Heineken Cup Final Preview: Biarritz v Toulouse

An all French final in the Stade de France might not seem like the most appealing game to watch if you’re not French, but think again. Biarritz against Toulouse has all the makings of a classic. Toulouse are chasing their fourth title and are in their sixth final, a reflection of their standing as a European superpower, but also how much they love this tournament. Biarritz bitterly lost to Munster in 2006 in Cardiff, but the pain from the that defeat will have stuck with them and will have been a driving force in their progression in this year’s tournament.

Toulouse winning their last trophy in 2005.

As for the teams, Toulouse have not got a single bad player in their starting XV. What I mean by that is, every single player is of International class or better. The names of Kelleher, Jauzion, Medard, Clerc and Poitrenaud in the backs, to Servat, Albacete, Dusautoir in the forwards should be familiar to all rugby fans. The pick of the bunch for me is Clement Poitrenaud. His error against Wasps in the 2003 final dented his reputation but this year his form has peaked again for club and country. A clever kicker and strong defender, but it his mazy swerving runs through gaps at high speed that show him at his best.

Poitrenaud is the man to watch for Toulouse.

The Toulouse pack has enough grunt to halt anyone, but what is also so impressive is the quality of the bench. Louis Picamoles, Daan Human and Census Johnston are all big time international forwards, and their impact of the bench will be crucial. Looking at the backs, the talismanic Jean-Baptiste Elissade has had to sit and wait whilst Byron Kelleher’s impressive form continues, but, don’t doubt that he shall have a big say in the game when he comes on. Add to that Cedric Heymans, one of the top try scorers ever in European rugby, and well, it’s a bit ridiculous.

To Biarritz, who may have lost Damien Traille but have had thousands of Basque prayers answered with the return of Imanol Harinodoquy. He is the beating heart of the side, and where he goes his team will follow. The image of him in the semi-final with an impressive face mask on after breaking his nose the week before, will live long in rugby history. Around him are players who may not have the same household name status, but are still of imperial class. Wenceslas Lauret at 7 has been so good this year that he has been selected for France’s summer tour, whilst the ex Sale flanker Magnus Lund has been reborn and is playing exceptionally. Jerome Thion leads the side as captian and boasts a wealth of international experience.

Hunt is crucial to getting Biarritz moving in the backs.

In the backs, there is the general, the man who you would never write off in any game he was in, Dimitri Yachvili. Yachvili’s distribution and place kicking are simply top class, his intelligence and speed of thought to open up the opposition gives their defence coaches sleepless nights. Outside him, the loss of Traille is a blow, but Ngwenya on the wing is red hot. His simply rapid speed, he has outpaced Shane Williams and Bryan Habana in recent years, is too much to handle seemingly for anyone one-on-one, so Biarritz will pray they can get him in this situation. Behind him, Iain Balshaw would love a Heineken Cup Winners medal with his new home team. He has spoken often in the press about how Biarritz has given him a new lease of life and it is reflected in his form on the pitch. The main man for me though in the backs is Karmicheal Hunt, playing at 12 but also a 10, the 23 year old Aussie from rugby league has converted excellently to union, he is physical but also visionary, with the ability to crash through but also put his other players through the gaps. Up against Jauzion he faces a hell of a challenge, but he has shown so far that his pedigree is good enough.

So for a prediction, whilst my heart says Biarritz, Toulouse have too much class. Toulouse 18 Biarritz 15.

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Hero Mike Catt a true rugby legend.

The title above will no doubt be scoffed at by some, but if legendary status is measured by success then here are Mike Catt’s credentials; one World Cup medal, two finals, four in total. Numerous Heineken Cup and Premiership titles. The 2006 Guinness Premiership Player of the Year. 75 Caps for England, including captaining his adopted country, plus appearances for the British & Irish Lions. There were Grand Slams too, in fact his versatility in an England shirt saw him play in nearly ever position in the backs apart from at scrum half.

With Jonny Wilkinson after winning the World Cup.

It was not all glory for Catty though. Steve Borthwick might sometimes think he’s got it bad with the criticism he receives as England captain but compared to Catty he’s no idea. The image of him being trampled by a young Jonah Lomu in the 1995 World Cup is part of rugby’s history. He was constantly booed by the Twickenham crowd through the 90s. Place kicking was never his strong point and the crowd sure as hell let him know it when he messed up. Even after the glory of the World Cup in 2003, he was left out in the cold by Bath after 10 years of loyal service. But at 32, luckily for both him and myself, another glorious chapter was still to come.

Winning the Heineken Cup in 1998 against Brive with Mark Regan (l) and Ieuan Evans (c).

His move to London Irish was something that the club had not really experienced before. It was a huge capture. At 32 he may have seemed to some to be well past his prime. But what he did to the Irish team, along with the new Director of Rugby Brian Smith on his arrival a few years later, was take a side who were for want of a better word “dull” and make them a fantastic attacking threat. The move seemed to not just rejuvenate a struggling club but also Catty himself. Whether on the pitch or through advice off it as he slowly eased into his role of coach, his presence was felt all over the club. With Catty leading the rest seemed to follow. Who would have thought he would make another World Cup at the age of 35? And not only that, but get to the final? Catt’s time at Irish may not have ended with more medals, but it is what he brought to the club in terms of attitude, hunger and philosophy that he will be best remembered for.

Scoring against Quins in the Premiership semi-final last year.

And yet after all this success, there was still one brilliant moment. For all his achievements, last year’s semi-final victory over Harlequins is my personal favourite. With Andy Gomersall keen to get Quins going from inside the 22, he flung out a pass to the right, and Catty sprung. The look of pure joy on his face as he looked at myself and the rest of the Irish fans in the South Stand only metres away, was awesome. For Catty as a player, this was his swansong, his last moment of glory. It was a marvellous chapter to what is an excellent story. One of a young lad from Port Elizabeth coming to England with what many former team mates have described as an atrocious dress sense, to a man who earned the respect of the whole rugby community. The fact he has played in 17 professional seasons is just incredible. He is still fit as fiddle, apparently still beating even some of the academy boys in bleep tests in training. A real athlete with a beautiful kick, incredible hands and back in the day a fair bit of pace! But the thing that sets Catty apart has always been his vision, and his passion. Where others might see nothing, he always found a gap. Where others might have given up, he never did. It is these talents, these exceptional qualities in Rugby, that will hopefully see him become an excellent coach.

Thank you for everything Mike. You will always be one of my rugby heroes.

Look here from 4:31:

Outrageous

Francois Steyn here just casually smashing over a beauty from 60 metres. Thanks to rugbydump.com

Worcester’s slide on paper should never have happened.

Worcester over the last few seasons have perplexed the rugby community, a club backed by excellent ownership in Cecil Duckworth and with a squad which when compared against that of say Leeds or Newcastle notably excels in many areas of the team. So how has it come to relegation? Well, whilst the Worcester team sheet has always looked attractive, it has never come together out on the pitch. Chris Latham, Rico Gear and Pat Sanderson are all top international rugby players with experience in abundance, whilst the likes of Tom Wood, Miles Benjamin and Jonny Arr have shown that they have the potential to go and become proven Premiership players. That is before other class acts like Willie Walker and Sam Tuitupou being mentioned to name a few.

Latham's class and experience has not been enough

What has killed Worcester has been surprisingly, given the list of players just mentioned, a major lack of penetration in the backline. This has come from the killer combination for any side in rugby union, slow ball at the rucks and a lack of direct running and bravery in attack. A few years ago they operated with a pack which was without a doubt one of the best in the league; it’s underdog, hard-working spirit seeing them sometimes overcome sides with of a far greater pedigree, and if not that then giving them a real scare. But the fire that drove Worcester once seems to have gone out. Craig Gillies was once heralded as a player who should have been playing for England, his towering frame and physical work in both the line-out and the scrum seen as something the national side couldn’t afford to leave out. However this season he has been a shadow of his former self, the grunt that made him so admired has disappeared. Greg Rawlinson is another player to arrive at Worcester with a big reputation, much like Rico Gear, yet has not lived up to expectations.

Mike Ruddock has resigned following Worcester's relegation

The resignation of Mike Ruddock, the Worcester Director of Rugby, this morning gives the answer to why the Warriors have dropped. Ruddock just simply hasn’t got his team playing like they can. There is more than enough penetration in the backs to have got over the game line, and score more than the 19 tries scored in 21 games. As a result a club with so much ambition both commercially and in terms of player recruitment may never come back from this. The likes of Andy Goode, Luke Rooney and Neil Best had all been signed for next season, but these moves will now be thrown up in the air.

Owner Cecil Duckworth has some tough decisions to make.

So what now? Well, Northampton Saints and Harlequins have proven in recent years that relegation need not be the end of a club, it can be in fact the thing that gives it life again. Saints and Quins though were fortunate in that there were not too many departures from their squads after they went down. Worcester may not find themselves in a similar situation given that there are definite departures for Latham and Wood, along with doubts over many over players. However, if they can retain a core, and get into a winning habit in the Championship along with some good signings, then there is nothing stopping them successfully bouncing back. It all depends on how much Cecil Duckworth wants to give it another go. He took Worcester from the lower leagues to the Premiership and a Challenge Cup final. Has he got the resources, and the drive, to do it all again?

Marvellous Reds.

This post is with a touch of bias, having followed the Reds since 2004, but seeing them come good this year has been a delight after years of mediocrity and finishing down the bottom of the table. I was away in Seville this weekend so didn’t get a chance to watch the game against the Bulls, but the highlights show briefly what an excellent game it was. Some great defence, a heroic effort from Scott Higginbotham and the usual top-class level of skill and power from the Bulls along with the Reds expansive running game seemed to be all on display. Enjoy.

All credit to Rugbydump.com for the highlights, without a doubt the best rugby highlights website.

Munster show brave Saints what it takes to be Champions

Northampton without a doubt proved on Saturday that they’ve got what is required to become one of Europe’s elite. In a game where they faced one of the hardest tasks in the European game in going to Thomond Park and winning, they gave it one hell of a go. They lead at half time after being under pressure for the majority of the first half, but then Munster did what we’ve seen them do so many times over the years, grinding Northampton down to the point where they were able to score the tries that gave them victory.

ROG showed that class is truly permanent

The conductor behind the now familiar orchestration of Munster’s triumphs in this tournament was no surprise. Ronan O’Gara may have lost his Ireland jersey to the young tyro in Johnny Sexton but he still knows how to run a game. With Lions captain Paul O’Connell absent for Munster in the engine room through his persistent groin issue, O’Gara stepped up to lead and kick Munster through. His work along with the likes of Alan Quinlan and David Wallace, who magnificently snaffled the ball away in a turnover during a late Northampton attack, was got Munster through this tie. All three of those players at this level have two winners medals, and quite simply bags of Heineken Cup experience. The latter is something that this young Northampton team, do not yet possess.

However, looking through their side on Saturday, there is so much potential that is Jim Mallinder can keep his squad together for long enough then they will definitely be major contenders in years to come.
In the backs they more than matched the class of such esteemed players like Jean de Villiers and Doug Howlett, whilst upfront Soane Tonga’huia, Hartley, Roger Wilson and Dowson hit the game line hard, time after time. The likes of Ben Foden, Jon Clarke, Chris Ashton, Stephen Myler and Lee Dickson, along with Dylan Hartley and Phil Dowson in the forwards were all playing their first knockout Heineken Cup games, and now after Saturday will be absolutely starving for more of it. If it is at the top table of Europe’s teams where Saints aspire to be, then they have to get to this stage next season, and the season after that.

De Villiers takes on the young guns Foden and Geraghty

In addition, they look very good bets for the Guinness Premiership title, which says a lot about the state of the game in England as we will now watch two Franco-Irish semi-finals. Northampton are the closest English side to matching the Irish team’s squad familiarity and French side’s flair. Sure the likes of Juandre Kruger and Soane Tonga’huia may be moving on at the end of the season, but, there is enough core strength in the side to see them develop strongly over the next few seasons.

Smaller battles making the whole Premiership come alive

Three of the games I watched this weekend came from the Guinness Premiership, and all in their own ways were entertaining. Starting up at Edgeley Park where Sale beat Worcester in a match that was billed as a relegation dogfight but in fact proved to be nothing of the sort. From the kick off Sale were classier and looked like a side who should not be languishing at the bottom. Charlie Hodgson and Richard Wigglesworth at half back were awesome in the way they moved the Sale pack around the pitch, and then when they did eventually manage to open Worcester up, Mathew Tait and Mark Cueto led an attack which always looked like it would score tries.

Charlie Hodgson could have kicked Sale out of relegation danger

Hodgson in particular was clinical with his drop goals and kicks at goal, where as Willie Walker for Worcester horribly mis-fired. At the start of the second half and at 9-3 down, Worcester started to move the ball around and offloaded strongly in the tackle, but it all came to nothing. They had so much possession and territory at times in both halves but could not make anything happen from it. It now means that they are almost in a straight shoot out with Leeds, who picked up a handy bonus point at home to Northampton on the Saturday. However following Friday night and the way they performed, their chances of staying up look slim simply because they have so much potential power in their back line, yet just aren’t scoring the tries. Benjamin, Gear and Latham can are proven finishers at the highest level, so what is holding them back? A lack of tries, and ultimately away wins (none since November), could be what sees Worcester go down.

19 year old Freddie Burns was inspirational for Gloucester

Saturday’s game at Kingsholm was the pick of the weekend, an end to end tussle between Gloucester and Saracens pn a very boggy, wet pitch which looked straight out of the pre-professional era. Man of the Match Freddie Burns put in a scorching performance at 15, both through his goal-kicking and setting up of the second try for Charlie Sharples with a delicate cross-field kick. The handling from both sides was simply awesome given the conditions. Some great tries, both sides attacking non-stop, and even the drama of a last-minute penalty kick to win it for Derick Hougaard, which he missed. A cracker.

Dom Waldouck- putting his hand up for England selection

Wasps against Irish was a mini battle for 4th place and whilst Irish’s courage cannot be faulted Wasps look like they’re coming good again. Dom Waldouck at outside centre was excellent, his break and kick over to the on-rushing Varndell on the right wing a moment of class. Danny Cipriani showed that he has lost absolutely none of his pace when he flew through the Irish centres and passed inside to Man of the Match Waldouck for the bonus point try. As for Irish, they were simply blitzed every time they were turned over, and their lack of penetration out wide from missing Tagicakibau, Ojo and Thompstone has really blunted their attack. For now Wasps are in pole position, but with five games to go, any two of Saracens, Bath, Wasps and Irish, could take spots 3 and 4 in the league table, and make the play offs.

The remarkable return of Julian Huxley

Those of you who follow Super 14 rugby will have heard about the comeback of Brumbies and Australia back Julian Huxley last weekend in the 30-23 win over the Chiefs in Canberra. Two years ago Huxley was diagnosed at the age of 28 with a benign brain tumour, which came as a result after collapsing and convulsing on the field following a head knock in a match against his old side the Queensland Reds. It required surgery, which went successfully, but his future rugby career was put in severe doubt.

Julian Huxley has made an astonishing comeback.

I saw Huxley play for the Reds against Stormers in Cape Town back in 2003 and in a team full of Wallabies such as Toutai Kefu, Elton Flatley, Tim Horan, Daniel Herbert and Ben Tune, remember being impressed by the young guy playing at full back, his pace and kicking were excellent and he scored a try towards the end of the match. The way his career progressed, with a switch to the Brumbies and then winning 6 caps for Australia, including playing in the 2007 World Cup, when the news of his brain tumour spread it was deeply saddening. In an interview talking about his recovery and desire to play again, Huxley said this;

“There were certainly a lot of people who said, ‘maybe it’s time to move on’ but it was never based around any sort of fact with regards to the safety of it. But I just wanted to explore that fully and I kept waking up wanting to do it. Life’s too short to worry too much about the future and you have to do what you want to do today within reason.”

It would be great if he was to one day play for the Wallabies again. But it’s even better to see him alive, and back on the field.

St. Patrick’s day fixture a chance for Irish revival.

For some reason or another the annual St. Patrick’s day fixture is not going to be broadcast this year by Sky. I personally see this as a great shame, I have gone to the game year after year and have always found it as both a kid and an adult to be a really excellent day out. London Irish regularly put on a great mixture of on and off field entertainment for all fans home and away, and the fixture has become a regular sell-out. As I’m currently away in Paris, I’m very disappointed that I won’t be able to attend.

Sisi Koyamaibole (r)- power, and then some.

Looking at the match itself, Irish have won just one of their last nine games, whilst Sale are languishing at the bottom but after an important win against Wasps last weekend look like the might have what it takes to be able to avoid relegation, particularly given the return of internationals Cueto, Tait and Dwayne Peel of Wales. Their team for Saturday does not on paper look their best. Without the likes of Chris Jones and Dean Schofield, Sale lose a lot of power and not to mention lineout expertise with Jones’ absence in particular. The fact these players have apparently been rested means that Kingsley Jones, the Sale coach, surely doesn’t see this fixture as being winnable, preferring to focus on the Sharks next home game against Newcastle in a week’s time. As a result, a weakened but nevertheless strong Irish pack could gain the upper hand in this area, allowing their backs to run with the ball.

Delon Armitage is back for Irish

The selection of Tom Homer on the bench comes as a surprise given his impressive kicking form over the last couple of weeks for Irish and the England U20 side, but the return of the “broken” Delon Armitage on the wing gives Irish the much-needed pace that they have been lacking. If Sale’s pack does not front up, and Irish gain quick ball for half backs Paul Hodgson and Ryan Lamb, then the Sharks could be in trouble. For Irish, they have to keep their discipline or be punished by Sale capitan Charlie Hodgson’s consistent kicking. If Sale can keep the scoreboard ticking over in this way, they are more than in with a shout. I am particularly looking forward to the clash at number 8 Sisi Koyamaibole and Chris Hala’ufia, neither who are what you would describe as shy to go into contact. Hopefully the match itself will live up the what will be an excellent occasion.

France are Champions as they overcome their malédiction anglaise.

There is something about playing England in the Stade de France that really seems to get under the French team’s skin. There are still fresh memories that haunt them from the 2003 and 2007 World Cup semi-finals defeat, and the losses in the last 3 Six Nations matches. It seemed that these may have been lingering on the mind as England came at the in the opening minutes. France never really fired but then again they didn’t really have to, Ben Foden’s early salvo aside.

France celebrate their Grand Slam after a nervous performance in Paris

On Friday afternoon I watch the Bulls show an impressive level of control in holding onto possession and ticking down the clock whilst leading 19-18 against the Highlanders in Pretoria. Phase after phase was controlled, pre-meditated but completely unstoppable. Their recycling was clean and smooth and there was an eerie sense of calm as the whole crowd and all those watching knew the Highlanders would never get the ball back. Was it dull to watch? Yes in the sense of the lack of adventure, but no because you knew you were watching a team of champions do what they had to in order to win. It was this control which saw France keep England out in the final 6 minutes of the game on Saturday night, phase after phase of forwards crashing up and recycling, over and over. In the end it was enough to grind the clock down to a halt, and win the grand slam.

Foden scores England´s try, their best moment in this year´s tournament

As for England, there was definite improvement but it would be a mistake to say that now everything was perfect. The new personnel were huge in terms of impact; Foden is a gem at full back with his constant desire to run the ball back. Flood did what Wilkinson has failed to do in getting England moving off the game line. And then there was Tindall. His return proved to be crucial, as much for when he had the ball and was crashing up into France’s defence, as when he didn’t have it. He posed such a threat that France’s defenders were caught into two minds whether to go for him or not, making him the perfect dummy runner. For evidence of this look at England’s first try. Hartley’s burst into the French pushed them back but the key was the quick ball which came from it. A miss pass from Flood with Tindall running up as the dummy rooted France to the ground, before deft, flick passes from the Flutey and the debutant Ashton sent Foden over sprinting in the corner. How many times have we seen England try something similar but with bad handling or mis-timed runs? The try was proof that when it clicks it works. And more importantly that England can make it work.

As for the wrongs, the lineout disintegrated at times and Bryce Lawrence’s interpretation of the scrums and breakdowns didn’t help England’s cause. Dan Cole really struggled and it was the penalties he conceded at scrum time which helped Parra extend France’s lead. The lack of clinical finishing is the other thing which really let them down because France were wobbling and seemed there for the taking. All the exuberance of their play had been blunted, and Imanol Harinordoquy admitted afterwards that they had perhaps been a bit afraid. England should have capitalised, and they did come close. Chris Ashton had a couple of kick chases but maybe he should have not kicked ahead in the first place. England were still plagued at times by the handling errors that we have come all too used to seeing week in week out.

Simon Shaw had a great impact but is not getting any younger

So what now? Well, the glimpses of progress from Saturday have to be taken forward. Flood must be given more games to grow into the number 10 position, but Jonny must also be retained in the 22 for the excellent impact he had when he came on. Foden, Ashton and Tindall too must also stay. The same goes for Danny Care, who has improved this tournament despite some ups and downs. In the forwards, Dan Cole has proved overall to be a good find at tight-head prop, while Lewis Moody led excellently as stand-in captain for the injured Borthwick. My main concern is that Simon Shaw and Mike Tindall are not getting any younger. New players of similar stature and ability need to come through sooner rather than later to be able provide the grunt and thrust of Shaw and the game line breaking ability of Tindall. But where are these new young replacements? Courtney Lawes looked to set to be the new Shaw but his star has not been given the chance to shine. And as for a replacement for Tindall, there is no one really there putting their hand up.

England now have three months before their next test against Australia in June. These three months of Guinness Premiership and Heineken Cup rugby will hopefully see more players putting their hands up for selection. As Dave Ellis, the France and London Irish defence coach stated afterwards; “England have to bite the bullet, throw new players in, they have nothing to lose.” Let us hope that in the road towards next year’s World Cup, Saturday was a start and not just a one-off.