FEW are better than the French at assembling multi-national, multi-lingual sides and blending them quickly into a cohesive unit. Ambitious Parisians, Racing Metro, are no exception.
Competing in the Heineken Cup for the first time, despite only gaining promotion to French rugby’s top tier in 2009, it’s a further measure of Racing’s progress that many fancy them as dark horses to make the last eight, despite being the bottom seed in Pool Two.
Argentinean Juan Martin Hernandez dictates matters at out-half with skipper Lionel Nallet the totem in the pack, while the side has a distinct Italian flair with utility backs Mirco Bergamasco and Andrea Masi, plus forward behemoths Andrea Lo Cicero and Carlo Festuccia all present and correct. And with Springbok Francois Steyn at full-back able to kick penalties from up to 60 metres out, Leinster’s discipline will have to be perfect.
The 2009 champions have been at pains to play down a disturbing start to Joe Schmidt’s reign, which has seen them win just once in four Magners League as the IRFU Player Welfare Scheme has hampered Leinster more than most.
But they raised their game suitably to record a fifth straight victory over arch-rivals Munster last weekend, and Jonny Sexton’s (inset, left) impressive cameo last Saturday is excellent news for them, as Isa Nacewa isn’t a Heineken Cup standard fly-half, while Ian Madigan is still developing. The breakdown changes have not favoured Leinster, who were one of the best defensive sides last term and fed off opposition mistakes.
Nonetheless, they showed enough against Munster to suggest they have rediscovered their mojo in this area, and their European experience – allied with Racing’s lack thereof – plus the knowledge that Leinster simply can’t afford to lose this one should be motivation enough.
WHILE Irish rugby fans have seen a South African invasion in Ulster, that’s old hat as far as Saracens’ supporters are concerned. Their teamsheet often reads more like a Springbok seconds selection since Brendan Venter pitched up in north London, bringing with him a number of imports which caused plenty of controversy in 2009.
But while the longer-term implications on a club that has rarely been served well by mercenaries in the past are up for debate, it’s difficult to argue with the progress made on the pitch.
Venter has nonetheless overseen a remarkable turnaround of fortunes at Sarries, who were within a whisker of claiming the English Premiership title last term, with points machine Derick Hougaard at out-half and dynamic hooker Schalk Brits among those to prove their worth.
The signing of Scottish backrower Kelly Brown (inset, right) – one of Glasgow’s “Killer B’s” last season – is an astute one, and Venter confidently believes his side can again challenge at the business end of the Heineken Cup (they reached the last four in 2008) thanks to their improved squad depth.
Clermont, for their part, can count themselves unlucky to be drawn in yet another ‘pool of death’ which has – like the Ospreys – limited their involvement in the latter stages, despite being one of the best sides in the tournament on paper. Many expected them to play with renewed confidence this term, having finally won the Top 14 last term after losing 10 finals, but losses at Bayonne and Toulon have put the brakes on some of the expected progress. Nonetheless, they made one of the headline acquisitions of the summer in All-Black back row destroyer Sione Lauaki, and Aurilien Rougerie and Julien Malzieu offer a similar physical presence wider out.
They have problems at the heart of their front row however, with inspirational hooker Mario Ledesma, plus deputies Willie Wepener and Paulo Ti’i, struggling with injury. ‘Medical joker’ signing, Argentinean hooker Agustin Creevy, has therefore had to settle in quickly. Despite those problems, a Clermont side spurred on by influential Frenchmen Morgan Parra and Julien Bonnaire, who are among a mind-boggling 29 internationals in their squad, should still have enough on home turf in the Massif Central to take the plaudits here.
THIS could well be the tie of the first round, as an in-form, free-flowing Exiles side lock horns with the current Magners League standard bearers.
The big news for Irish has been the return to form and fitness of their devastating back three, Sailosi Tagicakibau, Topsy Ojo and Delon Armitage. They have played their part in the side’s rise to the Aviva Premiership summit and few sides have as threatening a unit at their disposal. Paul Hodgson and Ryan Lamb – whose goal-kicking did for Leinster at this stage last season – form an effective half-back partnership, while captain Clarke Dermody is one of the canniest props in the northern hemisphere and Nick Kennedy and Bob Casey have long been among of the best lineout operators in England.
All of that should entitle Irish to the favourites’ tag at home to most opposition, but Munster’s superb record in this tournament makes them a special case. Although they have lost in England during the Heineken Cup first phase before and gone on to top pools, Tony McGahan will be all too aware that points on the road are likely to decide this most competitive of pools.
The loss to Leinster – after four successive wins – may be a good thing in the context of Munster’s Heineken Cup hopes. It served as a reminder that when space is limited against a top-class team, Munster’s backline struggles to summon the creative nous to find the scores at crucial moments.
Sam Tuitupou has been a useful signing as a battering ram but his partnership with Lifeimi Mafi is arguably a defensive liability; both are too similar and predictable in their commitment to emptying whoever comes down their channel. With less commitment required at the breakdown, flooding midfield with runners is in vogue in England, and Irish could make hay here.
But the good news for Munster, and their centres, is that the Exiles look even flimsier in defence; Alan Quinlan will relish the prospect of getting under Lamb’s skin and if they can dictate this game, their superiority at half-back and off the kicking tee should prove sufficient.
DIFFICULT to know which team should be burdened with the “baptism of fire” tag here. Toulon are in unchartered territory as they play their first Heineken Cup game, and have been keen to emphasise that their draw, as coach Philippe Saint Andre put it, “could not have been tougher”.
The Ospreys are certainly a step up from anyone the French side faced en route to the Amlin Challenge Cup final last term, and will have taken note of how Cardiff Blues exposed some of their vulnerabilities that day.
However, the south of France isn’t a particularly happy hunting ground for them, although coach Sean Holley insists the lessons learned in last year’s agonising quarter-final defeat to Biarritz have been absorbed.
Both sides have endured mixed beginnings domestically. The Ospreys are two from four and have been guilty of turning over far too much ball – they coughed it up 27 times against Aironi – while Toulon started badly in the Top 14 but have picked up momentum in recent weeks.
The battle of two all-star veteran backrows will help decide this one – George Smith and Joe van Niekerk of the hosts go up against former Toulon man Jerry Collins and Marty Holah, reprising the clashes they had in the southern hemisphere down the years.
Jonny Wilkinson has been flying at out-half for Toulon and will punish any Osprey indiscipline, while the visitors will look to Paul James to put in another destructive scrummaging performance to put them on the front foot.
However, the Welsh side insist they are still a work in progress this term, and you suspect they would be content with a losing bonus point here as they aim to peak for the back-to-back clashes with Munster.
THE meeting of two of the Heineken Cup’s most decorated sides reprises their 2004 final meeting, best remembered for Rob Howley’s opportunistic try at the death after Clement Poitrenaud’s dithering.
However, while Toulouse remain the competition’s standard bearers and are defending champions, Wasps have fallen from grace somewhat since the days when Lawrence Dallaglio and Raphael Ibanez ruled the roost.
The Londoners still have old warhorses Simon Shaw and Joe Worsley anchoring their forward effort, while new number eight Andy Powell has a point to prove after gaining notoriety for his off-field antics last term.
But Wasps appear to lack the credentials further out to trouble top-class sides, particularly in the creative midfield hub. Tom Varndell and Richard Haughton are dangerous speedsters and Joe Simpson is maturing into a classy number nine, but Riki Flutey is a long way off his Lions form of 2009.
Toulouse’s backs have yet to click either, despite the new input of Jean-Baptiste Elissalde on the coaching front. But a monstrous pack led by Thierry Dusautoir – who reckons his side are “hungrier than ever” for European success – should provide enough ball for the fast men to eventually flourish; the signing of Fijian winger Vilimoni Delasau is a canny one in this regard.
Domestic form is a good indicator here too – Wasps have lost twice on the road, while Toulouse are unbeaten at home thus far.
Wasps may look to their strangling of Perpignan in the south of France a few seasons back for inspiration, but you’d imagine the champions will have enough in the tank to get their campaign off to a satisfactory start.