I have now emerged from under the sofa cushions drained and exhausted after what can only be described X Factor syle as ‘a roller coaster’. What incredible drama and amazing rugby the European Cup pool stages delivered! It’s easy to pontificate at the beginning of the campaign and ink in your pool winners and potential champions – but who on earth would have back in October put Saracens down as a lucky 8th seed! But as I often say this is what we actually do love about sport. Foregone conclusions are dull – let’s have upsets and surprise victories from plucky underdogs all the way! Unless it is your team of course when you want nailed on comfortable wins everytime….
So we have our qualifiers for the quarter finals and how tasty do they look. Stats will tell you that only one away quarter final is ever won in a campaign but looking at the line up I am not sure you would write off a single one of those teams travelling away. Lots will depend if the French sides switch their focus to the Top 14 but I would guarantee Toulon will travel looking to upset Munster and Racing 92 will not fear travelling to Clermont. Saracens of course seem to fear no one away so on balance I would say we have the most gripping set of quarters to look forward to for some time.
There has been some disquiet and concern about the lack of English Premiership teams qualifying but if you take the campaigns as a whole I can’t see a pattern or any reason to believe the Premiership is uncompetitive. Exeter got the hardest pool of all but very nearly beat Leinster away and did beat Montpellier in France and Saracens with a weakened team nearly snatched victory away to Clermont. Bath beat Toulon at home and came very close away at the Stade Felix Mayol. Wasps were in contention throughout until they inexplicably stumbled against Quins which took it out of their own hands. Overall then it was all fine margins just as it should be and let’s give credit to some massive improvements from the Welsh sides with the magnificent Scarlets securing a home quarter final and the Ospreys coming heartbreakingly close to qualification.
In the Challenge Cup we have two English Premiership sides represented with Newcastle Falcons nailing a home quarter against Brive. I would say Falcons always had a good chance in this competition with that squad they have built and canny old Dean Richards has rotated his squad nicely and still got a clean sweep of victories. It was really disappointing for the Cherry & White fans not to be rewarded with a home quarter and to be honest the team let that slip with their game on Friday night. Ackermann would have thought the team he put out was good enough to do the job at home against Pau but yet again this competition refuses to stick to the script. A tough old journey out to Galway awaits Glos but with a full strength side in better weather I will back the boys to make the semi.
In other news we see the Six Nations squads all selected and there is plenty to chew on here. Eddie Jones does his normal left field selection trick and includes some surprise names. Not many expected Harry Malllinder, Lewis Boyce, Zach Mercer or even Gary Graham to be named. Plenty did however hope they might see Don Amand, Dave Ewers, Dan Robson or even sparkling Glos scrum half Ben Vellacott. However out of the squad Eddie has selected expect to see a very similar line up of names at the opening fixture against Italy. Eddie’s only dilemma is going to be at number 8 now with the loss of both Billy Vunilpola and Nathan Hughes leaving a gaping 110kg shaped hole in the back line. I could see Eddie reverting to Courtney or Maro at 6, Robshaw at 7 and Sam Simmonds at 8. Alternatively he could put Robshaw at 8 and bring in Underhill at 7.
A replacement for the banned Joe Marler and injury to Ellis Genge has put the loosehead resources under pressure. Beno Obano who might have been expected to be included has been left out and so enter another newbie - Lewis Boyce. Boyce is a tidy prop who has potential of course, but I would be nervous throwing him on in a high intensity test game. Eddie may be hoping he can squeeze 80 minutes out of Mako!
After our heart rates have subsided post Europe we now commence battle for the Six Nations crown. For many it’s the most important one of all and with its rich history, intense rivalaries and now the improvement in all the sides - my goodness we are in for a humdinger.