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A TRIBUTE, SOME PREDICTIONS AND FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE

A sad note to start with.   I have always believed in the family of rugby – the way the game builds bonds and friendships across the sport. This week’s shocking news about the legendary Munster player and coach Anthony Foley showed that closeness which totally united the rugby community in paying tribute and respect to the man .  ‘Axel’ Foley was a class act who for me epitomised every single thing that is good about our sport.

I thought Munster made the right decision to go ahead this weekend and play their game against Glasgow as there will be no better way to show their love and respect for Foley than by putting their bodies on the line and win or lose play with all the passion, courage and pride that he did.

Casting an eye over the other games in this second round I think there are some points to prove and ground to make up for many teams.  Overall, I was especially pleased to see how well the Pro 12 teams have done.  As a European competition we all want a mix of nations and last year’s all Anglo-French quarter finals do not do this fantastic completion any favours.  Sadly Wales have only one team represented in the Cup and they have the misfortune to be in the same pool as Euro monsters Toulon and last year’s champions Saracens.  However Glasgow look good and Leinester is looking a force once more. With Ulster and Connacht both very capable of big upsets I am hopeful we will get a better showing from the Pro12 in this year’s quarter finals

Northampton Saints had a scrappy old win last weekend against Montpellier so need to be a bit more convincing against Castres.  I scratch my head slightly over Saints who can show flashes of brilliance interspersed with some pretty poor stuff.  I was also sad to see a fine rugby man Alex King lose his job as attack coach – hard to lay the blame solely at his door but it looks like someone had to pay the price. 

If you look at the names on the Saints team sheet there is absolutely no shortage of big names and experience.  An away trip to France might not sound like the best starting place for them to put in a big performance but Castre are giving a Gallic shrug of the shoulders and lighting up a Gitanes when it comes to this competition.  Even their coach has told fans that he does not want to be in the Champions Cup this year.  So I am going for Mallinder’s  men to gather an important away win.

Scarlets,  who had a good win against Sale must now travel to London to take on Saracens a side who, let’s be honest,  schooled Toulon at their own ground.  Tough old ask for the Scarlets but I love their backline stuffed as it is with some seriously exciting  playmakers and speedsters.  Saracens beat Toulon by not taking on the French side’s power game and playing non-stop attacking rugby.  Not sure I totally approve as a member of the Front Row Union of all that wonderful handling skill demonstrated by the Sarries forwards! However it worked brilliantly against Toulon and perhaps there is a hint to Scarlets who would lose out in an arm wrestle against that Saracens pack. 

A team dear to my heart is Exeter from the fine county of Devon.  To be honest I think they are struggling a bit at the moment and not quite clicking.  No shame in losing to a brilliant Clermont but makes life difficult for them especially now having to travel to Ulster.  Not too sure they will get much change there as Ulster themselves lost so need this home win very badly in the fight to probably come second in the pool to Clermont.  Sadly I think this one is Ulsters but as Exeter showed last year there could be twists so a losing bonus point could prove valuable.

I feel poor old Sale Sharks are slightly making up the numbers in their pool and have a wounded French beast lumbering into Salford with a massive point to prove.  Toulon need to win this one with a bonus point and I suspect their fiery owner has given them a piece of his mind.  I would never underestimate Sale at home where they have an awesome record but containing the Toulon pack if they switch on their power game will be right up there in an all time historic win if they do.

Leicester Tigers were unbelievably disappointing up in Glasgow.  They don’t really look like the Tigers team we all used to love to hate in my playing days.  That team was a nasty, snarling, uncompromising, gritty and passionate side that you actually enjoyed playing against as the ultimate test.  The 2016 version is not very Tigers like at all and needs to find its soul and more pertinently its defence.  It seems in their search for a more attacking game the Tigers coaching staff have thrown out all the basics.  Leicester do not have it easy with French side Racing 92 purring into town bringing rugby royalty Dan Carter with them but to stay alive in their pool they desperately need something from this game.

It was good to see Gloucester turn on the style with a really great win away against Bayonne.  How good to also see Jonny May back the shirt after 9 months out with a knee injury.  Gloucester can use the Challenge Cup to bring back some confidence and this weekend they welcome Italian club Treviso – a perfect time to be ruthless and put in a back to back set of performances to put themselves in a great place in the pool.

Just before I sign off,  a word of sympathy for Worcester who drew the shortest of straws landing Russian side Enisei in their pool.  Whilst some teams were throwing the ball around in sunny France the Worcester lads were battling it out thousands of miles away in  freezing Moscow,  It was a young side out there who were battered by a powerful Russian tight five so although disappointing for Worcester to lose it will make for some great after dinner stories in the years to come. 

European rugby – it is the gift that keeps on giving!