Friday, October 18, 2013

The Pagano Preview Oct 18-20

Every Friday lunchtime I look ahead to the weekend's rugby for the Irish provinces and beyond.

The debate over whether or not rugby should go pro went on long before it actually happened towards the end of the 90s.

One of the biggest worries the power-that-be had about the change was no doubt the introduction of agents to the scene, thus interrupting the previously cosy relationship between blazers, coaches and players.

The flip-flopping of Sonny Bill Williams between codes in recent years has proven those fears were justified…and his agent Khoder Nasser actually has the stones to say he reckons his player will easily get back into the All Black team.  In actual fact, he could well be right.

Here in Ireland, playing the role of Khoder Nasser we have Fintan Drury.  He played League of Ireland football for UCD back in the 80s and was manager of the Blackrock College Past Pupils soccer team for a spell. (yes, that’s right, they also play soccer there! They won the Leinster Senior Cup one year in actual fact

Though his roots are in soccer, on the shores of Ireland the only team sport these days with any decent coin to be made at the highest level is rugby, so it is there that he plies the bulk of his trade these days with his Platinum One agency.

Clearly it’s no coincidence that Jonny Sexton’s book gets released just as the IRFU begins meaningful negotiations with Sean O’Brien and (hopefully also) Jamie Heaslip.  This Machiavellian scheming is just what we expect from the likes of Drury and though it might be infuriating, it is a sacrifice we must make in the modern pro game.

All we can hope as Leinster fans is that the mother ship is fully motivated to keeping these stars on Irish soil, because as we saw last weekend in Swansea, both are integral to Leinster’s success and for them to continue to bring those standards to the green jersey it would be ideal that they don’t have the lungs played out of them in the Top14.

Meanwhile, my own agent has just told me to stop blathering and get on with my preview..I must obey.

***

Friday, October 18

Heineken Cup

Saracens v Toulouse, 7:45pm

My predictions are very specific for this contest.  Toulouse got their 5 points last week so with Toulon set to visit the Stade Ernst Wallon next weekend, I can’t see them bothering to seek more than one at Wembley.  I reckon Sarries will do their usual grunt work and win thanks to a high penalty count and the visitors will have one impressive try which won’t be enough to get even the losing bonus.  The win will of course be hailed by Stu Barnes and co as the renaissance of English club rugby.  Saracens by 8

Leicester Tigers v Benetton Treviso, 8pm

The Tigers will have been happy with the losing bonus they earned at Ravenhill but having seen how Montpellier dispatched the Italians on their own turf last week they will consider anything less than 5 points a failure tonight.  Mat Berquist gets the nod at 10 for Treviso and he is well capable of punishing any penalties coughed up by the Leicester pack but I still think they will lead the way and the job will be done.  Leicester by 20

Amlin Cup

Grenoble v Viadana, 6:30pm

British & Irish Cup

Ulster Ravens v Jersey, 7:30pm

Nottingham v Munster A, 8pm

Saturday, October 19

Heineken Cup

Zebre v Connacht, 1:35pm

Given it’s their third successive season in the Heineken Cup (once more on behalf of Leinster, you’re welcome!) I’m not sure Connacht fans are still content with the whole “ah, sure they fought bravely and only narrowly lost” summary after matches, yet this is what they had to endure last week after falling short against Sarries.

If they are to take their status in this competition seriously, they must be looking at Toulouse’s victory at Wembley last night and see it as an opportunity.  Who’s to say pat lam’s brave charges can’t get a result against Toulouse in December, especially in the windy Sportsground?

That’s how I would be approaching this trip to Parma, one that will be by no means easy as the Zebres may have broken their win duck this season but they are yet to do it at home, and they will have most certainly been targeting this one as their best chance.

Connacht, on the other hand will have to target a maximum haul themselves if they are to take their own chances in this pool seriously as I reckon they should.  And although their squad strength has been tested with the loss of back row legend John Muldoon, they do welcome back promising 12 Dave McSharry, if only to the bench - AIL graduate Craig Ronaldson starts there but certainly won’t finish.

As per tradition on this blog my prediction will go against the Westerners, but I will be disappointed if it comes true. Zebre by 3.

Cardiff Blues v Toulon, 1:35pm

Many variables to weigh up here when you try to work out who has the advantage.  On the one hand, Cardiff are the home side, French teams don’t travel well and what’s more Toulon could well have their eye on Toulouse next week in the Top 14.  On the other hand, Cardiff lost to Zebre at home and Toulon are the reigning Heineken Champs with a reserve side that could also probably win it.  I’ll go with the other hand. Toulon by 13

Montpellier v Ulster, 3:40pm

I may not watch Ulster every week, but I can’t for the life of me work out how Iain Henderson can only make the bench.  Nothing against Robbie Diack, and perhaps Mark Anscombe sees it in a similar “horses for courses” fashion as Matt O’Connor sees his Gopperth/Madigan dilemma.

Anyway…with that selection aside this is pretty much the strongest lineup Ulster can put on the park, and they will definitely need it for their trip to Montpellier, who if anything are a far better side now than back when Leinster struggled to come away with a 16-16 draw back in 2012.

I heard some radio pundits during the week (can’t remember who exactly) say that anything less than a trophy for Ulster this season should be considered failure…I never thought about it like that, but the more I do the more it makes sense.  And it’s matches like this one where they need to put their hands up.

To get a win we’ll need to be reading about the Ruan Pienaars and Tommy Bowes doing what we all know they can, though it is in the forwards where this battle will be won or lost.  They’ll have to be sure not to get on the wrong side of ref Leighton Hodges or this could get away from them quickly.

I’m guessing they’ll be ok on the discipline front but just fall short on the points front. Montpellier by 4

Leinster v Castres, 3:40pm

SIXTEEN POINT FAVOURITES.  Would ye get away outta that Paddy Power!  Before a ball is even kicked?

OK - maybe Leinster were awesome last week and got an amazing result.  But even though they were home, the French champions didn’t do too shabbily themselves overturning Northampton last weekend.  Oh, and there’s also the fact that they’re French champions.

To be fair there’s the whole “French travelling apathy” to consider, plus they have a home match against struggling Biarritz next week where they will be keen to get a handy try bonus point.

But even though their title last season was against a Toulon side which had other things on their mind (something we know a fair bit about) this Castres lineup is certainly not to be underestimated.

First they have a halfback pairing which wouldn’t look out of place leading the full French side.  Rory Kockott and Remi Tales can do their fair share of damage in open play and the South African-born scrum half can knock over the penalties when required.

But it’s in the forwards where we must watch them.  Richie Gray is returning to the height of his powers while in Antoine Claasen they have a strong number 8 who is more than a match for our considerable back row talents.

Matt O’Connor has gone mostly for a “more of the same” approach, at least with his lineup.  Once again Gopperth over Madigan is unfortunate for Ireland but totally sensible for Leinster, and that is as it should be for the Heineken Cup anyway IMO.

Mike Ross is deemed too much of a risk so Martin Moore deservedly gets the start, he will need to establish himself early in the scrums.  Michael Bent returns from injury straight to the Heineken Cup bench, hopefully he won’t be needed with the result still in doubt.

Otherwise it’s an identical matchday 23 so clearly the plan is to produce an identical performance, particularly defensively.  It’s a tough ask to ask all of them to keep up the same intensity for another full 80 minutes just one week after Swansea, but on the other hand it stands to them that their coach shows such faith, particularly in the case of Brendan Macken.

Being a home match I will expect a bit more open-ness in our backline play and it is here where Macken can shine - he’s a pretty decent finisher when given the chance and hopefully those around him will do just that.  Other than that I reckon Fergus McFadden is positively itching to cross that try-line with November getting ever closer.

Naturally I’m hoping the bookies are right, but with wet weather expected I can see this one remaining tight throughout.  We should have enough to keep the visitors at bay, but I’m thinking they could well come away from Dublin with a point of their own.  Leinster by 7

Munster v Gloucester, 6pm

On October 7, Gloucester beat Newcastle 44-7.  Amazingly, 8 of those involved in that match are in the matchday squad for Gloucester in this Heineken Cup clash.

Now when I say 8, I don’t mean “as few as” 8.  I mean “as many as 8” because the victory over the Falcons I’m referring to above was actually in the Premiership’s reserve “A” league.

As fellow bloggers Whiff of Cordite rightly point out, it’s the height of cheek for any English club to complain about the format of a competition when they themselves don’t take it seriously at every opportunity.  After beating Perpignan last week and watching Munster fall flat in the Scottish capital, Glaws must have fancied their chances of getting at least something at Thomond, yet they have made as many as 12 changes.

Munster on the other hand have gone the other way, and hopefully for Ireland’s November chances they haven’t brought Peter O’Mahony back into the starting lineup too soon after his knock against Leinster.

Elsewhere in the pack Donncha O’Callaghan resumes his old lock partnership with POC as Donnacha Ryan moves over to 6, as CJ Stander is confined to the bench once more.  BJ Botha also starts.

Rob Penney will be hoping that Ian Keatley can get the 16th man on his side early in this one and establish enough of a lead so that Freddie Burns won’t be able to come off the bench and make a difference.

I reckon they should get themselves a handy try bonus against what appears to be a disinterested outfit.  Sure, I said that last week as well, but this is at Thomond.  Munster by 15

Scarlets v Racing Métro, 6pm

Llanelli got themselves a super result against Quins last week, but this is an entirely different proposition.  Racing have begun their “Sexton era” as a team notoriously difficult to score against, so I’m not so sure the tries will come as freely as they did last week.

The reverse of that however is that the Parisiens haven’t exactly been running in the 5-pointers themselves, and having been one of the chief architects of “Leinstertainment” that must be frustrating for the Irish out-half.

Feck it - I can’t call this one, I’ll go for a 15-15 kickfest draw for the laugh.

Amlin Cup

Mogliano v Bordeaux, 1pm

Cavalieri v Stade Francais, 1pm

Bucharest Wolves v Calvisano, 1pm

Biarritz v Oyonnax, 2pm

Bath v NG Dragons, 3pm

Worcester Warriors v Sale Sharks, 3pm

Lusitanos XV v London Irish, 4pm

Brive v Newcastle, 8pm

British & Irish Cup

Connacht Eagles v Rotherham Titans, 2:30pm

Moseley v Leinster A, 3pm

Girvan Dempsey takes his charges to Birmingham to face Moseley who are coached by former Ireland international Kevin Maggs…the task will no doubt be trickier than against Ealing as it is away, but not so much as Moseley are just one place and one draw better than the Trailfinders at the foot of the Championship table.

Leinster’s A side is very similar to that which started last week…as expected Luke McGrath starts at scrum-half which means a rotation policy is in effect there while Tom Denton has recovered from the niggle that sidelined him against Ealing and lines out at lock alongside try-scorer from last week Tadhg Beirne.

I don’t give score predictions for these matches but all evidence points to an away win.

Bledisloe Cup

New Zealand v Australia, 7:35am

ITM Cup

Canterbury v Auckland, 2:05am

Tasman Makos v Southland, 4:35am

Currie Cup

Western Province v Golden Lions, 1:30pm

Natal Sharks v Free State Cheetahs, 4pm

Sunday, October 20

Heineken Cup

Perpignan v Edinburgh, 12:45pm

Damage limitation by the Scots here after last week’s success?  I reckon so.  James Hook is at out-half for the Catalans and could cause some havoc.  A decent home win should set up a cracker of a back-to-back series with Munster in December. USAP by 15

Northampton Saints v Ospreys, 12:45pm

As the saying goes, if you lose your first two HCup matches you’re gone, so as if this wasn’t already a so-called “Pool of Death” this one becomes even more of a cup final.  I definitely expect a backlash from the Welsh after their disappointment in Swansea but with the Saints at home and packing so many weapons I can only see one result. Northampton by 10

Glasgow Warriors v Exeter Chiefs, 2pm

There’s a case to be made for the Warriors tossing this one so they can focus on maintaining their unbeaten Pro12 start, but not until you remember how Ulster got on last season.  The Warriors need to put on a show for their home crowd and with their 2nd half bonus in Toulon they must still consider at least 2nd spot to be within their reach in this pool.  It was a great win for the Chiefs last week but they shouldn’t add to their pool points tally here. Glasgow by 9

Clérmont v Harlequins, 3pm

I thought Paddy Power were being cruel to Castres offering 16pts to Leinster but they better it here going as much as 17 for Les Jaunards…sure, there’s bound to be a backlash after their disappointment in Paris but Conor O’Shea’s men have been know to put in gutsy displays on the road in this competition and they should at least beat that spread if not snatch a bonus. Clérmont by 8

ITM Cup

Otago v Hawke’s Bay, 2:35am

***

Be sure and enjoy you rugby this weekend wherever you are. Provided your agent tells you it’s in your best interest, of course. JLP

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