European Champions Cup – round 1

Harlequins vs Castres

Since their last meeting with Leinster in that game at the Stoop in 2009, Quins have won 6/13 home games in the Heineken Cup, compared to 7/12 away. They’ve only lost twice in the last 9 away matches (Clermont and Connacht) and over recent seasons have proved capable of winning at tough venues such as Munster, Toulouse, Leicester (all competitions).

That ability to pick up away points is clearly crucial in this format, but they perhaps don’t possess the same intimidating atmosphere at the Stoop that can be found at other grounds. It does also seem that their better results in Europe have occurred on the road. That isn’t to write off their home form though, as they’ve won 11 of the last 12 league matches.

The heavy Premiership home defeat against Saracens in round 2 brought with it concerns about the youth of their pack, kicking game and how they cope against teams that are capable of suffocating their attack. As with last season they have suffered plenty of injuries, particularly in the backline and also handed scoring opportunities to teams with charged down kicks and errors.

Quins have a familiar opponent in the pool in Wasps and while they have won 7 of the last 8 league matches against them – the games have tended to be very close. The rivalry also means that even if Wasps were out of contention by round 5, they’d still be well motivated to win which may not have been the case with other sides.

Castres were originally rated as third most likely to win the pool, but in terms of likely motivation it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to have them last. Although they did reach a semi-final back in 2002, in recent seasons it has been clear that the Top 14 has been their main focus. A poor start this season saw their pool price drift and will have raised concerns that they may miss the top 6. Their run of league home games from November to January will surely take precedence over the chance of European glory.

They usually start their European campaigns well enough at home, with 17/21 wins in previous round 1-4 matches, but a record of 3/10 victories in round 5-6 is further evidence that the league is their focus. In this case, such a trend would suit Quins who visit there in round 6 and may hope that other visitors have been beaten in the earlier rounds.
Castres have lost 19 of their previous 21 away games in this tournament and average just 15 points scored over the last 15 matches at all venues. It has usually been worth opposing them 2nd half, given they only average 5 points after the break in that 15 game period.

In the Top 14 they have lost by 29 points at Toulouse, 33 at Montpellier, 25 at La Rochelle, 10 at Lyon and 52 last week at UBB. That poor 2nd half trend is also evident in their league away matches, with under 8 points scored in each trip and opponents averaging an advantage of +18 points more than them.

The Castres side of a few seasons ago would fit the criteria of a team that has troubled Quins in the past. A suitable comparison would be the way they consistently managed to beat a similarly attack minded team like Montpellier. However their title winning squad has been ripped apart and is seemingly being slowly rebuilt at Racing Metro. That combined with their current terrible away form, historic lack of interest in the competition and rumours of unrest in the squad means backing them is an unappealing prospect. They are missing Capo Ortega, Beattie, Caballero, Cabannes, Lamerat and Martial from the starting line-up.

Will trust Quins -6 on the 2nd half handicap for this match –it would have landed for the opposition in 6/8 Castres away matches in Europe and their 5 league away matches this season.

There has been at least 1 card in 13/15 Castres away games in the competition and they have regularly conceded cards on the road in the Top 14 this year. Quins home matches have averaged 1.9 cards since the start of last season. Nigel Owens handed out at least 1 card per match in the Heineken Cup last season and would expect him to be very hot on any attempts by Castres to kill off quick Quins ball. It is 2.2 for a Castres card and 7.0 for 2 or more.

Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Marland Yarde, 13 Matt Hopper, 12 George Lowe, 11 Asaeli Tikoirotuma, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Chris Robshaw, 6 Luke Wallace, 5 George Robson, 4 Charlie Matthews, 3 Will Collier, 2 Dave Ward, 1 Joe Marler (c)
Replacements: 16 Rob Buchanan, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Kyle Sinckler, 19 Sam Twomey, 20 Joe Trayfoot, 21 Karl Dickson, 22 Jordan Turner-Hall, 23 Ollie Lindsay-Hague

Castres: 15 Geoffrey Palis, 14 Max Evans, 13 Christopher Tuatara-Morrison, 12 Thomas Combezou, 11 Rémy Grosso, 10 Rémi Talès (c), 9 Rory Kockott, 8 Jannie Bornman, 7 William Whetton, 6 Ibrahim Diarra, 5 Piula Faasalele, 4 Richie Gray, 3 Yohan Montes, 2 Brice Mach, 1 Saimone Taumoepeau
Replacements: 16 Marc-Antoine Rallier, 17 Mihaita Lazar, 18 Paea Faanunu, 19 Mathieu Babillot, 20 Christophe Samson, 21 Julien Dumora, 22 Romain Cabannes, 23 Cédric Garcia

 

 

 

 

Sale vs Munster

In August, Sale captain Dan Braid said in an interview in the Manchester Evening News “the Premiership will be our number one focus”. An understandable statement, given they have been placed in a group with 3 of the 4 semi-finalists from last year in this tournament. There isn’t much comfort from being grouped with a fellow Premiership side either, as they have only won 1 of the last 17 league trips to Saracens and have lost the last 3 at home.

While the Sharks did lose 5 of 6 pool matches the last time they were in the Heineken Cup, they have greatly improved in defence from the side that was hammered 62-0 at Toulon in December 2012. The hosts are also benefitting from some much needed stability, after years of coaching changes.

Looking at their results since the start of last season, it is noticeable that the foundation of their wins is usually a strong 1st half. They have led at halftime in 14/14 victories and 19/28 games overall. That does reinforce the idea that their defence has improved and when they get in front, they have the confidence to hold on to that lead.

Munster began the last 2 campaigns with away losses and over a longer period, it is 8 defeats from 10 first round away trips. In the past, they have been able to recover from that and both previous tournament wins did come after losing away in week 1 (2006 was at Sale). However, given the strength of this pool that is unlikely to be an option this time.

They have won their last 21 home pool stage games and 52/54 overall. The performance against Toulouse in last year’s quarter final will have served as a reminder to visiting teams and they have beaten all 3 pool opponents at the home in the past.

Former coach Penney did take some criticism in his time there and it did seem as if there was a campaign from some parties to get Foley into the main job and a return to a ‘traditional’ style of play. That change has been made now and while issues such as the leaked coaching document early into the season are minor, they might be the sort of matters that may be raised later if the team were to struggle.

The 23-34 league win at Leinster was timely, given the rumblings after home losses against Edinburgh and Ospreys and should give the squad a boost going into this tournament. They will also benefit from having a coaching staff that fully understands how to manage the emotion of a European campaign and ensure the attitude and intensity is right from the start. That they are being deemed third favourites for the pool behind Clermont and Saracens may also be used to motivate the side.

Historically Munster were strong 2nd half in the Heineken Cup , outscoring teams after the break in 32 of the last 45 matches going back to 2008/9. More recently they have outscored teams 2nd half in 9/10 European games and on 6/7 trips to English sides.

The hosts are missing a couple of key forwards in Braid and Hines, which is going to be a problem if Munster bring the same intensity and level of disruption at the breakdown that they achieved against Leinster. Sale have lost 24/25 league games against what has been the regular Prem top 4 (Saracens, Northampton, Leicester and Harlequins) and the step up from mid-table to top level opposition could well prove a problem here too. Munster will have also noted the way Saints driving lineout caused the hosts real problems last weekend. Will back the visitors -3 on the 2nd half handicap .

Mathieu Raynal has handed out 14 cards in his last 12 Top14 games, not a great amount for that league. There have been cards shown in 4/6 Sale league matches this season and 3/6 for Munster.

Sale: 15 Michael Haley, 14 Tom Brady, 13 Johnny Leota, 12 Sam Tuitupou, 11 Tom Arscott, 10 Danny Cipriani, 9 Chris Cusiter, 8 Mark Easter 7 David Seymour (c), 6 Magnus Lund, 5 Michael Paterson, 4 Jon Mills, 3 Vadim Cobilas, 2 Marc Jones, 1 Eifion Lewis-Roberts
Replacements: 16 Shalva Mamukashvili, 17 Ross Harrison, 18 Alberto de Marchi, 19 Andrei Ostrikov, 20 Josh Beaumont, 21 Will Cliff, 22 Joe Ford, 23 Mark Jennings

Munster: 15 Felix Jones, 14 Andrew Conway, 13 Andrew Smith, 12 Denis Hurley, 11 Simon Zebo, 10 Ian Keatley, 9 Conor Murray, 8 CJ Stander, 7 Tommy O’Donnell, 6 Peter O’Mahony (c), 5 Paul O’Connell, 4 Dave Foley, 3 Stephen Archer, 2 Duncan Casey, 1 Dave Kilcoyne
Replacements: 16 Eusebio Guinazu, 17 James Cronin, 18 BJ Botha, 19 Billy Holland, 20 Robin Copeland, 21 Duncan Williams, 22 JJ Hanrahan, 23 Gerhard van den Heever

 

 

 

 

 

Glasgow vs Bath

There is a contrast between the established but perhaps fading European powerhouse of Toulouse in this pool and the 3 sides they have been grouped with, who will all feel close to realising their potential. In the last 3 seasons Glasgow have been knocked out of the Pro12 play offs by Leinster, but there has been a sense of improvement each year.

The squad now looks capable of managing a European campaign and they can count on a steely defence and dangerous offloading game. They may have been effected by off-field issues last season and did also start matches in the Heineken Cup slowly, trailing at halftime in 5/6 games. Opening up with their toughest game (away at Toulon) would also have been a factor.

This time they begin with a home game, but then have consecutive trips to France. They have only won 5/45 away games in the competition, but do have a victory at Toulouse and draw at Montpellier in their history.

There should be some familiarity in this pool as Bath, Glasgow, Toulouse were placed together in 2008/9 while Bath, Glasgow and Montpellier were together in 2011/12. That latter season was the time that Bath were involved in the Heineken Cup and there has been plenty of investment since to return them to this level.

They were very close to a top 4 spot in the Premiership last season and were beaten in the Amlin Cup final by Northampton. With a powerful pack, talented fly-half and dangerous looking backline the tools are there. The questions revolve around a lack of experience in the competition, belief against the ‘big’ teams and away form.

With admittedly a different squad, Bath lost 8 of their last 9 trips in the Heineken Cup – with the only win coming at Aironi. Looking at their record at what has been the top 4 in the Premiership, they went into this season with 14 losses and 2 draws from the last 16 away games.

The 45-0 home win over Leicester and 21-11 defeat of Saracens this season may suggest that like Glasgow, the team is ready to make that next step. However, putting Bath’s start to the season in context isn’t that easy. With players missing (Louw, Garvey, Fearns) and facing opponents with an average finishing place of 5th last year, their current league position of 4th is to be commended.

On the other hand, they are the only side to have conceded more than 10 points against London Welsh (26 points) and did play Leicester and Saracens when both were without their usual midfield. They also were 31-10 down after 54 minutes at Saints and 29-0 after 50 minutes at Wasps. On both occasions they were able to score late tries and have only been outscored 2nd half in 2 of the last 14 away league games. However, similar starts in European away games will be costly.

The rumour of a possible transfer for Steffon Armitage received plenty of attention in the week and it would be interesting to know what impact such stories have on the current squad. Having missed out on him (for now), they still seem to be in the market for another backrow forward and that department has been further weakened with Houston’s suspension.

Glasgow have won their last 5 home matches against English teams and do fancy them to continue that run. Also think that the 8.0 for them to win the pool and 81.0 to win the tournament outright need some thought. They are right up there in terms of team spirit, culture, ability to both shut out opponents and score quick points themselves. The absence of Strauss would usually be a worry, but Bath are going into the match with a 2nd choice front row and 3rd choice backrow. The early 1.8 for Glasgow is gone, but 1.75 is still worth taking.

Jerome Garces sent off Hogg in the Six Nations last season and Payne in the Heineken Cup. In the Top 14, his card average is relatively low but he will have likely noted Bath picking up 3 cards away last weekend and their early issues in the scrum. There has been at least 1 card in 5/6 Bath league matches this season and 4/6 Glasgow games.

Glasgow: 15 Stuart Hogg, 14 Sean Maitland, 13 Mark Bennett, 12 Peter Horne, 11 Tommy Seymour, 10 Duncan Weir, 9 Henry Pyrgos (c), 8 Adam Ashe, 7 Chris Fusaro, 6 Rob Harley, 5 Jonny Gray, 4 Leone Nakarawa, 3 Euan Murray, 2 Pat MacArthur, 1 Gordon Reid.
Replacements: 16 Dougie Hall, 17 Jerry Yanuyanutawa, 18 Rossouw de Klerk, 19 Tim Swinson, 20 Tyrone Holmes, 21 Niko Matawalu, 22 Finn Russell, 23 DTH van der Merwe.

Bath: 15 Gavin Henson, 14 Semesa Rokoduguni, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Anthony Watson; 10 George Ford, 9 Micky Young, 8 David Sisi, 7 Guy Mercer, 6 Dominic Day, 5 David Attwood, 4 Stuart Hooper (c), 3 Henry Thomas, 2 Ross Batty, 1 Nick Auterac.
Replacements: 16 Rob Webber, 17 Paul James, 18 David Wilson, 19 Charlie Ewels, 20 Tom Ellis, 21 Peter Stringer, 22 Ollie Devoto, 23 Horacio Agulla

 

 

 

 

Saracens vs Clermont

The previous Clermont regime ended with a thumping 46-6 loss against Saracens and a home defeat by Castres that knocked them out of the Top 14 playoffs. Their new European era begins with a trip to Saracens – a game that could either provide a chance for ‘revenge’ or may damage confidence for the rest of the campaign.

There was a sense that Clermont became too reliant on expecting Nalaga and Sivivatu to create tries out of nothing last year. That predictability was noted first in the loss at Racing Metro in the pool stage and then exposed in extreme fashion against the Saracens defence.

An early home loss against Montpellier this season may have been cause for concern, however the signings of Lopez and Davies brought the hope of some energy and some variety to the backline. It is worth noting that the majority of their tries are being scored by forwards at the moment though.

They went 518 minutes without conceding a try in the Top 14 from round 1 to 7 and both defence and discipline are improved from last season. That may well have been a response to the Saracens defeat from last season. Clermont also won consecutive away matches at Brive, Toulouse and Oyonnax – no mean feat in that league. That run was ended by a 21-51 defeat at Bordeaux in round 8 though.

Saracens have been knocked out by eventual winners Toulon in the last 2 seasons and going back to 2012, there has been a progression each year from quarter-final to semi-final to losing finalist. Their progress can also be measured by looking at their performances against the big French sides. In 2011 and 2012, Mark McCall highlighted the difference between his side and Clermont – both in terms of salary cap and power. The pool losses against Toulouse and final defeat by Toulon last year shouldn’t be forgotten, but the hosts now feel disappointed to lose against them, rather than it being expected.

Due to injuries and a squad rotation system, they haven’t yet fielded their strongest squad this season. The defensive performance against Quins was impressive but they have conceded at least 19 points in the other matches. For a comparison, they only allowed more than 19 points in just 8/24 Prem matches last year. The Harlequins away win was also the only occasion that they have really dominated the scoring in the 2nd half – a trait they are usually associated with. The Bath result and a 73% tackle rate may have been noted by rivals, but it did occur without their first choice 10/12/13 combo.Having lost finals last year, it might also be that Saracens are pacing their season a little differently this year.

It is unlikely that anyone is going to repeat a Burger-type performance  (27 tackles)  and the pack is missing M Vunipola and Borthwick from that April semi-final. Clermont would also be very unlucky to concede a penalty try, have their 10 sin-binned and have a try ruled out again too. Saracens are going to have the advantages of being used to their pitch and Clermont not bringing many fans to support them, but the giving the visitors a +6 point head start does seem too generous to ignore.

There has been at least 1 card shown in 12/13 Saracens home Prem games going back to the start of last season and their last 5 European home matches. The last couple of Clermont league games have produced 6 cards.

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Chris Wyles, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola 7 Will Fraser, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Alistair Hargreaves (c), 4 George Kruis, 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Jamie George, 1 Richard Barrington
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 James Johnston, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Owen Farrell, 23 Marcelo Bosch

Clermont: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Noa Nakaitaci, 13 Aurélien Rougerie, 12 Wesley Fofana, 11 Zac Guildford, 10 Camille Lopez, 9 Ludovic Radosavljevic, 8 Damien Chouly (c), 7 Julien Bonnaire, 6 Fritz Lee, 5 Sebastien Vahaamahina, 4 Jamie Cudmore, 3 Davit Zirakashvili, 2 Benjamin Kayser, Thomas Domingo.
Replacements: 16 John Ulugia, 17 Raphael Chaume, 18 Clement Ric, 19 Loïc Jacquet, 20 Julien Bardy, 21 Thierry Lacrampe, 22 Brock James, 23 Benson Stanley.

 

 

 

 

 

Racing Metro vs Northampton
Northampton were placed in the same pool as Castres for 4 consecutive seasons, so it may have been a relief to avoid them this year. However with their former coaches and several players now at Racing Metro they haven’t fully escaped.

Would agree with the current Premiership champions being made favourites to win this pool – they beat Ospreys twice last year and shouldn’t fear a Racing Metro side that still don’t look fully settled, despite big investment.

A record of 5/9 home wins in the Heineken Cup since 2011/12 doesn’t look too impressive on paper, but Saints have been demolishing opponents there in the league with an average score of 39-13 in their last 15 matches (excluding derby games against Leicester). In previous seasons, Saints have performed very well in rounds 4 and 5, winning 17 of the last 18 games since 2002/3. They have dropped home games against Leinster and Ulster in recent years, but then responded by winning away.

Northampton look to have turned the corner when it comes to winning ‘big’ games and have enough power and pace to threaten any of the sides in Europe this year. When they lost at Sale in the league last season, there was a suggestion that integrating the England players immediately back into the team had been a problem. Games against London Welsh (when England play Australia) and then Treviso twice should ease that issue, at least for the Autumn Internationals.

In contrast to their strong home form, Northampton have won 2 of their last 6 league away games (against London Irish and Newcastle). They have tended to make decent enough starts in their Prem away games and have only been behind at halftime in 3/15 trips. That stat is reversed for the 2nd half though with 3/15 opponents outscored after the break.

Racing Metro won just 1 of their pool games last year and scored 5 tries. They trailed at halftime in 5 of the matches and bar round 2 at Scarlets, were usually involved in low scoring contests. That fitted in with their domestic form, and a rate of 32 tries in 26 games was well below the 50+ tries that their rivals managed. They do look to have more attacking ambition this year (22 tries in 9 games) which might be attributed to the recruitment of Goosen, Thomas and Dulin in the backline. They also possess an excellent lineout, but as with last season am not sure they are ready for a successful European run.

Having stated that Racing Metro have scored more tries this season, it is only fair to point out that they are conceding more points too – with a combined total of 82 in the last 3 matches.

The Parisians have won 23 of the last 25 home Top 14 games, but it is just 4/11 home wins in European competition. There has been plenty of talk in the week about the Welsh players returning home and that may distract the squad.

Their coach Ronan O’Gara had some interesting comments in the Irish Independent about his team, saying the players likely won’t appreciate the step up in intensity – “There is very little foresight, everything is reactive in France, we need to be pro-active. That’s the challenge. They (French players) talk about it but they don’t appreciate how much faster the game is played in Ireland and England at times.”

Had planned to back Saints with points for this match and am happy enough with +3 available. It is a strong looking Racing Metro team on paper, but the same was said last year.

George Clancy was in charge of Saints round 1 defeat at Castres last year and after the game, Jim Mallinder did mention that he felt his side had been on the receiving end of ‘hard decisions’ from the referee. It is also true that coughing up an early intercept try didn’t help their cause. Clancy has given a card in 7 of his last 9 matches in the Heineken Cup

Racing Metro: 15 Brice Dulin, 14 Juan Imhoff, 13 Alexandre Dumoulin, 12 Jamie Roberts, 11 Marc Andreu, 10 Johnny Sexton, 9 Maxime Machenaud, 8 Antoine Claassen, 7 Bernard le Roux, 6 Wenceslas Lauret, 5 Francois van der Merwe (c), 4 Juandre Kruger, 3 Luc Ducalcon, 2 Virgile Lacombe, 1 Julien Brugnaut
Replacements: 16 Jeremie Maurouard, 17 Eddy Ben Arous, 18 Brian Mujati, 19 Luke Charteris, 20 Camille Gerondeau, 21 Mike Phillips, 22 Johan Goosen, 23 Yoan Audrin

Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Kahn Fotuali’i, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Christian Day, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Salesi Ma’afu, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Alex Waller
Replacements: 16 Mikey Haywood, 17 Ethan Waller, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 James Craig, 20 Phil Dowson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 James Wilson, 23 Jamie Elliott

 

 

 

 

Leicester vs Ulster

In the 2011/12 season, Leicester won 2 of their opening 7 league games. They did end up reaching the Premiership final, but looking at their Heineken Cup performance that year – they lost away at Ulster, Clermont and failed to make it out the pool. They have made a similar start to their league campaign this year and with a sizeable injury list, it is going to be a tough challenge to win this pool.

After 3 consecutive league defeats, the win against Harlequins last Friday night relieved some pressure for the hosts. Assisted by wet weather, Tigers went ‘back to basics’ and played a more direct style than has been seen in recent weeks. Given Quins’ inability to play the conditions or retain ball on their own lineout, it would be dangerous to read too much into the result. Leicester didn’t have to do too much to achieve the win and should have been well clear before Dickson’s 70th minute try. It does provide something to build on going into this match though and the spirit and fight shown by the likes of Thorn, Kitchener and Scully point to a squad that isn’t going to roll over.

Last year, Ulster became the first side to win an away pool match at Welford Road since Munster in the 2006/7 season. There has been plenty of change since that win. Director of Rugby David Humphreys and coach Mark Anscombe have gone, with Muller, Wallace, Ferris retiring and Court, Afoa moving to English clubs.

The province lost 3 quarter-finals and the 2012 final in the Heineken Cup from 2011-14 as well as a couple of semi-finals and 2013 final in the Pro 12 (all against Leinster). While it can be the case that a team may need to taste disappointment a few times before winning a major title, it can also be true that some sides go close but miss their chance. It remains to be seen what happens with Ulster, but perhaps the coaching changes will end up being a positive.

Les Kiss was appointed Ulster’s interim director of rugby in July and will return to that position fulltime after the Rugby World Cup while Neil Doak has been made head coach. As with Munster, Ulster will likely look to make the most of having a former player in charge, who will fully understand the culture of the club. It is also worth noting that Jonny Bell played 12 for the province when they won the Heineken Cup in 1999 and Allen Clarke was hooker. Similar to Cockerill’s link with Leicester – it is by no means a guarantee of success, but does provide identity.

Pienaar scored all of Ulster’s 22 points at Welford Road in January, as well as 12 of their 27 kicks from hand and 73 of the 112 passes. They are going to miss his game management, but the fact that back up halfbacks Marshall and Humphreys are playing well does go some way in mitigating that. New signings Ludik, Herbst and van der Merwe all seem to have settled in well and players such as Williams look back to their abrasive best.

Ulster have won their last 6 away pool games in Europe, beating Glasgow, Northampton, Castres, Montpellier, Treviso and Leicester. They have only trailed at halftime in 3/17 away games and have been level with Leicester at the break on their last 2 visits. They have beaten the Tigers in the last 3 meetings and this will be the 4th time Romain Poite had officiated these sides since 2011/12 season. He averages 1.3 cards a game in this competition.

Would have been keen on taking Ulster with a decent handicap anyway so Leicester’s current injury problems have only strengthened that view. Ulster +4.

Leicester: 15 Mathew Tait, 14 Blaine Scully, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Owen Williams, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Ben Youngs (c), 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Fraser Balmain, 2 Leonardo Ghiraldini, 1 Marcos Ayerza
Replacements: 16 Harry Thacker, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Tiziano Pasquali, 19 Sebastian de Chaves, 20 Robert Barbieri, 21 David Mélé, 22 Sam Harrison, 23 Miles Benjamin

Ulster: 15 Louis Ludik, 14 Tommy Bowe, 13 Jared Payne, 12 Stuart McCloskey, 11 Craig Gilroy, 10 Paddy Jackson, 9 Paul Marshall, 8 Nick Williams, 7 Chris Henry, 6 Robbie Diack, 5 Franco van der Merwe, 4 Lewis Stevenson, 3 Wiehahn Herbst, 2 Rory Best (c), 1 Andy Warwick
Replacements: 16 Rob Herring, 17 Callum Black, 18 Declan Fitzpatrick, 19 Clive Ross, 20 Roger Wilson, 21 Michael Heaney, 22 Stuart Olding, 23 Darren Cave.

 

 

 

 

Ospreys vs Treviso

Treviso’s chances of progressing from the pool can be comfortably ruled out. They lost all 6 matches last year by an average score of 7-34 and are going to be weaker this time, after losing so many players. They’ve lost 49/54 games in the competition since the 2005/6 season and managed just 2 tries in their previous campaign. The Italians have lost 19 away games in a row in the Heineken Cup by an average score of 40-13 and the last 14 in the Pro12 by 33-10.

Bar a draw at Welford Road in 2009/10, Ospreys away form has also been poor in Europe with just Treviso and Viadana beaten in 20 games. That would need to improve if they are to get out of the pool, even allowing for the likelihood of maximum points twice against the Italians. While the agreement between the WRU and Regions has now been signed, it may have been too late to have an influence on the Welsh teams this year. The hosts scored just 3 tries last season and they have lost experienced forwards in Adam Jones, Ryan Jones, Ian Evans and Richard Hibbard.

The Ospreys do go into the tournament as the only unbeaten side, but that does that does need to be put in context. Bar the impressive away win at Munster, they have faced sides that finished in the bottom half of the table last year. That isn’t to take away from a record of 6/6 wins, more to point out that the likes of Northampton may represent a step up.

Form1

Ospreys may end up benefiting from a lack of pressure this year and would expect them to handle Treviso with relative ease, given they’ve scored 119 points against them in the last 2 league meetings. They have won 5/5 Pro 12 home games against this opponent by an average score of 44-10 and by a rate of 50-14 in 3 previous European games.

On that basis the -28 handicap is fair enough.

There have been 17 cards shown in the last 9 league matches between the teams. Pascal Gauzere handed out 3 cards in 3/5 Heineken Cup matches last year.
Ospreys: 15 Daniel Evans, 14 Jeff Hassler, 13 Andrew Bishop, 12 Josh Matavesi, 11 Eli Walker, 10 Dan Biggar, 9 Rhys Webb, 8 Dan Baker, 7 Sam Lewis, 6 James King, 5 Alun-Wyn Jones (c), 4 Lloyd Peers, 3 Dmitri Arhip, 2 Scott Baldwin, 1 Nicky Smith
Replacements: 16 Scott Otten, 17 Duncan Jones, 18 Aaron Jarvis, 19 Rynier Bernardo, 20 Joe Bearman, 21 Justin Tipuric, 22 Martin Roberts, 23 Sam Davies

Benetton Treviso: 15 Jayden Hayward, 14 Angelo Esposito, 13 Luca Morisi, 12 Enrico Bacchin, 11 Ludovico Nitoglia, 10 Joe Carlisle, 9 Alberto Lucchese, 8 Francesco Minto 7 Alessandro Zanni, 6 Simone Favaro, 5 Tomas Vallejos, 4 Antonio Pavanello (c), 3 Rupert Harden, 2 Albert Alfred Anae, 1 Matteo Zanusso.
Replacements: 16 Davide Giazzon, 17 Romulo Acosta, 18 Salesi Manu, 19 Marco Fuser, 20 Meyer Swanepoel, 21 Marco Barbini, 22 Michele Campagnaro, 23 Edoardo Gori

 

 

 

Toulouse vs Montpellier

Reputation and previous performance in this competition were likely the factors in Toulouse being made early favourites to win this pool. Guy Noves side have made the quarter-final stage 14 times and won 4 of 6 finals reached. They possess a record of 47/54 home pool wins at an average score of 34-15 and 16/19 home league wins by a rate of 23-10, so fit the template of a typically strong French side, on paper at least.

While they did beat Saracens home and away last year, a closer inspection of their form reveals reasons to oppose them and there was a drift in their pool winner price from the early 1.91 to around 3.0 in places.

They’ve won away just once in their last 16 games in the Top 14 and that was against the later relegated Biarritz. The scrum and lineout creaked at the start of this campaign and discipline and level of performance were poor. Toulouse also lost to Connacht at home last season, struggled to put away Zebre and were soundly beaten in the quarter-final at Munster. There does seem to be a level of denial from Noves about the possibility of the club’s decline. Other teams would have sensed vulnerability though, especially Montpellier who beat them 25-0 at home and 12-15 away last season.

It is worth noting that although Toulouse did lose 5 league matches in a row this season, 4 of them were away. They have since won consecutive home matches against Stade Francais and Toulon and have appeared to have found some confidence. As with Leicester, it doesn’t mean that any previous issues should be overlooked, but they will go into the tournament in better shape than they were in a few weeks ago.
Montpellier look to have addressed the problems that halted their progress last year.

Having to integrate late arrivals caused disruption, while they also showed a lack of experience in the ‘big’ games. Those points were raised by the coaches during last season and were particularly evident in the games against Ulster, when they were torn apart by an accurate kicking game. During the Top 14 season they did also have a high number of tries ruled out by the TMO and turned over plenty of ball in the opposition 22. There was a willingness to attack but maybe not the accuracy to finish off the chances.

In the early stages of this season, there has been a clear improvement in the lineout – thanks to the signings of Mowen and Donnelly and they now look far more capable of grinding out a result and making the right decisions. A few weeks ago, backing a Montpellier away win and indeed them to win the pool at over 3.0 looked a decent enough call. However Trinh-Duc’s leg break last weekend represents a significant loss. Along with Ouedraogo, he is a major leader in the squad and also the conductor that brings the explosive backs like Ranger, Nagusa etc into the game.

Like the majority of the top French sides, the visitors do rotate plenty of players so it is difficult to say what their ‘best’ starting XV might be. Even allowing for that, they are clearly weaker with Attoub, Donnelly, Ouedraogo, Battut, Tulou, Pelissie, Trinh-Duc and Ebersohn all missing. They have still named a strong side which illustrates the strength in depth of the squad, but the halfbacks are inexperienced at this level. Selponi has played a total of 370 minutes for Montpellier since his debut last year, while Iribaren has 140 Top 14 minutes under his belt (2.5 seasons for Tarbes in D2 though).

Am going to risk the visitors with the +9 handicap, but would expect plenty to be on Toulouse -8 instead.
There has been at least 1 card in the last 23 Montpellier Top 14 games and in 6/8 meetings with Toulouse. While Wayne Barnes does have an average of approx 2 cards a game in the Premiership, it drops to 0.8 in the Heineken Cup.

Toulouse: 15 Maxime Médard, 14 Timoci Matanavou, 13 Florian Fritz, 12 Gaël Fickou, 11 Yoann Huget, 10 Luke McAlister, 9 Jean-Marc Doussain, 8 Imanol Harinordoquy, 7 Thierry Dusautoir (c), 6 Yacouba Camara, 5 Yoann Maestri, 4 Joe Tekori, 3 Neemia Tialata, 2 Corey Flynn, 1 Gürthro Steenkamp
Replacements: 16 Julien Marchand, 17 Kisi Pulu, 18 Census Johnston, 19 Patricio Albacete, 20 Edwin Maka, 21 Sébastien Bézy, 22 Toby Flood, 23 Vincent Clerc

Montpellier: 15 Benjamin Fall, 14 Timoci Nagusa, 13 Rene Ranger, 12 Wynand Olivier, 11 Samisoni Viriviri, 10 Enzo Selponi, 9 Teddy Iribaren, 8 Ben Mowen, 7 Akapusi Qera, 6 Alexandre Bias, 5 Thibaut Privat, 4 Sitaleki Timani, 3 Nicolas Mas, 2 Mickaël Ivaldi, 1 Mikheil Nariashvili
Replacements: 16 Charles Géli, 17 Yvan Watremez, 18 Chris King, 19 Robins Tchale-Watchou, 20 Kélian Galletier, 21 Benoit Paillaugue, 22 Anthony Tuitavake, 23 Benoit Sicart

 

 

 

Toulon vs Scarlets

Toulon have won 16 of their last 18 matches in European competition and as expected, have been made favourites to win a 3rd consecutive trophy. A case can be made that with Giteau pulling the strings at fly-half they are an even better side this season. It isn’t a coincidence that their big wins tend to come with the halfback combo of him and Tillous-Borde starting and losses such as the 17-10 effort at Racing, when they are missing. So far this season Toulon have won all 5 matches with Giteau starting, at an average score of 41-16 but ¼ without him by a rate of 16-20.

The strong home record is well known and they won their last 9 pool matches there by an average score of 40-17. On the road it is 5/9 wins by an average score of 18-16 though and if they are to grind out those away wins, it will need to be done this time without Wilkinson’s reliable boot. Halfpenny made his first start away at Toulouse last weekend, but didn’t have kicking duties – which seems to have been down to miscommunication between coaching and playing staff.

The recruitment model at Toulon has been to sign International-quality players that for various reasons aren’t involved at Test level. There will be a different challenge this season as a number have been named in a recent France squad and there is also the Boks contingent. After the Stade Francais loss, Boudjellal raised the idea of not paying his Internationals (Lobbe, Botha, Habana) unless they returned and would expect similar rants if he loses players to injury during November or the Six Nations.

Scarlets have won just 2 of their previous 12 matches in this competition, however their games against Quins and Racing Metro last year should prevent teams from underestimating them. Their aggregate scores against those teams were 53-48 and 45-39 but it was the heavy losses against Clermont that killed off their chances.

Their recent away results in the Pro 12 haven’t been great, with just the 1 win (against Treviso) in last 10 trips. New coach Wayne Pivac has highlighted a high error count as a problem and his side are averaging 15 turnovers conceded a match and 11 penalties. They have beaten Treviso and Dragons at home so far, had halftime leads chased down by Ulster and Edinburgh (both ended up draws) and lost by 30 and 11 points at Leinster and Munster.

Toulon have conceded an average of 17 points in their home pool games and at least 20 in the last 4 (Cardiff Blues twice, Glasgow and Exeter). If the visitors can find some continuity in attack, as they did against Quins in round 1 last year then there is an opportunity to score points. The loss of Gareth Davies will hinder their chances of upsetting sides in this pool though. He had scored 14 tries in his last 23 league appearances, with a brace against rivals Ulster in the opening week. When the Blues beat Toulon last year, their number 8 Copeland put in a huge shift and if Scarlets are to achieve similar they may need Pitman at his best. He has averaged a high 16 carries a game and 8 tackles in his starts so far.

The Toulon squad are likely used to transfer rumours, given how often big name players are linked to the club. The Armitage stories this week may not disrupt the squad as much they would for another team, but it does mean the player in question will have had outside distractions this week.

The -22 handicap does look big, but Scarlets lost by 21 at Clermont last year and Toulon beat Glasgow and the Blues by 23 points.

There has been a card shown in every Toulon league match so far this season and 4/6 Scarlets matches. Referee JP Doyle has given out 11 cards in 5 Prem matches.

Toulon: 15 Leigh Halfpenny, 14 David Smith, 13 Mathieu Bastareaud, 12 Maxime Mermoz, 11 Bryan Habana, 10 Matt Giteau, 9 Sebastien Tillous-Borde, 8 Steffon Armitage 7 Juán Martín Fernández Lobbe, 6 Juan Smith, 5 Ali Williams, 4 Bakkies Botha, 3 Carl Hayman (c), 2 Jean-Charles Orioli, 1 Xavier Chiocci
Replacements:16 Guilhem Guirado, 17 Alexandre Menini, 18 Levan Chilachava, 19 Chris Masoe, 20 James O’Connor, 21 Rudi Wulf, 22 Michael Claassens, 23 Romain Taofifenua

Scarlets: 15 Liam Williams, 14 Harry Robinson, 13 Michael Tagicakibau, 12 Scott Williams (c), 11 Kristian Phillips, 10 Rhys Priestland, 9 Aled Davies, 8 Rory Pitman, 7 John Barclay, 6 Aaron Shingler, 5 Johan Snyman, 4 Jake Ball, 3 Samson Lee, 2 Emyr Phillips, 1 Rob Evans
Replacements: 16 Kirby Myhill, 17 Phil John, 18 Rhodri Jones, 19 George Earle, 20 James Davies, 21 Rhodri Williams, 22 Steven Shingler, 23 Jordan Williams

 

 

 

Leinster vs Wasps

Leinster have been made clear favourites to win the pool and are 2nd faves (along with Saints) outright for the tournament. They may be confident of achieving the former, but the real test may be when run into one of the French powerhouses later on. They were knocked out at the group stage in 2012/13 after losing consecutive matches against Clermont, while last year they exited in the quarter final after being well beaten at Toulon.

Having reached consecutive Top 14 finals, Castres may appear on paper to be a formidable opponent – however they don’t show the same interest in European campaigns as Clermont or Toulon and were beaten home and away by Leinster last year. Leinster have also won 9 of the last 10 Heineken Cup games against English opposition and beat Wasps 28-48 away in the Amlin Cup in 2013.

Compared to the side that won the 2012 final – the hosts are without O’Driscoll, Nacewa, Sexton, Cullen and coach Schmidt. There is still plenty of experience in the squad but with both their strongest carriers in Healy and O’Brien missing it could be a struggle in the latter stages. O’Connor doesn’t seem to have been fully accepted by the fans and the preference of Gopperth over Madigan in big games last season did attract criticism. If they were to slip up early, it would be interesting to see how the coaching staff handle the pressure.

Leinster face Quins in rounds 3 and 4 and it may prove significant that England have a 4th Autumn International against Australia, while Ireland only play the 3 matches. Last season Quins opted to rest some of their English contingent after the 6Nations but that won’t be an option here and they will have less time to prepare for round 3 than Leinster. The hosts had 16 players involved in the Six Nations last season and with the gap between the knockout stages and that competition being shortened this year, that is another consideration.

Wasps earned their place in the tournament with wins against Stade Francais in the playoffs at the end of last season. Having come close to relegation from the Premiership in 2012, there has been a real turnaround. New investment has meant they could strengthen the squad with Leiua, Cittadini, Davies, Gaskell, Miller etc arriving this summer. It has also been announced that they will be moving stadiums – with the Ricoh Arena in Coventry the new location.

It has been noticeable in the league that many of their matches are tight, with 19 of the last 28 decided by margins of 1-7 points. Having beaten Northampton and Bath and gone very close to upsetting Saracens in round 1, they do look a better team this year. Having such a tough start to the season may also help in making the step up to this competition. Over the last couple of seasons their strength has been a powerful, balanced backrow and the scoring threat of Wade and Varndell out wide. Leinster will have been made aware of that when the sides last met – both wingers scored 2 tries and Johnson carried for 48m.

If neutral venues are included too, then Wasps have won 2 of their last 9 league away games and 5 from 16 since the start of last season. Those wins came against sides in the bottom 4 (Gloucester twice, Worcester, London Irish and Newcastle).

Was expecting an 8 or 9 point handicap, so +13 for Wasps looks very good.

Leinster: 15 Ian Madigan, 14 Zane Kirchner, 13 Gordon D’Arcy, 12 Noel Reid, 11 Darragh Fanning, 10 Jimmy Gopperth, 9 Eoin Reddan, 8 Jamie Heaslip, 7 Dominic Ryan, 6 Rhys Ruddock, 5 Devin Toner, 4 Mike McCarthy, 3 Michael Bent, 2 Sean Cronin, 1 Jack McGrath
Replacements: 16 Richardt Strauss, 17 Ed Byrne, 18 Tadhg Furlong, 19 Kane Douglas, 20 Jack Conan, 21 Isaac Boss, 22 Mick McGrath, 23 Luke Fitzgerald

Wasps: 15 Andrea Masi, 14 Christian Wade, 13 Elliot Daly, 12 Alapati Leiua, 11 Sailosi Tagicakibau, 10 Andy Goode, 9 Joe Simpson, 8 Nathan Hughes, 7 James Haskell (c), 6 Ashley Johnson, 5 Bradley Davies, 4 Joe Launchbury, 3 Lorenzo Cittadini, 2 Carlo Festuccia, 1 Matt Mullan
Replacements: 16 Tom Lindsay, 17 Simon McIntyre, 18 Jake Cooper-Woolley, 19 James Gaskell, 20 Sam Jones, 21 Charlie Davies, 22 Rob Miller, 23 Chris Bell

 

 

 

 

Outright

Pool 1 – Clermont 2.5, Saracens at 2.6, Munster 5.5, Sale 67.0

Being asked to write off at least 1 and probably 2 semi-finalists from last year makes calling this pool a tough proposition. Having been stung by Saracens at every turn last season (backed them to beat Toulouse twice, to win pool etc) am a bit wary of repeating that this year, but do think they look best equipped to top the group. It will probably come down to bonus points won though.

 

Pool 2 – Leinster 1.67, Quins 6.5, Wasps 8.0, Castres 11.0

Given Quins are a 1.17 shot to beat Castres this week, visit them in rd 6 when their attention may be fully directed at Top 14 and have a great recent record at Wasps – the 2.7 for them to qualify is worth some thought. The concern is their current form and fact their big games against Leinster come straight after the Autumn Internationals. Would agree Leinster should win the pool but with injuries mounting up it isn’t going to be as easy at that 1.67 price may suggest.

 

 

Pool 3 – Toulon 1.5, Ulster 5.2, Leicester 6.5, Scarlets 101.0

While it will be an idea to oppose Toulon on the handicap for their away trips to Ulster and Leicester, they still need backing for the pool. Don’t think it is a massive price, but may also have a play on Ulster to qualify at 2.0 as can see them beating Leicester and Scarlets home / away.

 

 

Pool 4 – Toulouse 3.2, Montpellier 3.5, Bath 4.0, Glasgow 8.0

Having backed the 3.5 for Montpellier a few weeks ago, the injury to Trinh-Duc was a real disappointment. It does feel odd ignoring Toulouse at 3.2 but really don’t have faith in them on the road. Instead, am now opting for Glasgow at 8.0 and to qualify at 3.6.

 

Pool 5 – Northampton 1.73, Racing Metro 2.88, Ospreys 9.0, Treviso 1001.0

With the slight concern that they have to open with a trip to Paris, the Saints should win this pool pretty comfortably and will likely take top seed in the quarter-finals. Given the presence of Treviso and high chance of gaining bonus points against them, it might be wise to look for an extra qualifier from this pool. Prefer the 3.6 for the Ospreys to the 1.73 for Racing Metro for that market.

When the draw was made, the first thought was that Northampton, Leinster and Toulon would win their pools and allowing for form, injuries at start of season, am still happy enough with a 4.27 treble for that to happen.

 

If looking for an overall winner, there are a few trends from previous tournaments that may prove useful.

While there have been exceptions (Wasps 4th in 2005-6, Munster 6th in 2006-7), most Heineken Cup winners finished top 2 in their domestic league the season before. That would be Saracens, Northampton, Leinster, Glasgow, Toulon and Montpellier if looking at last year.

A successful campaign the year before in Europe hasn’t always been necessary. In 8 of the last 17 seasons, the winner had failed to make the quarter-final stage the previous year.

In terms of fixture pattern, it does seem as if home, away, away, home, home and away is preferable.

Fixtures1

 

Starting off with a win is clearly favourable and only Munster have managed to the win tournament after a round 1 loss. There is also a pattern of round 4 usually being at home and a victory.

HCUp round winners

 

There are 5 sides that have the fixture set of home, away, away, home, home and away this year– Saracens, Leinster, Glasgow, Toulon and Racing Metro.
While Toulouse won all their matches in the first tournament (4 games) and Brive followed suit the next year (7 games), no side has managed that since it went to a 6 pool game format. Of the 11 teams that did win 6/6 pool matches, 6 then lost in the quarter-final stage, 3 at the semi-final and 2 were beaten finalists.

There may be an increased pressure in being the top seed or perhaps the position is ‘false’ due to having an easier group than other teams. Only 3 of the last 17 winners were in a group with an Italian side for example.

On the subject of nationality of group opponent, 4/17 winners were placed with a mix of French / Welsh / Scottish teams, with the next most frequent combination being 3/17 for English / Welsh / Scottish and 3/17 French / Welsh / English. Interestingly, no side has won the tournament in the last 17 years if they were placed in a pool with an Irish side.

In theory, it would seem that being 1st seed in the quarter-finals would be a big advantage. Since 1998-9, that has meant a home match against the 8th or ‘weakest’ of the remaining teams. There is a 75% success rate for home teams at this stage. Conventional wisdom would probably suggest that if 1 of the 4 games is going to see an away win each year, it will likely be when 4th meets 5th seed. However a look at the stats reveals a different answer.

HCup Seeds QF1

The top seed has lost 8 of the last 17 home quarter finals, compared to the 9 defeats by seeds 2,3 and 4 combined.

Between them seeds 2 and 3 have won 13/17 tournaments in this period while the top seeds has only reached the 3 finals, losing each time.

If all those trends are to be trusted then you are left with Saracens, Leinster, Toulon and Glasgow.

My own shortlist of a favourite, ‘middle’ price option and then longshot are Northampton (8.0), Ulster (29.0) and Glasgow (81.0), having scratched off Montpellier after the Trinh-Duc injury.