This week saw the Heineken Cup playoffs finalized with the weekend providing some epic contests, but ultimately not too many surprises in the final draw for those eight spots in the knockout stages. Meanwhile England completed the Six Nations jigsaw puzzle by naming their squad, and lastly the Toronto Arrows had a rousing preseason opener in Las Vegas which saw them dispatch the Utah Warriors with ease 33-5.
The final round of the pool stages saw plenty of tense moments as five squads duked it out for the last two runner up spots in the playoffs. Munster and Glasgow provided us with plenty of entertainment and earned two solid wins but unfortunately it just wasn’t enough to get them a spot in the knockouts. Unfortunately a trip to one of French rugby’s heartlands was too much for Gloucester and despite throwing everything including the kitchen sink at Toulouse, they would sadly come short.
As a result, as expected Northampton and Saracens got the job done and booked the final two spots in the playoffs. Ulster had already been in a league of their own in the runner-up contest and dispatched Bath with ease to book the first of the runner up spots and a quarter final contest against tournament racehorses Toulouse. Northampton survived a serious first half scare from Lyon in France to emerge victorious and book a quarter final date with fellow English Premiership giants Exeter. Saracens did just enough in North London to hang on for dear life against a classy Racing 92 side, but now find themselves facing a challenging trip to Dublin to face a daunting Leinster side who currently are one of THE form teams of the tournament. The other quarter final will be an all-French affair as Clermont and Racing 92 replicate their race for the top in France’s Top 14 domestic competition.
Last weekend’s action gave us a mouthwatering glimpse of some of the names that are likely to feature in the upcoming Six Nations which is our next order of business.
England have made their selections and now the picture is complete. In one week it all kicks off and we can’t wait. So who’s looking good and who are the dark horses?
After their World Cup exploits, despite their implosion at the final hurdle against South Africa, England still remain the team to beat. However, we can’t help feeling that they are not quite going to have it all their own way this year. Jones has named a powerhouse squad, but we are once again utterly baffled by the scrum half options that Jones has gone with. Ben Youngs is so past his sell by date for the most part barring that one off performance against New Zealand in the World Cup, it’s laughable and even in the All Blacks game his teammates made him look good rather than his own individual brilliance. His backup Willi Heinz also doesn’t really look the part and is certainly not World Cup 2023 material. In our opinion a golden opportunity is being lost to develop some younger talent here, Ben Spencer probably being the most notable omission. The chances of England winning the tournament are certainly high, but on the back of a Grand Slam it won’t be. There are simply too many exceptionally talented banana skins lying in wait. Their first encounter with France being the most significant tripwire lying in wait for them in Paris. They may have the most notable dark horses Wales and Ireland to face on their home turf of Fortress Twickenham, but even that is no guarantee with the talent the two Celtic tigers have in their stables this year. There’s also the small matter of a difficult trip to Murrayfield to face a wild card Scotland. At the end of the day however, England are the only team along with Scotland who are not trying to adapt to a new Coach and that in this first International outing since the World Cup may be one of their most valuable assets.
France may still be the conundrum that all the teams will have to deal with. They potentially have the most exciting back line in the tournament if utilized properly, and Antoine Dupont may be the most exciting scrum half package the tournament has seen in years. They won’t take the silverware but they could definitely pose some massive problems for the teams that are in the running for top honors, and some definite upsets are on the cards.
Ireland are another dark horse package. There is some extraordinary young talent that is genuinely world class in Ireland’s Six Nations offering, and if it can adapt to Ireland’s new Coaching regime under Andy Farrell then they can not only upset any team on their day, but are also more than capable of competing for the silverware. Despite their dismal season last year, it would be foolish beyond belief to write them off.
Wales will not repeat their Grand Slam heroics of last year and furthermore we have trouble seeing them take the silverware. However, like Ireland we feel that a strong second place finish is well within the realms of possibility. Along the way expect them to produce some epic performances in both defence and attack and as we said last week, winger Louis Rees-Zammit could well end up being one of the players of the tournament.
Scotland would appear to have some dissension in the ranks with the Coaching regime of Gregor Townsend, but there is no denying that if they play with their hearts and a bit of devil may care attitude they could end up providing us with some of the most memorable moments of the Championship. Their encounter in round 2 with England at Murrayfield will be one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament.
We can’t see Italy doing anything other stir the Six Nations pot with the wooden spoon, but their match with Scotland in Rome and one of the last matches with the inspirational Sergio Parisse in an Azurri jersey could well be one for the Six Nations archives.
In short, a tournament that promises an enormous amount of excitement, and much more than most Six Nations immediately after a World Cup usually deliver. The best news for us here in Canada is that DAZN will be broadcasting all matches live and on demand. See TV listings on upcoming matches, broadcast times and how to subscribe.
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The Toronto Arrows got their preseason underway in Las Vegas and put the Utah Warriors to the sword with ease. Next up they face Rugby United New York and then it’s 14 days till the season kicks off in earnest with their first regular season game against Austin Herd on February 9th. We’ve got a really good feeling about this season and think it’s going to be a great time to be a rugby fan in Toronto this year. Onwards and upwards!
The Southern Hemisphere’s premier club competition kicks off this Friday, January 31st and once again TSN has the rights for this season here in Canada. We’ve got the full schedule over on the TV listings page and will have more to say about the tournament later in the week.
See you later this week and get ready for five weeks of outstanding International Rugby action!