Archive for the ‘European Champions Cup’ Category

The last two weekends and the penultimate rounds of the European Champions Cup pool stages provided us with plenty of spectacle, but in many ways few surprises as English and French clubs emerged as the clearly dominant forces in the competition.  We apologize to English and French fans as there was so much rugby over the last two weekends that we are having to combine our weekly country focused digest of the action into an abbreviated summary spanning both weekends.  Instead of match reports we’ll simply focus on the seven French and six English clubs and what stood out for us that particular weekend.  We’ll start with the English clubs Round 5 performances and then look at the French efforts in Round Six this past weekend and the implications for both countries forthcoming Six Nations campaigns.  So without any further ado let’s get stuck into the action and what impressed us the most from an English and French perspective a mere two weeks from the start of the Six Nations.

Round 5

Bordeaux-Begles vs Exeter Chiefs
Final Score – Bordeaux 34/Exeter 27
Bordeaux

Exeter’s hiccough in this match along the way to the knockout stages seems to have been merely that.  Exeter, a side that has really breathed some exciting fresh air into English rugby, put on a thrilling display against a Bordeaux side that seemed to have also rediscovered the term French flair.  It was one of the most exciting matches of the competition to date and despite Bordeaux getting an early lead Exeter put up a superb comeback effort and they can walk away with their heads held high despite the loss.  As we saw this weekend, they have done enough to get them a well justified quarter-final spot as the competition resumes after the Six Nations in April.

What is perhaps most encouraging from an English perspective is the number of young players this squad boasts that are surely to get some form of an England call up in the next year or two.  Exeter’s halfback pairing of Dave Lewis and Will Hooley certainly seemed to get the job done and Lewis should add some flair to an English attack in years to come.  Meanwhile one of Exeter’s academy players, fullback Max Bodilly is showing plenty of promise for the future.  This is an exciting team to watch and the fact that Hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie, Winger Jack Nowell and Center Sam Hill have all had their call-up for duty in England’s forthcoming Six Nations campaign is a testament to the talent that Exeter is developing in abundance.  As they showed in the final weekend of the competition, there is plenty of flair at Exeter matched to some solid grit and determination that can see them through when the going gets really tough.  Respectful but never daunted by the quality of the opposition they are up against, Exeter’s quarter-final match against Wasps should be an epic showdown.

Saracens vs Ulster
Final Score – Saracens 33/Ulster 17
London

As Saracens have breezed through to the quarter-finals and seem essentially unstoppable, they would appear to be the dominant force in this year’s European Champions Cup.  Despite a hefty contingent of all star overseas players there is still enough of an English nucleus to this squad to put a song in England Coach Eddie Jones’ heart.

Ulster took the fight to Saracens and were clearly in contention till the last half hour of the match.  It was then however that Saracens suddenly found that extra set of gears we have seen all year from them.  Owen Farrell at fly half has answered his critics and then some this season and must surely be providing England Coach Eddie Jones with a real dilemma in who he chooses at fly half.  Farrell has been called up for England duty this Six Nations and it remains to be seen whether he gets the fly half or a center berth.  Given George Ford’s dip in form at Bath and as we saw in this match Farrell’s clear ownership of Saracens’ game management, it would appear that the first choice number 10 jersey will be Farrell’s.

While Saracens clear forward dominance has been key to their success this year, Farrell’s play making ability and skill in putting his backs in space was clear to see in his setting up of center Duncan Taylor’s superb try.  However, it was Saracens three tries through the seemingly unstoppable power of their rolling maul, has meant that Saracens players are featuring heavily in England Coach Eddie Jones’ Six Nations plans.  Jamie George, the Vunipola brothers, Maro Itoje and George Kruis are all getting their England call-up.  Saracens backs feature less in Jones’s plans with only fullback Alex Goode and as mentioned above fly half Owen Farrell getting the seal of approval from Eddie Jones.  However, this is more a function of the fact that the bulk of Saracens overseas players form Saracens match day 15 in the backs.  Alex Goode has impressed all year at fullback and Farrell seems to be experiencing a completely new lease on life.  Whether for both these players their form will translate into a matching performance in an English shirt remains to be seen.  For now, however, given the power in Saracens forward pack England should feel confident about their chances of using Saracens’ experience up front to make a real impression at this Six Nations.  Add some Farrell magic to the equation and things will surely spark.  Either way Saracens quarter-final match-up against Northampton should be a game well worth the price of its admission.

Leinster vs Bath
Final Score – Leinster 25/Bath 11
Dublin

Irish giants Leinster finally, after a dismal effort in Europe so far, found some form at Bath’s expense in Dublin.  This was the Leinster of old up against a Bath team who on paper has so much promise but for some reason seems to be struggling in both Europe and the English premiership this season.  Worrying signs indeed for England Coach Eddie Jones as a few of his selections for the Six Nations will be from Bath, most noticeably fly half George Ford who after a stellar 2015 really seems to be struggling to find form this year much to the benefit no doubt of England’s other first choice fly half, Saracens’ Owen Farrell.

Bath were poorly disciplined for much of the match which afforded Leinster’s Ian Madigan ample opportunities with the boot which he made count at Bath’s expense.  Bath’s George Ford was simply not having the same success rate and struggled to assert any kind of control or game management in the match.  In short, it was Bath’s internationals who kept Bath vaguely in touch with a try from Australian number eight Leroy Houston and Wales’ Rhys Priestland giving Bath some much needed accuracy with the boot.  From an English perspective little if anything to get excited about.  Of Bath’s five England squad members, winger Semesa Rokoduguni had a strangely quiet evening and center Ollie Devoto did not play while Anthony Watson didn’t do a great deal to impress at fullback.  Meanwhile prop Henry Thomas only played a role as a bench replacement, and George Ford had another evening at fly half which he would probably prefer to forget.  Considering the relatively significant input by Bath to the England squad for the Six Nations there are grounds for concern especially the dip in form this season of George Ford.  We all know he is a quality player and surely Eddie Jones and English supporters are hoping that once he pulls on an England shirt once more he will rise to the occasion as he did so often last year.  From England’s point of view, it’s a case of fingers crossed!

Leicester vs Benetton Treviso
Final Score – Leicester 47/Treviso 7
Leicester

Looking sharp and very much the Leicester of years gone by the Tigers have been one of the most reliable sides in this year’s European Champions Cup.  However, what has left many scratching their heads is the fact that only one Leicester player has made the England cut for the Six Nations, in the shape of Ben Youngs at scrum-half.  While this can to some degree be put down to the fact that Leicester’s roster boasts a significant number of overseas based players, there have been numerous raised eyebrows over the absence of key Leicester players in England plans for the forthcoming Six Nations.  With Leicester having a strong showing in the Premiership the omissions are all the more puzzling, especially that of hooker Tom Youngs.

While Leicester’s thumping of Treviso, needs to be taken into context as the Italian team has singularly failed to make any kind of impression whatsoever in this year’s European Champions Cup, there were still some standout performances from a Leicester perspective.  Freddie Burns looked really good at fly half as he has all season and surely if there are doubts about George Ford as the Six Nations unfolds he must be a contender to get a call later on.  Working alongside his halfback partner Ben Youngs who had an outstanding evening, Burns looked ambitious but composed when needed under pressure.  Ben Youngs has been outstanding all season and there can surely be few in the English camp who are querying his role as England’s first choice scrum half.  In short, a solid outing from an exceptionally competent European side, but many will surely be questioning England Coach Eddie Jones lack of interest in Leicester players.  However, I would argue that as the Six Nations unfolds and with it the inevitable injury count, some Leicester players may find themselves on Eddie Jones’ speed dial list.

Toulon vs Wasps
Final Score – Toulon 15/Wasps 11
Toulon

Some poor refereeing from the usually reliable Nigel Owens and some lapses in concentration and discipline from Wasps saw them come unstuck against a lucky Toulon side.  Toulon may be three times champions in as many years, but despite their star-studded cast they look easily beatable and Wasps must surely feel let down in a game in which they gave their all but sadly came short.  Wasps’ clear physical prowess in this match and solid defence is reflected in three of their forwards making up England’s Six Nations squad, with Joe Launchbury, Matt Mullan and James Haskell all getting the nod from Eddie Jones.  Meanwhile, Elliot Daly has secured a center spot for England having impressed all season for Wasps both in the Premiership and the European Champions Cup.  I must confess to being surprised to not see number eight Guy Thompson in the England squad as he has been a reliable figure for Wasps all season and this match against Toulon was no exception.

Despite the loss I couldn’t help feeling that Wasps were the better side in this match, and Toulon got some lucky breaks especially from referee Nigel Owens.  Of perhaps all the English sides in this year’s European Champions Cup, I have found Wasps to have some real character and determination to their style of play and their defence at times has been the stuff of legends.  We saw glimpses of it in last year’s competition but they have really ramped it up this year and certainly deserve their place in the quarter finals.  Just as in the case of Leicester it is likely that there are a number of players who make up Wasps forward pack who will be answering their phones as the Six Nations unfolds due to the likely body count as England’s campaign marches on.

Northampton vs Glasgow
Final Score – Northampton 19/Glasgow 15
Northampton

I’ll be honest, I don’t find Northampton a particularly exciting team to watch, but what you do have to give them credit for is probably one of the best defences in Europe along with some brute forward power.  It is for this reason that they clearly feature so heavily in England Coach Eddie Jones plans for his forward pack in the upcoming Six Nations.  While the choice of Hooker Dylan Hartley as England Captain, given his very colorful disciplinary record, has sparked an intense debate, you have to admit that he does bring an edge to England that they have lacked for a while now.  It may not be the edge they are looking for and may ultimately prove to be their Achilles heel but for now the jury is out and most English supporters are hoping that Hartley, in such an important role for his country, can change his spots.  I tend to side with the naysayers but will give him the benefit of the doubt until England’s first match at Murrayfield which will be an emotionally charged event.

This match however, was entertaining from both sides and Northampton along with their usual solid defence threw in some flashy attacking play to further spice up a gripping encounter.  Replacement back Harry Mallinder scored a superb try off a beautiful kick from replacement fly half Stephen Myler.  George North was the recipient who masterfully flipped it back to Harry Mallinder who breezed across the line.  A really sublime piece of rugby and a refreshing break from Northampton’s highly effective rolling mauls when it comes to the preferred method of securing five pointers.  If they are able to produce work like that then surely Mallinder and Myler must be on the radar for future roles in England’s preparations for Japan 2019.

Glasgow made the hosts work hard all night just as they did at the beginning of the season when these two sides first met, but it was Northampton’s brute physical prowess and gritty defence that once again saw them get a much needed win in a season which has not exactly inspired their supporters at times.  However, given Northampton’s significant physical prowess it is no surprise that England Coach Eddie Jones is featuring the likes of Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Paul Hill in his forward pack for the Six Nations.  Given Northampton’s middling form in both the European Champions Cup and the Premiership, it is hoped for England’s sake that these three really gel and lend some real backbone to the English forward platform.  The ability is certainly there, and whether you like Dylan Hartley or not you have to feel for him as he is about to go under one of the most unforgiving microscopes in international Test rugby.  We wish him and his colleagues well!

Round 6

Ulster vs Oyonnax
Final Score – Ulster 56/Oyonnax 3
Belfast

Your heart has to go out to Ulster who in front of a rapturous home crowd put in one of their best displays of the season in a bid to secure a place in the quarter-finals, only to be pipped at the last hurdle on points differences.  Oyonnax meanwhile as the weakest of the French sides in this year’s competition surprised few people in emerging the losers, but perhaps the scale of the loss was not what many were expecting.  This wasn’t a loss; it was an annihilation at the hands of an inspired Ulster team.  Consequently, there is no surprise that Oyonnax will be contributing not a single player to France’s Six Nations campaign.

Oyonnax looked exhausted for much of the match and as a result their discipline and execution simply weren’t there.  By the end of the match, and the last quarter to be honest, there was only one team on the field – Ulster.  You had to scratch your heads at Oyonnax’s complete implosion as their earlier fixture against Ulster had shown them to be fiercely competitive and capable of some solid attacking rugby.  However, in that match we saw them leak 23 unanswered points in the second half, and that kind of performance was on display for the full eighty minutes in this encounter.  Outclassed, outplayed and ultimately out of their depth, it is a European season that Oyonnax will surely want to forget and one that will most likely see them relegated to the Challenge Cup for next year.

Toulouse vs Saracens
Final Score – Toulouse 17/Saracens 28
Toulouse

We’ve already said all there is to say about Saracens and the accolades they are getting were clearly on show again in another master-class performance in this match.  We’ll just look past that bizarre fumble by Owen Farrell which would have seen the English side get a second try.  Toulouse although spirited at times hardly looked a match for Saracens for much of the game.  Indeed, had it not been for a superb effort from New Zealand fly half Luke McAlister, Toulouse would have had very little to say in this match.  There was a moment of sheer brilliance from French fullback Maxime Medard that gave fans a sense of nostalgia for some good old fashioned French flair, but apart from that new French Coach Guy Noves will struggle to find much to get excited about from Toulouse.

In many ways despite the loss, Toulouse certainly looked the more adventurous of the two sides, and this was reflected in them outscoring Saracens by three tries to one.  However, two of them came from sheer individual brilliance from McAlister.  What is promising for French supporters however was Maxime Medard’s try and his seeming return to form more than justifying his call up for France in the Six Nations.  Number eight Louis Picamoles, who will also feature for France in the Six Nations, has also not quite found the form that made him such a force in 2015. It is hoped that under former Toulouse boss and new French Coach Guy Noves he will find it again as France will sorely need Picamoles’ skills.  There is a solid sprinkling of Toulouse players in both the French forwards and backs for the Six Nations but based on this match it was only really Medard who made me sit up and take notice.  Still there is enough pedigree in the seven Toulouse players selected by Noves, that regardless of the team’s struggles this year they still should make an impact when Les Bleus start their campaign in February.

Bath vs Toulon
Final Score – Bath 14/Toulon 19
Bath

We’ve already discussed Bath’s woes this season at length so to their credit they can take some pride in putting in a solid effort against three time champions Toulon.  Having said that though Toulon themselves have failed to really stand out so far in this year’s European Champions Cup.  They have got the job done when required and secured themselves a quarter-final spot but rarely have they given us much to really get excited about, especially given the pedigree of their roster of international superstars.  This also means that on any given day there is not a great deal of French talent on show when Toulon steps out onto the field as evidenced by the fact that there are only two Toulon players in France’s Six Nations squad for 2016.

Maxime Mermoz makes the cut for France and I personally feel that the Toulon centre always has something to offer and given the right coaching setup hopefully being put in place by Guy Noves, he should do well this year in a French shirt.  Meanwhile Hooker Guilhem Guirado is a natural leader and for me a sound choice as French captain.  Other than that there is not much to get excited about from a French perspective at Toulon.  All Toulon’s points came from the work of overseas based players in this match and it is often hard for French based players to really make a statement in this team.  Whether or not Toulon will get beyond the quarter-finals this year remains to be seen, and I personally have my doubts, however they weren’t exactly the dominant team last year.  Nevertheless, once the quarter-finals were upon us we suddenly saw a very different Toulon side and given their star-studded roster again this year I have a suspicion we will be seeing more of the same.

Glasgow vs Racing 92
Final Score – Glasgow 22/Racing 5
Kilmarnock

If you’re like me, you probably weren’t expecting this result.  There is no question that the atrocious conditions didn’t exactly lend themselves to an exciting display of running rugby and Racing without Dan Carter are not the all-conquering beasts they have become of late.  However, Glasgow easily got the measure of them and put in a solid performance that must make them feel gutted that their exploits in Europe are over for the season.  Nevertheless, Racing boast the best defence in the European Champions Cup this season and this is clearly reflected in French Coach Guy Noves selecting four Racing players to make up his forward pack.  The always impressive Eddy Ben Arous is always a solid prop and Bernard Le Roux looks an impressive flanker going into the Six Nations.

The conditions as mentioned did not really provide for running rugby giving the likes of center Alexandre Dumoulin a chance to shine as he has done all season.  Still he is a worthy addition to France’s Six Nations squad.  Meanwhile Maxime Machenaud should be able to provide France with some solid service at scrum-half.  Nevertheless, what was concerning perhaps from a French perspective was that a team that boasts a significant contingent of French talent, looked less than flash at times in both attack and defence when their international star play maker Dan Carter was not on the field.  Glasgow adapted to the conditions much better and in general used the limited opportunities they were able to get to greater effect, especially in terms of forcing Racing into disciplinary mistakes.  Racing has the talent and is clearly one of the more impressively weighted French sides in terms of domestic players and talent, and it is hoped that Guy Noves can weld this talented group effectively into the French side come the Six Nations in a week’s time.

Stade Francais vs Leicester
Final Score – Stade Francais 36/Leicester 21
Paris

Any team featuring the legendary Italian number 8, Sergio Parisse is always going to be hard to beat especially if he is actually leading the side.  Just as he does with Italy, Parisse’s stamp of authority and massive inspirational boost to his troops was there for all to see.  Leicester are rightly considered one of the form teams of the Championship but the English side was always going to be up against it in Paris.  Furthermore, from a French perspective, Stade Francais are one of the most encouraging teams to watch as they boast a healthy roster of talented French players, as evidenced by French coach Guy Noves selecting six of Stade Francais’ current lineup for his upcoming Six Nations campaign.

Whether because of having already qualified, Leicester took their foot off the gas in this match could be debated, but Stade were fired up to put on a big show and perhaps restore faith in the hearts of French supporters in Paris that French rugby is very much alive and well heading into the Six Nations.  For me the two real standout players in this match were fly half Jules Plisson and prop Rabah Slimani, both of whom I expect to see play a big part in France’s Six Nations campaign.  Plisson is a brave and ferocious player despite his diminutive size and was in the thick of the action for Stade throughout the match.  Couple that with an assured and composed kicking game that had plenty of accuracy when needed and he will be an exciting player to watch in a blue jersey come February.  Rabah Slimani is rapidly developing into one of France’s new generation of forwards.  Agile and quick but immensely powerful, Slimani is quickly becoming one of France’s most potent attacking threats while at the same time being a bedrock of their defence.  Opposition sides will struggle to both contain him as well as get past him come February.  Centre Jonathan Danty will also be a player to watch for come the Six Nations and he is already showing some fancy footwork and offloading akin to the French flair of old.

In short, given the very French composition of Stade Francais and less of a reliance on international superstars than other French teams, Stade’s success in this tournament must surely give French supporters a great deal to cheer about as they look towards France’s fortunes in the upcoming Six Nations.  Paris will be a very difficult place for teams to play at and the rising ranks of French talent on display at Stade will only highlight the challenge.

Clermont Auvergne vs Bordeaux-Begles
Final Score – Clermont 28/Bordeaux 37
Clermont-Ferrand

Neither of these sides ultimately made it into the quarter-finals but nevertheless gave us a real spectacle of French rugby, and plenty to think about as we head into the Six Nations.  While Clermont’s scrum half Morgan Parra is in France’s lineup, so is his Bordeaux counterpart Baptiste Serin, and as evidenced in this match, Morgan Parra’s decision making often leaves a great deal to be desired.  By contrast Serin is rapidly becoming the real deal.  I have been impressed by his speed and accuracy in most of the matches I have seen him play in the European Champions Cup.  If I was in French coach Guy Noves shoes, I would be inclined to be give this player as much game time as possible in the Six Nations as he potentially has a bright future in the rebuilding of the French national side post the horrors of the last World Cup.  Although the bulk of Bordeaux’s tries came from the efforts of their overseas contingent, Paulin Riva’s try was sublime and every time he has come onto the pitch for Bordeaux he has made a difference this year.  Although not in France’s Six Nations squad he will still be a player to watch in the next few years.

Clermont will be licking their wounds after failing to do their maths homework properly prior to this match and ultimately squandering a quarter-final berth, as all they needed was a losing bonus point.  Despite this however, they like Stade Francais are one of the most essentially French sides in the competition as the overwhelming majority of their players are French and not overseas players.  It is for this reason that there is a very strong Clermont contingent in Guy Noves Six Nations lineup.  The likes of Wesley Fofana, Scott Spedding, Damien Chouly and Morgan Parra need no introduction.  Lock Sebastien Vahaamahina is rapidly becoming a rising French talent in mold of the great Sebastien Chabal.  As mentioned above, if I was a French supporter I would have reservations about Morgan Parra and it will be interesting to see how much game time Guy Noves gives him during the Six Nations with other exciting scrum-half options such as Bordeaux’s Baptiste Serin and Toulouse’s Sebastien Bezy all challenging hard for the position.  When Parra is good he has few equals but as we have seen so often in pressure situations he has often squandered his team’s chances through some rather questionable decision making.

These two teams may be out of the European Champions Cup, but in the process they have showcased a heap of established and up and coming French talent which surely must give French Coach Guy Noves and French supporters some hope that the nightmare period of French rugby under former Coach Phillippe Saint-Andre is a thing of the past.  If Noves is consistent in his selection policy and uses this Six Nations to really structure a French side that can be kept together over the next four years and in preparation for the next World Cup in Japan, then I would argue that the heart of French rugby is beating strongly.  Like England there is a wealth of talent in French rugby if managed and nurtured properly.  As a result, the French must surely share the title of dark horse with Scotland for this Six Nations.  I for one can’t wait for their opening shots in a potentially exciting campaign that hopefully sees them well on the way to rebuilding the hopes and dreams of this proud and passionate rugby nation!

As we continue our look at how this year’s European Champions Cup tournament is shaping up, we turn our attention to how Ireland’s three representative teams are faring.  In the years gone by Irish club teams have traditionally performed extremely well in this competition, but this year with the exception of Ulster, European giants such as Munster and Leinster are struggling to make any kind of impact in the tournament.  As we look at the fourth round action of the European Champions Cup, it is only Ulster who stand any chance of carrying the Irish torch into the knockout stages.

Leinster vs Toulon
Final Score – Leinster 16/Toulon 20
Dublin

Irish hearts would have been gladdened to see a return of the Leinster of old in this match, who have so far this year been notably absent from the competition.  Perhaps more importantly there were hints that Leinster and Irish fly half Johnny Sexton was finally starting to work his way back to form after, let’s be honest not the best few months of his career of late.  However, I would caution that there was a hint of the old Sexton in this match and all Irish supporters, myself included, hope that come February such hints will translate back into hard evidence.

I must say that after finding it painful to watch Leinster of late, who once dominated European Club Rugby, this match was a breath of fresh air for Leinster supporters as they took the game to three times European champions Toulon for the full eighty minutes.  Considering that Toulon is not really a French side, more like a World XV this is no mean achievement.  Indeed, had it not been for a few lapses in concentration at the end, this match would have been Leinster’s for the taking.  For the most part I liked what I saw, especially a more assured and confident looking Johnny Sexton, and centre Luke Fitzgerald who lit up the field every time he got his hands on the ball.  In relation to Fitzgerald’s performance, he was the standout performer in that World Cup defeat to Argentina a few months ago. I for one can’t wait to see what Fitzgerald, who is clearly going through a spectacular renaissance, can do in an Irish shirt again come February.  It was also nice to see fullback Rob Kearney really assert himself in this match, a quality I felt has been absent in Leinster’s play prior to this outing.  Whether or not this was due to the presence of Irish Coach Joe Schmidt in the stands remains to be seen, but either way there is more than just a hint of excitement returning to the Irish camp as we build toward the Six Nations.

What was worrying for Leinster however, and Ireland by default ahead of the Six Nations, was the fact that despite a strong showing, Leinster faded out as the clock wound down in the second half.  Furthermore, the bench added little if any value to Leinster’s cause.  Zane Kirchner fluffed the one opportunity Leinster had to seal the match, while Jordi Murphy’s indiscipline and resulting yellow card left Leinster having to withstand a final determined assault by a revitalized Toulon in the last quarter.  While the Kirchner episode can be brushed aside as he won’t be featuring in Ireland’s Six Nations efforts and for the life of me I can’t really see what if any value he brings to Leinster, Murphy who has shown such promise for Ireland will have to reflect on a valuable lesson learnt.

For me from an Irish perspective there are two key concerns coming out of this match.  How much form has Sexton lost and are we seeing the beginnings of a comeback?  Secondly, it is surely time for Ireland to take a very hard look at Cian Healy.  While he is regarded by many as part of Ireland’s bedrock, I for one am beginning to doubt the wisdom of this.  He strikes me as poorly disciplined, mildly arrogant and not quite the team player that Ireland really need.  Often pursuing chances on the field that would make him look good but put the team in jeopardy, I can’t help feeling that Schmidt and company will need to look very carefully at their options going into the Six Nations. In my opinion Healy is rapidly becoming more of a liability for the Irish cause than an asset.  While few in Ireland have Healy’s experience, there would appear to be more reliable options coming through the ranks.  At the expense of angering every Irish fan I know I would also say that Sean O’Brien is also starting to show some similar tendencies.

In short, the great Leinster juggernaut is clearly a beast of days gone by.  However, it still boasts talents like Fitzgerald, Kearney and Sexton along with South African imports Richardt Strauss and the newly eligible for Ireland Josh van der Flier.  As a result there is enough to give the Irish plenty of ground for optimism as their thoughts turn toward Ireland defending their Six Nations title in February.

Toulouse vs Ulster
Final Score – Toulouse 23/Ulster 25
Toulouse

For the remainder of this year’s European Champions Cup, all Irish eyes will firmly be on the men from Ulster.  Looking good, and having a potential wonder weapon for Ireland in centre field in the form of Stuart McCloskey, Ulster have been the form Irish team in the competition.  So strong has been McCloskey along with Leinster’s Luke Fitzgerald and Connacht’s Robbie Henshaw, that the Irish centerfield looks exceptionally exciting going into this Six Nations and dare I say it is showing the kind of promise not seen since the days of the great one – Brian O’Driscoll.

While one should take back to back defeats of French giants Toulouse with a pinch of salt, as the men from the south of France are not quite the force they used to be, Ulster can justifiably feel that their future in this year’s European Champions Cup looks bright indeed.  Les Kiss as Coach is clearly benefitting from his time as Irish assistant coach and time spent with Joe Schmidt.  Ulster look sharp and their execution is solid.  Captain and Hooker Rory Best, continues to lead from the front and is a consistently reliable performer and no doubt will have an enormous role to play in Ireland’s Six Nations campaign.  He is inspirational and a credit to his team and country.  For me however, what has been really noticeable about Ulster’s performances this year has been the growth in confidence of fly half Paddy Jackson.  He has always impressed me, but just needed that extra few years of experience to make him into the class player he is rapidly becoming.  With the erratic form of Johnny Sexton of late, this is only good news for Ireland, and while he still has a lot to learn and perhaps a bit more maturity is still required, Jackson and Leinster’s Ian Madigan look set to continue the tradition of great Irish fly halves.

However, the real standout for me in this match and Ulster’s previous encounter with Toulouse is centre Stuart McCloskey.  Big, fast and seemingly unstoppable McCloskey is going to be one to watch.  Pair him up with Luke Fitzgerald’s dancing feet and all of a sudden Ireland could have a centerfield partnership the envy of all their Six Nations rivals.  Add to that mix Robbie Henshaw and the excitement builds, leaving Joe Schmidt with a myriad of exciting combinations.  Craig Gilroy and Andrew Trimble look good on the wings as always, though Gilroy is really starting to come into his own as I always thought he would.  Luke Marshall is also proving to be no slacker as McCloskey’s centerfield partner and the Ulster backline is well worth watching.  Joe Schmidt will certainly have some fat notebooks to pore over when it comes time to deciding on who will feature in the backs for Ireland come February.

Ulster took this match to Toulouse from the outset, and while at home Toulouse had considerably more fire in their belly than they did in Belfast the week before, Ulster still responded well to the challenge even if there was a look of controlled panic on the Ulstermen’s faces as the clock wound down and Toulouse threw everything they had at them.  Ulster were pushed hard and while not as clinical in their execution and game management as the week before they still did enough to carve out a narrow but important victory.  With this win they increase the likelihood that there will be at least one Irish team in the knockout stages.  If they can keep this momentum up in January, then not only will they be in a great position come the knockout stages, they will also have helped put some real force into Ireland’s preparations for the Six Nations!

Leicester vs Munster
Final Score – Leicester 17/Munster 6
Leicester

Always competitive, but without the towering figure of former Captain Paul O’Connell, Munster are clearly no longer the European giants they once were.  What perhaps is of more concern to Irish fans with the Six Nations rapidly looming on the horizon, is the fact that Munster and Ireland first choice scrum half Conor Murray is looking less than flash these days much like his halfback partner Johnny Sexton at Leinster.  This pairing has been key to Irish fortunes in back to back Six Nations titles in the last two years, but Irish Coach Joe Schmidt must surely be scratching his head as he looks at the Irish blueprint post the World Cup.

However, as mentioned above despite the score line Munster were in the hunt for the full eighty minutes and were hardly a pushover.  It was just that their execution left them wanting too many times.  Add to this that Ian Keatley at fly half is not really providing Munster with the opportunities they need, and although spirited and having a never say die attitude Munster sadly looked average when up against a more composed and structured game from Leicester.  For me the jury is still out on Simon Zebo.  Many consider him Ireland’s sleeping wonder weapon, but for me I see too much flash and not enough understanding of the bigger picture in terms of gameplay.  Having said that however, there is no doubting his work ethic and under the guidance of someone like Irish Coach Joe Schmidt there is no doubt that he could be effectively welded into a daunting Irish attack come February.

Munster looked more composed in defence than attack and had it not been for this aspect of their play the score line could have been much greater in Leicester’s favor.  Meanwhile squandered opportunities in attack also left little opportunities for Munster to really do much more than play catch up rugby under pressure.  Leicester were made to work hard of that there is no doubt, but when it came to the basics they were clearly the better side, and will be a force to be reckoned with as the competition gets closer to its business end as for that matter will most of the English clubs.

An exciting prospect for Ireland come February based on this match however, will definitely be South African number eight, CJ Stander.  The big South African is now eligible to wear Irish colors and has been at the forefront of much of what has been good about Munster so far this year.  As mentioned Simon Zebo and Keith Earls on the wings show plenty of promise with Earls being slightly more efficient in terms of execution, although in Zebo’s defence much of the ball he was getting was not exactly top quality.  Meanwhile Andrew Conway at fullback could provide Ireland with some food for thought.  Lastly there is some promising forward material in the shape of lock Robin Copeland along with Hooker Mike Sherry.  In short, Munster won’t be challenging for any European silverware this season, with the exception of the PRO12, but it still remains a strong breeding ground for some promising Irish talent.

Continuing our look at how the Six Nations countries are doing in this year’s European Champions Cup, we look at Wales’ representative two teams’ efforts in round 3 of the competition.  Ospreys took on Bordeaux-Begles from France while Scarlets took on Glasgow Warriors.

Glasgow Warriors vs Scarlets
Final Score – Glasgow 43/Scarlets 6
Glasgow

As predicted when we looked at Scotland’s efforts in Round 2 of the Champions Cup, Glasgow came out of the blocks firing and certainly looked a very flash outfit against an injury depleted Scarlets side.  It was a puzzling performance from a Welsh side that sits atop the PRO12 competition table, and while there is no doubt that injuries played their part, it must have been alarming for Welsh fans in general to see a strong Welsh side so comprehensively thrashed by a clearly superior Glasgow team.  Having said that though Glasgow were not without their errors and were it not for the phenomenon of Fijian winger Taqele Naiyaravoro’s hat-trick, the Scottish side certainly looked like they could have been beat at times had Scarlets found some sort of cohesion. Instead, by the end of the match, Scarlets simply looked exhausting at attempting to contain Naiyaravoro and his teammates.  Apart from the flair shown by the Scots and some superb tries there was little to get excited about in this match from a Welsh perspective.

Scarlets flyhalf Steven Shingler couldn’t find the mark with the boot and many points went missing, coupled with some passing that was simply just too simple for Glasgow to read and turn to their advantage.  To be honest Scarlets were never really in this match and given the fact that they had to contend with Glasgow’s new found force of nature in the shape of Fijian winger Taqele Naiyaravoro, their already considerable injury list would simply make this match a bridge too far.  Without the talents of Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe, Scarlets really had no answer to Naiyaravoro’s bursts of speed, coupled with the fact that the man seems able to simply brush away anyone who should attempt to stop him.  Glasgow may be regretting the loss of Van der Merwe to the Scarlets but they certainly seem to have found a more than adequate replacement.

Scarlets just couldn’t find any sort of rhythm to counter Glasgow’s increasingly clinical exuberance, despite starting the second half with a bit more intent than the cruise mode they seemed to be in the first half.  However, Glasgow would soon assert their dominance once more, with Naiyaravoro continuing to punch huge holes in a shattered defence.  Their PRO12 form was clearly not in evidence for the Scarlets, but it would be foolish to think that on the basis of this performance all is not well in Welsh rugby.  Scarlets may be out of contention for the European Champions Cup, but as key players return from injury they should continue to make a statement in the PRO12 and give Welsh coach Warren Gatland plenty to ponder for the Six Nations.

Ospreys vs Bordeaux-Begles
Final Score – Ospreys 19/Bordeaux 16
Swansea

Let’s face it, this match was all about Ospreys flyhalf Dan Biggar and to a lesser extent lock Alun-Wyn Jones and flanker Justin Tipuric.  These three staples of Warren Gatland’s World Cup Welsh heroics, dominated this game and helped their side achieve a key victory over an increasingly impressive looking Bordeaux as the match wore on.  It was only Dan Biggar’s vision and compsoure that kept Ospreys in front of a French side that was gaining in confidence as the clock wound down.

It wasn’t pretty at times, but Dan Biggar’s performance for the most part was so effective that one could almost overlook the fact that a resurgent Bordeaux in the second half looked poised to put the Ospreys to the sword on several occasions, and had the weather allowed for easier handling then they probably would have.  Add to the fact that Ospreys had the better of the French in the discipline department with Biggar rarely missing with the boot and it was going to be a tough evening for the French visitors.

Bordeaux got themselves into trouble right from the get go as a swinging arm tackle on Ospreys man of the match Dan Biggar, would see them have to play with 14 men for the majority of the match, as winger Jean-Baptiste Dubie’s red card would cost the French side dearly. Nevertheless Bordeaux were simply making better use of the breakdowns despite being a man down and any time they found space they looked dangerous.  Ospreys were struggling in the contact battles and had it not been for the usual heroics of lock Alun-Wyn Jones and Justin Tipuric for Ospreys we may have seen a very different result.  However, Jones and Tipuric kept the troops together in defence when needed and managed to keep Bordeaux at bay as their execution at times let the Frenchmen down at key moments, not helped by a slippery ball.

As mentioned above it was Dan Biggar who stole the majority of the limelight.  Always composed under pressure and managing to make sound decisions he kept his side just out of reach of a determined Bordeaux.  Add that to that a tireless work rate and ability to run and carry from just about anywhere on the pitch and it was clear what an enormous asset to the Welsh cause Biggar is.  To say that he is likely to be one of the players of the upcoming Six Nations is a understatement.  Meanwhile there were glimpses of promise from other players that Gatland is likely to be looking at for Six Nations duty.  Flanker Dan Lydiate made a statement while winger Eli Walker looked like he could be a threat on the wing, if he can strengthen his passing skills and be a bit stronger in the contact areas of the game.  I have always held that flanker Justin Tipuric is a giant in the making and just as he did in the World Cup, Tipuric put in a huge performance in this match for the Ospreys and like Biggar was to be seen everywhere.

Ospreys may have made it look a little too much like hard work at times against a spirited Bordeaux side playing with only 14 men, but there was more than enough on show from Biggar, Tipuric and Alun Wyn-Jones in particular to surely make Welsh Coach Warren Gatland feel confident about his forthcoming preparations for Wales’ Six Nations campaign!

It may not have been the start to their Champions Cup campaign that they would have liked, but despite the loss there were signs that once Glasgow settle into their stride in this tournament it is unlikely that the errors we saw in this match will repeat themselves so readily.  From a Scotland point of view there was plenty on show from many players who will feature in the Six Nations for Scotland and while at times there were errors in execution there is still plenty to be excited about.  Scotland like Italy may only have one team in this competition but there the differences end.  While Italy struggles to make a mark in both the European Champions Cup and the Six Nations, Scotland still looks like they could do well in the former and are likely to be a serious dark horse in the latter.

Glasgow vs Northampton
Final Score – Glasgow 15/Northampton 26
Glasgow

There is little doubt that this match was dominated by Northampton from start to finish.  However from Glasgow’s point of view there were still enough positives to give them confidence to press forward with their remaining five pool games in the European Champions Cup.  Glasgow managed to get two quality tries to Northampton’s three, and had Finn Russell had a more accurate night with the boot then the scoreline would have been much closer.  However, it was such inaccuracies coupled with some costly errors in handling that tripped up an otherwise impressive performance from Glasgow’s backs and midfield.  Add to this a hooker suddenly thrust into the limelight from the bench for the whole match coupled with a torrid time in the set pieces and lineouts and despite their obvious talents Glasgow had their work cut out for them in their Champions Cup opener, having missed their opening game due to the tragic events in Paris the week before.

There was no question that Northampton who had already recorded a gritty win against the Scarlets in this tournament the week before, had the edge and were the more settled and composed side as a result.  They clearly dominated the scrums and lineouts, their execution and handling were superior and their defence held together much better especially in terms of discipline despite a relentless assault from the Glasgow Warriors in the second half.

Glasgow looked unsettled and nervous in the opening twenty minutes and it showed in some sloppy handling and weak defence, as they leaked two tries to the Englishmen.  Furthermore their scrum was being pushed all over the park and repeated infringements saw them lose prop Ryan Grant to the sin bin.  Furthermore with hooker Pat MacArthur lost to injury in the opening minutes of the game replacement hooker, the new Georgian recruit Shalva Mamukashvili, was provided with an unfair baptism of fire in his first outing in a Warriors jersey.  As a result for a good forty minutes of the match Glasgow looked shaky in the scrums and their lineouts were nothing but a nightmare.  To give Mamukashvili full credit his game did improve towards the end and I am sure that should he start for Glasgow in their next Champions Cup fixture we are likely to see a much more composed performance from the Georgian.

Having said that it was not all gloom and doom for Glasgow in the scrums and their first try came off a scrum that held up well against solid Northampton pressure.  This released Glasgow’s powerhouse back line and we were witness to some slick passing and handling through the line to ultimately get centre Peter Horne in for the try.  To be honest that was the only positive in an otherwise torrid first half for the men from Glasgow, as they trailed Northampton 21-10 and looked a shadow of the PRO12 champions they were last year.

Another shaky start to the second half, saw Glasgow leak another try after ten minutes, but from there on they seemed to settle and produced their best rugby of the evening and remained very much in contention for the rest of the match.  However, it was repeated handling errors and a few key misses from fly half Finn Russell which prevented them from capitalizing on a significant advantage in the territory and possession statistics.  Nevertheless they did manage to start to match up to the forward presence of Northampton and as he did in the World Cup for Scotland flanker Josh Strauss made a clear impact on Glasgow’s fortunes as he scored a crucial second try for the Warriors while Northampton had a man in the sin bin.

For the rest of the match Northampton were forced into a defensive battle and Glasgow certainly showed some of the tenacity and skill that made them PRO12 champions last year.  Nevertheless, Northampton stood their ground while Glasgow lacked some of the edge we saw from them last season in finishing off their chances.  Glasgow’s back line did look classy at times though and is likely to become more of a threat as the Champions Cup gets to the business end of the tournament.  Glasgow and Scotland backs Peter Horne, Mark Bennett and the irrepressible Stuart Hogg are all forces to be reckoned with, even though the Warriors must be regretting the departure of one of the World Cup’s stars in Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe.  Lastly Finn Russell at fly half has youth and talent both working in his favour, and he will only get better as the tournament progresses.

For those looking to Scotland’s fortunes in the Six Nations, there will have been plenty to get excited about especially the already mentioned back line talents and skills that Glasgow boasts.  Considering that much of Scotland’s forward pack such as David Denton, Richie Gray, John Hardie and WP Nel are plying their trade with other clubs in the competition, means that Glasgow’s slightly underwhelming performance up front at times in this match should not be a cause for concern when it comes to February.  Furthermore once they settled into their stride, Johnny Gray and Josh Strauss put in a commendable shift in the forwards department last weekend for Glasgow.  How well Glasgow will be able to translate their PRO12 successes of last year into results in this year’s Champions Cup remains to be seen, and to be honest given the form of the English teams this year it would seem unlikely that they will get beyond the quarter-finals stage.  Nevertheless, they will be a difficult challenge for any of their opponents especially at home and despite having only one team represented in this competition there is no doubt that Scottish rugby has a new-found heart and is very much alive and well!

With the World Cup well and truly behind us, we turn our attention to the European Champions Cup which got underway this weekend.  As we did last year, during the Pool stages of the competition we take a look at the efforts of the teams from a particular country each weekend as we try to get an idea of how their Six Nations campaigns may unfold.  This weekend we start with Italy, which makes it a short post as they only have one team, Benetton Treviso, representing them in the competition.  Treviso took on Munster at Fortress Thomond Park, which always meant they were going to be up against it in one of Irish rugby’s strongholds.

Munster vs Treviso
Final Score – Munster 32/Treviso 7
Thomond Park, Limerick

In fairness to Treviso, despite their woeful record in this year’s PRO 12 competition, they came to Ireland full of intent this weekend and determined to play. To give them credit, despite the appalling conditions of driving rain and howling winds, they acquitted themselves well in the first half and surely must have felt quite pleased heading into the changing rooms trailing Munster by only 3 points at 10-7 down. However, it was a second half performance which sadly epitomised the gulf between the sides and the struggles Italian sides are having in European competitions.

From the outset this was always going to be a challenging game for both sides, as the Munster faithful huddled in the stands at Thomond Park while the elements sought to frustrate any chances of a fast paced running game.  The wind swirled around the park causing any kind of kicking to often be a complete game of chance.  Meanwhile the slippery ground and wet conditions made ball handling skills come at a premium and it was here that Munster clearly had the edge over their Italian counterparts.  Munster wisely chose to keep the ball close for much of the game and resort to driving mauls, while the commendable but often adventurous play by Treviso was not backed up by the skill set needed for the prevailing conditions.

Treviso, while having all sorts of problems in execution when it came to their attacking game did manage to put up a strong defensive showing in the first half despite the appalling conditions and the fact that Munster were dominating the territory and possession statistics.  Fortunately for Treviso the conditions were not helping Munster either and a handling error cost Munster one try while some superb last-ditch defence by Treviso caused Munster’s Keith Earls to miss what would have been another certain five points.

However, as the conditions took their toll both physically and mentally as Treviso lost their Captain and key source of inspiration in flanker Alessandro Zanni in the first half, you knew it was going to turn into a long eighty minutes for the Italians.  Furthermore, as the first half ended crucial lapses in discipline, which only got worse in the second half, would make life even harder for the Italians.  In short, the Italians were outmuscled and in the second half completely outplayed by a Munster team familiar with what it takes to get results in this competition.  There was something to cheer about for the Italians when South African number eight Abraham Steyn, in a show of individual brilliance charged down a kick from Munster’s fly half Ian Keatley and showed some impressive football skills as he kicked the loose ball through the posts and managed to just get enough downward pressure on it as player and ball slid out of play.  However, apart from some good work in defence in the first half and Steyn’s solo heroics there wasn’t much to get excited about from a Treviso perspective.

While it is still early days in the tournament after only just one round, given Treviso’s performance in the PRO 12 and the fact that they are sitting firmly at the bottom of the table in that competition, it would appear unlikely that there are going to be any miracles in the near future in terms of an Italian Renaissance in European Champions Cup rugby.  With Treviso having to face England’s Leicester in the next round of the European Champions Cup the task is only going to get progressively harder.  This sadly will only raise once more the questions regarding the merit and justification of an automatic placement of Italian teams in the tournament as opposed to teams from emerging European rugby powers such as Georgia and Romania in particular.  On the basis of what we saw this weekend and in the PRO12 so far this season, unless some dramatic changes happen soon it will be increasingly hard for sides like Treviso or other Italian teams to justify their place in an increasingly competitive European landscape.  I am not saying that Italy is without talent or hope for the future as both are there, it just doesn’t seem to be being managed properly.  For the sake of Italy’s place in bigger tournaments like the Six Nations, one can only hope that there are more answers than questions and sooner rather than later!

In a match where everyone predicted that the international juggernaut known as Toulon would carve their place in history by winning the European Championship three years in a row, there were very few surprises.  While we may not have got much of a sense of what the World Cup may look like from a French perspective by watching Toulon, we got a very clear indication that if they get the coaching right at the national level there is much on offer from Clermont.  Although Clermont have their fair share of star internationals, the core of this team and its strengths is distinctly French and as we saw last weekend, when it clicks and fires in the right order holds plenty of promise and excitement.  French rugby is very much alive and while there are a myriad of issues at the national management level there is plenty to draw on from the club level.

Clermont Auvergne vs Toulon
Saturday, May 2nd
Twickenham

First off while many thought that the anomaly of playing an all French final for this year’s competition would make Twickenham’s vast space seem rather empty, we were for the most part proved wrong.  Yes there were a lot of empty seats but there was still a sizeable presence of ardent Clermont and Toulon faithful despite the logistical expense of getting there.  Hardcore members of the Yellow Army were evident throughout the stands complete with drums and horns and the Toulon faithful made sure they were able to match the noise.  In short, there was more than an enough of an atmosphere to set the tone for a tense final full of tension and spectacle.

Ultimately there were few surprises in the final result despite a spirited comeback from Clermont in the final quarter.  The collective experience of Toulon’s all-star team was enough to get them through the pressure points and keep Clermont in check.  The debate about foreign players detracting from the true nature of a club competition such as this will rage long after the final whistle and is a worthwhile debate but on the day the better team won.  Furthermore in the professional era, while I do think there needs to be some control on foreign player numbers lest our great game starts on the slippery road that European football has taken, it is inevitable that players and clubs will seek out the most rewarding opportunities available, particularly given a player’s relatively short playing career in the top echelons of world rugby.  Anyway enough said and back to the actual game.

Despite all the concern that the game for all intents and purposes was a dress rehearsal for a possible French domestic final, I found that the match had plenty to offer for a neutral spectator such as myself looking to see some high quality international rugby.  Clermont, as everyone predicted they would, took the game to Toulon right from the get go, initially scoring from penalty kicks as relentless and quick Clermont attacks forced Toulon into defensive errors.  You could tell that there were nerves aplenty when one of Clermont’s opening three pointers came from an uncharacteristic error from Toulon’s Leigh Halfpenny.  France and Clermont’s Wesley Fofana who has rediscovered some blistering form in the last few months just in time for the World Cup was first to score a try for Clermont as they had been threatening to do all first quarter.

Throughout the first half, Clermont looked the team that wanted this the most and within the first half hour a comfortable 11-3 lead looked like the pendulum was finally going to swing in their favour and make this third attempt at silverware the lucky one.  However, the international brains trust at Toulon regrouped and quickly struck back, first through the boot of Halfpenny and then French battering ram aka centre Mathieu Bastareaud took advantage of a wayward kick from Clermont’s Nick Abendanon and smashed over the try line from out wide.  All of a sudden Abendanon who has been one of the out-and-out stars of this European season wasn’t looking so good under pressure.

You could tell that the legacy of England World Cup winner Johnny Wilkinson at Toulon had made Toulon the firm favourites of the English spectators at Twickenham as evidenced by the singing of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” at key moments in the match for Toulon. Toulon made sure they honored this and as the second half got underway they steadily asserted their dominance over Clermont who suddenly looked overwhelmed and appeared to be running out of ideas as they faced the prospect of being rugby’s ultimate runners-up yet again. However, just when you thought it was all over for Clermont and their Yellow Army, they suddenly found the spark they needed and came back hard in an enthralling fifteen minutes of rugby in the last quarter. Obviously feeling enormous remorse for his error at the end of the first half and determined to make his presence felt and noticed by English selectors in attendance at Twickenham, Englishman Nick Abendanon scored one of the most sublime tries of the entire tournament. Habana made a mess of a clearance for Toulon, that was eagerly picked up by Abendanon who then made the perfect chip into space for himself to pick up on and score right between the posts after some masterful weaving through Toulon defences. His vision and presence of mind in short were breathtaking. Clermont were right back in contention at 1 point behind as Toulon held the match at 19-18. Was history about to be written in Clermont’s favour?

Obviously not to be outdone by Abendanon’s magic, Australia’s Drew Mitchell decided to show some flair of his own after Toulon dominated the restart. Skipping his way from almost the halfway mark Mitchell managed to evade six Clermont tackles and put Toulon back in the driving seat. Nevertheless there were still only five points in it and Clermont could still pull off a miracle and for the remainder of the match they pulled out all the stops to do so.  A blistering run from Mike Delany had many believing it was about to happen. However, Toulon were simply too experienced and clinical at the breakdown and ultimately did enough to just keep Clermont away from the try line. In the end whether it was nerves or exhaustion or probably a combination of the two, Clermont fluffed one or two key opportunities including missing a kick to touch which would have given them a lineout in the Toulon 22 with minutes left on the clock. Toulon by comparison held their nerve and just looked the part. They knew they were about to make history and did enough to make sure that the spotlight would focus squarely on them when Nigel Owens blew the final whistle for a game that had provided plenty of spectacle and excitement.

It’s been a great season in Europe and provided us all with much food for thought and hours of debate in pubs and bars across the continent at both the Six Nations and European Champions Cup level. As we head into the World Cup and focus our attention on the Southern Hemisphere international competitions, Super Rugby and the Rugby Championship, there can be little doubt that this season has provided the Six Nations sides with some superb preparation. England, Wales and Ireland are looking very strong and as evidenced particularly by Clermont there is cause for some healthy optimism in France. There is still plenty of work to do but also much to build on. Europe is strong and is increasingly playing the kind of rugby that can provide a challenge to the try scoring abilities of their Southern Hemisphere opponents. The World Cup is looking better and better with every replay!

As the Lineout, spends its last two weeks in Europe before setting up shop in the Southern Hemisphere until August and preparations for the World Cup, we look at the upcoming inaugural European Champions Cup Final between Clermont Auvergne and Toulon.  Although this clash perhaps lacks the international nature of the competition in that it is between two French sides and also ironically is likely to be a dress rehearsal for the final of the French domestic competition, it nevertheless holds plenty of interest and the potential for a fast and exciting contest.  As with most French teams the international aspect of rugby is well represented particularly in the case of Toulon, which is essentially a World XV, but even Clermont has a strong international flavour to its composition in the form of Jonathan Davies, Nick Abendanon, Jamie Cudmore and Brock James.  However, of the two sides one could argue that Clermont is easily the most French in composition and for all those watching to see what France’s World Cup squad should look like, there surely must be a lot to be excited about in the case of Clermont.

Clermont-Auvergne vs Toulon
Saturday, May 2nd
Twickenham

As mentioned above, despite the fact that only one country of the six nations competing in this year’s inaugural European Champions Cup is represented in this year’s final, it still holds much to look forward to.  The fact that it is an all French final in Twickenham of all places, the spiritual heart of English rugby also provides us with plenty to think about.  Will Clermont’s fervent Yellow Army of supporters turn up and raise the sound barrier at Twickenham?  Will the fact that Toulon boasts some stellar English players such as Delon and Stefon Armitage along with Johnny Wilkinson’s legacy at the club, be enough to bring enough English fans to the game to fill Twickenham’s vast space?  Either way, if people think that just because it is an all French final being played in England makes it not worth watching, they are likely to be sadly mistaken.  These are two giants of the international club rugby scene who are both trying to make history on Saturday.  Clermont to lift the European trophy for the first time after so many times finishing second in Europe, while Toulon aim to make history and be the first team to ever wear the European crown three years in a row.  It doesn’t get much more intense than this!

Despite Toulon’s massive international firepower, I can’t help feeling that the day may ultimately swing in Clermont’s favour.  While Toulon may boast the likes of Bakkies Botha and Ali Williams, both these players are at the end of their careers, and this is Springbok legend Botha’s last ever professional appearance.  Although they may be at the end of their careers rest assured that they will want to end on a high.  While some of Toulon’s international all-stars may be at the end of their careers, others such as Wales’ Halfpenny are showing some of their best form in years.  Add to this proven danger men such as South Africa’s Bryan Habana; the Armitage pair particularly Stefon who surely will be the focus of attention by England’s selectors despite the ban on foreign based players, and the likes of Juan Smith, Matt Giteau and Argentina’s Lobbe and Hernandez make this is a formidable team to beat.  Despite this though from what I have seen Toulon is beatable and especially in the second half.  Clermont has more youthful energy on their side and their blistering try scoring ability in this tournament, through the likes of Abendanon, Fofana and Nakaitaci will be a serious challenge to Toulon if they start to falter.

From a French perspective Clermont is the most interesting side to watch as they have more French content than Toulon and there are already a raft of French players sticking their hand up for selection for the World Cup.  Parra, Chouly, Debaty, Lopez, Fofana and Nakaitaci are all players who surely will be part of Phillipe Saint-Andre’s plans come September.

The battle of the two Australian fly-halves will be fascinating.  Toulon’s Matt Giteau is already being touted as getting the nod for the World Cup, and Clermont’s Brock James, while unlikely to make the cut for the Wallabies is nevertheless showing some serious form at the moment.  However, under pressure my money would be on Giteau to win the battle here, unless replacement fly half for Clermont Camille Lopez can make some much-needed inroads alongside Morgan Parra later in the match.

In the forward battle the contest between two of rugby’s most famous bad boys, Canadian Jamie Cudmore for Clermont and South Africa’s Bakkies Botha will be intense.  Botha is renowned for niggling the most disciplined of forwards and Cudmore probably has enough yellow cards to last him a lifetime.  However, in the semi-final game against Leinster, Cudmore showed more discipline than usual and knowing that Botha will be trying his best to rile him, if the big Canadian can keep his cool and lead his forwards by example then I think Clermont has the fitter and more structured forward pack.  Meanwhile Damien Chouly for Clermont is going to have his work cut out for him trying to contain Toulon’s irrepressible Stefon Armitage.  Armitage is on fire at the moment and is a one man wrecking machine when it comes to opposition forward attacking play.

One big question mark for Toulon is whether or not Frederic Michalak will be called off the bench. Either a massive liability or a game winner, Michalak was the former in the semi-final and the latter in the quarter-final. If I was coach Laporte I would err on the side of keeping him on the bench unless Giteau for some reason doesn’t fire, which given his current form is unlikely. For Clermont, it remains to be seen whether or not Camille Lopez can find the form he showed as Clermont’s starting flyhalf in the pool stages of the competition and which dramatically left him in his appearances for France in the Six Nations.

If it remains close to the final quarter, and Clermont is just ahead of Toulon in the try department then I would put my money on Clermont finally lifting the Cup. If Clermont are not scoring tries and the score is close in favour of Toulon come the last quarter then Clermont will be forced into chasing the game and here their relative lack of experience when matched against Toulon’s will probably be their undoing. However, I feel that Clermont has the edge in terms of pace and fitness, so unless Toulon can use their experience to tactically outplay them, then it will be Clermont’s day. It is unlikely that Clermont will be adventurous to the point that they start chucking risky passes to their exceptionally talented and quick backline, unless they end up chasing the game in the last twenty minutes. As we saw in the semi-final between Leinster and Toulon, if you start chasing the game against Toulon then you will make mistakes and the likes of Habana and co will make you pay dearly for them.

In short, I think that if Clermont can strike hard fast and quick and establish and early lead and then use their forwards to consolidate it for 60 minutes they have the potential to put Toulon in a position of having it all to do in the second half. Based on Toulon’s second half performances this year, if they are behind they can be beaten. Therefore expect Clermont to come out of the blocks firing for the first twenty minutes, hold the game for the middle forty minutes and then provide a killer finishing blow to a tired and rattled Toulon in the last quarter. I may be wrong, but Clermont by five at the end of the day – either way I think this will be 80 minutes worth watching!