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Big French clubs will once again take some beating

By South Wales Evening Post  |  Posted: October 11, 2012

  • Ospreys fly-half Dan Biggar

  • The 2012 Heineken Cup skippers line up at the competition launch earlier this month. Front (from left) are Edinburgh’s Greig Laidlaw, Northampton Saints’ George Pisi, Leicester Tigers’ Geordan Murphy and Glasgow Warriors’ Alastair Kellock. Middle row: Saracens’ Steve Borthwick, Harlequins’ Chris Roshaw, Sale Sharks’ Dave Seymour and Leicester Tigers’ Geordan Murphy. Back row: the Ospreys’ Alun Wyn Jones, the Scarlets’ Rob McCusker and Cardiff Blues’ Andries Pretorious.

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READ the London papers and you might well be left believing there's more chance of Ashley Cole becoming the Football Associa- tion's director of digital communications than there is of a Welsh side prospering in this season's Heineken Cup.

Cole, of course, used Twitter to berate English football's guardians as a "bunch of t***s".

Fair play — call a spade a spade and all that.

But his hopes of ever having a role in the FA's future social media strategy? Let's say slim, a bit like Welsh prospects in Europe this term, if you go with the majority.

Indeed, it is hard to remember any year in which there has been such pessimism about the prospects of sides from this part of the world.

Certainly, there were plenty of clouds in 2004-05, with the Ospreys drawn in a pool that included Munster, the Scarlets pitched into a section that involved Toulouse and the Blues up against Stade Français, among others. Completing the Welsh entry were the Dragons, whose group-mates included Perpignan.

Everyone forecast woe, and the regions duly lived down to expectations, not one of them reaching the quarter-finals.

No two seasons are the same and in Europe it pays not to assume a predictable journey.

Edinburgh made it through to the semi-finals last term, remember, and Ulster featured in the final, stories that few expected to be written.

The challenge in Europe is always to seize control of the script and start writing it for yourselves.

But for the regions, it will not be easy.

The Ospreys and the Scarlets are in such daunting pools that they will feel they have been hit by a series of tornadoes by the end of January.

For the Ospreys have Toulouse and Leicester for company, plus Treviso, while over in Llanelli Simon Easterby's men are contemplating match-ups with Clermont Auvergne, Leinster and Exeter.

All we can assume is that the professional teams from South West Wales have done something to offend the European rugby gods.

The Blues? An optimist would look at an away start in Sale and believe there could be a morale-boosting opening to trigger momentum, that most valuable of Heineken Cup commodities.

But a pessimist would consider the later duels with the power scrummagers from Toulon and Montpellier, recall the Blues' powder-puff efforts against Ulster and Glasgow in recent weeks and promptly lose the will to live.

The competition will take place, of course, against a backdrop of threats and counter-threats, with the English and French having served notice to quit the Heineken Cup because they believe the current format is weighted in favour of the Celtic sides.

The fine detail of the political arguments can be explored elsewhere.

But it is worthwhile pointing out that for all the outrage over Zebre's participation, their record is on a par with Sale's this term: five defeats from five games, with one bonus point, the same haul as the English club, who have actually played a match more.

That isn't to say Zebre should be dining at the top table just months after coming into being. But not all England's entrants bristle with quality, either.

No matter, change there will have to be if the competition is to continue, and it may actually make the Pro12 more interesting if qualifying guarantees and numbers are reduced.

Notwithstanding their presence in the Rabo, and all the supposed advantages it yields them, the regions are up against it not just because of the draw but also because of the financial constraints that have hit Welsh rugby, with the introduction of a £3.5 million salary cap and the departure of leading players.

A Cambridge University professor in pure and applied maths isn't needed to work out that the numbers tend to work out better for the French, with their bumper playing budgets and squads overflowing with internationals.

There is an argument that only 15 players can take the field at any one time.

But that glosses over the strength in depth that can be brought into play late on in games.

Clermont Auvergne, for example have Wesley Fofana, Aurelien Rougerie and Regan King to choose from as centres, Brock James and David Skrela at fly-half, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Julien Malzieu and Napolioni Nalaga on the wings, Thomas Domingo and Vincent Debaty at loose-head prop. Even the All Blacks might be pleased to have such riches.

It's probably best if the regions don't study the French squads in too much detail.

There again, the Ospreys have considerable forward resources themselves. If they have good fortune with injuries, it shouldn't be beyond them to challenge for a quarter-final spot.

They need to start with a display of intent against Treviso in Swansea tomorrow. Maximum points. A real statement.

Accepted, the Italians are no mugs, but the reality is they have won just 17 Heineken Cup games out of 86. If the Ospreys are to be serious contenders, they can help themselves by getting off to a flyer.

The Scarlets will need their wits about them in Clermont Auvergne, plus a scrummaging manual, if there's one handy.

Samson Lee did well against the Dragons last week and may be a good prospect.

At the time of writing it was unclear whether the youngster or Deacon Manu would start at Stade Marcel Michelin.

Whatever, packing down against Clermont a week after facing Newport's finest is a bit like stepping into the ring with Wladimir Klitschko after a joust with Alan Carr.

In the likes of Liam Williams, George North and Jonathan Davies, the Scarlets have firepower. But even big guns are no good without bullets. The West Walians need ball.

A solid scrum and a reliable goal-kicker are among the must-have accessories in European rugby. For all Lee's promise against the Dragons, the Scarlets have neither. Hence they will struggle to make the quarters.

The Blues have a deadly kicker in Leigh Halfpenny, but they also have a scrum that a pack of Girl Guides would fancy shoving backwards. Hence their chances are slim to emaciated.

The Ospreys have the set-piece and the marksman, in Dan Biggar.

They are Wales's best hope for a last-eight spot.

But it will be tough, seriously tough. Leinster still look the best Celtic bet, but in Toulouse, Toulon and Clermont the French have three clubs that will take some beating.

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