Pool 1: Certainties? Are you for real?
THE sports editor is looking for certainties, but he’s whistling dixie with at least three of the European Champions Cup pools. A certain qualifier from Toulouse, Ulster, Saracens and Oyonnax? A certain non-qualifier, perhaps. Oyonnax are already looking for a new coach but I don’t see a change at the top materially affecting their chances of emerging from this pool of sharks..
Toulouse got a right bolt of confidence last week, smashing Grenoble by 50 points. The legendary Guy Noves has moved to the national set-up and the new management in Toulouse looks to be bringing some new generation coaching into the set-up, which is never a bad thing. There’s a little more detail in their play, and some of the tries against Bernard Jackman’s outfit last week were classic team tries. They may have changed management but there’s no mistaking the Toulouse swagger.
I never worked under Mark McCall. Maybe the Ulster job came too soon is his development, but the one consistent thing you hear from players who play under him is that they play for him.
People love taking pop shots at Saracens, but they are a hugely consistent team. And McCall has fostered incredible team spirit there. You have to work at that. That doesn’t happen when you arrive. I am two and a half years at Racing and the team spirit still couldn’t be described as brilliant, but it is a work in progress.
Ulster will be lifted by the mental toughness of Less Kiss, his presence in the changing room will be a key factor. They’ve no Bowe, Payne or Henderson and there’s little point in camouflaging that, much as they’ll try - you need these players for these European games. But they have the ideal start tomorrow at Oyonnax. If they have any hope of emerging from Pool 1, it’s a must win.
There’s a new synthetic pitch at Oyonnax, which is grear for visiting teams, but not so much for the hosts. Before it was a mud-bath, with low score-lines, a really passionate crowd, a dog of a pack on a slow pitch. Kick the ball in the air, muck flying everywhere...now it suits teams with an ability to play football, and Oyonnax are conceding big scores down there and getting ripped apart in the Top 14. Maybe that’s why they got rid of their head coach Olivier Azam yesterday, consequently making them a more difficult proposition this weekend for Ulster.
Ulster do have Ruan Pienaar. He oozes class - when it matters. People questioned Morne Steyn at Stade Francais last season because he didn’t produce every game. But he got them over the line when it mattered at the business end of the campaign. His form in the 20 games before the knock-outs might have been average to poor but he produced when it mattered. Ditto Pienaar.
Pool 2: Keep an eye on English Ex factor
ANYONE who disregards the Exeter Chiefs on the basis of their lack of European pedigree needs to brush up on their rugby. They’re Munster from 15 years ago. A David hunting Goliaths. Rob Baxter is already being spoken of as a possible replacement for Stuart Lancaster, they beat Leicester last week and there’s an all-round sense of feelgood about the Sandy Park set-up. They’re riding high, second in the Aviva Premiership, and they’re not a team you want to be facing on the opening weekend of the Champions Cup. The possibility of stage fright away to the Ospreys this weekend is minimalized by Baxter’s really impressive coaching.
Bordeaux Begles were a free-scoring team last year, but they’ve become more conservative this season, winning tight games but yet to really hit their straps. They go to Exeter in Round 2, but first entertain Clermont. Conceivably their European season could be over after the opening two rounds. But with Joe Worsley and Raphael Ibanez in the set-up, they will sear the idea of big European days on the brains of their players. They will want success in Europe and their opening game against Top 14 rivals will tell a lot.
Clermont have started the season strongest again in France, and sit top of the French T14. The smart-ass will argue they always start the season well, it’s finishing it is the problem. What are they to do? Give up. It’s easy for the hurler on the ditch to say they can’t get over the line in Europe, but they are giving themselves every chance. If they do manage to break through that psychological barrier, they could dominate for the next three years.
Besides, until such time as Racing 92 and many others are putting themselves in play in European semi finals and finals, no-one is really in a position to comment unfavourably on their intestinal fortitude. David Strettle has been a big signing from Saracens but ultimately they are banking on Camille Lopez to improve and be the general this season.
Pool 3: There are international players - and international players
A difficult pool. And again, no certainties. Racing 92 open with a home tie against Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow. Townsend is a proper coach with seriously good players and a host of World Cup players. People talk about the French superpowers, but Glasgow have some crop of proper internationals.
How much does “being an international” actually mean these days? I am not referring to Glasgow, but I’ve seen a few international players around the block who simply aren’t at a level to play in the Champions Cup. Some aren’t motivated enough, others you wouldn’t put in an Ulster Bank League team. There’s a difference between an international with 50 caps who has been there and done that, and the ones - of which there are many - with seven or eight caps, but are scarcely worth anything - especially if they are not motivated to buy into where they’re collecting wages each week.
Northampton and the Scarlets face off in tomorrow’s other Pool 3 tie. Northampton are Northampton just as Racing are Racing. We know what we will get from the Saints just as you never know what you will get from Racing. Up to last weekend, we had found a level of consistency in our efforts, but we showed all our old and ugly traits of escaping at the first opportunity and mentally not hanging in there as we were beaten out the gate by Castres (34-8). We changed the team a little bit for the tie, but that result is an indicator that the culture still hasn’t changed sufficiently on the road.
JJ Hanrahan got 20 minutes and three points for Saints in the 12-6 loss to Sarries last weekend at Franklin’s Gardens but he will need much more time than that to show what he is made of. And the Saints will need him in this dog of a pool. My fear is a loss for Racing this weekend could leave us with a serious mountain to climb.
Pool 4: Thomond won’t let Munster down
Stade Francais are in a bit of a pickle. Eight games into the Top 14, and they’ve lost five. They weren’t necessarily the best team in France last year but they produced an exceptional run of form at the key stage of the campaign. They were the best team for 80 minutes in the final last June. That’s all that matters.
Here’s the thing though - and it falls lovely for Munster. Stade will probably come away shy of points from Welford Road this weekend, while Anthony Foley’s side could be picking up five points at home to Treviso as they eye up Round 2 in Paris. Were Munster to win in France, Stade are all but dead in Europe and have to focus everything on staying in the Top 14.
They are a different team when Sergio Parisse is getting amongst them (now there’s a proper international) but it’s a tough ask for them now. It’s Europe, Europe, Top 14, Top 14, Europe, Europe, Top 14. That goes on for 16 weeks. They are psychologically and physically vulnerable.
You’d never know it’s a European Cup weekend here in France, but by God you do in Ireland. I won’t be looking out for the attendance at Thomond this weekend, that’s not the tester. Don’t expect the Munster public to fill the stadium for this one, because they have a good sense of when it’s needed. I’d back the Munster faithful to be there in Thomond when they feel it’s required - like at home to Leicester.
They’ll be the two qualifiers from the pool.
Pool 5: Money never sleeps
A cracking pool this one, sprinkled with financial superpowers and big playing staffs - Toulon, Leinster, Wasps and Bath.
Toulon and Leinster are the favourites, a pair of heavyweights who’ve won the Heineken Cup six times between them. People said Bath were unlucky in Dublin last April in the quarter-final, but they weren’t unlucky because they didn’t know how to get over the line, losing 18-15. Leinster know how to do that, and even more so now with Johnny Sexton returning.
High level sport - particularly football - is littered with examples of bad business and poor return on huge squad investments. That’s why I always tip my hat to Toulon for the players they are getting. Every player is under a contract somewhere, but Toulon always seem to get their man and manage to do very good business around the world, wooing players like Quade Cooper and Duane Vermeulen.
Michael Cheika obviously didn’t believe Cooper could steer Australia to a World Cup but is he capable of winning a European Cup for Toulon at a level just below the international test arena? Damn right he is, because it’s different rugby and he’s a top player.
Keep an eye out too for Wasps’ Wallaby recruit George Smith. He may be 35 now but what an incredible player. I video analysed him at Lyon for Racing last year, and it told me nothing more than I already knew.
What a footballer.