Heineken Cup Semi Final Weekend:
By: Demented Mole on 25 April at 11:00am
It has been a long few weeks waiting for these 2 games to come around following our successful Quarter Finals weekend.
Since the semi finals we have wondered if this great competition will continue in the new, commercial driven, world. Thankfully all that is resolved, and as I read recently “the best deal is one where no one is 100% happy”, so it seems to be sorted out as best as possible. Thank God for that.
The respective grounds at Twickenham and Marseille will be awash with colour, anticipation and no little atmosphere this coming weekend. For Munster it is a path well trodden, this being their 11th semi final in the 19 years of the competition. For Clermont, having got oh so close last year, they are in danger of becoming the Munster of the late 90’s/early 00’s…try, try and try again. Saracens are the new kids in town, big budget, huge ambitions, but are they ready to take the next step?
And what of Toulon? They have rocketed through the French ranks, narrowly missing out on the historic European/Bouclier double last year, looking invincible in the QF’s at their home ground. Can they take the last but one step towards retaining their title?
Whatever about the betting angles to this weekends games, make sure you enjoy them. That will be a little difficult on Saturday as Saracens are playing, but Sunday’s game will be a jaw dropper.
Saracens V Clermont Auvergne
This column has made his feelings on Saracens known for some time. A lot of talent but a limited game plan. They are not exciting to watch, they use their pack effectively and Farrell plays to their strengths. Their defence is really strong, but a team of their calibre should really have put Ulster to the sword in the QF, the way the game panned out. They didn’t, and in my opinion that is as much to do with the way they play the game as much as anything else.
In last year's semi final, Clermont came out of the blocks against Munster at a rate of knots. They had them on the rack and could have been out of sight. Are Saracens as streetwise an outfit to withhold this?Possibly, but Clermont can attack and create from anywhere and will seek to run any errant kicks back to them. Owen Farrell could have the game of his life on Saturday and it may not be good enough.
There are no great surprises with the Saracens team selection. Clermont are missing their captain and leader Aurelien Rougerie. A big loss no doubt, but such is their strength in depth, they can still name an excellent back line, with 3 world class game breakers in Fofana, Sivivatu and Nalaga for instance. The weather may have an impact on this game as it has been quite wet in SW London over the past week. I don’t think it will sway the direction of power one way or another, but probably just mean for even more of an arm wrestle.
I expect Saracens to try and slow the pace of the game down, allow themselves time to organise in defence, and try to win the game on penalties/through their front 5.
I think Clermont will withstand this and they possess more creativity, but more importantly the ambition to go with it, to go and take the game away from Saracens. The game being played at Twickenham will give little advantage to either side. Saracens are accustomed to playing away from their 4G pitch in Barnet as they look to grow their brand, while Clermont will embrace the wide open spaces of HQ. I expect Clermont to win and to cover the handicap of 3pts, and punch their ticket to Cardiff on May 24th.
Toulon V Munster
The highlight of the weekend's sport. Toulon cannot lose surely? They took Leinster apart, are dominating on the home front, are defending champions, and have added to that squad excellently. Bernard Laporte may be a loose cannon at times (he is French), but how he has knitted this squad of 35 world class players together, to focus and compete for each other is astonishing. What impressed me most in their performance against Leinster was their desire to get to the next ruck, desire to be on their team mates shoulder for an offload, the willingness to cover after a missed tackle. The very best players have the want, the need, within them to do these things.
There have been many column inches this week devoted to the game. Plenty mind games from both sides, Munster down playing their chances, but for Toulon that is a little difficult so they adopted the “lets have a cut off the referee angle” instead. So, do Munster have any chance?
Lets start as to why they do and what is different between the challenge they face and what Leinster faced.
Leinster had to travel to Toulon’s home ground of Stade Felix Mayol. This is their cauldron and Munster suffered here also a few years ago. However, Sunday’s game will be played in Marseille. Not a million miles away but it is a soccer ground, the crowd are not as close and Munster will travel in force and neutralise the home support. This is Munster’s 11th semi final in the 19 years of the Heineken Cup, their 7th of these in France (8th against French opposition if you include Biarritz in San Sebastian). It will be Paul O’Connell’s 8th semi final. It has been 6 years since they were in a final. All of these little things add up to a bank of experience, less fear, and huge motivation to get back to a final for the men in Red.
Last years semi final defeat to Clermont still grates this squad. One that got away. The players will reference this in their preparation. Having played no rugby for a quarter of the game, with 5 mins left Munster were probably wondering why they were not ahead. They know that they can hang on with these top French sides, compete with them and be there at the death with a chance to win the game. That also means that Munster are prepared to dive into the well of reserves they have, which they will have to on Sunday.
The bigger the challenge, the bigger the performance. That seems to be the way this Munster side has developed. Alan Quinlan wrote brilliantly this week of what is the motivation for Munster? The fear of failure, the fear of getting a right hiding, the opportunity to write their own script? It is a combination of all these things. Munster have rarely, if ever, come out of the blocks quicker than they did against Toulouse in the QF. They didn’t see the ball for the first 20 mins against Clermont last year – no prizes for guessing what start has to be replicated.
The team selection is interesting. Munster have gone for Dougall at 7 in place of Tommy O’ Donnell. TOD was off the pace against Toulouse and perhaps springing him form the bench may add to his motivation to put that right. Dougall is also more of a groundhog and this is a clear sign of Munster looking to counter the effectiveness of Steffon Armitage at ruck time. Dougall will need to produce a career game for the 50/60mins he will be involved for.
Dave Foley is also the correct decision in the 2nd row to partner O’Connell. He is maturing with each game and is the type of player to embrace the challenge on Sunday. Something is also telling me that Zebo could have a big impact on Sunday’s encounter if there is a dry sod. He is due. The naming of Varley as skipper is also interesting, and bordering on tactical, as POC is well known to have conflicting views with Mr. Barnes!
Toulon have named probably their strongest side possible. Jonny is fit to start and Bryan Habana returns from injury. Jocelino Suta is rewarded for his greater endeavour this season, and outstanding form, to accompany Danie Rossouw in the 2nd row. Poor David Smith must be wondering what he has done wrong to be dropped – such is their strength in depth!
So what of the game now the teams are named? For Munster the loss of O'Mahony is huge. In the form that Steffon Armitage is in, the Munster captain had a huge role to play. I feel the Munster scrum will hold up – Kilcoyne/Varley/Botha are playing v well, Kilcoyne will be feeling jilted over the Six Nations and I anticipate a huge performance from the dynamo. If Munster get parity at the breakdown, their lineout could be the deciding factor.
This is a game that gets the nervous excitement going. Toulon could destroy Munster, but I do not think that will happen. There is something about this Munster team that captures the attention. They want to be makers of their own destiny. There are many similarities to a May day in Bordeaux 14 years ago, when Munster landed there to take on the mighty Toulouse, at the time very much the undisputed aristocrats of European rugby, and they emerged victorious 31 – 25 en route to their first final.
There is plenty in the emotional locker that Munster can grab hold of. This side can make their own breakthrough. Whatever happens I am certain that Sunday’s victor will emerge victorious in Cardiff regardless. As such I am advising 2 bets in addition to the Clermont advice above. If Munster pull this off they will be favourites for the final in my opinion, as such the 6/1 about them to effectively qualify is very appealing. I also feel 8pts is double what I was expecting. There is value to be had in this game.
Heineken Cup Quarter Finals (Updated):
By: Demented Mole on 10 April at 9:00am
It was quite the weekend of Heineken Cup action and thankfully for us a profitable and successful one, with all of our advised bets collecting. In an uncanny twist we are left with the same 4 semi finalists as last year, just paired differently. There will be licking of wounds, soul searching, plenty of what might have beens’ among the beaten quarter finalists, while for the victors it will be about trying to get the best possible 23 ready for the two big tests that lie ahead – while not sacrificing the day job on domestic levels in the interim.
Old Foes, No contest:
Munster kicked the weekend off with an emphatic 6 try demolition of Toulouse. It was also the one game that demonstrated more than any, that for the home nations, home advantage in a Q/F is huge, particularly against French sides.
The late change to the Toulouse personnel, with McAlister coming in and Nyanga dropping out of the 23, was a good omen for the Men in Red. Munster’s back three went the whole game against Leinster the week before without any ball, and here Keith Earls (who looked very sharp throughout) darted over after only a few minutes and 20 phases. Munster also weathered the loss of Peter O’ Mahony and C J Stander came in and performed well. Whether he merited being MOTM is another thing?
It was probably Paul O’ Connell's best performance for Munster since the match against Harlequins last year. His work rate was just incredible and it is arguable that he has never been in better shape. For me the Munster front row was all conquering. B J Botha saw off 3 props, Varley was on the money and in my opinion Kilcoyne was the standout. On both sides of the ball he was dominant, and in the 70th minute or so, he made 3 first up tackles in the space of 5 phases – from a prop!
Conor Murray will have empty cheque books flashed at him this summer, while Keatley continued his progression with his most composed performance in his biggest game to date. It was also great to see Zebo attack the line for his late try the way he did.
So where are the problems? Well Toulouse were just blown away by Munsters' ferocity and game plan (they have an inability to defend a maul for example), and at half time their forwards looked spent already. This was hard to believe given the status the club carries and their performance in defeat against Toulon the week before. The last quarter of the game it was all about pride for them as Quinny said on TV. They had checked out and their giant men looked lost and clueless.
Munster will be without O Mahony against Toulon. A colossal loss. Tommy O’ Donnell never got into the game against Toulouse and I feel and needs to up his performance significantly. A fresh Donnacha Ryan is also likely to be available – bringing some mongrel to proceedings.
Munster will also feel better that the semi final is in Marseille and not Toulon’s back yard. France will hold no fear for them. Toulouse now go back to the domestic business of ensuring they qualify for the playoffs.
Toulon are also that little bit different to other French sides. More of an International flavour to their squad. Laporte is also a huge benefit to the squad, being perhaps the most “sane” of French coaches. What Munster did so well against Toulouse, and Leinster didn’t do the following day, was make first up tackles. The Toulouse ball carriers are every bit as big as Toulon’s, perhaps not as quick, but they will need to repeat the defensive effort in 3 weeks time if they are to have a chance of progressing. It sounds like a huge task based on what we saw on Sunday, but would you bet against these guys?
Lastly on this game, and I appreciate I have gone on a bit but it was the most clinical Quarter Final performance, a word for Rob Penney. I understand the man wanted a 2 year extension to his contract but only 12 months was on the table. Clearly the Union want Axle in as quickly as possible for fear they may lose him.
This performance was his and I felt was a demonstration of the graft he has been putting in with this squad. He is a man that I feel has been hard done by, and if the players can deliver a trophy for him before he departs Shannon side, it will be the least he deserves.
Toulon Globe - Trotters
Toulon put on a display of power, speed and skill on Sunday. Leinster never got into the game and but for some heroic tap tackles, last ditch defending, and numerous knock on’s by Toulon in the red zone, they could have been 5 tries down by half time.
The fact that Toulon didn’t score a try in the first half said as much about their own wastefulness as it did Leinster's defence. Steffon Armitage, as highlighted here last week, was immense. Can England really leave him out on this form? However I would be here all day if eulogising about this side. They are a joy to watch and Laporte’s achievements in getting so many stars and egos to play as a unified squad should not be over looked.
For Leinster it was a step too far. They did not get out of the blocks and as a result were left chasing everything from an early stage. The speed at which Roussouw, Armitage, Smith, Burden, Basteraud took the ball on, the lines they took, and then the next wave of wingers Mitchell and Smith gives them so many options. Did they display any weaknesses? Definitely, like Toulouse, they showed a vulnerability defending the maul. Their back three were never turned either, and a strong bordering on perfect kicking game will be needed from Keatley.
This semi final will be a great occasion. Could it be a changing of the guard, the new European powerhouse v the traditional province who have contributed more than any other in turning this great competition into what it is today. On a sunny Sunday in Marseille no less. The early lines have Toulon 7 point favourites. This seems about right at this stage, but 3 weeks out we will see how things develop in the interim.
As referenced in my preview of the Clermont v Leicester game last week, I felt Clermont were vulnerable. Leicester, more so than Ulster in my view, will look back on this game with regret. They had a great chance to record an away Quarter Final win in the Massif Central and end Clermont’s amazing 70 odd unbeaten stand at home.
Not unlike Leinster the following day, they were a little slow out of the blocks but Clermont were not able to put them to the sword like they might have done 2 years ago. They did have a sufficient lead after 30 minutes to render the game almost over, but Leicester really had a cut at them and had all the momentum until Thomas Waldron’s brain dead intervention at a maul. The result was 10 minutes in the bin and given his disciplinary record for silly penalties,that it is no surprise that he is allowed to leave for Exeter at season's end.
As Cockerill said post game, “the players got themselves into a mess, and the players got themselves out of it.” Unfortunately for them, one player ruined all the hard work.
Clermont still have mojo in the locker based on this display. When they get quick ball their back line can really purr. I still have reservations over Brock James at 10 however. Parra taking the kicks at goal has allowed him to focus on his own game and this has helped, but I still worry about his temperament. Nalaga, Rougerie and the superb Fofana however more than compensate, while their pack is efficient, but it is not as dynamic as Toulon’s for example.
So while I don’t think Clermont are as good as they were, I think their best is still better than anything Saracens will throw at them in HQ in 3 weeks time.
Men in the Mirror
Saracens fell over the line in Ravenhill on Saturday night. All the focus of the reports on this game was Jared Payne’s red card and the “herculean” effort of Ulster to still have a chance of beating them. I don’t think it was as simplistic as that.
For me it was a red card. Yes Payne’s eyes never left the ball and yes I am sure he meant no intent to injure Alex Goode. However it is the fact his eyes didn’t leave the ball that is the problem, he made no attempt to challenge for the ball let alone catch the thing. As such his play was reckless at best, dangerous at worst, and a red card was inevitable once the first replay was shown.
The second point on this game that needs to be addressed is the poor decisions on selection and game plans of the respective sides.
For Ruan Piennar to start was a joke. He was clearly not fit and if he is going to start, do not let him take the kicks at goal as he did. He was never going to last the game and Jackson didn’t get a sighter until the 2nd half, which he missed, the difference between the sides.
I commented last week that Ulster used the fanciful excuse in their defeat to Cardiff that they were missing Pienaar. I feel Ulster would be better served looking closer to home for answers rather than Monsieur Garces.
Secondly, and I have alluded to this before, Saracens are a boring one dimensional side. Their game plan is fine for the Aviva Premiership, where the majority of their games are against vastly inferior opposition, and their defence is strong and well coached by Paul Gustard, but in big games, against good sides, they will always leave the opposition with a sniff because of the limitations they impose on themselves going forward.
Their squad is capable of playing a more expansive game, but it seems the coaching ticket set them up not to lose rather than to go out and play to their strengths and win. I felt the contrast in Munster and Saracens strategies last Saturday reflected the nous of the respective camps. If it was Munster visiting Twickenham in 3 weeks it would be a max bet on the Irish province.
Early lines have Clermont 3 point favourites. This looks about right but we will decide closer to the time.
So, all in all, a really enjoyable set of Quarter Finals. I think the respective semi finals will be polar opposites in terms of style and the focus of peoples attention will be the Sunday game in Marseille. Munster will be entitled to 15,000 tickets, I suggest there will be more than that in the stadium come kick off.
Any bets at this stage?
I am going to propose a o.5 point outright winner bet that may take some of you aback. I believe that the winner in Marseille will win in Cardiff in May.
The 2 French sides are both less than 2/1 depending on where you shop. If Munster do pull it off against Toulon, and this column believes they have a huge chance, they will in all likelihood be favourites for the final.
As such I am recommending a 0.5 point stake on Munster in the outright market at 6/1.
Heineken Cup Quarter Finals (Updated):
By: Demented Mole on 5 April at 9:00am
The teams are announced for this weekends 4 Heineken Cup Quarter Finals. The majority are as expected but some subtle surprises do exist. I will take each game as it arises.
Munster V Toulouse:
The home side recall James Downey at inside centre and captain O' Mahony is passed fit to start at 6.
Toulouse have selected a hugely electric back 3 - Flickou at 12 could be anything, and Fritz has bags of experience at 13. Beauxis continues ahead of the injured McAlister, and must repeat last weekends' heroics if Toulouse are to prevail.
Prop Census Johnston, and back rows Nyanga and Dusaitor are also out hurt as flagged up previously. Qera is cup tied, having caused Munster trouble earlier in the season with Gloucester. Crucially for Toulouse Picamoles is fit. Granted Nyanga is on the bench, but this does stretch Toulouse somewhat.
That is the team news - So what happens? As referenced earlier in week, home advantage is huge. Munster's captains' presence is also crucial. French 10's consistency is doubtful. Beauxis can, and has the ability to, put in two performances back to back, but can he do it in a boisterous Thomond Park? Munster are sensibly playing Downey at 12 which will help the defensive line.
All in all I expect Munster to draw parity at a minimum at the scrum, win their own lineout (Albacete is a great player fyi), Murray is a far better 9 than Vermaak, and will help Munster to be better organised across the back line.
I am confident Munster win the game for reasons outlined here and earlier this week. The 2 O's (Peter and Paul) starting will help Munster emotionally in a way that many cannot understand.
It is remarkable given both sides history in this competition that this is their first time meeting in Thomond Park. The line has come in following team selection to -4 Munster 1/1, and I believe this will be covered by the home side.
Clermont V Leicester:
I was thrown a little wild card by Mr. Cockerill in his selection of Owen Williams ahead of Toby Flood at 10. The rest of the Leicester side is picked on form and, may I say, no little flair.
Clermont are missing the incomparable Sivivatu as well as Welshman Lee Byrne. Brock James starts at 10 and will potentially have his own battle with his 9, Morgan Parra, as to who will control their game plan. Their pack is full strength.
I cannot wait to see Tuilagi V Fofana. Leicester are hitting their straps at a great time. They are away to one of the fortresses of French rugby, but, as said earlier in the week, I do think Clermont are vulnerable. I am not saying Leicester will win (which I give an outside shout to), but I am confident they will cover the handicap of 11. I am not advising a new bet having advised Leicester +12 already this week, so I hope you were on at the time.
Ulster V Saracens:
I genuinely think that this will be a game of penalties and that there will be nothing between them.
I also believe it will be boring for a spectator.
Ulster I think will win, and home advantage is swaying that. Were the game on last night I would be advising them, but given the sides in question I am happy to let this one slide.
Toulon V Leinster:
I said the most flamboyant game was left to last and I reckon this could be a classic. I look at Toulon and I see the names Castrogiovanni, Bryan Habana, Maxine Mermoz...and that's the bench. This is as good a Toulon team as I have seen. I love seeing Jonny, Giteau, Basteraud at 10, 12, 13....If Heineken (Carlsberg) did back lines....
Leinster we know all about. Dave Kearney replaces the luckless Fitzgerald, Gopperth gets the nod over Madigan (mistake in my opinion), and apart from that it is a typical Leinster side (Strauss and Ruddock are regulars).
In my opinion the key to this game is the back rows. Leinster need quick ball to play their game and let Reddan be the link man he is so good at. Without it they are blunted.
As said earlier in the week, Steffon Armitage looks a fabulously fit 8, Lobbe and Juan Smith complement him, and are superb players in their own right. As much as I admire Heaslip, I think Leinster will be outmuscled in this area. I expect Toulon to cover the handicap of 4 pts. This is 1 point less than earlier in the week and I think Toulon, at home, will be comprehensive winners.
Heineken Cup Quarter Finals:
By: Demented Mole on 1 April at 9:00pm
For my money this is the best weekend of rugby in the whole year. The final day of the Six Nations can rival it only if there is something to play for in the 3 games. Here, we have the QF’s of the premier rugby competition with everything on the line. Its knockout, cup rugby. No more Pool stages. No more get the 4 tries and a bonus point and ease up. And for these eyes, this is the best collection of quarter finalists we have ever had. The winners of 13 of the 18 Heineken Cups staged are among the 8 quarter finalists. And the 4 games have fallen in an almost ideal way.
I will take each game in turn below, but first some framing of the discussion.
- Do not under estimate the power of home advantage.
- Do not under estimate the huge benefit of experience that teams having consistently reached the last 4 have.
- Teams that did not have huge Six Nations representation may have a slight advantage in terms of cohesiveness.
- Ignore early season form – this is all about who is playing well here and now.
A quick review first of 2 games that took place on Saturday evening, that I feel will have a significant bearing on 2 of this weekends' encounters, namely Munster v Leinster and Toulon v Toulouse.
Munster V Leinster
When you have a dominant scrum, dominant lineout, your out-half finds his touches and kicks all his penalties, you expect to win the game right? Wrong.
Munster raced into a 12-3 lead in 30mins, but some ill discipline, poor organisation, and odd choices with ball in hand led to Leinster playing their way back into the game before half time, and subsequently kicking on in the 2nd half. Much like the Irish scrum at Twickenham, Munster's was never in trouble and indeed was dominant, but they never chose to drive that nail further which was displeasing. Munster never looked like scoring a try, save for the last 5 mins when they had some cohesion. Leinster showed that with their try they can strike from anywhere – Reddan’s break, Jennings pass, O’ Driscoll’s line. It may not make any highlight reel, but basics executed well gets results.
What will both sides take from the game?
Munster – They need Peter O’ Mahony to be fit, or at least fit enough to step over the whitewash. The man;s influence and importance to his side is already at Paul O’ Connell levels. Make no mistake, O’ Mahony is the present and the future. Zebo and Earls are fit for the first time all year and must be used according to their strengths. Felix Jones is vulnerable. Keatley is in form but must back up his performance off the tee with another faultless one this Saturday. Donnacha Ryan will be missed.
Leinster – Healy was a huge loss. Readers of this column will know the esteem I hold him in. O’Driscoll and D’Arcy (again!) were faultless in defence – they will have to be on Sunday also. General clean bills of health will be welcomed. I expect Kearney to come back in for Fitzgerald but it's no slam dunk.
Toulon V Toulouse
One of the better French Top 14 games I have seen in many a year. Pace, confrontation, desire, willingness to play and a demonstration of the sheer depth some of these French sides have. Toulon had the mercurial Freddy Michalak at 10 and rarely have I seen him as composed, consistent and accurate in a game. Can he back it up however?
Naturalised Frenchman Jocelino Suta was an absolutely terrifying presence in the second row for Toulon. The man who hails from Vanuatu (once a noble coursing dog who made it to the semi final in Clonmel for Ennis man John Quinn) is an absolute wrecking ball. He was complemented by a very fit looking Steffon Armitage and the bulldozer that is Basteraud. There is no little guile too however and Delon Armitage, Drew Mitchell and live wire David Smith as a back three were very dynamic. But given their squad, who will line up against Leinster?
This was the best performance I have seen from Toulouse in sometime. They have had to rebuild somewhat but there was also something refreshing about some of their personnel. They have messed around with fly halves for a few years and recalled Lionel Beauxis and his phenomenal boot, and that decision was rewarded with 5 pens, a conversion and drop goal. The back row battle was immense, but it may be to some cost to Toulouse through injuries to Picamoles and Nyanga.
One of the key turning points was Qera’s sin binning, which tilted the balance in Toulon’s favour. With Beauxis restored their back line chimed, and the offloading game for which they were renowned for many years now returned. The pace they have out wide was used to good effect and some injury concerns aside, Guy Noves will be extremely pleased with where his side are at.
Munster V Toulouse - Preview
Not a bad one to kick things off with on Saturday lunchtime, eh!
As referenced above, both these sides played in crucial domestic games last weekend.
For Munster O’ Mahony is huge, while depth in front row is an issue. Donnacha Ryan will be missed and there are selection issues in the back line to iron out.
For Toulouse, Picamoles has a pelvic injury, Nyanga an ankle sprain, Census Johnston was stretchered off against Toulon but seems ok, and Luke McAllister has a lower back injury that rates him highly doubtful. Thierry Dusaitor, their lynchpin, is also a long term absentee.
For those reasons, no one in their right mind should have a bet in this encounter without sight of the team sheets. There are other factors to consider, not least Munster's record at Thomond Park in this competition. They have made a legacy out of proving people wrong in this tournament and will probably do so again. It is also an early kick off which will not suit either side, but perhaps be less of a hindrance on Munster. Lastly there is the French Top 14 to consider for Toulouse. They are currently not in the top six play-off places and there are only 3 regular season games to play. Will that have a bearing on team selection?
The current lines have Munster 3.5 point favourites or so. I don’t see that moving much between now and team selection time, so more to follow on Friday when a more informed decision can be made.
Clermont Auvergne v Leicester - Preview
Nothing like a trip to the Massif Central to focus the mind!!
Clermont have been perennial bridesmaids in this tournament, striking similarities to Munster until they made their breakthrough. Under the coaching ticket of Vern Cotter and Joe Schmidt they have emerged as one of the most exciting teams in Europe and claimed their first Bouclier a couple of years ago. Schmidt as we know drove Leinster forward and is now endeavouring to do so with Ireland, while Cotter is off for the mother and father of all challenges – Scotland!
Alas, Heineken Cup success has thus far eluded them. With the likes of Nalaga, Rougerie, Fofana and Sivivatu in the back line they will always be a force to be reckoned with. However, as Munster demonstrated last season they are vulnerable. A shock defeat away to Brive on Friday last will do nothing for their state of mind and that result has also opened up the seeding for the Top 6 to all the other teams again.
Leicester are beginning to hit their straps. They have been quietly going about their business this year and a defeat of Northampton Saints, albeit in some controversial circumstances, leaves them in fine fettle. An overlooked point on the conclusion to that game is Leicester were hanging on with only 13 men, and hang on they did. Manu Tuilagi is fresh and back on try scoring form. His battle with Fofana should be one to savour. They are missing Dan Cole, but front row is not somewhere Leicester are lacking. In fact, Cole aside, they are as healthy as they have been for some time.
The current line on this game has Leicester getting between 11 and 12 points away at Clermont. As alluded to above I think Clermont have demonstrated they are beatable. There is also an argument that while still excellent, are they as good as they were 2/3 years ago? Has their best chance, with this crop of players, passed them by? They are also still jockeying for position in domestic competition.
Leicester meanwhile have momentum, and when this club are in that frame of mind they are very difficult to beat. I see them having a chance of winning this and feel that the line is wrong. This is the only game I am advising an early poke on, and dependent on team selection may press up with an outright victory bet.
Ulster v Saracens - Preview
Come Saturday evening after the 2 aforementioned games, if you are not worn out by this stage there is a good chance that this will put you to sleep. While I am an admirer of both sides work ethic, honesty and desire, two more boring brands of rugby you will struggle to find.
Ulster lost to Cardiff last weekend and blame the loss of scrum half Ruan Pienaar, which was the main reason why. Saracens filled Wembley out against Harlequins and promptly ensured that if you were one of those in attendance for the first time you will not be going back. I genuinely don’t know who will win this. It will be a kicking duel between Farrell and Pienaar. Whichever side wins will be tough to beat in the semi’s, but they will be beaten.
Other than that, at this stage of proceedings, I have no more to say on the matter and am unlikely to be proposing a bet.
Toulon v Leinster - Preview
Save the most flamboyant to last?
What a pearler this promises to be. The winners in 4 of the last 5 years face off. There is not a squad in World Rugby that possesses the depth that Toulon have – and I include the All Blacks in that.
As mentioned at the top of this piece, both sides played and won last weekend. Both arrive with relatively clean bills of health.
We don’t know what side Toulon will go with, but with Leinster we have a fair idea of their own make up. Dave Kearney may come back in for Fitzgerald and Leinster need Cian Healy to be fit. In the same way as Peter O’ Mahony is important to Munster, Leinster have a chance with Healy. Without him I am certain they will not win.
Let's hope the sun shines in Toulon and both sides throw it about – it's how they both play anyway. O’Driscoll will give his all in a quest to end the greatest career in Irish rugby on a winning note in 2 months' time. Jonny Wilkinson will be doing the same for his part now that he is also hanging up his boots.
More to follow on Friday - team selection could well decide if
a) the early line of Toulon -5.5pts moves, and
b) what side of that line to come down on. At present it is the French side….but there is 5 days to go yet.
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Six Nations - Weekend 4 Preview
By: Demented Mole (8th March at 9:15am)
It is the 2nd last weekend of what has been an enthralling SixNations to date. We have 2 games this afternoon and a corker with 125 years tradition coming our way tomorrow from Twickenham.
Let me start by giving a cursory mention to proceedings inEdinburgh. In the moments after Round 3, I was certain that all the talk of Scotland having a chance against France was going to create a superb betting opportunity on Les Bleus. However, Coach Saint-Andre has wielded not only the axe but also the moral compass on a number of his men, injury also depriving him of Nyanga, in a hugely changed 15. There are changes again at half back and in the front row. So as it transpires, the Scots do have a great chance based on the multitude of changes in the French side.
That being said I do not feel a 7 point start is sufficient for the Scots, but not do I have enough conviction to take them on in their own cabbage patch. This game is not one that appeals from a betting medium at all. France will try to win and keep their Championship hopes alive heading to their homestead next weekend, while Scotland will be boosted by the return of captain Kelly Brown and fight with great endeavour.
Ireland V Italy:
This is the final time we will see the incomparable Brian O' Driscoll play in front of his adoring public. The greatest Irish rugby player of all time has 2 games to go. It is a shame in these eyes that Italy have chosen to rest their own talisman Sergio Parisse for this encounter, with one eye if not both, clearly on next weekend's home encounter against England.
BOD is as singularly responsible for the renaissance in Irish rugby, making them competitive again, and it began againstFrancewith his hat trick of tries almost 15 years ago. Parisse is doing similar work for Italy, there are many similarities.
We are not here to eulogise however and this was not going to be a betting medium before the teams were announced. However Italy clearly are looking at next week with the aforementioned Parisse and Zanni (58 caps in a row) rested. They have also changed both their half backs. Ireland on the other hand are only resting the manic aggressor that is Peter O Mahony.
Ireland have conceded only one try in this years 6N and I expect that statistic to be the same after today's game. At the other end of the field Ireland could run up a score and today's game should provide the perfect avenue to right a number of wrongs from Twickenham (use the maul more often, patience in attack, more aggression at scrum time to name but 3). Sexton is also fit and will want to put his own annus horriblis of 2 weeks ago behind himself.
Ireland by plenty is the verdict and I think they will cover the 24 point start they are giving the Italians, in fact they will probably only have to score 30 to do so.
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England V Wales:
I have already advised Wales+6 in this encounter and I think I am going to leave it at that. This is going to be a humdinger. This correspondent has made his views on Mike Brown well known at this stage and tomorrow he comes up against one Leigh Halfpenny. Goal kicking aside I would favour Brown every day.
The team selections are as expected and perhaps favour Wales slightly given the return of Jonathan Davies. A late change to the Welsh side sees Jake Ball gain a chance to confirm his impressive form against France, due to the withdrawal of Charteris. The line on this game has come intoWales+4 which is probably right in my opinion. As said 10 days ago I do not know who will win this one but I felt 6 points was the wrong handicap in the first place, which is why we took Wales at the time.
Subsequent moves lead me to leave well alone and we can sit back and watch, hopefully after Ireland have more than covered their own handicap the day before.
Six Nations - Weekend 3 - Review & Weekend 4 Early Preview
By: Demented Mole (24th Feb at 5:00pm)
Last weekends action in the Six Nations was a superb advertisement for the game of rugby union. From Wales bouncing back, to Scotland’s last gasp victory and finally rounded off with the physical confrontation of all physical confrontations at Twickenham, it was a series of games that had it all. We now, with 2 rounds of games left, have 4 teams that could win the Championship – brilliantly poised.
A quick whistle stop review –
Wales V France
The backlash from Wales took place and they never let up from minute 1 through 80. That being said the French did contribute to their own downfall. As alluded to in my earlier blog on this, I wanted to see the French stepping up their performances against better sides before taking the plunge. Thankfully we stood by and watched. Until they get a 9 playing 9 and a 10 playing at 10, and give them time to settle in, they will always struggle against the better times.
The French half backs were as dire as the Welsh were good. They could get their act together in time for Ireland, and should beat Scotland, but that game does not appeal as a betting medium at the present time.
Wales will travel to Twickenham next full of renewed vigour. It should be a belter and I believe will be a one score game which makes the early lines of Wales +6 appealing.
England V Ireland
It was a privilege to have been there and a superb atmosphere at HQ throughout. Ireland did not play badly, they just met a team at the top of their game who have improved as units from match to match. To me there were 3 key differences between the sides on Saturday –
Jonny Sexton – had a dreadful game. He made a huge amount of tackles, particularly in the 1st half. His decision making however let him down and his range with the boot was disappointing. Ireland turned England over 5 times in the last 20 minutes and when raking touch finders were needed Sexton only delivered 10 yard gains.
Murray V Care – Murray was outplayed by the live wire Harlequins man. The Irish 9 was also slow to the breakdown and/or covering in defence a number of times. His decision to try a reverse pass with 3 minutes to go, just as his team were building phases, momentum and territory was unforgiveable. With it went Ireland's last real chance of glory.
Mike Brown – I am biased and I am a fully paid up member of his fan club. Rob Kearney had a fine game, do not get me wrong, but Brown was on another level again. He is the best back in the Northern Hemisphere at present. His vision, speed, decision making, skill and not least commitment is top notch. One of the finest individual performances I have seen on a field in many years.
Ireland will host Italy 10 days and should win well. I will neither be with them or against them however if the early lines of 22 points are anything to be believed. England will be thrilled that their opening game in front of their faithful Chariots was a victory, more so the manner of it. Their game with Wales will be another close run affair that they might well win, but for that very reason I am taking some of the early Wales +6 as I believe it is the wrong line.
Italy V Scotland
If ever there was a game that involved a side that were better around the park than their opponents, but do not know how to close a game out yet, it was this. Italy should have won. They didn’t. They will find it very tough to get themselves back up for the Ireland game.
Scotland will take some belief from this. They didn’t give up, created the chance to win it and were able to take it. I expect them to put up a brave show against France but for it to be in vain – French selection dependent. The ploughed field of a pitch will also not help. We will revisit that game closer to the kick off.
So our advice was landed at the weekend to continue our good run, even if the outcome was not the one predicted.
That is the nature of handicap lines, it gives you a chance. A similar thesis applies to the England v Wales game. It will be close and could go either way. I do not know who will win, but I feel the difference will be 3 points or less, and as such Wales +6 makes plenty of appeal at this stage.
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Six Nations - Weekend 3 - Updated Preview
By: Demented Mole (22nd Feb at 9:30am)
There are games that pique ones interest a little more than normal and then there is events taking place at Twickenham today. Living in London the atmosphere has been building all week and judging from the streets in W1 last night I can confirm that the Irish have travelled in their droves.
What about the game in hand? Team selections by both coaches have been pretty consistent, injuries aside. Lancaster has had to deal with the huge loss of Dan Cole and has plumped for David Wilson, who does not have match fitness on his side. The exciting George Ford has been added to the bench. Ireland are unchanged with the addition of Iain Henderson and Jordi Murphy to the bench at the expense of the injured Dan Tuohy and Tommy O Donnell, who has apparently gone back to Munster for game time.
The last time Ireland came to HQ it was an embarrassment for them. The scrum went to pieces, the Red Rose got their gander up and the Chariots galloped all over the men in Green.
So what is different? Why will, in my strong opinion, that not happen again?
I am not going to repeat my previous posts re Joe Schmidt, suffice to say that Ireland are now a far more savvy team on the sideline. Ireland are also going to HQ with, and don't fall off your chair here, a pack and a scrum that could do damage to England. The loss of Dan Cole is huge to England, Wilson is not match fit and he will need to produce a strong hour before the excellent Henry Thomas enters the fray. I have a strong sense Cian Healy will have a big game both in the tight and the loose and I think the scrum will be an enthralling battle, and one that Ireland will just about shade. There is a lot of talk about Courtney Lawes, and has been for a few years, he is improving and using himself more effectively, but until he can produce it against an O'Connell for 80 minutes, this is also an area where Ireland can gain an advantage, in tight and in the line out.
The English back line has some great individual game breakers, namely Care at 9 and the back three. The problem with that is that Farrell, and Twelvetrees in particular, are in between them!! Burrell had a perfectly satisfactory start to his international career but centre is an area I think Ireland will come out on top. If given fast ball and used wisely, or from broken play, this English back three could enjoy some luck.
If, as I think they will, Ireland get parity at worst at the set piece, they will win this game. A lot of the Irish game plan is off first phase ball and while the coach is new, the key playmakers have experience of his style and the others seem to have embraced this. Sexton is showing his full array of talents in the 6N so far. A lot of this is down to the platform his pack have afforded him and Murray playing his best rugby for a couple of years. The key battles as I see them are -
- the scrum where I think Ireland will gain an upper hand mainly due to the loss of Cole,
- the line out where the Irish unit has been operating very well and using their maul to huge effect. Best is probably a better thrower than Hartley,
- the battle of the 9's could be the contest of the day. Murray and Care are on top of their game and they could hold the key to their teams fortunes.
They, for me, are the 3 areas. I highlighted the Irish kicking game against Wales 2 weeks ago and if Ireland execute it today as well as they did against Wales they will win. Mike Brown aside, I have far more faith in the Irish back three under the high ball, and also positionally.
So when all is said and done what should a fan expect to see. An arm wrestle? Yes. A sin bin or two? Probably. The significant amount of experience in Ireland's favour to be crucial? Certainly. The most open free flowing game? I doubt it but I think there will be opportunities for both sides to run the ball given the upturn in the weather.
I put Ireland up immediately after the Welsh game +5 for 1pt. I am recommending them again even though the handicap has come in by 1 pioint generally. If you can bet with Stan James, they are still +5 about Ireland however. It is always important to take the best odds that are available and this +5 must be secured, as while I do not see a 4 point England win, it is a scoreline that can appear quite often, given the converted try v penalty scenario and we will be on the right side of this if England do secure this margin of victory.
This will be the first time I have advised my maximum stake to you and I do so with strong conviction. Indeed, I expect Ireland to win this game but to have 4 and 5 points on your side is always nice.
Just a quick word on the 2 other games this weekend. I alluded last week to a Welsh back lash but I just couldn't get myself comfortable. As you may have detected by my swerving of the France v Italy game, I hate games involving the French. They were dreadful last night and Wales got a much needed confidence boosting win.
The Scotland v Italy game today could go either way, but I will be happy to watch it with no financial interest, and instead with a pint in my hand and excitement aplenty ahead of the showdown at 4pm.
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Six Nations - Weekend 2 Review & Early Week 3 Preview
By: Demented Mole
Last weekend's action, or Saturday's to be more precise, was extremely enjoyable, but then also a little predictable.
On Sunday, the French game was a lot tighter than the bookmakers (and the final score line) said it would be, and while they were both in defeat, the Italians have put two consistent performances back to back and both were away from home.
Ireland v Wales:
Ireland took the game to Wales straight from the off. The scrum nullified itself to a large extent but Ireland controlled the skies, both in terms of the lineout and the respective kicking games. As one hoped, but did not expect to the extent that it did so, Sexton was afforded far more space than he has had in recent games. He is a lovely footballer and we saw the majority of his kicking game over the course of the game. This time was afforded to him by an excellent performance by Conor Murray (amazing what happens when he plays for the team), and a hugely dominant back row.
Readers of this blog will have quickly become aware how big a fan of Peter O’ Mahony I am and it was a superb performance he gave on Saturday. I do worry for him however as he leads with his head in everything, and his bravery is eerily similar to No.13 a little further out the field. In the end it was a great team performance from Ireland, every one of the 23 who got time contributed, save for the unfortunate Dan Tuohy who broke his forearm. Mind you it seems Scott Williams dislocated his shoulder off BOD’s chest, so there you go!
What of Wales? Alun Wyn Jones is struggling for a 2nd row partner and he seems limited (which he isn’t) when the lineout doesn’t function. Coombs is not International class. Hibbard was the only front row member to perform with merit and the back row were outplayed throughout. Phillips was on edge and clearly frustrated at the time Murray was being granted by his dominant pack. As a result of all that the Welsh back line could never work off go forward ball, and their one and only plan of running hard and straight was nullified by Sexton, D’Arcy and O’ Driscoll mainly.
So Ireland march on as one of only 2 teams left undefeated and will approach “HQ” on Saturday week with confidence brimming in both themselves and also their belief in Coach Schmidt’s ability to read games very well, pre-game as well as during.
Wales meanwhile are back to the drawing board, or even the mirror, to take a good look at themselves. There is undoubtedly some Lions fatigue affecting them as well as previously mentioned off field problems, but also their game plan does not work unless all men are at peak of their powers. The 2 week break is probably more important to them than any other team in the competition and I see them getting a sufficient amount of band aids on the situation to give it a right crack on Friday week.
England v Scotland:
England did all that could be expected of them against the Scots. On what was a disgrace of a pitch, weather or no weather, it was very difficult to play any sort of game. However they adapted to the conditions and nullified any threat from an early stage.
There is not an awful lot to say other than England did no more than they were entitled to, or expected to after their near miss against France. I disagree with some pundits who have them as the best team in the tournament thus far. I also had to chuckle at the some of the words used to describe England’s defeat of Scotland, which it would seem was more impressive than Ireland's defeat of Scotland a week earlier. Not to these eyes. For those familiar with National Hunt racing I would class the upcoming battle at Twickenham as the meeting of 2 promising novices for the first time after they have won their respective “winners of one”. Each side will be extremely wiser after the event.
Next up for the Scots is a trip to Italy and they travel as underdogs. I think we will see for once and for all what heart there is in this current side, and also if there is any belief or buy in to Scott Johnson’s regime. With each passing week, Vern Cotter’s impression of his task at hand must be getting more and more daunting. I am unlikely to be playing in this particular game. I do expect the Italians to win, but the one thing I can predict is that a game between 2 unpredictable sides will not go the way I want it to.
Lastly, Les Bleus. They were unimpressive against a much improved Italy but had plenty in the tank. I believe Wales will up their game significantly on Friday week and really put it up to them. God knows they will have to. France will travel away from home for the 1st time in this year's tournament and I believe will have to produce a far greater performance than either of their two to date in order to emerge victorious. But they are capable of doing so and have an outstanding Back 3, while the loss of Dusaitor has not yet been noticed.
Wales will be without Scott Williams but this should be negated by the return of Jonathan Davies.
Week 3 promises much and is a cracking round of matches.
Ireland travel to London in the knowledge that a victory will grant them a Triple Crown and realistic shots at both the Championship and Grand Slam. England will want to prove they are what the British media say they are, the best team in the Championship. It promises to be a belter and a great atmosphere.
I am however surprised to see that early lines indicate England as 5 point favourites. Ireland have an excellent recent record in Twickenham, have significantly more experience which is complemented by fresh blood, have a group of players hugely energised by new management and leadership and, significantly, have momentum and confidence.
I fancy Ireland to emerge victorious come 6pm on Saturday week and while I do not like backing sides pre-team selection, regardless of what direction the line goes in, I think this must be taken even at this early stage. My gut is that it will be closer to Ireland + 2.5 come kick off.
The other two games I will come back to in due course. As mentioned above I am unlikely to advise anything on the Italy v Scotland game.
I expected France to be favourites in Cardiff but it seems Wales are favoured by 3pts at present time. I will advise on this game next week.
Six Nations - Weekend 2 Preview
By: Demented Mole
We have now seen the team selections for two of this weekends' games, and they are broadly as I indicated in my post earlier this week, the Scots being an exception.
Ireland v Wales – Saturday 2.30pm
The game of the weekend and one that will have huge repercussions on the 6 Nations. A Welsh win and they will feel very good heading into the 2 week break about where they are, especially with Jonathan Davies to come back. An Irish win and they travel to Twickenham in 2 weeks with a Triple Crown up for grabs. Plenty to whet the appetite.
Wales have gone with an unchanged back line and have made a couple of changes to the pack. The return of Warburton was expected, although I have some sympathy for Tipuric who I rate every bit as good a player as Warburton. However Sam is clearly Gatland’s guy. Joe Schmidt has recalled Gordon D’arcy as I expected (and hoped) and we also see the return of Paul O’Connell to the front line. So, where will this game be won and lost?
I expect a hugely physical and entertaining game of rugby regardless of the weather. Should it be a dry day (unlikely) it will be a fast tempo, hard hitting game. In the likely event of a significantly soggy pitch that will deteriorate throughout, I expect quite the arm wrestle up front with a lot of one out rugby, and a huge emphasis on the kicking game. I think I could write for hours on the marginal gains either team may benefit from, those that will ultimately result in victory or defeat, so in summary here is a pass at what I feel are the 5 most important –
Battle of the 10’s – Priestland is not a poor player and fits the Welsh system very well. That being said, Warburton and Williams/Roberts will have to protect him as Ireland are going to attack this channel aggressively in my opinion. I also question his decision making in tight games in the final quarter.
If Ireland get decent ball and get the right runners (Healy/O’Mahony) from deep, Sexton could get more space than he is accustomed to. How Phillips and Murray play will also impact this. They both like a physical tussle and the one that parks the personal verbals and concentrates on their team, will serve the greater purpose.
The Back Row – With Faletau coming off the back of his best performance in some time last weekend, his battle with a seemingly rejuvenated Heaslip should be one to savour. Throw in the Munster Captain v the outstanding Lydiate, and Captain Sam v Henry (who seems to play with a chip on his shoulder because his name isn’t O’ Brien, which is a good thing for the team!), and we have the contest that will have the biggest bearing on the game in my opinion.
If the anticipated bad weather sets in for the game, expect Peter O’ Mahony to be a key influencer.
Front 5 – It has been many years since I felt as good about an Irish front row or tight 5. I go back to the Rabo recently when Healy did a number on Adam Jones and I feel Ireland may have the upper hand in the scrum, which will be a huge advantage.
Healy is rapidly turning into one of Ireland's most important players and one of the leading props in World Rugby.
Kicking game – Wales are normally excellent in this department but their kicking from hand was average last week, and they were out fielded. I think Ireland are as good a team under the high ball as there is, and Kearney/Halfpenny read the opposition kicks so well.
Goal and Line Kicking – Ollie Campbell used to say “find your touch and kick your goals and you will win your game”. This adage will be very true come this weekend. Opportunities in scoring positions will be limited and those you get will have to be taken. It might sound daft, but greater familiarity with the wind at the quirky Aviva Stadium, could have a big bearing here for Sexton.
So with all that, what is the advice? I find it hard to argue with the bookmakers pricing of the handicap. Ireland are generally 2 point favourites at 1/1, although there is some -1 at evens and 10/11 available. I am on record as saying that Wales have sufficient head winds against them to impact their performance in this 6 Nations and if Ireland do get control of the physical battles and execute well, they could run out comfortable winners come 4pm Saturday.
It is too early in the Joe Schmidt era to expect such a performance, but I firmly believe Ireland will give a good side a tonking in the not too distant future. In fact, these 2 sides remind me a little of Leinster and Munster in their profiles, just as the axis of power was about to shift. It hasn’t yet left Cardiff, but Dublin is in closer sight.
I do think Ireland will win and I do think home advantage will be significant. The return of O’Connell will also have a huge bearing, for both sides. I was hoping to see the line contract and get evens each of two, but as it hasn’t I am adopting the safe route and taking Ireland to win the game at a best price 5/6 with Stan James.
Scotland V England – Saturday 5pm
England are coming off the back of a galling defeat for them in Paris and have named an unchanged side. The Scotland side that is selected baffles me beyond belief. Dropping their captain Kelly Brown for a debutante at such an important position of openside flanker, leaving Richie Gray out of the 22, and a couple of changes in the back line (one enforced) is a lot of change to adapt to in a week.
As such I see them playing a limited brand of rugby on Saturday. They will try to frustrate England, and as you would expect in a Calcutta match at Murrayfield, will come out all fire and brimstone. Will the English be able to step up and meet that head on? They let the French dominate them last weekend but then methodically got themselves back into the game. They will be sore about that defeat, and the manner of it and I think will prove a class above the Scots on Saturday evening.
I said earlier in the week that England are selecting and building with eyes on the World Cup. Unforced errors such as those that occurred last week will happen. The return of Jonny May allows Mike Brown to play at 15, and hopefully get the full 80 mins there. He is an outstanding footballer.
There is not much more to say on this game. I expect England to be dominant over the course of the 80mins, the Scots will have their moments, but that passion will only get them so far. We already took some of England -9 earlier this week for 1 point and this should be topped up with a further 1 point at -10. I expected it to be -12 or so following the team selections.
France v Italy- Sunday 3pm
The France v Italy game takes place on Sunday and I will not be providing any advice on this. I am generally reluctant to back teams giving a 20 point + start and it seems the French will be doing so. I saw enough from the Italians to think they will be competitive this year, and I also saw enough from the French to think they are the team to beat this year. But until the French back it up I am happy to sit out and observe.
Six Nations - Opening Weekend Review
By: Demented Mole
The opening Six Nations weekend provided 3 surprisingly entertaining games. Amid the flurry of rule changes over the past number of years, in particular the scrum, and the huge emphasis on defences and structure, it was pleasing to see some rugby actually get played.
Italy continue to grow in stature and endeavour, and in patches against Wales they were very close to breaking through with some wonderful offloading. Indeed, their exciting back Campagnaro was the best performer on the field. At the same time, they also managed to drag the Welsh into a bit of an arm wrestle, and Faletau aside the Welsh back row struggled. Parisse again was magnificent and his tussle with the aforementioned Faletau was great to watch.
In truth however, Wales lacked cohesion and flair, and too often were forced to resort to Jamie Roberts direct running for go forward ball, or to straighten lateral movement/depth lacking moves. They must, but will improve. However I have been a strong believer that the off field troubles afflicting Welsh rugby will carry over on to the pitch at some point this season and nothing I saw on Saturday changes my view on that. More so than any other team they will also be suffering form the “Lions effect”, so it will be interesting to see how they progress through the tournament. Next weekend will be a huge test of both sides and home advantage could prove crucial.
This brings me nicely onto Ireland. Do not for one moment underestimate the impact of Paul O Connell pulling out on the morning of the game will have had on the Irish team, the pack in particular. In stark contrast to the Welsh back row I thought Henry, O Mahony and Heaslip were magnificent. Heaslip’s decision making can be improved but they mitigated the loss of O'Brien very effectively. In a rare sight for Irish rugby it was refreshing to see an almost second string Leinster front row come on and dominate the collision in the final quarter. Murray and Sexton dominated and Marshall was industrious if not quite up to this level. I would not be surprised to see D’arcy return on Saturday.
That being said they were poor in the opening half and I argue really missed POC’s leadership during this time. Ireland tried to play ball in the wrong areas and in the 2nd half the decision making in particular was far better. I expect them to build on this and next Saturday in Dublin should be a cracker. At this early stage, the line for next weekend is 2 points in Ireland's favour. That looks about right, but it could move towards parity as the weekend approaches, which will create an opportunity that we will take.
Scotland have plenty of trouble facing them ahead of this weekends Calcutta Cup match. Injuries to Maitland and a bashed up front 8 does not bode well and I fear for them against England who will be sour after the manner of defeat on Saturday evening. In fact I see the early line is England -9 at 10/11 with Ladbrokes, and I suggest taking this at the early stage for a 1 point stake as I feel the line will move. I don’t usually advise bets without sight of the teams but I feel that Scotland are in for a hiding come next weekend and I intend to press up on this initial stake closer to kick off, but a 9 point start is not reflective of the respective teams current make up.
Scotland were very very poor when Ireland got their act together and if they were still on the pitch today would not have a try scored as yet. There was plenty of effort but not much creativity and Scott Johnson has a job trying to hold things together head of Vern Cotter’s arrival.
As for England, it was a brave and bold selection by Stuart Lancaster et al. Basic errors put them on the back foot early, but they did show endeavour and no little skill in putting themselves in a winning position. England are clearly blooding players for the World Cup and will meet hiccups along the way, but they performed better than I expected them to in Paris. Burrell is a better player than I credited him for but Billy Twelvetrees is not International class in my view and Owen Farrell still has to grow into an International 10. Mike Brown is probably the best all round English back, but his best position is 15 and I do not think the Huget try would have occurred were Brown at 15 at the time.
France however were typical French in how they won the game. They had part switched off and were also outplayed for the majority of the second half. I expect them to build from here and at home to Italy they could pull away in the last 20 minutes, particularly as the Italian scrum is not what it was. They remain the team to beat in this years Six Nations.
Week 2 - Advised Bets:
I will have a 3 point staking plan and the advice ahead of this weekend. However the first bet should be struck now, given that the line looks one that is likely to move closer to the weekend.