Thursday, 11 December 2014

European Rugby Champions Cup - The Story So Far

It is the half way point in the pool stages of the European Rugby Champions Cup (the Heineken Cup replacement) and so far, it has lived up to all expectations. Before the competition started, I looked over the pools in an attempt to predict who would qualify and didn’t get very far. Not only are we half way through the pool stage but this week (starting tomorrow) is the second game in the double header games. I love the way this has been organised. I’m going to talk about the tournament so far and go pool by pool. I am going to make predictions to how I see the pools ending up but just like earlier in the season when I tried to predict how they would end, this will be a tough ask!

Pool 1

Current Standings:
1.       Clermont Auvergne – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 10 Points
2.       Munster – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points.
3.       Saracens – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points.
4.       Sale – Played 3, Won 0, Lost 3. 2 Points.

Well, this pool could hardly be any tighter after 3 games. I seem to recall reading an interview with the Sale Sharks Director of Rugby Steve Diamond who said that Sale were not just in this group to make up the numbers. I saw this as him doing his job, but really I gave them no chance of qualification. After their first game, where they came so close to beating Munster at home, I wondered if I was wrong to have written them off (they wound up losing that game 26-27 with Munster claiming the win in the dying minutes of the game). Unfortunately they then went to Clermont and got taken apart 35-3. After a narrow loss at home to Saracens, Sale find themselves at the bottom of this pool and facing elimination (I think with the way things are going across the board, even if Sale got 3 bonus point wins, they still wouldn’t have enough points to qualify). Clermont picked up a huge win away at Munster, becoming the first French team to win at Thomond Park I think. Their only defeat so far coming in a close game with Saracens where it was just the one score that separated them. The one defeat that Saracens have had in this pool has been against Munster at Thomond and I think that Saracens will be disappointed they got nothing out of that game.

Clermont – Munster (H), Sale (A), Saracens (H)
Munster – Clermont (A), Saracens (A), Sale (H)
Saracens – Sale (H), Munster (H), Clermont (A)
Sale – Saracens (A), Clermont (H), Munster (A)

Clermont are in the driving seat in this pool, but only just. Had Munster or Saracens picked up an extra bonus point in one of their games, this pool would be even closer. As it happens, they didn’t and Clermont have the smallest of advantages. What they and Saracens both have though is the benefit of two home games left out of their three fixtures. In Europe, you have to see your home games as winnable, and when you start to lose them, that is when you start to look at elimination. Clermont will see they have Munster at home, who no doubt will be smarting after their home loss, and still see that as a winnable game – Saracens will be the same except they will be looking to gain some revenge on Munster (after losing at Thomond). I am expecting to see both Clermont and Saracens win their home games this weekend and then be fighting it out for the top 2 with the winner of the pool being decided on the final game of the pool...where Clermont are at home. Munster lost their home tie to Clermont last weekend and if they lose this weekend, I think they will be all but eliminated. Sale at this stage could use this time to bring in some new faces into their team to give them European experience against some top clubs, but they could still influence the outcome of this pool. They came very close against both Munster and Saracens to getting the win. It would be a real shame if they went through the pool stages losing all their games, but I fear that is what will happen. My prediction for this pool is that Clermont will win the pool with Saracens finishing runners up and maybe qualifying for the knock out stages.

Pool 2

Current Standings:
1.       Harlequins – Played 3, Won 3, Lost 0. 12 Points
2.       Leinster – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points
3.       Wasps – Played 3 Won 1, Lost 2. 7 Points
4.       Castres. Played 3. Won 0. Lost 3, 1 Point.

There are only 2 teams in this tournament so far who have 100% records, and Harlequins is one of them. They kicked off the tournament with a 25-9 win over Castres, went away to beat Wasps 16-23 and last weekend beat Leinster 24-18. Leinster started off their campaign with a home win against Wasps (25-20) and went to France and got the win against Castres (16-21). Wasps could argue the biggest disappointment of their campaign thus far was the home defeat to Harlequins. They have picked up a bonus point in all 3 of their games so far (a feat made even more impressive when you consider their winning bonus point was away in France), so even though they have lost 2 games, they are not out of this competition yet. Castres are having a bit of a nightmare season so far – bottom of the Top 14 and bottom of Pool 2 with no wins. I think it is safe to say that they will likely be eliminated.

Harlequins – Leinster (A), Wasps (H), Castres (A)
Leinster – Harlequins (H), Castres (H), Wasps (A)
Wasps – Castres (H), Harlequins (A), Leinster (H)
Castres – Wasps (A), Leinster (A), Harlequins (H)

Harlequins go into the final 3 games undefeated but have to travel to Leinster this weekend. That will be a nasty game for them and I expect Leinster will be unhappy with having lost on the road and will want to win at home to make up for it. If Quins lose this game, they have to get their first bonus point of the competition to keep things tight at the top. Quins have already received a double blow in that both Robshaw and Evans are out of this match injured. If they get the win in Ireland, it will be a famous European victory for sure! I think the game against Wasps could go either way (although they have now won their last 4 against Wasps) and I would expect them to get a result against Castres, even though it is away. Leinster could lose this game and still qualify but it would make life very hard for them. Wasps have to win all 3 of their remaining games. They, like Leinster, are fortunate enough to be in a position where they have 2 home games in their last 3 fixtures. Their game this weekend is Castres and normally I would expect them to win this game, but as it is the last game at Adams Park before they move to the Ricoh Arena, it could well be a very emotional game for fans and players alike, so I am convinced they will go all out to get a win. Wasps could win all 3 of their games but it will be a tough job. Then again, there are no easy paths to the knock out stages in this tournament! The last game, their first European home game at the Ricoh against Leinster will be tasty. Castres I expect with one point to their name will likely turn up for these games but I don’t see them putting up much of a fight. I imagine now their main focus will be to get off the foot of the Top 14 table so they will field their strongest team in those matches, as opposed to a European Cup that they are already all but eliminated from. I predict Leinster will win this group, and Harlequins will be a very close second and they will qualify for the quarter finals.

Pool 3

Current Standings:
1.       Toulon – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points
2.       Leicester Tigers – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1, 8 Points
3.       Ulster – Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2. 6 Points
4.       Scarlets – Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2. 4 Points

The last winners of the Heineken Cup, Toulon, got their campaign off to a start with a 28-18 win over Scarlets that had a lot of people saying that Toulon will need to be much better if they want to win this tournament. They then won away at Ulster 13-23 before going down 25-21 to Leicester Tigers, picking up their only bonus point so far. Leicester started off their campaign with a 25-18 win against Ulster before losing 15-3 to Scarlets. I was surprised to see them lose to Scarlets in all honesty. Ulster’s single win of the campaign came in round 3 against Scarlets when they beat them 24-9 at Kingspan. Scarlets biggest result was of course the win against Leicester.

Toulon – Leicester (H), Ulster (H), Scarlets (A)
Leicester – Toulon (A), Scarlets (H), Ulster (A)
Ulster – Scarlets (A), Toulon (A), Leicester (H)
Scarlets – Ulster (H), Leicester (A), Toulon (H)

I think all eyes will be on the rematch between Leicester and Toulon this weekend. Last week’s match was a fiery affair in which Leicester deservedly won. After the game there were a couple of incidents including Martin Castrogiovanni (former Tigers player) launch into an expletive-laden attack aimed at Leicester Tigers and Richard Cockerill. Another incident that remains alleged surrounds Delon Armitage and him abusing Leicester Tigers fans. In a recent interview, Richard Cockerill said he doesn’t think this will add anything extra to the weekend’s game but I can’t see how it won’t. It will be an excellent game, that is for sure and if Leicester play just as well as they did on Sunday, there is no reason why they couldn’t get the win. As for the rest of Toulon’s games, I think they will beat both Ulster and Scarlets. I think now that Leicester have seemingly reduced their injury list, they are a much harder team to play and as a result, will likely also beat both Ulster and Scarlets. Ulster away could be a tricky one for Leicester though. Ulster comfortably beat Scarlets last weekend and I think it will be a tighter affair this time round but I see Ulster getting the win. I suspect the winner of the second Toulon/Tigers game will likely end up winning the pool. I think that Toulon will win that game at home and go on to win the group but Leicester will be a very close second and they will qualify for the knock out stages.

Pool 4

Current Standings:
1.       Toulouse – Played 3, Won 3, Lost 0. 12 Points
2.       Glasgow Warriors – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 9 Points
3.       Bath Rugby – Played 3, Won 1, Lost 2. 5 Points
4.       Montpellier – Played 3, Won 0, Lost 3. 2 Points

Much like Harlequins in Pool 2, Toulouse are undefeated so far and are looking pretty decent as well. After a bit of a rough start in the Top 14, they seem to have steadied the ship domestically just in time for Europe and have come out swinging. Their first win was a close match with Montpellier, with Toulouse winning 30-23. Their second game was a massive away win at Bath (the 19-21 score line flattering Bath somewhat) before beating Glasgow at home last weekend 19-11. Glasgow started off their European campaign by battering Bath 37-10 before beating Montpellier in France in a very close contest (13-15 the final score). Bath’s campaign got off to a poor start with the away defeat to Glasgow (in which they very much looked like the second best team) and a home defeat to Toulouse (where very rarely did they look like they would threaten the Toulouse defence). Last weekend was the final roll of the dice for their European campaign really and they beat Montpellier 5-30. Montpellier, much like Castres, are yet to get a victory in this seasons competition.

Toulouse – Glasgow (A), Bath (H), Montpellier (A)
Glasgow – Toulouse (H), Montpellier (H), Bath (A)
Bath – Montpellier (H), Toulouse (A), Glasgow (H)
Montpellier – Bath (A), Glasgow (A), Toulouse (H)

I think Glasgow will definitely consider the Toulouse game at Scotstoun to be a winnable game. If they do win, and Bath win their game against Montpellier (with a bonus point), it really opens this pool up. I think though if that happened, then the runner up in Pool 4 would not make it to the knock out stages. Toulouse if memory serves have an excellent record at home in Europe, and I would imagine they will get the win against Bath at home. That win would definitely eliminate Bath from the competition, regardless of what they could achieve against Montpellier and Glasgow. If Bath turn up and play their best, there is no reason why they can’t beat Glasgow at The Rec in January. Glasgow however will be hunting for a place in the knock out stages. I think their home match with Toulouse will be very tight. If Glasgow can get the win against Toulouse, then I can see them going on to win the pool. It was widely predicted that Montpellier will field a weaker team against Bath as there is no chance of them qualifying for the knock out stages now and it has been announced they are making 8 changes to the team that lost 5-30. However, due to my lack of knowledge of their squad, I am not in a place to comment on whether or not they have weakened their team (although one would assume with that many changes, they have). Bath on the other hand are starting Sam Burgess and Francois Louw for the first time this season – if that is not a signal of intent, I don’t know what is. I predict that Toulouse will win this group and Glasgow will finish second, but I’m not sure if they will qualify for the knock out stages.

Pool 5

Current Standings:
1.       Racing Metro - Played 3, Won 2, Drawn 1, Lost 0. 10 Points
2.       Northampton Saints – Played 3, Won 2, Lost 1. 10 Points
3.       Ospreys – Played 3, Won 1 , Drawn 1, Lost 1. 7 Points.
4.       Treviso – Played 3. Won 0, Lost 3. 0 Points.

Racing Metro started their campaign with a bang by beating Northampton at home and denying them a losing bonus point (the final score was 20-11). Their next game was away against Treviso where they won 10-26 – the biggest surprise here being that they didn’t get the try bonus point. Their game last weekend against Ospreys ended in a 19-19 draw, so far the only draw of the European Rugby Champions Cup. After losing their opening game, Northampton won their next two games very convincingly, picking up try bonus points against both Ospreys and Treviso (34-6 and 15-38 respectively). Ospreys have had a mixed campaign so far. Their 42-7 home win against Treviso was to be expected. Their best result so far though has to be the 19-19 draw against Racing Metro (a game I am sure many people, myself included, expected them to lose). As for Treviso, there are no easy pools in the top European competition for an Italian club. I can’t say I’m surprised that they are on 0 points though.

Racing Metro – Ospreys (H), Treviso (H), Northampton (A)
Northampton – Treviso (H), Ospreys (A), Racing Metro (H)
Ospreys – Racing Metro (A), Northampton (H), Treviso (A)
Treviso – Northampton (A), Racing Metro (A), Ospreys (H)

I suspect that Racing Metro will beat Ospreys on their patch and go on to beat Treviso there as well. I predict similar results for Northampton as well setting up a final day clash to decide who will win the pool. I’d say Northampton would go in with a slight edge as the game is at Franklin’s Gardens but Racing have beat them already in this competition. Both teams are going well domestically so this final week clash will be tasty. Ospreys I suspect probably will lose their next two and go into the game against Treviso with little on stake but pride.  Treviso will do well to get some points on the board. If they can cause an upset, it could change the way the group will play out, but I don’t see it happening (otherwise it wouldn’t really be an upset then would it?) I predict that Northampton Saints will win this pool with Racing Metro finishing second. If both teams go into this game having got maximum points out of their other games, there is no reason why the runner up shouldn’t qualify for the next round.

And that is it for the first 3 rounds of the European Rugby Champions Cup. There has been some excellent rugby with some more to come as well I am sure. It is interesting to note that out of 5 pools, only one is not currently being lead by a French team (Pool 2). Based on the predictions I have made, the quarter finals could contain Clermont, Saracens, Harlequins, Leinster, Toulon, Leicester Tigers, Toulouse, Glasgow, Northampton Saints and Racing Metro. Any combination of those teams making up the final 8 means we are in for a belting European tournament which concludes on May 2nd at Twickenham. I can’t wait to see how it all plays out!

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