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European Rugby: Monthly Roundup

Paul MurphyCorrespondent IOctober 3, 2012

European Rugby: Monthly Roundup

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    Welcome to what is the first of what will be a monthly roundup of the Premiership, Pro 12 and Top 14.

    With so much action to break down, I will pick three sides that have done well and three that haven't in the top three professional leagues in Europe.

    After a hectic opening to the season, there is much to debate, so I will try my best to get as much of the relevant information out there as possible.

Harlequins: Hot

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    Last season's champions started this year the same way they finished last, with four big wins before Saracens brought them back down to earth.

    They're opening-day victory over Wasps was one for the ages, as they fought back from 40-13 down to win 40-42.

    Sale and London Welsh were dispatched with ease before Quins bossed Leicester Tigers on their own turf.

    Mike Brown has been impervious at the back, and Nick Evans has looked as sharp as ever.

    Harlequins have a strong squad built to compete in all weather, but it will be interesting to see if they have the squad to compete on two fronts. 

Saracens: Hot

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    While other teams were getting hyped up in the press, Saracens did what the do best. They win games with a ruthless efficiency.

    Their first two wins of the season hinted at a newfound adventurous side, but they have failed to score tries in their last three games. This would deter most sides, but not Sarries, as their strong pack and the boot of Owen Farrell have seen them through.

    9-9 draw with Leicester wasn't the best advert for rugby, but every point counts. Their sole defeat of the season came in horrible conditions down in Devon against Exeter, as they struggled to deal with the wind.

    On the back of this, many predicted they would be run over by Harlequins. But Sarries had other ideas, as they ground the Quins attack to a halt and came out on top 16-14.

    They'll need to show more attacking if they are to reclaim their crown, but their efficiency means they will be there—or thereabouts.

Northampton: Hot

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    Five wins from five matches always looks good on paper, but the thing that will please the Saints most is the manner of their victories.

    Northampton have long been a side capable of running up a score but often fell short in tight games due to the lack of a top-level fly-half and some questions about their mental strength.

    Of their five wins this season, four have come by less than one score. They have chased down leads, held off fight-backs and won a kicking duel.

    This newfound resolve bodes well for the latter months of the season.

    Dylan Hartley has been a standout as he fights to be named Lions hooker, while James Wilson and Luther Burrell have fitted seamlessly into the squad. The loss of Ben Foden to injury is huge, but the Saints appear to be weathering the storm so far. 

London Irish: Not

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    A changing of the guard was supposed to lead to an upturn in results, but the Exiles have been positively woeful for the first few weeks of the season.

    First, Saracens absolutely blew them off the park in a 40-3 hammering, and then they failed to finish off Gloucester despite building up a lead. London Wasps were up next, and they inflicted another hammering on the Irish in a clinical display.

    They finally got their act together against Bath, but that proved to be a false dawn, as fellow strugglers Worcester blitzed them on Friday night.

    Brian Smith seems a long way from the coach he was a few years ago, as the England setup has dulled one of the brightest attacking minds in the game.

    Shaun Edwards might need to increase the time he spends at the club, as their defence seems porous.

    It seems that the departure of some big personalities has robbed the club of the atmosphere that made them a joy to watch in recent years.

London Wasps: Not

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    I could cut together a tape of Wasps in action and one could think they are one of the best teams in the world.

    With ball in hand they are a match for any side, as their record as the third-best attack in the league shows.

    Still, they find themselves third from the bottom, thanks to a weak defence that has seen them ship points at key moments of big games. They have come out on the wrong side of two high-scoring affairs, first against Harlequins and then Bath.

    24-6 defeat this weekend to Northampton showed that the difficult losses are draining the confidence of their exciting attack.

    They have a young side, so confidence will play a huge role this season, but they would appear to have enough in the tank to stay out of trouble.

Sale Sharks: Not

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    What was meant to be a season of renewed hope has quickly descended into another dismal showing from the Sharks.

    Danny Cipriani has been an absolute failure and has been relegated to the bench. The goings-on behind the scenes have been laughable.

    Steve Diamond, the CEO, is coaching the forwards after sacking the forwards coach in Week 4. It would appear to be a rash decision, as the pack were only a minor part of the problem.

    Richie Gray has done his best, but he is fighting a losing battle with a team struggling in all areas.

    Huge improvements will need to be made, and quickly, if the club is to stave off the threat of relegation.

Toulon: Hot

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    Last season's bridesmaids are determined to go one better this season, and that dream appeared to be in good order for the first six games of the season.

    Their expectations will be tempered by last weekend's drubbing at the hands of Toulouse. They rested a host of key players, but the nature of the defeat leads me to question their strength in depth.

    Are they equipped with enough talent to navigate the battleground of the Top 14?

    If they're first XV can stay fit, they can beat any team.

    Their big-name signings appear to be settling in well, with Freddie Michalak rolling back two years with a couple of sparkling performances.

    They will hope to bounce back this weekend, but they face a daunting trip to Biarritz. The players rested last week will need big performances to justify the decision to rest them against Toulouse.

Toulouse: Hot

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    The more things change, the more they stay the same.

    In France, only three things in life are certain—death, taxes and the fact that Toulouse will reach at least the semifinals.

    On current form, they won't be breaking a streak that goes all the way back to the dawn of professionalism.

    Such is the strength of their squad that they had a quiet summer, preferring to build on the chemistry of last season's successful side.

    Luke McAlister may not have been up to All Black quality, but he is perfectly suited to the French game with his huge boot and eye for a gap. It helps that he's surrounded by one of the deepest squads in world rugby.

    What will worry their rivals is that the next wave of Toulouse stars seem primed to break out. Youngsters like Christopher Tolofua, Jean-Marc Doussain, Gaël Fickou, Antoine Guillamon and Edwin Maka have all made huge strides in the last 18 months.

Clermont Auvergne: Hot

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    Top of the pile in France are the Michelin-backed powerhouse of Clermont-Auvergne.

    An ever-present at the top in recent years, they show no signs of dropping off the pace.

    The emergence of Wesley Fofana has improved an already lethal back line, while Napolioni Nalaga has picked up where he left off.

    As ever, the fate of Clermont often rests on the shoulders of Brock James, who has a habit of crumbling under said pressure. A late drop-goal to steal victory from the jaws of defeat last weekend should boost his confidence, but how long will it last?

    As they face their nemesis Leinster in Europe, the Top 14 might be their only shot at silverware.

    After breaking their losing streak of 10 League Final defeats in a row, could they bring home their second title in three years?

Mont-De-Marsan: Not

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    If I was a betting man I would bet it all on Mont-de-Marsan going straight back down to Pro D2.

    Their record is not pretty. Seven defeats from seven, with just four tries scored and 20 conceded.

    They haven't been helped by a schedule that has seen them face the top four sides in the division, but their big defeat to fellow promoted side Grenoble shows they face an uphill fight for survival.

    Their squad is short of quality and, save for a few South Sea Islanders, lacking in imagination.

Perpignan: Not

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    The French Catalans are a proud bunch, and while they've had a solid start to the season, it is well below the standard they aspire to.

    Given the investment made in recent years, a trip to the semifinals should be their goal. On current form, they appear well short of that level.

    After a poor start, they looked to have turned things around after blitzing Toulouse in Barcelona. They failed to build on that performance, and unless they achieve consistency, they will miss out on the playoffs.

    It also seems that the recent big spending has left the club in dangerous territory. Their financial situation was described as"balanced but fragile," as their budget has been cut.

    A share issue was supposed to ease their plight, but it hasn't been well received. Domestic success may be enough to ease their plight, but a mid-table finish would see them slip to also-ran status.

Stade Francais: Not

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    Its not so long ago that Stade were considered among the top sides in world rugby. Now the only reason they stand out is their colourful jerseys.

    The high-flying  days of huge spending by Max Guazzini are long gone, as his financial strife forced him to step away from the club he returned to relevance.

    Last season was viewed as a blip when they finished seventh, but they now find themselves just outside the relegation spots.

    The squad still has quality, but most of their stars are on the wane, with a shortage of young talent waiting to fill the gaps.

    Last weekend they finally showed some fight before a late Clermont drop-goal stole victory from them. They'll need to show the same fight all season, or they could find themselves in trouble.

Ulster: Hot

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    It has been a tough month for all involved in Ulster Rugby. The death of rising star Nevin Spence in a tragic farm accident has cast a shadow over the province. Not only was he a bright prospect, but he was a friend to player and fan alike. RIP Nevin.

    But the team have done a fine job of honouring his memory.

    They find themselves.a point clear at the top, with a game in hand. And all this while their Irish internationals are slowly eased into the team and Ruan Pienaar is on international duty.

    Coach Brian McLaughlin's departure wasn't well received by the fans, but his replacement Mark Anscombe has quickly won over the doubters.

    They won a hard-fought affair away to Ospreys, not to mention beating Munster in Ravenhill.

    The most impressive victory so far was their demolition of a good Cardiff side.

    Tommy Bowes' return, coupled with the return to fitness of Jared Payne, gives them an exciting back three when you add in young Craig Kilroy.

    Combining an exciting back-line with their dominant pack will make them a tough prospect for any team.

Munster: Hot

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    Anyone who caught Munster's game on Saturday night will question this pick, but I'm choosing to look at the bigger picture.

    Rob Penney is trying to implement a whole new game plan, and it appears to be bearing fruit.

    There has been a huge changing of the guard in the last 18 months, so wobbles are to be expected.

    The pack anchored by BJ Botha should hold up throughout the season, while they finally seem to have found a cutting edge in the backs.

    James Downing is a lump but is the perfect target man to play off, and the likes of Keith Earls, Casey Lualala, Luke O'Dea and Simon Zebo should thrive in his presence.

    The fitness of Paul O'Connell and Ronan O'Gara will be key, but Ian Keatley has flashed some real promise this season.

    They may not be the Munster of old, but they have enough talent to compete.

Llaneli Scarlets: Hot

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    The Scarlets got off to a very hot start but have cooled off hugely in the last two weeks.

    Leinster, Edinburgh and Connacht were dispatched with ease, as Simon Easterby unleashed their exciting young back line.

    But such is the exuberance of youth that they were overconfident when they played an out-of-form Ospreys who caught them on the hop.

    They traveled to Treviso looking to make a statement and were guilty of not killing off the game, as they played fast and loose rather than by the numbers.

    Despite this, they have shown enough to lead me to believe they have enough in the tank to cause serious problems.

    Liam Williams have joined an already talented back line, while Aaron Shingler looks a serious prospect on the flank.

Zebre: Not

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    The League new-boys have picked up exactly where there predecessors Aironi left off, rooted to the foot of the table.

    Besides that fact, there isn't really much to say about Zebre.

    They lack ideas going forward, while their defence has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.

    The finally put up a fight last weekend against Glasgow, which might kick-start their season.

    Unfortunately for them, they've already lost one of the few games they would have targeted as a potential win, losing comprehensively at home to Connacht.

    This season will be a steep learning curve, but one would hope Zebre can get a win or two on the board.

Cardiff Blues: Not

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    They may be sitting pretty in fifth place, but a deeper look at their form reveals massive problems.

    Their three wins have come against bottom-feeders Connacht, Newport and Treviso, and they've come up short when facing better sides even at home.

    Both Ulster and Edinburgh have come to the Arms Park and left with the points. In Ulster's case they walked all over Cardiff for 80 minutes.

    With Jamie Roberts and Leigh Halfpenny in contract years, they will need to have a good season to persuade them to stay.

    The way things are looking, they should consider starting French lessons sooner rather than later.

Edinburgh: Not

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    There have been some bright spots for Edinburgh this season, but they don't seem to have learned from their mistakes last season.

    Too often they let teams get a lead on them before making a comeback. Sometimes it works, as against Cardiff, but more often than not it fails.

    They had advantages against both Munster and Leinster but let the games get away from them.

    And they falter in the games that they should be targeting as wins, such as when they squared off against Newport-Gwent Dragons.

    Tim Visser's form has been as good as ever, so they won't lack for tries.

    They just need to keep the mental errors down. The talent is there, they just need to utilise it for a full 80 minutes. If they do, they could push for the playoffs.

Games to Watch out for This Month

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    This month is all about the start of the Heineken Cup, which means domestic rugby will go on the backburner for a couple of weeks.

    But there are a number of big games to watch for in the coming month. Here are the games worth keeping an eye out for.

     

    Aviva Premiership

    London Wasps vs. Worcester Warriors - Two attacking mid-table teams who will duke it out in a high-scoring affair.

    Exeter Chiefs vs. Harlequins - How will the champions fare against Exeter in the Devon fortress of Sandy Park?

    Northampton Saints vs. Saracens  - Two title contenders square off in a clash of styles.

    Gloucester v Leicester Tigers - Leicester will be hoping to get their season back on track when they journey to take on a young, talented Gloucester outfit.

     

    Top 14

    Biarritz vs. Toulon - Toulon will be looking to rebound from last weekend's hammering, but Biarritz is a hard place to go in search of a win.

    Racing Metro vs. Montpellier - A playoff six-pointer as two mid-table sides square off trying to stay in the race for the knockout stages.

    Stade Francais vs. Toulouse - This used to be the biggest game on the French calendar, and while it's lost some of its glamour, it remains a must-watch game.

    Clermont vs. Biarritz - Biarritz are one of the teams chasing leaders Clermont, so don't expect them to hold anything back in this top-of-the-table bout.

     

    Pro 12

    Leinster vs. Munster - Always a big occasion, both sides will be trying to use this as a springboard to launch successful European campaigns. 

    Llanelli Scarlets vs. Newport-Gwent Dragons - Welsh derbies are passionate affairs, and this will be no different. Expect the Dragons to give everything trying to beat one of Wales' top sides.

    Edinburgh vs. Llanelli Scarlets - These are two sides blessed with try-scoring backs, so expect a seesaw battle with lots of scoring.

    Treviso vs. Glasgow - If Treviso want to move up the table, these are the games they should be winning, but don't expect Glasgow to roll over, as they will be in search of much-needed points.


What's to Come?

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    With the action coming quick and fast, I'll do my best to keep you up to date with the goings on in European Rugby.

    As well as my monthly roundup of domestic action, I will will provide weekly previews and reviews of all the Heineken Cup action starting later this week.

    Feel free to get involved, voice your opinions and make suggestions for future editions.

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