation into kicking ended with a thorough appreciation of the Ospreys. It's just that on Thursday, placed on the spot in this mighty organ's very own Heineken podcast, I seemed to blurt out that the Ospreys, in defiance of all the evidence thus far and in line with no logic, would be H Cup finalists.

"My well-intended kicking map had begun to look like the sketch of Jim Furyk's swing we commissioned at the Open golf one year, a blur of lines, a porcupine with split ends, that ended up on the spike, as they say in the porcupine world, the cutting-room floor, the bin."

September 3, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 09/03/2009

The Cheats' Cup

Peter Bills, writing in The Independent, is disgusted by Harlequins' inclusion in this season's Heineken Cup.

”There is no longer anyone in professional rugby willing to uphold any longer the cause of right over wrong. A sport once renowned for its impeccable standards of behaviour and discipline has sunk into the trench where some other sports, once derided by rugby as lesser species, have resided for so long. How the mighty have fallen.

“The stench from the trench has been hugely magnified by rugby's behaviour in the light of blatant cheating by Harlequins. But what is worse is the pitiful, cowardly response of ERC, the organisation charged with running what was once known as European rugby's premier tournament.

“No longer. The Heineken Cup can now be called the Cheats Cup, because Harlequins have been cleared to continue playing in the tournament. Convicted, confessed cheats allowed to play on in a major tournament which they tried to ridicule and destroy by their actions? You just couldn't make this up.”

August 18, 2009

Posted by Mark Doyle on 08/18/2009

Harlequins must be thrown out of Heineken Cup

Peter Bills of The Independent believes that if Harlequins are allowed to compete in European competition this season it would be a “combination of travesty and farce”.

"The longer the Harlequins 'Bloodgate' affair goes on, the deeper the authorities pry into its evil, labyrinthine passages, the more mysterious it becomes. We tend to get more questions than answers, as the whole sorry saga drags on.

“The latest revelations and sentences are stunning. Dean Richards thrown out of rugby for three years, the club's fine stiffened in terms of immediate payment.

“Yet the most justified, inevitable punishment is not yet decided upon; namely, for how long will 'Quins be slung out of the Heineken Cup? Why not? On that one, there is no decision yet from the committee. Yet in the light of what has happened, it can be only a question of how long the club's exclusion lasts, not whether there is one or not.

“Should Harlequins not be excluded from the tournament, and a two year ban is the minimum period they should suffer, it would be a combination of travesty and farce. ERC would lose all vestige of respect and credibility if they handed down these suspensions and then allowed the club to stay in their lucrative tournament.”

July 24, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 07/24/2009

Questions left unanswered

Writing in The Independent, Peter Bills believes that the recent judicial findings against Harlequins are wholly unaccepatable.

"If the brief foray of Harlequins rugby club into rugby’s legal corridors was intended to answer questions of alleged impropriety by club or individuals, then it has plainly backfired.

"At the conclusion of the hearing, more questions remained than had been answered. Further light is unlikely to be shed on this dark affair by the news that the enquiring Tribunal will not publish their findings for a further week. Exactly why, is yet another question that remains unanswered.

"Harlequins and their wing Tom Williams were found guilty of fabricating a cut to the player's mouth, thereby enabling them to get onto the field a key player late in their Heineken Cup quarter final match against Leinster in April. The club was fined £215,000, albeit with 50 per cent of the fine suspended for two years. That means if ‘Quins do not transgress again, they will pay just £107,500.

"Williams, meanwhile, was suspended for 12 months. But why was Williams handed so draconian a sentence? Until the Tribunal's findings are released are we not left to assume that Williams refused to give evidence and that is why the Tribunal fined Harlequins and absolved every other individual in their club?"

July 21, 2009

Posted by Ruaidhri O'Connor on 07/21/2009

Tom Williams the fall guy for Harlequins

Writing in his Guardian Unlimited blog, Paul Rees argues that the 12 month ban for Tom Williams was disproportionate to his crime.

"Twelve months for winking, which is effectively why Williams was banned, is not just draconian but disproportionate. Stick your finger into an opponent's eye and you can enjoy a short lay-off; put two fingers up to those who run the game, which is what Williams, and his club did, and you are out of work for a year. Percy Montgomery only received six months in 2003 for shoving a touch judge to the ground after a row while playing for Newport at Swansea.

"Harlequins are waiting for the written judgment of the three-man disciplinary panel before deciding whether to appeal against Williams's ban and the £215,000 fine, half of which was suspended for two years, levied on the club. What will be of particular interest will be why Williams was singled out, as if he acted alone.

"Dean Richards, the Quins director of rugby, had a misconduct charge levelled against him thrown out, as did the club's physiotherapist and doctor. So if Williams had a fake blood capsule, which he burst in his mouth five minutes from the end of the game so that Nick Evans, the goal-kicker, could return for the final five minutes with Harlequins trailing by a point, where did he get it from and what were his instructions?"

May 24, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/24/2009

No glory for sad Tigers

Is there any glory in defeat for the Tigers? Stuart Barnes asks that very question in the Sunday Times.

"On the right side of a tight one at Twickenham last Saturday this time around the rugby gods or whoever decides the fates that hang in the balance of Heineken Cup finals turned their backs on the English.

No, defeat was anything but glorious. Glorious defeat is for losers and although the Tigers were on the wrong side of this match the reason they made it through the ever-tightening tension of the quarter-final with Bath and that unbearable shootout in Cardiff is because the club are winners."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/24/2009

Leinster defeat Leicester to claim Heineken Cup

Stephen Jones was impressed with Leinster's triumph in the Heineken Cup Final at Murrayfield - read his thoughts in the Sunday Times.

"A fantastic finale to the European season, an absolutely brilliant contest in which Leicester had by far a better attacking ability and class in the back division but Leinster had more heart and devil. It was such a shame that a game of this magnitude was decided by a random penalty award that could have gone any of about six ways. Johnny Sexton put over the winning kick in the 70th minute and after that Leicester were uncharacteristically panicky when they still had the time and ability to win.

"Leicester’s midfield made a total mockery of their relatively short standing in the sport at present and it was no fun for the Lions to see Brian O’Driscoll completely unable to make an impact and hobbling his way through the closing stages. But there is a new star in Europe, a new club to join the elite, and Murrayfield has seen celebrations like this on few occasions of late."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/24/2009

Sexton kick sinks Leicester

Writing in the Observer, Michael Aylwin reports from Leinster's Heineken Cup Final victory over Leicester at Murrayfield.

"Ireland's year then, no question. There is a new name on the Heineken Cup, and it is that of Leinster, so long ­dismissed by the rugby cognoscenti as flash Harrys who did not have a stomach for the fight. They have now put that theory to bed. But what a game ­Leicester made of it, a surely exhausted outfit pushing their Irish rivals to the brink without ever quite threatening to win the game.

"Leo Cullen was able to step and ­collect the trophy, holding it high above the heads of the team that many felt had been the making of him as a player, Leicester. He and his team-mates were as unrelenting, indeed, as those ­Leicester teams of yore. Despite dominating throughout, Leinster managed to find themselves behind for around 20 minutes either side of half-time, as if to prove that they had the hardness now to thrive in adversity."

May 23, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/23/2009

Leinster's - will they be champions or chokers?

The Irish side have a simple mission – overturn Leicester's enviable record in finals, and prove the doubters wrong. Robert Kitson writes in the Guardian.

"Where is Carol Vorderman when you need her? Only a consonant here and an extra vowel there separates Leicester and ­Leinster on paper and today's Heineken Cup final could be a similarly close call on the Murrayfield scoreboard. Brace yourself for an intensely physical game of Scrabble, a battle of wits and slender margins.

For Leinster it is also another high-­profile chance to brandish two fingers at those who have typecast them, among other things, as "ladyboys" and "serial ­chokers". The former Irish international lock Neil ­Francis was even moved to describe them in print as "spiritually bankrupt" before their quarter-final against Harlequins, since when the squad have proved to be anything but. A first European crown, after too many."

May 22, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/22/2009

Leinster have the passion, intensity and desire required

It is the final that should feel a bit flat but Will Greenwood insists this year's Heineken Cup Final has the potential to deliver. Read his thoughts in the Daily Telegraph.

"Leinster will have their work cut out after what has been a fascinating campaign. Their total demolition of Wasps made you sit up and take notice in October, despite the realisation that it was not the Wasps of old. The group stages were negotiated with some dramatic fluctuations in form, but then, come the knockout and the boys in blue have been wonderful to watch. At The Stoop, their travelling support showed they can hold their own against the Thomond Park fans and the players gave everything to beat a Quins team that had looked to be heading for a first semi-final.

"I don't want to dwell on it too much here because the semi against Munster was so unbelievably good. But at the Stoop, Leinster's front five showed steel away from home: Leo Cullen's line-out work, Stan Wright's all-round contribution from the front row so complete that at one stage he tackled Ugo Monye out wide. Then there was Shane Jennings at the breakdown and Gordon D'Arcy back to his defensive best in the centres. But it was in the semi-final that Leinster took giant leaps forward, and started to be recognised as being on a par with their fierce rivals at Munster."

May 21, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/21/2009

A classic, if you wouldn't mind

In his Rolling Maul, blog for The Times, Stephen Jones think's it's about time that the Heineken Cup final was a classic contest.

"The Heineken Cup as an event is still bubbling beautifully along but the final itself has gone off the boil, with only two of the last five considered classics. However much we admire commitment and tribalism, there must be more for the neutral if the Heineken final is truly to take its place amongst the elite European sporting events, such as the Champions League final.

"The last true, all-time epic was the stunning Wasps-Toulouse match in 2004. Last year’s final, when Munster beat a shocking Toulouse, was magnificent from the Munster point of view and had a great atmosphere but was a tiresome experience for any neutral.

"Leicester and Leinster do not have to bother about the wider perspective. Victory is everything for them, quite rightly. Leicester’s chances depend on how well they bounce back from the Guinness Premiership triumph last week when they often looked tired and how well they can target a Leinster front row unrated by serious judges anywhere in Europe."

May 17, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/17/2009

Leinster's coming of age

Leicester's success provides the perfect template for 'clubs' like Leinster, writes Brendan Fanning in the Irish Independent.

"Back in 1995/96 when Leinster were European Cup semi-finalists operating out of a portacabin in Donnybrook, the Tigers were not even in the competition. They were, however, better tooled than most for the demands of professionalism. The proof is in their position now: this game is about turning their fifth appearance in a final into their third win, which would lift them alongside Toulouse.

"Leinster's journey has taken them down a few more unapproved roads. Some of those diversions have been caused by the IRFU, who were doing the navigating, and were also paying for the petrol. The idea of our provinces being 'clubs' and having a degree of autonomy is still fairly new in Irish rugby, and the remarkable thing is that we are now in sight of having the third of our big three added to the list of European winners despite the different agendas."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/17/2009

In-form Leicester can take gloss off Ireland's year

Leicester are hitting form at the right time to take smile from the eyes of Brian O'Driscoll's Leinster according to Eddie Butler in The Observer.

"Leinster, the dames of the game, the Dublin pretty boys, have hardened up. Three years ago they danced all over Toulouse away, only to be crushed by Munster in the next round. Not just crushed in one act; back and forth went Munster over a team flattened into Rizla paper.

"This season, Leinster exacted a spectacular revenge, fronting up and giving Munster a taste, and then some, of their own mincemeat. And then they ran them off their feet. This was revenge with a twist and a flourish. This was Leo Cullen rising to the occasion in the second row against Lions elect, Brian O'Driscoll rising higher than anyone in the European game, and props like Cian Healy and Stan Wright preparing the base for the age beyond O'Driscoll.

"This could have been a one-off, an inspired uprising against their tormentors. But Leinster had already revealed a steely core in their 6-5 victory away at Harlequins in the quarter-final. This was a serious workout for the defence that will have to hold firm against the Leicester Tigers at Murrayfield."

May 11, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 05/11/2009

Leicester on the double

Brian Moore, writing in The Daily Telegraph, believes that Richard Cockerill's Leicester have got what it takes to claim a dramatic double.

"Richard Cockerill and Dean Richards would not be in anyone's top-10 list of sexy Mourinho-like coaches. Richards' nickname of 'Warren' refers not to any likeness to the Hollywood actor, rather 'Warren ugly -------'.

"Neither would be on a top-10 list of academics within rugby, but both have survived the proving ground of Welford Road and both are at the head of the list of English coaches. On Saturday the challenges facing their respective teams were of a different order and one, Cockerill, successfully negotiated a path to the Guinness Premiership final.

"The resilience shown by the Leicester Tigers, after the emotion and energy-sapping dramas of extra-time and a penalty shoot-out last week, was remarkable. Cockerill's management of his resources and the tone he has set at the club maintains Leicester's traditions of doggedness, pragmatism and unsentimentality.

"Bath were on the end of another lesson in efficiency and in truth were never in the hunt. Though stars such as Geordan Murphy stole the headlines, it was the players of lesser fame that were the core of the win. Sam Vesty and Dan Hipkiss are not members of the regular internationals clique, but they reflect what Leicester have always turned out – hard working, selfless, team-players."

May 5, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/05/2009

Tossing a coin would be a fairer way

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Brian Moore believes the penalty shoot-out is an unfair way to decide a match.

"The macabre fascination of the penalty shoot-out is something that every rugby follower wanted to see. Many times it has been threatened, but when it actually happened in Cardiff, all those with a soul probably concluded that it was something they do not want to see again.

"There is no perfect way to determine a game that is equal on so many counts after extra-time. However, penalties are not as equitable as they are in football. At least footballers all kick the ball regularly, even if they do not take penalties similarly. In rugby there is no need for many of the players to kick and to decide arbitrarily on this skill is no fairer than choosing, for example, how far the players from both teams can throw a ball from the touchline. It would be fairer, but far less dramatic, to toss a coin."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/05/2009

Shoot-out lottery? It’s just part of game

Considering rugby prides itself as a game played by real men, reaction in general was thoroughly wet and wimpish according to Matt Dickinson in The Times.

"This was no lottery but big, competitive men being asked to prove that they could keep cool under ferocious scrutiny. Williams failed that test, which is particularly hard on him as a fine player, but that is what happens in sport and not just in shoot-outs — players, even the best ones, choke at crucial moments. Williams’s muscles seized with tension just when he needed them to relax.

"For all the bleating about how cruel it was, how unfair and out of context, the one word that was not mentioned by anyone, least of all the players and coaches of Leicester or Cardiff, was “practice”. The ending may have been highly unusual, but, as a way to settle the game in the event of a draw, it was there written in the rules. It was the clubs’ own fault if they failed to consider the possibility of a shoot-out."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/05/2009

Shoot-outs have no place in rugby

After Sunday's Heineken Cup semi-final, Chris Hewett argues why draws should not be settled this way again. Read his thoughts in The Independent.

"Ever since the sport went open in 1995, administrators have talked of the inappropriateness of the football model. Where the people's game went, they insisted, the union code would not follow. And what do we find, almost a decade and a half into the professional era? A growing obsession with football's fripperies and excesses. Already, a career as a head coach in rugby is less secure than one in football: as detailed in these pages recently, the average tenure over the last five seasons has been a mere 20 months. Now, rugby has sold a little more of its soul for the price of a penalty shoot-out.

The Heineken Cup semi-final between Cardiff Blues and Leicester at the Millennium Stadium on Sunday was blessed with everything required of the classic and, sadly, the one thing required of the farce. At 26-26 after 20 exhausting minutes of extra time, it was left to the kickers, trained and untrained, to decide the matter from a central position on the 22-metre line."

May 4, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/04/2009

Leicester reach final after historic penalty shoot-out

The Daily Telegraph's Mick Cleary recalls how Leicester were almost embarassed by their victory in the Heineken Cup semi-final penalty shoot-out with Cardiff Blues.

"Instead of joyous celebration, the Tigers queued up to commiserate with the stricken figure of Williams. There but for the grace of God. Their response was modest and dignified. Factor in too, perhaps, that they hadn’t the energy left for even a peep of triumphalism let alone to revel in someone else’s misery.

"The scenes on the Millennium pitch were without precedent. Players, officials, physios, TV cameramen all tries to figure out what to do and where to go.

"Leicester had to act smartly as the shoot-out loomed. First-choice kicker, scrum-half, Julien Dupuy, who had given way to Harry Ellis, was hurriedly re-introduced, centre Danny Hipkiss, having to undergo close scrutiny by officials on the touchline to verify that he had a blood injury."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/04/2009

Leicester left to thank Jordan Crane

David Hands of The Times offers some historical perspective following Leicester's dramatic penalty shoot-out victory against Cardiff Blues at the Milennium Stadium.

"So the Heineken Cup went into unknown territory; Brive and Toulouse played out extra time in the 1998 semi-final, Brive going through on the greater number of tries, but only in the French Cup final of 1984, when Béziers beat Agen, has a penalty shoot-out featured in significant northern-hemisphere match. As the realisation dawned that they were about to make history, both sides jostled to get their better goalkickers on the field and there may be queries about Dan Hipkiss’s blood injury that allowed for the return of Julien Dupuy.

"European Rugby Cup Ltd is already investigating a late switch made by Harlequins involving Nick Evans in the quarter-final against Leinster, but Leicester, without Toby Flood, who was on crutches with a damaged left ankle, had no concern about the legitimacy of their action. Even then, after the first four designated kickers from each side had been successful, the pendulum swung first towards the Welsh region, then away: the first player to miss was Johne Murphy, but James blazed wide for Cardiff."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/04/2009

Williams' cruel fate mocks first shoot-out

Chris Hewett has sympathy for the Blues' Martyn Williams after his miss handed leicester the chance to win their Heineken Cup semi-final clash. Read his thoughts in The Independent.

"Whoever the sporting gods may be, they have a sick sense of humour. After one of the great Heineken Cup semi-finals – only the second in the history of the tournament to require extra time – there was not so much as a cheap fagpaper separating the two sides, so the penalty shoot-out found its way out of football and into rugby, as dedicated followers of the union game always feared it might. Under the unprecedented circumstances, someone had to lose the contest in an unprecedented fashion. That someone turned out to be the Cardiff Blues flanker Martyn Williams.

"It was almost too much for flesh and blood to stand, and it certainly struck a blow at whatever sense of fairness still lurks in rugby's collective soul in these ruthless professional times. Williams was put on this earth to weave spells and patterns with his uniquely creative approach to the back-rower's art, not kick goals – not even from a position 22 metres out, smack in front of the posts. He hooked the eighth of his side's penalties wide of the left upright and then had to watch another loose forward, Jordan Crane, apply the coup de grace with apparent effortlessness for Leicester."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/04/2009

Crane lifts Leicester past Cardiff

Writing in the Guardian, Robert Kitson reflects on Leicester's Heineken Cup semi-final victory over Cardiff Blues at the Millenium Stadium.

"Rugby union is no stranger to late drama but the sport found itself in alien, wild-west territory yesterday. Never before has a top-level game in Britain been settled by a penalty shoot-out and even ­Leicester, who will now meet Leinster in the Heineken Cup final in Edinburgh on 23 May, felt slightly disoriented by the experience."

May 3, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/03/2009

Leicester look for Italian job

Leicester's hopes of defying the odds during the Heineken Cup semi-final against Cardiff rest on Martin Castrogiovanni’s scrum power according to Stuart Barnes in the Sunday Times.

"Richard Cockerill has had to make a few crucial calls in selection — the choice at half-back and whether to recall the long-absent and hugely influential Aaron Mauger, available after injury — but none as important as the tighthead decision. If Leicester are to triumph in Wales against a team who have won 12 from 12 cup encounters this season (including a 50-point demolition of Gloucester at Twickenham recently) their pack needs to stop the fluent Welsh attacking game at source.

"That starts at the scrum, where Castrogiovanni must bend the best player in Britain to his will. The Blues have Gethin Jenkins at loosehead, a banker for the Lions Test team and totemic figure in the inexorable rise of his club in Europe."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/03/2009

Leinster come of age as they affirm their mighty stature

Leinster did to Munster exactly what everybody expected Munster to do to them: they beat them up, writes Denis Walsh in the Sunday Times.

"You can’t divorce outcomes from performances but it in this case there is an important separation to be made. For Leinster the victory was seismic but the performance felt more like a watershed. Not just in their development as a team but in altering fundamentally how they are perceived because, for too long, perception has harmed them.

"They were commonly portrayed as gifted and fragile. They bristled at the caricature but, on the biggest stages, their rebuttals were weak. Some big games won, more big games lost. They insisted they were going somewhere but we had to take that on trust and our faith was weak.

"Yesterday they finally delivered a performance of cold anger and terrible ferocity. A performance as big as the occasion and the imperatives of the day. A championship performance from a team who, finally, looked like a championship team."

May 2, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/02/2009

Blues have the slight edge over Leicester

Will Greenwood has predicted fireworks in Cardiff tomorrow when the Blues take on Leicester insisting there is too much muscle, too much testosterone and too many players backed into a corner. Read his thoughts in the Daily Telegraph.

"Cardiff have transformed themselves. I was trying to explain it to a pal the other day, how they had become much more physical, street wise, dangerous, and he didn't quite get it. In blunt terms, I told him that Cardiff had gone from an averagely fit side who were bordering on overweight, to a team who look supercharged in every position.

"The team, in terms of personnel, haven't changed since last year when they found it impossible to cope with Toulouse in the Heineken Cup quarter-finals. And while they struggled to keep up after 60 minutes in that match, this time around, in Sunday's semi-final, you feel they would be happy to go to extra time."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 05/02/2009

Leinster Guy and Munster Man fight for Heineken Cup supremacy

The passion shown by supporters of both sides is a measure of how far Irish rugby has come according to Brendan Fanning in the Guardian.

"When Jack Charlton led Ireland to ­consecutive football World Cups in the early 1990s the phenomenon of the Irish fan was born. With much modesty this creature was styled as "the greatest football fan in the world". And then along came the rugby equivalent: Munster Man.

"This well oiled machine will take over Croke Park today, another one in the eye for Munster Man's younger, less ­experienced cousin: Leinster Guy. The gap in cultures between the two rivals is more a chasm than a divide, and both sides work hard to keep it that way. Munster fans see ­themselves as earthy and loyal and hugely passionate about the cause. And Leinster are not really sure how they see themselves."

April 30, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/30/2009

Ashamed of your true colours

Reggie Corrigan, writing in The Times, has no time for glory-supporting "Lunsters".

"I’ll never forget the hype and the mania and the scramble for tickets before the Leinster v Munster semi-final in Lansdowne Road three years ago. There was talk back then that if only the GAA would open up Croke Park, we’d have had no trouble filling it. Well three years on, and it’s actually happened – and there still aren’t enough tickets.

"I’ve been scrounging around same as everybody else. It’s a pain, but it’s also wonderful. The rivalry between two great teams and two fantastic sets of supporters is at the heart of what has made Irish rugby great.

"There’s just one problem. Munster’s fantastic success in the past few years has spawned a mutant breed of rugby fan – the Lunsters. They are born, bred, living and working in Leinster but they have turned their back on their own province and decided to support the men in red.

"I can hear already hear their yelps of self-justification: Everyone is entitled to support the team of their choice. Yes, but only within reason. Of all the arguments I’ve had with these people over the years – and I’ve had plenty, believe me - I’ve never been convinced."

April 26, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/26/2009

Old warriors recall mother of all derbies

Gerry Thornley talks to former Munster centre Rob Henderson and Leinster prop Will Green about the 2006 Heineken Cup semi-final ahead of another all-Irish clash next weekend. Read their thoughts in the Irish Times.

"From the moment Malcolm O’Kelly knocked-on O’Gara’s kick-off, Munster were on the front foot. O’Gara knocked over a first-minute penalty, and after the Leinster lineout malfunctioned a Paul O’Connell take led to the Munster pack driving Denis Leamy over the line, O’Gara’s conversion to make it 10-0 inside eight minutes.

"Henderson watched the first 10 minutes unfold from the bench. “It was a great start and I think that came with experience. Even though when you looked at the teams theirs was as good as ours, we’d learned from previous matches it’s nothing to do with the hype or the build-up, it’s what you do on the field, and if you can get on the field with a cool head you’re already one step ahead of the game, especially when you’re playing against less experienced opposition in that kind of scenario."

April 13, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/13/2009

Heineken Cup pressure can shred biggest reputations

The endless fascination of sport comes from its sole objective criterion – winning. Brian Moore writes in the Daily Telegraph.

Bath's Butch James had an off-day with the boot against Leicester © Getty Images
"Unke the arts, in sport each minute counts, it will never come again and there is never the chance to put it right. Add to this the pressure of live performance and its attendant anxieties and you have a psychological minefield.

"In the weekend's Heineken Cup quarter-finals, the effect of such pressure showed that even seasoned players, of proven ability at the highest level of a World Cup final, are not immune from its debilitating effects.

"Conversely, those about whom doubts lingered demonstrated their ability to clarify their thoughts at the acutest moments and then execute the necessary. You can go further: pressure can affect a whole team, reducing players of proven class to the ranks of the ordinary club players."

April 12, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/12/2009

Just an honest Joe

Ian Gough, Wales' hard-hitting lock, talks to Eddie Butler in The Observer about the Ospreys chances at Thomond Park.

Ian Gough and the Ospreys are unafraid of their Munster challenge © Getty Images
"Ian Gough is old enough at 32 to have survived several generations of management-speak. For years he has been going about his business, filling what he calls his "niche" in the second row, doing anything but tart up his game of rugby.

"Gough chases kicks hard, hits rucks harder, tackles opponents hardest. He is the boring front jumper to whom the ball is thrown when all fancier options have failed. He has won 59 caps for Wales as their honest Joe. But ask him about today's Heineken Cup quarter-final against Munster and the old boy cannot help reaching into the phrase book of the modern Ospreys. "This is all about re-integrating well, re-focusing, re-motivating and re-tasking," he says.

"He means it. He re-means it. Gough and a whole string of the region's players went through a pretty dramatic and ultimately unsuccessful Six Nations campaign with Wales, regathered as Ospreys and were derailed by Gloucester in the semi-final of the EDF Energy Cup. Now they face the defending champions at Thomond Park in Limerick. Perhaps the only place to hide is in jargon."

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/12/2009

Perfect 10

Stuart Barnes meets Harlequins fly-half Nick Evans to talk drop-goals, the Heineken Cup and the All Blacks in The Sunday Times.

"The Harlequins supporters owe Daniel Carter a sincere vote of thanks. The talents of the world’s best fly-half, more than the temptations of hard money, were the prime factor in convincing Nick Evans to change All Black for multicoloured. Had Evans stuck with black, Harlequins would almost certainly not have been at home this afternoon, in with a fantastic chance of making the Heineken Cup semi-finals. Evans produced the greatest four minutes of controlled rugby I have been privileged to see against Stade Français; four pulsating minutes in the wind and rain that opened the way to qualification and home advantage.

"Had he been the All Blacks’ regular fly-half there would be no Harlequins versus Leinster. “Why did I quit the All Blacks? I was probably not playing as much as I wanted to play for New Zealand through no fault of mine or anyone else’s. I just had a guy who was the best in the world in front of me. I asked myself if I would play more All Black rugby and the answer was, probably not. Did I want to stay in New Zealand and play Super 14 for five or six years or challenge myself by coming here, especially to a team where I was the only New Zealander?”

"The answer was a glorious affirmative. His and the club’s ambitions “just about lay on top of each other” when he discussed the prospect with Dean Richards. Ironically, had he stayed in New Zealand he would have had a clear run at the No 10 shirt for the rest of this calendar year with Carter injured. “Yes, Murphy’s Law, isn’t it? But the first thing I will say is I have no regrets at all. I did not make the decision lightly and knew it would pretty much end my involvement with the All Blacks for a while, which was tough, very tough.”

April 10, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2009

From Sedgley Park to kings of Europe?

Nobody ought to be surprised if The Stoop is rocking to the sound of Bob Dylan’s The Mighty Quinn at the sight of their team flying higher in Europe than before, according to Peter Jackson in the Daily Mail.

"Harlequins have not done much in Europe since one of their more promising fly halves took to the skies over wartime France and shot down 22 German planes. Sir Douglas Bader, fighter pilot and Second World War hero, had been 'pencilled in' for an England cap against South Africa at Twickenham in January 1932.

"On the Monday after turning out for Quins in typically gung-ho fashion despite a broken nose from the previous week's skirmish with the Springboks, he crashed his plane in a low-flying stunt and lost both legs."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 04/10/2009

Richards hailed as the man behind Harlequins' revival

Writing in the Guardian, Rob Kitson sings the praises of Quins boss Dean Richards as his side prepare for their Heineken Cup quarter-final clash with Leinster.

"Harlequins' presence in the Heineken Cup's last eight this season would have impressed one famous military strategist. "I don't measure a man's success by how high he climbs but how high he bounces when he hits bottom," said General George Patton. Given that Quins had dropped into National League One when Dean Richards rode into town four years ago, Sunday's significant date with Leinster is almost worth a gallantry medal in itself.

"No wonder the club's chief executive, Mark Evans, hailed Richards this week for the "brilliant" job he has done. Quins are not merely a couple of big wins away from a European final. They also lie second in the Guinness Premiership with two games to go. No club in the league has conceded fewer tries and only London Irish have scored more. As well as amassing 94 tries in all competitive games this season, they have beaten Stade Français at home and away the latter result coming at a packed Stade de France. Mighty Quins indeed."

April 5, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 04/05/2009

Who can stop Munster?

Eddie Butler believes that the 2009 Heineken Cup is Munster's to lose, in The Guardian.

"The Heineken Cup used to be a fairly simple business once the hectic stages of qualifications from the pools were over. Two questions presented themselves: who was going to win it and whose turn was it, perhaps while answering that first question, to beat Munster?

"Actually, Munster were also-rans for the first four years. But in 2000 they made it to the Twickenham final, where they lost to Northampton, and since then they have been fixtures in the last eight, losing only two quarter-finals, to Biarritz in 2005 and the Scarlets in 2007.

"They lost two semi-finals "away" in France (without being in the home ground of their opponents) by a single point, 16-15 to Stade Français in 2001, and 13-12 to Toulouse in 2003. The other semi they lost was at Lansdowne Road, perhaps the most dramatic game over 80 minutes in the history of the competition, 37-32 to Wasps.

"Another final was lost, to Leicester in the "hand of Back" game in Cardiff in 2002. Munster's trail of near-misses didn't quite stretch back into the monochrome depths of Ireland's 1948 grand slam, but every year fairly broke a few more hearts down in Limerick and Cork and all points in between."

January 29, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/29/2009

IRB's Tincu headache

Writing in The Guardian, Paul Rees mulls over the dilemma facing the IRB over Perpignan hooker Maruis Tincu's appearances while banned.

"The Tincu case has more profound implications for the IRB and its sub-committee already has a draw full of bulging files as it battles to maintain the system that means a player's ban covers all tournaments, not merely the one he was sent off in or cited.

"A problem with that is if a player is sent off playing for his country, his club suffers, and vice versa; a punishment should principally hit a player. Martin Corry was this week cited for alleged eye-gouging during Leicester's defeat at Ospreys last weekend: if found guilty, he would face a long ban, but anything less than nine weeks would see him free to play in the Tigers' next Heineken Cup match.

"Football's model is fairer and more logical, although punishments for drug offences are uniform. Rugby's disciplinary code was drawn up in the amateur era but livelihoods are now an issue. Whereas suspensions in football only exceed three matches in exceptional cases, bans in rugby are often measured in months, but when did soccer last have an eye-gouging case?"

January 27, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/27/2009

Rugby has to deal robustly with this spite for sore eyes

Eye-gouging in rugby is nothing new but it has no place in the cleaned-up modern game insists Eddie Butler in the Guardian.

"The stamp on the head remains the great taboo of rugby. I remember Chris Ralston, the England second-row, requiring a score and more of stitches to repair stud damage to his swede. Suspicion not unnaturally fell on the feet of Llanelli, if only because they were running around the same field as Ralston's Richmond. The scandal raged for days, without anyone being brought to book. It remains one of the unsolved crimes of the sport.

"But the boot to the bonce has slipped way down the list and lies at rest, only just above the stiletto blade that occasionally crept into the stockings of French villagers on derby days in the 1930s. The dear, dear 30s: the good old days of violence."

January 26, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/26/2009

An attritional classic

Peter Bills praises the skill levels on display as Bath and Toulouse scrapped to a 3-3 draw at The Rec inThe Independent.

"But just because the final Heineken Cup pool match of the season did not produce a whir of flowing rugby, does not mean it wasn’t a captivating contest. In many respects it was. For a start, you had to wonder in amazement how players handled the heavy, soaked and mud-caked ball at all. In days gone by, large forwards would have dropped just about every pass made and knocked on almost every time they tried to pick up the ball.

"It was a tribute to the skills of the modern player that so many of them managed to handle correctly and hold onto possession. As Bath fought, literally inch by inch to what they had hoped would be the winning score in the final moments, edging agonisingly close to the Toulouse line in a series of forward surges, you had to admire their technique.

"This was a match that proved rugby doesn’t have to have six tries apiece and 40 points on the board to be an intriguing spectacle."

January 25, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/25/2009

Bath need class of Michael Claassens

Stuart Barnes previews the crucial Heineke Cup clash between Bath and Toulouse in the Sunday Times.

"Bath’s scrum-half is the man who orchestrates their high-speed game plan. If Toulouse wish to guarantee their progress in this tournament, the less illustrious of Bath’s Springbok half-backs should be at the centre of their disruptive strategy. The French club are famed for focusing more on their own game than that of their opposition. Bath must be praying Toulouse have worried more about their blip in form against Glasgow last Saturday than the antics of this weekend’s opposition.

"Toulouse can eliminate the errors and still lose today if they let Bath play. Steve Meehan’s team should have won in Toulouse, having outscored the French champions by two tries to nil and trumped their fluid game. A repeat display with home advantage, and Bath will prevail."

January 20, 2009

Posted by Huw Baines on 01/20/2009

Premiership not as good as you think

Peter Bills has some stark opinions on the state of the Guinness Premiership following a disappointing weekend for English sides in the Heineken Cup inThe Independent.

"Much of the hype generated by the propagandists for the Guinness Premiership evaporated like a pile of snow in hot water last weekend.

"Sale Sharks, Gloucester and Harlequins all lost crucial Heineken Cup matches confirming my long held belief that while some or all of them might enjoy the occasional wondrous day in the Premiership, give them international opposition and they’re nowhere near as convincing.

"Sale were blown away in Limerick by Munster’s rapacious hunger for a quarter final slot. Gloucester, as they invariably do on these occasions, came up short again, at home to Cardiff and Harlequins were so bereft of technical acumen, common sense and discipline in Belfast against Ulster, they didn’t deserve to win."

January 17, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/17/2009

Waldouck relishing chance to beat O'Driscoll in generation game

Robert Kitson previews the Heineken Cup clash between Wasps and Leinster and speaks to centre Dominic Waldouck in the Guardian.

"Josh Lewsey said this week that the quality of the big Heineken Cup ties nowadays is frequently superior to Test rugby. If he is correct, and he has played long enough for club and country to have a well-developed sense of perspective, this game is as near as an uncapped player will come to experiencing a formal Test trial. When he looks across the halfway line, the Wasps centre Dominic Waldouck will see the great O'Driscoll, flanked by Felipe Contepomi and Shane Horgan, opponents who boast more than 200 caps between the three of them."

January 16, 2009

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 01/16/2009

Vickery committed to Wasps cause

Wasps captain Phil Vickery will show his commitment to his club in several ways on Saturday afternoon at Twickenham. He will be assured and implacable, eager and hard-nosed too according to Mick Cleary in the Daily Telegraph.

"The mood will be raw and the consequences significant. Heineken Cup pool ties are meant to be this way at this stage: edgy, uncertain and full of fury. Vickery will be there in the middle of the mayhem. He will set the tone and others will follow. Wasps officials might hope that several of his team-mates might copy him too in signing a new contract.

"We've verbally agreed on a two-year deal," said one of the West Country's finest, whose move to the bright London lights three years ago was greeted with some surprise, primarily because of Vickery's chronic back problems. But he has endured, and in the wake of Lawrence Dallaglio's retirement has become an ever-more influential figure in the attempts of the champion club to get a grip on their faltering season."

December 16, 2008

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/16/2008

Trouble brewing for rugby's have-nots

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Mick Cleary predicts financial trouble ahead as the gulf grows between European rugby's rich and poor.

"The upside of professional rugby looks buoyant. A full house of 77,000 at the Stade de France last weekend, Harlequins set fair for a 50,000 capacity crowd at Twickenham for their Dec 27 league game against Leicester, and sold out signs at various Premiership grounds.

"Rugby to be the new soccer? I doubt it. Scratch that shiny surface and things are not so wholesome. True, the big-hitters, such as Perpignan, Stade Francais or Leicester and, coming up on the rails, Quins, have either got high-rollers bankrolling them or have solid foundations. The name of their game is a mix of consolidation and expansion.

"But what of the likes of Newcastle or Bristol, clubs scrapping away to keep themselves on sound commercial footings? It's easy to get drawn to the headline attendance figures. The turnstiles aren't clicking all over the land. Wasps attracted only 7,596 for their important Heineken Cup game against Edinburgh; Glasgow, lively and potent the previous weekend, a paltry 3,306 for their return fixture against Bath. The Scottish regions rarely break the 5,000 barrier."

December 15, 2008

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/15/2008

Rugby's tale of the unexpected

Simon Barnes admits to being one of those blown away by the finish to Harlequins' epic Heineken Cup clash with Stade Francais. Read his latest piece in The Times.

"Here's a strange truth about sport: any match you see, any bit of sport you attend or catch on television, may just turn out to be greatest piece of sport you have ever seen in your life. You just don't know.

"I can't claim that my weekend was based around the Harlequins v Stade Français Heineken Cup tie, but I'm glad I stumbled across it. It was a great contest in vile weather - rugby, like Formula One, changes its nature entirely when the rain comes - and a finish that defied belief."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/15/2008

All in a day's work

The Daily Telegraph breaks down how Perpignan's Dan Carter could justify his first hefty pay cheque - he is on a reported £30,000 per week deal.

"Perpignan’s bean counters may use a different method, but this is how fly-half Dan Carter could have earned his crust on debut on Sunday:

4 penalty goals at £2,000 a piece to seal a great home win for Perpignan - £8,000

2 conversions at £1,500 each to add the icing £3,000

7 tackles at £1,000 each to show he’s not just a good-looking bloke - £7,000

19 passes at around £400 each to free up the hard-running backline - £7,600

15 kicks at £400 each to keep the home side on the front foot - £6,000

1 clean break at £400 ... this boy can kick and run - £400

3 high takes at £200 to keep Leicester at bay - £600

But deductions of £2,600 for two missed penalty kicks, two knock-ons and two missed tackles.

Total earnings £30,000"

December 14, 2008

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/14/2008

Evans leads Harlequins escape to victory

Paul Ackford was amongst those to witness Harlequins' dramatic victory over Stade Francais at the Twickenham Stoop. Read his thoughts in the Sunday Telegraph.

"Not quite the razzmatazz of last week. No eagles, no frilly knickers from the Can Can girls and, by my reckoning, about 64,000 fewer spectators, but a sensational game nevertheless because Harlequins finally prevailed deep into injury time after taking the ball through 29 phases. The upshot is that Quins now have virtually booked their passage into the quarter-finals of this competition.

"It was a magnificent achievement to come off the ropes as they did. Nick Evans, Quins’ All Black outside half, landed the final, all-important drop goal. He’ll probably be given the freedom of Twickenham."

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/14/2008

Cup floweth over with brilliance

The club game in Europe could match international rugby for spectacle, class and pulling power in remaining pool rounds according to Stephen Jones in the Sunday Times.

"The club game in Europe could match international rugby in terms of spectacle, class and pulling power in the remaining pool rounds and knockout stages of the Heineken Cup. Last week’s news of big television contracts for club rugby, both in England and pan-European in the Heineken Cup, was good enough but the extraordinary action of this weekend suggests the international game will soon be looking to its laurels.

"...Who are favourites at present? Munster have had a mediocre campaign by their standards, although they remain the betting favourites alongside Toulouse. Ospreys and Cardiff give Wales an outside chance at least of a rare finalist. And will Harlequins lead the English challenge? Nothing is decided, except the burgeoning fascination of this glorious tournament itself."

December 13, 2008

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/13/2008

Carter flies into a Perpignan frenzy

Robert Kitson joins the media scrum surrounding All Blacks star Dan Carter as he prepares to make his Perpignan debut in their Heineken Cup clash with Leicester Tigers. Read his report from the front line in the Guardian

"There were eight camera crews wedged into the cramped away dressing room at the Stade Aimé Giral yesterday, plus half a dozen photographers and a leather-jacketed scrum of reporters loitering at the back. After about 20 minutes they finally got what they wanted: a few words in French from the lips of the world's most expensive rugby player. "Je suis Dan," whispered Dan Carter, rather unnecessarily. If he ever gets round to ordering a meal entirely in Catalan, the story will lead the local news bulletins for days.

"Such is the surreal new life of the highest-profile étranger in European club rugby. Carter may have represented his native Canterbury for years but the most daunting crusade of his life began in Roussillon this week, beneath the snow-capped Pyrénées where the Cathars once ruled. Can any player, even the best fly-half on earth, be worth £35,000 a match?"

December 11, 2008

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/11/2008

Why the French are not intoxicated by the Heineken Cup

Muddled refereeing punishes the robust Gallic approach and leaves players the world over confused according to Paul rees writing in the Guardian

"French clubs have never been in love with the Heineken Cup, or the H Cup as government legislation there forces them to call it. Their national league, long and drawn-out as it is, comes first and second for most, with Europe an often unwelcome diversion.

"In the early years of the Heineken Cup, French sides found refereeing tolerance thresholds much lower than they were used to. Brawls ended up in bans and malpractice such as gouging cost some players their careers. It helped convince Bernard Laporte, the France coach from 1999 to 2007, that to succeed on the European and world stage the French needed to become disciplined. It did not come easily, or quickly."

December 9, 2008

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/09/2008

Gearing up for a fall

Robert Kitson muses in The Guardian about the financial plight and lack of resources soon to face many British clubs.

"Can it [rugby] afford to end up like soccer where a wealthy elite dominate Europe and the rest scrape a living any way they can? This polarisation of resources and player movement is happening at Test level, too, with the consequent knock-on effects in terms of the competitiveness of certain nations. How can Edinburgh, or Calvisano, hope to compete with Stade Francais? And if they can't, what does that do for the Heineken Cup's collective appeal? The loyal title sponsors have just signed up for another four seasons, which will extend their backing to a remarkable 18 years. It will be interesting to see whether the existing 24-team format remains unchanged. Many more results like Ospreys 68-8 Treviso and pressure is bound to increase. My guess is that the structure will have to be amended in the not-too-distant future to reflect the harsher financial climate.

"You can also bet that talk of a franchise system in England will resurface. That way, as in the NFL or AFL, the health of the tournament or league becomes the priority. Clubs will still have to provide financial guarantees but their health will become a collective issue. A draft system? It might just suit the RFU to have young English players spread out more evenly across the country instead of kicking in their heels at the academies of the better-resourced clubs.

"It could be argued that London Irish, currently top of the Premiership table, are flying the flag for smaller teams. In some respects they are but along the way they have had to mothball their reserve team. Is that progress? I tend to agree with Eddie Jones that an age-group competition — say U-23 with six over-age players permitted in the 22 — would develop English youth more effectively than endless stints on the replacements' bench."

December 8, 2008

Posted by Huw Baines on 12/08/2008

Burger over-done as White shines at Welford Road

Chris Hewett became the latest to round on the unfortunate Perpignan full-back Philip Burger in The Independent, before espousing the merits of Leicester's granite tight-head Julian White.

"If Stade Français had the cancan girls – more a distraction than an inspiration, judging by the Parisians' performance at the weekend – Perpignan had the lingerie. Philip Burger, a South African seven-a-side specialist from Pretoria who may not be the toughest full-back ever raised in Springbok country, took the field at Welford Road in a pair of the nattiest black tights, thereby attracting the attention of 17,000 wolf-whistling Midlanders who made it their business to put him off his stroke. Predictably, the poor petal suffered the torments of hell, for which the home side were duly thankful.

"Leicester tend not to go in for this sort of stuff: whoever supplies their match-day kit, it isn't Ann Summers. Julian White in gloves and frilly knickers? Please. When it comes to added extras, the tighthead prop from Devon restricts himself to a pair of contact lenses – perhaps not an absolute necessity for an individual who spends his working life in the darkened recesses of the scrum, but who's arguing? Unlike Burger, the former England front-rower commanded respect. He was, to borrow a striking phrase from one of the travelling Frenchmen, "the king of the field".

"How England could use him at the moment. Deep in his 36th year, White is significantly less mobile than he was at 26 (even at his quickest, he was no threat to Usain Bolt) and he turned away from international rugby some 18 months ago by opting out of the World Cup squad, apparently to spend more time on his farm. All the same, he would have spared the national team some blushes at Twickenham just recently. The red-rose forwards would hardly have been shunted off their own ball by sundry Wallabies and All Blacks had the strongest scrummager in Europe been anchoring the operation."

December 5, 2008

Posted by Graham Jenkins on 12/05/2008

Quins crash the promotion party

Peter Jackson, writing in the Daily Mail, sets the scene for Saturday's colourful match-up between Stade Francais and Harlequins at the Stade de France.

"They will borrow a troupe of cancan girls from the Moulin Rouge just to ensure the biggest show in Paris on Saturday goes with an extra kick. Stade Francais have done it again, transforming an almost routine European Cup pool match into a huge event by hiring the largest stadium in France for the tie against Harlequins and selling every one of the 78,000 tickets.

"The sheer size of the crowd and the breadth of the pre-match entertainment, from medieval jousting to a flight of captive eagles, will do more than reaffirm the Parisian club’s colourful president, Max Guazzini, as the sport’s supreme pioneer of pizzazz. A match sold out on prices as low as £4, backed by a seductive marketing poster featuring Big Ben and Excalibur, will reinforce Quins’ ambition to show Mad Max that they are not simply about winning the game on the field."

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