San Diego, CA – We are officially halfway through the pool stages of the European Rugby Champions Cup. For many, knockout qualification remains alive as play-off rugby nears and becomes a realizable goal. For others, the dream of European glory has already faded into nonexistence, leaving clubs with nothing to play for but their pride, honour and dignity. The second leg of the back-to-back home-and-away series weekends kicks off this Friday with Racing 92 taking on Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens in a rematch of their showdown last weekend at the Stade Yves-du-Manoir. How will each team adjust and prepare for Round 4 of the European Rugby Champions Cup? Dive in and explore last weekend’s recap and Expert Panel Picks & Records.
Round 4 Expert Pool Picks:
Round 3 Expert Picks Pool results at the bottom!
Saracens v Oyonnax
Last weekend’s result: Oyonnax 10 – 45 Saracens
Round 4 Matchup: Saturday, December 19, 2015 at Allianz Park, London
3 Stars of the Last Weekend’s Match:
1) Alex Goode – Saracens
2) Richard Wigglesworth – Saracens
3) Chris Wyles – Saracens
In Review: After three games in the European Rugby Champions Cup, Saracens have secured 15 points from 15 after bonus point victories. It was no different in France’s Plastic City last weekend as Saracens routed Oyonnax. Saracen started pressing the onion from the get go and work up 3–0 after seven minutes and subsequently 10–0 before the 20 minute mark after onion’s scrum-half and captain Fabian Cibray ran offside at a Saracens 5 m scrum, forcing Italian referee Marius Mitrea to whistle a penalty try for the visitors. The home side went on a short spell of good play, drawing three penalties in succession, only to be capitalised on once as fly half Rory Clegg missed two before slotting the third. After Clegg’s penalty, though, it was downhill for onion through the rest of the game. Saracens managed two scores before the half through sweeping scores from full-back Alex Goode and American winger Chris Wyles to make it 24–3 in favour of the visitors at the intermission. Shortly after break, the Sarries extended their lead through 48 and 49th minute tries from lock Maro Itoje and Scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, respectively. After Saracens made a good number of substitutions, the game became rather stagnant and eventually leaned towards onion’s favour when, in the 75th minute, replacement back Regis Lespinas powerful effort to cross the white wash. Even with the consolation try, Saracens continued to bash The onion line, eventually sending replacement prop Schalk Brits over for his first try of the campaign.
Looking Ahead: Saracens were, and have been, dominant throughout the entire game against onion. The efficiency of Wigglesworth at the breakdown has been key to Owen Farrell’s quick distribution to Brad Barrett and Marcelo Bosch, and will be key to Saracens’ performance in the return fixture against onion in London. Chris Wyles has been playing well on the wing as usual, making up for a run of mediocre performances from opposite wing Chris Ashton and the absence of David Strettle after his move to France last year. In the forwards, the Vunipola Brothers continue to grind out good performances for their club, inspiring similar performances from fellow Englishman Jamie George and Jim Hamilton. Looking ahead to this weekend’s fixture, head coach Mark McCall doesn’t need to do much other than make sure his side continue quality form even after substituting his starting players. As for onion, their performance in front of nearly 9000 home fans was utterly disappointing, the few positives stemming from the fixture’s last five minutes. Fabian Cibray cannot afford to give away penalty tries like the one he gave away last weekend that opened the floodgates for Saracens attackers. Even then, his infringement only came after his side’s pack was a obliterated did at the scrum, and area of the game that onion cannot afford to consider in the return fixture this weekend. I wouldn’t expect anything too different from last weekend folks. Saracens are on a run of form only paralleled by that of Leicester, and are serious title contenders at the stage.
Toulouse v Ulster
Last weekend’s result: Ulster 38 – 0 Toulouse
Round 4 Matchup: Sunday, December 20, 2015 at Stade Ernest Wallon, Toulouse
3 Stars of the Last Weekend’s Match:
1) Ruan Pienaar – Ulster
2) Chris Henry – Ulster
3) Rory Best – Ulster
In Review: Simply put, Ulster were brilliant. The French side never really got a grip on the game, and after only 20 minutes we are worn down to the point where Ulster were ready to inflicted maximum damage. In chronological order, Nick Williams, Andrew Trimble, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, and Chris Henry alright over the white wash for tries to secure a vital bonus point victory for the Irish problems in Belfast against one of your’s most successful clubs. Headlines read “Ulster stun Toulouse” and “Ulster shock Toulouse”, and rightfully so considering the dominance and brilliance of the Ulstermen in the demolition of the four-time champions at Ravenhill.
Looking Ahead: Neil Doak needs to do one thing as head coach of Ulster rugby ahead of Sunday’s fixture in France: warn his side of complacency after such a smashing defeat. I don’t see any changes made to the Ulster squad before Sunday. Even in saying that, the Ulster replacements were a big part of the province’s dominance last weekend, and will need to be once again this coming Sunday. As for Ugo Mola and his Toulouse side, they’ll need to dig deep and find something in them to arouse the beast within. The French club is dangling in third place in pool one with one win from three games and are yet to see where they will stand after ulster and onion play their postponed match. I do know Toulouse will not go down without a fight, but whether that fight will be big enough to topple Ulster is still up in the air.
ASM Clermont Auvergne v Exeter Chiefs
Last weekend’s result: Exeter 31 – 14 Clermont
Round 4 Matchup: Sunday, December 20, 2015 at the Stade Marcel-Michelin, Clermont
3 Stars of Last Weekend’s Match:
1) Tom Waldrom – Exeter
2) Don Armand – Exeter
3) Gareth Steenson – Exeter
In Review: Who would have predicted this?! In one of, if not the, most famous victories in both
Exeter Chief and European Rugby Champions Cup history, The Exeter Chiefs scored a marvellous bonus point victory over two time consecutive European Rugby Champions Cup runners up, Clermont Auvergne. In front of newly appointed England head coach, Eddie Jones, the game started off in landslide favour for the visiting French club, with two tries from centres Hosea Gear and Audrelien Rougerie in the 8th and 18 minutes, respectively, pushing the score out to 14–3 with convergence from fly half Morgan Parra before the 20 minute mark. The momentum rapidly shifted in Exeter’s favour before the break, sending wave after wave at the Claremont defensive line and eventually breaking through as Tom Waldron charged through a swath of yellow shirts to bring the gap to only four points in the visitor’s favour going into the break. The opening 25 minutes after the break we are back and forth as the two sides tested each other with great attacking moves well the other successfully defended and mounted attacks of their own. With a quarter of an hour left in the game, Chiefs fallback Phil Dollman ended up in the bin for cynically killing the ball at the ruck, next to the chagrin of the Exeter faithful. Just as it began to look grim for the home side, Clermont flanker Peceli Yato decided he was ready for the sin bin and took a swing at Exeter’s Will Chudley, levelling the sides at 14 men. The Chiefs roared into life in the last 10 minutes, scoring a try a piece through Don Armond and lock Mitch Lees to wrap up an amazing bonus point victory.
Looking Ahead: Of all the amazing rematches taking place this weekend in the European Rugby Champions Cup, the return fixture between Exeter and Claremont is definitely the most hard to decipher and posture about. The Chiefs were fantastic no doubt, but will they be able to bring that same form into one of the most daunting arenas in world rugby? Head coach Rob Baxter has a huge task ahead of him in naming the squad to play this weekend’s return fixture. Tom Waldrom will once again be the key to victory in France for the Aviva Premiership side. He has been phenomenal up and down the pitch and inspired fellow forwards Damian Welch and Julian Salvi to coincidental rousing performances. The combination of Ian Whitten, Jack Knowell and Ollie Woodburn but perfectly in the quilling the attacking force of Gear and Rougerie in the final three quarters of the game, and they will be instrumental in keeping the claim on backs out of the try zone on in France on Sunday. As for Claremont, the performances of prop Thomas Domingo and lock Paul Jedresiak were iffy at best and need improvement to see through victory on Sunday. No doubt Claremont will come out fired up after last week’s drubbing, but will they have the firepower to be a spirited Exeter side
Glasgow Warriors v Llanelli Scarlets
Last weekend’s result: Glasgow 43 – 6 Scarlets
Round 4 Matchup: Saturday, December 19, 2015 at Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli
3 Stars of the Last Weekend’s Match:
1) Taqele Naiyaravoro – Glasgow
2) Duncan Weir – Glasgow
3) James Malcolm – Glasgow
In Review: Steamrolling performances were the norm in Pool 3 last weekend as the Glasgow Warriors trounced the Scarlets at Scotstoun. Surprisingly, though, the game was wide open at the break after a first half that saw the score only 10-3 in Glasgow’s favour. The Scarlet’s defence was resolute throughout the first half, repulsing wave after wave of Glasgow attack and catching a break from the TMO after Glasgow winger, Taqele Naiyaravoro, had a try disallowed for stepping in touch. The Warriors were only able to break through on points through a converted try and a penalty all from fly half Duncan Weir. The game looks even more open after the break when Scarlets fly half, Steve Shingler, close to the Gap to 4 points after a sloppy penalty on Leone Nakarawa. Eventually, after yet another onslaught by the Glasgow forwards, the Scarlets defence burst wide open and haemorrhaged points throughout the remainder of the game. The party started with a try from a driving lineout scored by debutante hooker James Malcolm, and continued with a hat-trick of scores from Australian winger Taqele Naiyaravoro. Naiyaravoro, a 6′ 5″, 275 pound Aussie-born beast, collected his hat-trick after firstly barrelling through three Scarlets players on route to the try line, secondly collecting a perfectly waited Finn Russell crossfield kick, and thirdly after a superb individual effort on the end of and Alex Dunbar line break. Apart from Steve Shingler’s two penalties in the game, the Scarlets were nowhere to be found, their laundry list of injuries forcing them to do little more than stay on the defensive.
Looking Ahead: Taqele Naiyaravoro and the rest of the Glasgow Warriors were sublime in the second half, producing a cracking performance that would have left any team in the European Rugby Champions Cup in the dust. There exempted confidence and charisma, shredding through their Scarlets defence with well worked training pitch players and moments of individual brilliance. Even the substitutes were able to come on and make an impact, most notably through Tom Swinson and his last-minute tried to put the icing on a five try, 43 point cake. But, setting the second-half performance aside, the Warriors were held to a measly 10 points against a Scarlets side missing the likes of Welsh internationals Ken Owens, Jake Ball, Rob Evans and Aaron Shingler, Scottish flanker John Barclay, and Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe. Looking ahead to Saturday’s rematch in Wales, head coach Gregor Townsend must demand that his side play alert and prepared from the opening whistle and is not from the beginning of the second half, A luxury that the Warriors will not be able to afford against both the better teams in the group and the teams that lay in the periphery pools. Most of all, Jonny Gray needs to push his forwards for more urgency at the breakdown in the opening quarter of the match, an area that was noticeably lacklustre in the first few minutes of last weekend’s match. Even then, I wouldn’t anticipate very much change from Gregor Townsend going into Round 4. As for their Scarlets, their injury tally still poses a serious hindrance to putting points on the board. Flanker Tom Phillips, scrum-half Gareth Davies, and centre Gareth Owen all played their part in trying to bring the Scarlets attack to fruition, but the clinical defence from the Warriors ensured that Shingler’s two penalties would be the Welsh side’s only scores of the day. If the Scarlets are to have any remote hope of victory on Saturday, they HAVE to put more pressure on the sometimes iffy Warriors pack. Forwards Morgan Allen, Phil John, and Tom Price, need to be the leaders they were doing the World Cup period when they lead the Scarlets to the top of the Pro12. Unfortunately for the Scarlets, the room to improve is rather slim, but anticipate the addition of any of their World Cup stars to the roster if any come off of the injured list; it might make a big difference for the Scarlets if any one of their big names return!
Racing 92 v Northampton Saints
Last weekend’s result: Racing 33 – 3 Northampton Saints
Round 4 Matchup: Friday, December 18, 2015 at Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton
3 Stars of the Last Weekend’s Match:
1) Benjamin Tameifuna – Racing
2) Dan Carter – Racing
3) Joe Rokocoko – Racing
In Review: On a cold evening in Paris last Saturday, Racing 92 ripped Northampton to shreds with the essence and grace of true title contenders. They came out hungry, played with brutal intensity, and didn’t allow Northampton to hold the ball for extended periods of time. The Racing forwards laid much of the groundwork for victory early in the game, smashing through a feeble Northampton defence with monstrous efforts from front rowers was Eddy Ben Arous, Benjamin Tameifuna, and Dimitri Szarzewski. The onslaught of powerful forwards ball allowed Racing to continually break the gain line, giving Dan Carter and his well commanded backs the opportunity to attack on the front-foot, eventually breaking open the Northampton defence and putting through centre Henry Chavancy and fullback Brice Dulin for tries. Winger Rokocoko and, surprisingly, number eight Chris Masoe stayed wide for much of the game and gave the French club and attacking threat on the wing, and option that Racing used often in the beginning of the second half. As for Northampton, there won’t be much to look at positively ahead of this weekend’s rematch. Jim Mallinder’s men were easily been at the breakdown and lost momentum in the final third of the field because of unnecessary errors and miscues. The Northampton forwards were pushed around by the Racing pack on several occasions both at set pieces and in open play, and it eventually spelt out defeat for the visitors. Yes, they were missing some big names in the absence of Tom Wood and Dylan Hartley, but it was still no excuse for such a lacklustre performance.
Looking Ahead: For Racing head coaches, Laurent Travers and Laurent Labit, nothing too drastic needs to be done to their side looking ahead to Friday. Racing 92 were a quality outfit on both attack and defence, proving not only their right to be in the competition but also their place as one of the strongest side’s in the entire competition. The only performance that was mediocre, at best, was François van der Merwe’s, and even then his performance wasn’t bad enough to warrant a change for the return fixture at Franklin’s Gardens. Racing have to come into Friday’s match knowing that the Saints will throw caution to the wind in search of victory, and that Northampton will be seeking revenge for last year’s knockout stages when resting dismantled them at the Gardens. On the other side of the ball, Northampton needs a spark of intensity to propel a forward pack that, at times, was manhandled last weekend. Throughout both the domestic and European campaigns this year, the Saints have relied on the strength of their forwards to push them to victory, exemplified by strong pack performances in their first two European Rugby Champions Cup matches. Victor Matfield and Courtney Lawes were both uninfluential in Paris last weekend, and their efforts will need to be at the level you’d expect from men of their experience if they are to present a challenge their opponents. As far as the Northampton backs go, Jamie Elliott and JJ Hanahan we are both subpar and unable to defend against the likes of Rokocoko and Chavancy, and I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if they were to be replaced by Ah See Tuala and Stephen Myler, respectively. The Aviva Premiership side had their chances towards the end of the first half last weekend, but need a higher level of precision in the opponent’s half to give themselves a chance at putting up more points. Thankfully for Northampton, the return of George Pisi and James Wilson from injury will provide more depth for their send back line. The Saints have been in the position before where they followed up a proper undressing with a victory, the last time being there 2013–14 Heineken Cup against Leinster. Jim Mallinder’s men have never been ones to shy away from a challenge, and Friday night will provide the perfect opportunity to put them back in the running to top Pool 3.
Benetton Treviso v Stade Francais
Last weekend’s result: Treviso 17 – 50 Stade Francais
Round 4 Matchup: Saturday, December 19, 2015 at Stade Jean Bouin, Paris
3 Stars of the Last Weekend’s Match:
1) Paul Williams – Stade
2) Sergio Parisse – Stade
3) Samuel Christie – Treviso
In Review: Stade’s first win of their European Rugby Champions Cup campaign came in flying fashion with a statement victory over Treviso in Italy. The French onslaught began early and was merciless, as evidenced by Stade’s bonus point try in only the 22nd minute. Wingers Waisea Vuidarvuwalu and Julien Arias, and centre Paul Williams all went over for scores within the opening quarter of the game, with the bonus point try scored by hooker Sylvain Nicolas. Centre Herman Bosman joined in on the action before the half to make it 33–0 in the French club’s favour going into the break. The opening quarter after the break continued business as usual for the visitors, with captain Sergio Parisse joining in on the action before Paul Williams went over for his second and Stade’s final score of the game. Even with the score at 50–0 with 20 minutes left to play, Treviso, accustomed to being routed, quelled the visitors’ attack and managed to go on the offensive. It turned into a completely different game when Treviso went on the front foot, and imposing their will over Stade. Treviso centre, Samuel Christie, sprang to life and capitalised on complacency from the Stade backs, eventually giving the Italian club their first consolation score on the hour mark through a Samuel Christie break. Treviso, although unsuccessful, raced for a four try bonus point after two more scores from replacements Simone Ragusi and Marco Lazzaroni.
Looking Ahead: Treviso can do little more than damage control at this stage of the competition. They do not have the calibre and precision of play on par with Europe’s bigger clubs, and until they figure out a way to make do with the hodgepodge of homegrown and mid-level foreign players they have been using for the last several years, their position in Europe will not improve. The Italian side should be happy with their performance in the final quarter of the game last week and should focus on those 20 minutes as a guide to controlling Stade in Paris on Saturday. Stade Francais, on the other hand, cannot allow teams like Treviso the opportunity to stage comebacks and rally as Treviso did last weekend. Head coach, Gonzalo Quesada, must demand and 80 minute performance from his side if they are going to challenge the likes of Leicester (yes, Leicester is the top contender) or their fellow Top 14 rivals. If Stade A2C out victories against any of your’s more clinical sides, they’ll need match ups like Saturday’s against Treviso to sharpen the performance of oncoming replacements so that they don’t flounder in the latter stages of matches against confident sides. This weekend’s rematch between Treviso and Stade Francais will be nothing more than practice for the Parisians, but if they are to succeed in the European Rugby Champions Cup this year they will use this game as the testing ground for the match is that lie ahead.
Leicester Tigers v Munster
Last weekend’s result: Munster 19 – 31 Leicester
Round 4 Matchup call on Sunday, December 20, 2015 at Welford Road, Leicester
3 Stars of Last Weekend’s Match:
1) Brendan O’Connor
2) Lachlan McCaffrey
3) Ben Youngs
In Review: Thomond Park, Limerick was once the site of the longest winning streak in European championship rugby history, a more than 50 game streak that lasted from 1995 all the way through 2007. Who are the ones to break the streak? Yes, Leicester. In fact, Leicester are unbeaten at Thomond Park. Saturday was no different for the Tigers as they secured their second all time victory in Limerick with a rousing performance against a sagging Munster side. The opening moments of the game saw Leicester fly half, Owen Williams, put the Tigers ahead 3–0 after two minutes, only to be bettered by Ian Keatley’s two penalties to put Munster ahead 6–3 just past the quarter hour mark. Throughout the first half hour of the match, both sides tested the waters and had attacking opportunities, with Munster’s captain CJ Stander making a fantastic break only to be tackled inches short of the try line and Leicester’s Kiwi flanker Brendan O’Connor stopped just short of the line after receiving ruck ball 10 m from goal. The match broke open for Leicester in the 33rd minute when a driving maul at the 22 brought Leicester within inches of the try line, and after the ball was recycled wide to the left wing, Tigers winger Vereniki Goneva ran through a feeble challenge from Munsters, fly half Ian Keatley to put Leicester ahead by five points. Munster’s Niall Scannell rode a wave of errors and directly contributed to Leicester’s second try, overthrowing a pass intended for prop James Cronin that ended up in the hands of Leicester lock Michael Fitzgerald who barrelled over for an 18–6 lead for the visitors going into the break. The Irish province opened the second half in better fashion when Cronin touched the ball down after it rolled away from a defensive Tigers ruck right on their own goal line. Munster had yet another stroke of luck when Marcos Ayerza was binned for a late challenge on Conor Murray, with Keatley adding the penalty to Munster’s tally to make it 18-14 in the visitor’s favour. From there, though, Leicester took to the ascendancy and straight onto the Munster attempts at a comeback, with scrum-half Ben Youngs dashing off an undefended attacking ruck for a try and fly half Thomas Bell closing out the game with two successive penalties.
Looking Ahead: For me, this is the best Leicester side I have seen since the team that made it to the
2009 Heineken Cup final against Leinster. The addition of New Zealander Brendan O’Connor to the forwards and the blistering form of winger Vereniki Goneva have given the Tigers attacking options from both of their forwards and their backs, as well as encouraging leaders in defence. Head coach Richard Cockirell has seen his team vary in form in recent years, but he has his Aviva Premiership side vying for a top of the pool finish. The one thing Leicester need to improve on if they are to wrap up a trip to the knockouts is there vulnerability in the counter-attack. Several times last Sunday, Leicester were caught out of sorts after pressing forward too hard and is neglecting any sort of cover defence, allowing the likes of CJ Stander and Keith Earls to make long breaks that put Munster in dangerous attacking positions with chances to score. Don’t expect many changes for the return fixture at Welford Road for the Tigers. As for Munster, Head coach Anthony Foley must already be feeling the heat as his side are already looking up from the bottom of the barrel. Andrew Conway, fullback, had a shocker last Sunday with so many unforced errors that it’s hard to justify his replacement for the now retired Felix Jones. Munster have wavered between quality and lacklustre performance of the season, just as Leicester has, but the Irish province has not been as consistent as Leicester in containing the lacklustre performance is to one competition or another. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a replacement hooker Mike Sherry enter the starting XV for this weekend’s rematch after a solid performance of the bench and a try last week. Ian Keatley will obviously retain his starting position at 10, but he needs to be more accurate and clinical with his goalkicking if Munster are going to have any chance at scoring their second European Rugby Champions Cup victory. At this stage, I believe it’s do or die for Munster. I predict a spicier affair for Sunday at Welford Road.
Bath v London Wasps
Last weekend’s result: Wasps 23 – 25 Bath
Round 4 Matchup: Saturday, December 19, 2015 at The Recreation Ground, Bath
3 Stars of the Last Weekend’s Match:
1) Francois Louw – Bath
2) Matt Banahan – Bath
3) Niko Matawalu – Bath
In Review: Can you say squeaky bum time? On a night where both sides showed they were capable of leaving with all four victorious point, Bath were able to sneak away with a victory much in the fashion of New Zealand against Ireland in 2013. Wasps fly half, Ruirihd Jackson, opened the scoring through a fifth minute penalty, the game only to be levelled six minutes later as George Ford nailed a difficult penalty from 40 m out. The try scoring was started early as well as Bath went ahead after a turnover created by Bath lock Tom Ellis was sent wide to full-back Anthony Watson for the score. Wasps centre Elliot Daly smashed through a vital penalty from distance to bring the gap to 4 points, but Bath were too quick in scoring to keep the game close for long. Brilliant work between winger Matt Banahan and scrum-half Niko Matawalu saw Banahan cross the white wash to draw the visitors ahead. With two more Jackson penalties to draw the gap to 3 points going into the break, Wasps started the second period on the front foot. Lovely offloading interplay between Joe Launchbury and Elliot Daly saw fullback Rob Miller score in the corner in the 58th minute. With Wasps ahead 20–18, the game began devolving into errors and mistakes for the home side and started to turn in favour of the visitors. For the Londoners, the only respite from the barrages of Bath attackers was a jimmy got both penalty that pushed their lead to 5 points. Bath attacked mercilessly throughout the final seven minutes of the game, constantly drawing penalties within the Wasps 22 and eventually pushing referee Jerome Garces to send replacement hooker Lorenzo Cittadini and flanker George Smith to the bin for malicious infringement. With their opponents down to 13 men, Bath seized the opportunity four minutes into extra time after Anthony Watson easily crossed over the line of had a tattered Wasps defence.
Looking Ahead: To be honest, neither team had a stellar performance at the Ricoh Arena last weekend. On one hand, the Wasps were unable to stop a flowing Bath offence that eventually overpowered the Londoners for the victory. On the other hand, Bath were consistently drowned by errors and missed opportunities in the attacking third that could have seen through victory from an earlier, less worrying stage. For head coach Mike Ford, The performances of hooker Ross Batty, flanker Matt Garvey, and winger Samesa Rokonigundi where less than expected, and need to be improved upon if they are to continue in the starting XV. Bath were unable to capitalise on scoring opportunities because of mistakes at set pieces, and the forwards will know that they will need a momentous performance to read the victory in the return fixture. For Dai Young, the Wasps Head coach, the effort put forward by big men like Ashley Johnson and Nathan Hughes needs to rise from the level displayed last weekend. The Wasps were unable to score more tries because they were repeatedly being at the breakdown and will need to improve in this area if they are to have a better shot at regaining they’re firm standing at the top of Pool 5. The performance of the wasps backs, carried on the shoulders of Joe Simpson, held the Wasps in the game last week, and will look to a similar performance this weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if Alapati Leiua replaced Piutau on the left wing to give the Londoners a more nibble attacking threat on the blindside.
Leinster v RC Toulon
Last weekend’s result: Toulon 24 – 9 Leinster
Round 4 Matchup: Saturday, December 19, 2015 at Aviva Stadium, Dublin
3 Stars of the Last Weekend’s Match:
1) Steffon Armitage – Toulon
2) Eric Esconde – Toulon
3) Luke Fitzgerald – Leinster
In Review: The crickets could be heard croaking in Dublin from southern France last Sunday as
Leinster Phil yet again to the reigning champions, Toulon. For the Irish province, it is now been three successive defeats both in the European Rugby Champions Cup and to Toulon, the first of any such streak in Leinster Rugby history. For Toulon’s first home game of the European campaign, the French club decided to start New Zealander Ma’a Nonu, much to the delight of the home fans. It was Leinster who gained their lead early on through two successive Johnny Sexton penalties in the third and fifth minute to give the visitors a 6–0 lead. Although things were looking up for the visitors, they were forcefully awakened by the power and might of the Toulon pack. After refusing to kick football on a penalty in the 10th minute, Toulon smashed through a Leinster challenge on a driving line out and sent flanker Steffon Armitage over for the first try of the game, Esconde converting the afters to make it 7–3 in favour of the home side. Leinster had no respite from that point on, so coming to a mass of uncapitalised chances and defensive holes that gave Toulon penalty after penalty Until Armitage scored once again in the 79th minute to put the nail in the Coffin.
Looking Ahead: Leo Cullen’s Side will shuffle into the Aviva Stadium on Saturday in what could be a show of pageantry for the former champions. The lights on a successful European campaign have all but gone by the wayside thanks to a lack of panache and style in the province’s play. For Cullen, and Leinster, Saturday’s game in Dublin needs to be a match driven by sheer pride and determination, not for the sake of their European conquest but for their fans who have sent through disappointment after the departure of Joe Schmidt. In terms of players, Johnny Sexton, despite his three penalties, was atrocious at fly half, and although Ian Madigan probably won’t get a starting spot, should be considered for admission into the squad. Isabel Nacewa has been mediocre at best in both the European Rugby Champions Cup and they Pro 12 this season, and, although it probably won’t happen, Madigan could fit perfectly in that role on the left wing. If Leinster are to try and counter the strength of the Toulon forwards, Cullen needs to play around with different combinations in the front row, trying Marty Moore alongside Ricardt Strauss and Sean Cronin in the absence of Cian Healy. As for the reigning champions, no changes are necessary to replicate victory at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. Despite a rusty performances from Bastareaud and Nonu in the centre last weekend, there is no need to substitute out either of them after only one game. The one thing the French club will have two keep in mind is that Leinster, at this stage, have nothing to lose but their pride and will come out guns blazing looking for a victory to salvage the European campaign. If Toulon don’t come out and play the smashing, powerful rugby they’ve shown from the get go, this fixture maybe spicier than originally perceived.
ROUND 3 Expert Picks:
In case you have somehow forgotten, he is a rundown of the revamped expert panel picking the winners of this year’s Champions’ Cup. Back is the “rugby rain man” Junoir Blaber, the “face of RWU” Johnathon Wicklow Barberie, the “dirtiest player in rugby history” Declan Yeats, and our man in France, “the Top 14 expert“, James Harrington. New to the panel are the Philly fanatic of stats, Jake Frechette and “Le Wolf of Wheelchairs,” Ronan Nelson. The chart below was compiled by Junior Blaber.
JWB: 19-6, with the mild shame of getting the Pick of the Week wrong. Mild shame maybe a bit too much. The three picks he got wrong he shared with at least 2 other experts, so he was not alone in his disappointment. He also got the PoW partially correct in picking Ospreys to win. Unfortunately for JWB, the Ospreys didn’t cover the spread.
Blaber: 18-7, with the bonus of getting the Pick of the Week right. A lover of underdogs, Mssr. Blaber was let down by his willingness to back the little guy He backed Toulouse on the road and Oyonnax to defeat undefeated Saracens. He did pick a favorite in Munster, who let him and almost all the other experts down. His PoW, Stade Francias came through with flying colors.
Frechette: 18-7, with the bonus of getting the Pick of the Week right. Like Mssr. Blaber, Mssr. Frechette picked Stade Francias as his PoW and was rewarded for it. By only getting two picks wrong, Frechette was able to close the gap on Blaber and stay within striking distance of JWB.
Harrington: 17-8, with the bonus of getting the Pick of the Week right. Trying to keep pace is Mr. Harrington. He was let down by Clermont, Wasps and Munster who let down 4 to 5 other experts. He did pick Saracens to win as his PoW and was rightly rewarded.
Nelson: 14-11, with the bonus of getting the Pick of the Week right. Mssr. Nelson was hurt both ways this weekend. He went against popular opinion and picked Toulouse and Leinster and lost. He went with public opinion and Wasps and Clermont disappointed. He biggest positive was being the lone dissenter and going for Leicester and picking Stade Francias as his PoW.
Yeats: 14-11, with the shame of getting the Pick of the Week wrong. Besides Clermont losing, Yeats’ all-Ireland selections hurt him again. He was let down by the duo of Munster and Leinster, with only Ulster being his saving grace. On top of that Munster were also his PoW so it was tough weekend for the big guy.