A few observations after the Heineken Cup round one. It rains in France; not just rains, but pours...and pours. Saturday and Sunday saw a persistent downpour and with it the prospects of Munster and Leicester sink a little.
Munster would surely have beaten a mediocre but committed Racing Metro had the sun been as bright as it was twenty hours earlier. Under Rob Penney they are sworn to metamorphose from the streetwise Munster of old to a northern hemisphere version of Canterbury, the breeding ground for much of the best of New Zealand rugby.
In time Penney may improve Munster but the switch from what has been to what has yet to be could be painful on the evidence of Saturday's loss. The irony is that the awful elements demanded the old Munster game with tight driving forward play and tactical kicking of the highest order. And for the first quarter of the game Munster delivered with a dominant set piece and Ronan O' Gara stroking the ball quite perfectly.
Care is benefitting from the speed, structure and intelligence of the Harlequins around him whilst Youngs is struggling to look the part after injury.
Quotes of the week
At 10-3 Paul O' Connell dropped a ball over the try line and 10-3 quickly became 10-10 as O' Gara threw a speculation pass from way too deep in those conditions. A fly hack later and the door was suddenly open for Racing and this Munster team was incapable of slamming it back in their faces.
It did not help that O' Gara left the field with a hamstring injury but even before the pass he had been chipping kicks from his own twenty-two which should have been finding distant corners in the opposing half. Munster really should have won this one but the naive rugby cost them. We haven't said that too often.
Leicester didn't lose because of the rain. All available evidence suggests they would have been beaten more comfortably still by Toulouse on a dry day. It was a gloomy day for the Tigers. They, like Munster, were naive in the manner in which they conceded sloppy penalties and the positions from which they attacked Toulouse and handed over scoring positions which Luke McAlister kicked and the 18-year-old superstar in waiting, Gael Fickou exploited with a well taken try.
Naive was the least of their problems. In England the Tigers use the scrum as a failsafe option. When the rest of their game is malfunctioning they can pretty much resort to the scrum as an area of control against any other English side. In the last few weeks of the Premiership their scrum has been terrific but Toulouse are a level up and beat the Tigers at their own game.
This has been a perennial problem for Premiership clubs; the inability to work out how to win when others negate their strengths. It is a traditional weakness of the national side as well in all bar the Clive Woodward years. Northampton came through with a powerful last fifty minutes at home to Glasgow but the Scots scared them for a half hour in which their off-loading game had the Saints flustered until their potent combination of Manu Samoa and Samu Manoa overwhelmed a team who will not qualify but could prove king breakers in Glasgow.
One Englishman to impress was Courtney Lawes whose partnership with the San Franciscan, Manoa is massively impressive. His line-out work is gathering momentum and his defensive work is dynamite. He will - if fit - be in the England locking position come November.
Whether Ben Youngs will is a matter of major conjecture. I have never hidden the fact that I have always preferred the Tiger to Care but when the facts change so must opinions. Care is benefitting from the speed, structure and intelligence of the Harlequins around him whilst Youngs is struggling to look the part after injury.
He was up against a powerful Toulouse pack, a superb back row and foul conditions but the two pace delay was a constant opportunity for Toulouse to snag him. His decision to run a certain three point kick in the second half has garnered the headlines but it is his technique and sharpness that is the real concern. With November rushing upon us, Care has to be the favourite for the England number nine shirt.
Cameo for Cipriani
Danny Cipriani will definitely not perform at Twickenham this autumn but he did produce a superb cameo from the bench for Sale to come from a long way behind to beat Cardiff Blues and their own hat trick hero, Alex Cuthbert (who is right in the Lions selection mix).
Cipriani for the Lions? It sounds like hyperbole and right now that is exactly what it is but that does not mean his elegant running, passing and support game should be dismissed. If he can play like this with the ball in hand week after week he would have to re-enter the international equation because he possesses class. Now he has to tackle and get his other bits right. If he could match the talent with the management of his game Sale might just have done themselves and maybe England a favour.
This is not a call for selection for England or any such nonsense. That is way too early but it is acknowledgement that he has something no other English ten possesses on the front foot. He has taken plenty of media bashing so let's not be scared to offer some praise for once. Wilko versus Danny when Toulon faces Sale; the tabloid match up of the rugby year is again possible.
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Slow start for Leinster?
Hi Stuart, As a Leinster Season Ticket holder I was at the RDS on Saturday for the Exeter Chiefs game and I was very impressed by their Multi-dimensional attacking play, they were indeed unlucky not to get at least a draw. That said however over the last few seasons Leinster have been at their most vulnerable in the opening game (Montpellier 2011, London Irish 2009) and both times gone on to improve quickly and win the tournament. Do you think this year will be similar or are all the injuries and age catching up with us and we will struggle to get out of the group?
STUART REPLIES: John, You might struggle to get out of the group but only because it is a difficult one. Leinster remain strong contenders. As for Exeter, Rob Baxter talks up the old work ethic etc etc but as you saw, there is a lot more to them than that. They are an excellent team of support runners to name one unmentioned facet of their game.
As an avid fan of Welsh rugby I was frustrated to see three regions lose and the Ospreys win a home game they were expected to. What hope do you see for the Welsh in Europe and how can it be turned around?
STUART REPLIES: Jamie, The size and power of forwards is an issue and whilst Wales can overcome it by merging the best of the best they struggle with the depth of tight five forwards (a little like Wallaby rugby). Most of the big name forwards have gravitated to the Ospreys who I see as serious contenders in their pool with Toulouse and Leicester.
Foreign coaches for Scotland
Given that Edinburgh were annihilated by a pretty average Saracens side and have now lost five on the bounce with the coach complaining that his side did not stick to his game plan. Whilst Gregor Townsend travelled with only two backs on the bench and watched his team squander a 15-point lead to go down against Northampton. Is it time for the SRU to bring in professional coaches from abroad?
STUART REPLIES: One game's evidence is a little hasty, don't you think Adam. At least see a season out before blaming the coaches and bringing in overseas coaches who are not necessarily better simply for not being Scottish. Edinburgh did, after all, make last season's semi-finals.
Hi Stuart, Why does it take Andy Hazel to see red and take matters into his own hands before everyone starts talking about referees not picking up on eye gouging? I'm not saying what Andy was right but let's be fair that Mont de Marsan player could have robbed him of his sight and his career. How would you feel in the same situation if it was repeatedly happening and the ref is not dealing it?
STUART REPLIES: Jeff, there are some things that - despite the persistent tones of us commentators - should not but can be condoned. If someone gouges you and you fear for your eyesight a savage reaction is understandable. Referees cannot say 'leave it to me' when gouging often happens in the dark places. I cannot comment on the specific incident with Andy Hazel because I saw, like the referee, nothing in the way of gouging but I have watched Hazel many years and when I saw him flip, guessed something had happened to incite the red mist. Cause and effect should be at the forefront of our minds before delivering sometimes hasty judgements.
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Steve Norman says...
Great call on the Toulouse centre Fickou. Any other bolters for the Autumn Ineretnationals/6 Nations?
Posted 23:54 18th October 2012
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