Friday, April 25, 2014

The Pagano Preview Apr 25-27

Rugby Puns

Really, really strange weekend coming up for Leinster fans.  We have gotten used to having a semifinal to look forward to at this time of year, and even though we actually do, unless we’re able to travel to Pontypridd there’s no way we get to see it.

I don’t expect Irish TV to show it and given the situation in Welsh rugby it may be overly contentious for either BBC Wales or S4C to give the club fans a platform to continue their “Get Roger Lewis” crusade.

So…we instead become Munster fans for the weekend and prepare to watch them stand up and fight in Marseille on Sunday.  We can do that, right?


Click here for TV listings

Friday, April 25

Amlin Cup Semifinal

Northampton Saints v Harlequins, 8pm

Recently I did a post saying how crazy the rugby calendar is, and the way the Amlin Cup is left helps me make my point even more. 

It may be the junior European competition but as Leinster showed last season it’s still worth winning, though three of the four Lansdowne Premiership club left in this year’s edition are still in playoff contention domestically.  So what should they do…go for every match like a cup final or focus on one or the other? 

Then of course we have the fact that the English clubs aren’t supposed to care about ERC-run tournaments, which means they should really just give up on the Amlin and let Leinster keep the trophy for ever.  ;-) 

I’m going to go with the Saints wanting this more on account of it being at home. Northampton by 7

Super Rugby

Sharks v Highlanders, 6:10pm

Super Rugby 2014 has been quietly moving along in the background…well, maybe not as far as its fans are concerned but when you run a Leinster & Ireland website it’s hard to keep close tabs on such things at the business end of the season!

It’s a competition which used the conference system, one I feel the Pro12 could do well with employing.  Maybe the Welsh fans would have more interest in their regions if they were not only playing each other more often but also found themselves alone on their own league table?  The Irish provinces could also have their own conference with the the Scots & Italians in what could be called an “International” one.  But I digress.

The Brumbies and the Chiefs lead in the Aussie & New Zealand conferences respectively going into ANZAC Day weekend but it’s the Sharks from Natal with players like Frans Steyn and Bismarck du Plessis have the best record in the competition at the halfway stage and will be expected to make full use of home advantage against the visiting Highlanders from Otago.  Sharks by 14

Saturday, April 26

British & Irish Cup Semifinal

Pontypridd v Leinster A, 2:30pm

What exactly do we know about Ponty?

     
  • The “pridd” part of their name rhymes a lot more with “speed” than it does with “skid”, as the Leinster announcer at Donnybrook found out to his cost when they played there in January 2013!
  • With one regular season match left to play they are 6 points clear atop the Welsh Premiership and are easily the top scorers in the division having amassed over 100 points more than the next highest.
  • Their passionate fans won’t thank me for mentioning that they are officially in the Cardiff Blues region. 
  • They were in Leinster A’s pool last season…we won that Donnybrook encounter 21-9 but on our last visit to Sardis Park they ran out 25-23 winners prompting their fans to rejoice on social media for weeks, conveniently neglecting to point out that it was an A side they beat not the reigning European Champions.
  • When it comes to their actual players, I can tell you nothing.  But given their lofty position in Welsh club rugby you’d have to assume that in terms of standards they are about as close to a 5th region as you’ll get.  Add to that their fans who will no doubt generate an intimidating atmosphere of Toulon-esque proportions and this is quite the challenge for the cup holders.

But despite the fact that the full Leinster team are off this weekend, Girvan Dempsey is pretty much sticking with the same matchday 23 which has won all 7 of their matches in the defence of their title, most of them comfortably.

Central to this progress has been the halfback pairing of Luke McGrath and Cathal Marsh.  The former showed last week he is more than capable of stepping up to play at least teams in the lower half of the Pro12, but I’d go as far to say that both can go even higher.  This semifinal will be a massive test for them to show what they can do far from the welcoming atmosphere of Donnybrook Stadium.

Of course they aren’t the only talents in the side…Noel Reid has been scoring tries for fun in the Pro12 and skipper Dominic Ryan will be extra keen to impress as due to injury he has fallen way behind Jordi Murphy and Rhys Ruddock in the pecking order.

Even the Leinster bench is strong…hooker Bryan Byrne will consider himself unlucky not to start as he had a superb cameo against Munster A in the quarterfinal while I have no stats to prove this but I’d say Leo Auva’a has to be one of the, if not the, top try-scorers in the competition history.

It all appears to boil down to how Leinster can handle the pressure on the day.  And whatever the result, it will be an experience that will stand to them.  I’ll tip them to do it, just. Leinster A by 4

Heineken Cup Semifinal

Saracens v Clérmont, 3:40pm

The English media are of course airbrushing that quarterfinal controversy out of history, but I’m pretty sure the Sarries players & fans will know just how lucky they are to be at this stage of the competition.

Not that I don’t think they have a chance at Twickers today, mind you…there are plenty of England caps out there for them so despite it being away from Allianz Park they will feel right at home, plus with 18 wins out of 20 they are well deserving of their top spot in the Premiership.

But this is the thing…just exactly how does the English club comp rank against the Top14?

Even though Clérmont are a club in decline, plus the fact that they are a French club playing away from home, you have to believe that they really want this match.  It’s effectively the same squad which came so close in both 2012 and 2013 and surely they’ll be up for a chance to make it third time lucky.

You have to assume that Sarries won’t have another 75-minute spell with an extra man, so they will need to rely on their own discipline as well as their stingy defence to keep the scoreline low.

I believe their task is similar to Munster’s in that if they can keep their opposition’s score under 20 they will have every chance.  I also believe that Sarries will fail in this task. Clérmont by 9

RaboDirectPRO12

Glasgow Warriors v Edinburgh, 7:05pm

A massive game for Scottish Rugby in virtually every aspect.

On the superficial level, there is a trophy up for grabs, the 1872 Cup.  Glasgow won the first encounter by 4 points so the aggregate score will determine its destination.

Plus although Vern Cotter will be otherwise occupied down in Twickenham, he will have to have some interest in this match as it represents a good chance to view the bulk of the Scotland squad he is inheriting in the next while.

But in real terms, this match represents Glasgow’s match in hand and any kind of victory will catapult them into second place on the table and make a home semifinal a distinct possibility given they just have the two Italian sides left to face.

Edinburgh for their part are still mathematically in the hunt for a European spot but the fixture calendar hasn’t been so kind to them, with Munster and Leinster left for them.

Let’s face it…even though Edinburgh have Tim Visser and Greig Laidlaw back in their ranks, you can’t see far beyond a home win.

The only question worth asking is…should we be suspiscious if the Warriors coast to an easy bonus point win given they have only gotten the four tries once in their 15 victories so far this season?  Glasgow by 12

Sunday, April 27

Heineken Cup Semifinal

Toulon v Munster, 3:30pm

Two questions that need answering here : (1) just how “overwhelming” favourites are Toulon and (2) do this Munster team have an historic victory in them?

To answer (1), take your pick.  Reigning Heineken Cup champions, it may not be their actual home but they recently showed when they played Toulouse there that they can still whip their rugby-mad following into a frenzy, plus as expected they have played the media card.  Their pack are no doubt going to lay into Munster from the get go, and the seeds of doubt over ref Wayne Barnes have not only been sown but there have been several green shoots.

This is all before we even begin to look at their squad, where despite fitness doubts Wilkinson starts and even if he can’t last the 80, we all know what Matt Giteau can do in his stead.

Then we have the addition of Bryan Habana to the team that faced Leinster.  I mean look at that…Toulon beat the 3-time champions without the involvement of Habana. 

So given all of that, Munster don’t have a hope, right?  WRONG!

I don’t think I’m overstating the case that Munster find themselves this weekend in a position similar to that Leinster were in Croke Park back in 2009.  You may think I’m being a divil bringing up that match but in all honestly I believe it is a justifiable comparison.

With the obvious exception of Paulie, Rob Penney’s men are at least equalled in every position on the park, but as we all know, you can’t win a rugby match with individuals.  It’s how they come together which counts.

And I believe that with their front row and their maul, Munster can do enough to get the job done this Sunday.

It will take discipline, it will take 80 minutes of tough tackling, it will take performances from players which will need to surpass anything they have ever done before at the highest level.

But if Munster can get a foothold with at least their own set-pieces in the first quarter, then Toulon’s Galacticos can get frustrated and with every ten-minute block where the score remains close, the away side’s confidence will grow.

Like I said about Sarries, I believe that Munster need to keep their French opponents’ side of the scoreboard under 20 to prevail.

I would also like to make a bold prediction for this match that there will be an interception try at some stage…thing is, I’m not altogether sure which side will get it, but whichever one does will probably be heading for Cardiff in May.

Hang the bookies and the form book.  I think Munster will do it, and although in some ways it should, it won’t bother me one bit.  Munster by 3

Amlin Cup Semifinal

London Wasps v Bath, 1pm


Be sure and enjoy your rugby this weekend wherever you are. JLP

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