CASTRES, FRANCE – The usually cagey-to-the-point-of-revealing-nothing Jonny Wilkinson has said that Toulon are out to win every game in this season’s Heineken Cup.
In an interview with French sports journal L’Equipe, he said: “It’s not because we’re arrogant, it’s just a matter of attitude. We believe we can win every game we play.”
He heaped more bad news on Cardiff Blues, who welcome the defending champions to their plastic-pitched Arms Park on Saturday, by revealing that the hand injury that forced him off the field after half an hour of their 51-28 victory over Glasgow Warriors last Sunday isn’t serious and that he should be fit for selection.
Lord Wilko’s sentiments have been echoed by Matt Giteau, who says Toulon are determined to retain their title.
Even without Wilkinson – or South African scrum-half Michael Claassen, who is injured – Toulon have such ridiculous strength in depth that they should head back to the south of France at the top of Pool 2, having recorded a second bonus-point victory.
Two other Top 14 sides must also start as hot favourites to win their second Heineken Cup outing this season. First, Clermont entertain stuttering Harlequins.
No matter that Vern Cotter’s side lost a close encounter of the dour kind at Racing Metro last week; or that they’ll be without Morgan Parra who has been banned for four weeks for punching during a Top 14 game against Bordeaux; or the fact that they have been a shadow of the side that swept almost all before them last season – at least until it really matters. This game is at Stade Marcel Michelin. You know… Where Clermont haven’t lost since November 2009, 64 games ago.
If Quins ship tries like they did at home to Scarlets last week, it’s unlikely they will break that record – and if the good ol’ Williams boys of the Pro12 side can slice them apart at The Stoop, just imagine what Forfana and Sivivatu can do on home soil.
Montpellier, meanwhile, welcome Ulster to Stade Yves du Manoir – where they have already beaten Toulouse and Clermont this season. Forget the fact that Ulster beat Leicester at Ravenhill last week. This is a different kettle of crawdads.
Fabien Galthie’s side, guided by scrum-half Jonathan Pelissie and born-again fly-half Francois Trinh-Duc, have been breathtaking at home this season. Add the fact that they’re likely to be up to 7kg (15lbs) a man heavier in the pack, and it looks increasingly likely that this will be a tough day at the office for the Northern Irish.
Tougher to call are the four other matches involving Top 14 sides. Until last weekend, pundits would have put the mortgage money on Perpignan putting up a big score at home to pro-12 basement side Edinburgh – but that was before the visitors’ seismic win over Munster. It’s still most likely that Perpignan, for whom James Hook is in imperious form, will pick up four points – but it will be closer than many would have predicted 10 days ago.
Racing Metro brought the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup competition to a close last Sunday with a hard-fought win over Clermont in Colombes, where they handled the triple-threat of Parra, man of the match Sivivatu and Forfana well.
They face a similar task this week – just replace the names Parra, Sivivatu and Forfana with Williams, Williams and… erm… Williams as they face Scarlets at Parc y Scarlets. Without the benefit of home advantage, the French side will probably struggle to contain the swaggering, swashbuckling trio.
Meanwhile, Toulouse head to Wembley to face Saracens. The four-time Heineken Cup winners enjoyed a relatively easy opener at home to Zebre, but have been indifferent at best away from Ernest Wallon this season.
The Premiership side, meanwhile, had a major scare on the road at Connacht. After that game, it’s likely the home side will just want this game more, while Guy Noves will be happy enough with a bonus point.
Pool 1 is so tough there can be only one qualifier. Three-time champions Leinster will want to erase the memory of their failure to reach the knockout phases of last season’s competition by making sure it’s them.
But this week they face mercurial Castres at the RDS. Last week, the Top 14 champions defended, tackled, intercepted and fought their way to a 19-13 win over Northampton at Stade Pierre Antoine – but like their great Midi-Pyrenees rivals, Toulouse, they have yet to win away from home this season.
The Dublin side are bound to start as favourites… but this one will be tense.
Following their defeat at Ravenhill last week, Leicester will be pleased to be back at Welford Road. They will be even more pleased to face Treviso – a side that should hold no fears. The Italians gave as good as they got in the opening period at home to Montpellier last week, but ran out of steam after an hour. That does not bode well for their second Heineken Cup outing this season.
The competition’s other Italian representatives, Zebre, welcome Pro12 rivals Connacht. Both sides need a win after losing their opening clashes, but Pat Lam’s Irishmen will have more reasons to be cheerful after their performance against Saracens.
It should set them in good stead to pick up a more-than-useful away win.
Life gets no easier for the fourth Irish side in the Heineken Cup, Munster. They were expected to win big at Edinburgh last week – and didn’t. This week, they’re back at Thomond Park, where they entertain Gloucester – a side buoyed by their 27-22 victory over Perpignan.
Thomond may not be the fortress it once was, but expect a home win as the side from southwest Ireland look to right last week’s perceived rugby wrong.
The two Pool 1 sides that lost last week, Northampton and Ospreys, meet at Franklin’s Gardens. Saints’ coach Jim Mallinder was annoyed by his side’s performance at Castres, but the fact remains they were turned over 25 times. Chances are a lot of work has gone on ball retention at the breakdown this week, so expect a more clinical performance as the Saints’ fans roar them on.
All of which just leaves Glasgow against Exeter at Scotstoun. Both sides played their parts in big-scoring games last weekend. Exeter scored 41 points in a scintillating opening-half performance against Cardiff, during which time they only had to make 14 tackles. Then, however, they barely bothered to come out of the changing room for the second half, eventually winning 44-29. Glasgow, meanwhile, picked themselves up from 34-0 down at halftime against Toulon to pick up a bonus point for scoring four tries in a 51-28 defeat.
Here’s hoping both sides decide to play for 80 minutes, as this one could be high-scoring end-to-end stuff.
That’s it for now… feel free to comment below, look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter @: RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, DJ Eberle, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Cody Kuxmann and Declan Yeats, respectively.