Planet Rugby

Loose Pass

13th January 2014 08:19

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sean obrien ireland

Missing out: Sean O'Brien

This week we will mostly be concerning ourselves with Heineken Cup stuff (but on or around the pitch this time) and a curiously deflated sense of anticipation regarding the Six Nations...

Well that was a vintage Heineken Cup weekend. Comeback victories away from home, comeback victories at home, blistering bursts of magnificent rugby, a couple of upsets. Once again, we are reminded of what will surely now not be any more next season.

The final weekend looms large, but it comes with an anomaly which at least goes some way to proving that the tournament does need a bit of an overhaul.

This Sunday is normally the one where I sit down with a calculator to work out who needs what and when to negotiate the Heineken Cup winner and best runner-up vortex, but this year the equation is remarkably simple.

Munster, Clermont and Toulon are all already through as group winners, while Toulouse would have to lose to the pointless Zebre not to follow suit. Likewise Leinster have all but wrapped up their pool.

Only in the Ulster-Leicester pool is there doubt as to who will win the group, but the runner-up would have to endure the sort of luck David Strettle has had with injuries not to qualify as a best runner-up. If it ends up being Ulster, qualification is a mathematical certainty. Saracens should be the other runner-up; Connacht are not pushovers (ask Guy Novès) but a trip to the Allianz is not one you see Connacht winning.

With the glorious exception of last season, the best runners-up come almost exclusively from the pools containing the Italian teams. You can lay a case for it being a significant boost to a team's chances to draw one of the Italians: hardly the kind of mentality desired in Europe's elite competition. So perhaps there does need to be a change in how the teams are distributed.

Meanwhile, the national proportions make for familiar reading as well. Three French, three Irish, two English. Neither Edinburgh nor Glasgow were ever truly close, the same can be said for the Welsh, who have lost a plethora of their best players abroad this year. The picture last year was little different.

That fact underlines two things. Firstly, Irish teams and the Irish union, who have been remarkably quiet during the whole Heineken fall-out, look remarkably well-managed when the pressure is on. The national team has not perhaps had all the recent success its talent has promised, but for a small country where rugby is by no means the biggest draw, Ireland continue to punch above their weight both at club and country level.

Secondly, the problem of the French league's rampant financial success is increasingly obviously a huge driving force behind the Heineken Cup upheaval.

It's not just that their clubs resemble a who's who of some of the great recent international sides, it's that the monumental demands made on the French players means that their leading clubs - as Novès and Bernard Laporte have pointed out at volume - are not recruiting French players any more, meaning other teams are and are a lot stronger for it. BT Sport have offered the rest a leg up - one that would be more palatable had it not emphasized the difference between French and British and Irish salaries so comprehensively.

So as a result of all this, you get further review of the European situation, accompanied by a bog standard 'I wish it would get resolved' apathetic line.

But here are our predictions for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals... feel free to disagree.

Ulster v Sarries
Toulon v Leicester
Clermont v Leinster
Toulouse v Munster


I was asked yesterday if I was looking forward to the Six Nations, and found myself curiously ambivalent.

Obviously the answer is: 'Yup, can't blooming wait', but there's also a sense of anti-climax looming. I glanced down the news columns of PR's Six Nations section to see if I could find out why, and it made for brutal reading.

'X out for Six Nations'. 'Y requires surgery'. 'Z set to miss Six Nations opener'.

No, they are not the only international teams who face injury problems, but the sheer number of crocked stars this year is extraordinary. With a brutal final weekend of Heineken Cup rugby to come on the back of a hectic Christmas schedule, the number can only increase before February 2.

If European competition is set to be overhauled and if, as has been mooted, control of such competition might be handed over to the Six Nations governing body, might it also be an opportunity to look at the amount of rugby played and give that an overhaul too? Seems a bit silly playing a major international tournament 18 months before a World Cup with so many players missing...

Loose Pass compiled by Richard Anderson

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