YOU SPEND MUCH OF THIS JOB – WHEN YOU’RE NOT BEING FRISKED AT AN AIRPORT – SIFTING THROUGH STATISTICS AND STORYLINES LOOKING FOR NUGGETS TO INFORM AND/OR ENTERTAIN THE CUSTOMERS. EVEN THEN, NOT MANY MAKE THE AIRWAVES, SO RATHER THAN SCRAPE FOUR MONTHS’ LEFTOVERS INTO THE BIN, HERE ARE THE SCRAPS FROM THE EUROPEAN CAMPAIGN SO FAR – NUMBERS IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER.
A is for And, as in, and then there were eight, six of whom (Toulouse, Munster, Leinster, Toulon, Wasps and Saracens) have – between them – won the last fourteen trophies. Glasgow Warriors and Clermont Auvergne are mixing it with European rugby royalty.
B is for Breathtaking, the only way to describe the game at Ravenhill in Round Three between Ulster and Clermont Auvergne: intelligent, imaginative and almost flawless rugby from both teams. That was also the game – the day after Hartley’s red card against Leinster – that rugbyballs.org fell into a chat with Stephen McCrossan on the Ravenhill terraces who – memorably – said; ‘Dallan Hortlay; d’yer think he’ll just plead insanity?’
C is for CJ Stander, alleged by Simon Zebo to offer brown envelopes to television commentators to secure his endless stream of Man of the Match awards. CJ cheerfully admits that the awards cost him money but only because Mrs Stander won’t let him bring his Heineken vases across the threshold unless they’re full of flowers. For the record the only player to match his three Oscars this season is the fabulous Finn Russell of Glasgow Warriors.
D is for Does, as in, does anyone seriously think that the free-flowing, irrepressible Clermont Auvergne are going to win this thing with that defence? Yes, ball in hand they’re a force of nature but they gave up a try bonus point to each of the other three teams in Pool Five – when did the top seeds last do that – and finished the pool stages with a defence ranked 14th of 20. When they get shut down by a Saracens or a Munster, then what?
E is for East Midlands, where curtains are drawn this week and two counties are in mourning. Only the hapless Zebre conceded more tries and points (49/331) than Leicester Tigers (23/190) and Northampton Saints (26/199). Yes, defensively, Northampton were even worse than Leicester. They were that bad.
F is for FC Grenoble, the only team in Europe to finish the pool stages with a 100% goal-kicking ratio. Take a bow Clement Gelin, Gilles Bosch and David Mele who between them knocked over eight conversions and seven penalties and missed nothing. If only the rest of the team were as good; unfortunately they shipped 44 tries and 303 points to finish last and least in Pool Two of the Challenge Cup.
G is for Glasgow Warriors, who in November 1997 lost 90-19 to Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, so easy even Richard Cockerill scored two tries. Twenty years is a wee while to wait to exact a bitter revenge but the humiliating, horrible 43-0 toweling they handed out last weekend probably evens the score.
H is for Hordes, specifically the Irish hordes who are back in their droves in this season’s Champions’ Cup; the top three box offices in the pool stages being Leinster v Northampton (38,584), Munster v Glasgow (26,500) and Munster v Racing ’92 (26,200). Certainly the reds and the blues have responded; Leinster had the best attack in the pool stages (227 pts/31 tries) and Munster the best defence (64 pts/4 tries). Without the Irish teams – and the Irish supporters – this competition is nothing.
I is for Isa, as in Isa Nacewa whose enduring intelligence and example is driving Leinster back towards the podium. Only Owen Farrell has scored more points (79/75) and no one – not even the terrifying Nemani Nadolo – has scored more tries (6). When he’s not playing rugby, Isa, of course, is also an individual savings account which allows people to hold cash, shares, and unit trusts free of tax on dividends, interest, and capital gains. What’s not to like?
J is for Jinx, the jinx being that no side seeded 5, 7 or 8 in the knock-out stages has ever gone on to win the thing. So thank you and goodnight, Wasps, RC Toulon and Stade Toulousain.
K is for Kiss, which this season has become as distinct a part of the Munster fabric as the 16th man. Caught on camera in the changing room at Glasgow were Peter O’Mahony and CJ Stander, making friends after a short squawk in the second half. Munster sources insist it was a peck and not a pucker.
L is for Leicester Tigers; yes, I know they got a dishonourable mention under ‘E’ is for East Midlands but, frankly, they deserve another kicking. What on earth is going on? They scored just 3 tries in 6 games – Zebre scored 11 – they didn’t score a single try in their last four games and they scored no points at all in four of six second halves. Whom do they sack now?
M is for Montpellier, who had three players sent off in six matches. ‘M’ is also for Muppets. (See ‘Y’)
N is for Neutrals, who might wish to consider a novel approach to which European matches to watch in future. Basically, pick the game being refereed by Andy Brace and steer well clear of the one with Nigel Owens. Brace did Wasps 82-14 Zebre, Sale Sharks 10-24 Saracens, Northampton Saints 28-21 Castres Olympique and Clermont 48-26 Exeter Chiefs for an average try count of 8.5 a game. Owens took charge of Northampton Saints 16-14 Montpellier, Exeter Chiefs 7-13 Bordeaux-Begles, Bordeaux-Begles 6-9 Clermont Auvergne and Saracens 10-3 RC Toulon with an average try count of 1 per game. (My legal team urges me to point out that these figures should be read as statistical anomalies and should not be considered to be any way reflective of the abilities or competence of the officials involved.)
O is for Ospreys, who are eating everyone’s lunch in the Challenge Cup with a perfect 30/30 in Pool Two and an average winning margin of 36. In six second halves they’ve shipped just ten points, another example of the heartwarming GP12 backlash in Europe this season.
P is for Payment, specifically, how should Munster pay CJ Stander (yes, him again) without having to shell out buckets of wedge? They can’t pay him by the minute because he played all 480 in the pool stages – matched only by Leinster’s Jamie Heaslip – and it’d cost them a fortune. Nor can they pay him by the carry because he trucked the ball up 100 times, which was 22 more than his nearest challenger Mamuka Gorgodze of RC Toulon. It’s a ticklish one. (Speaking of RC Toulon, if prop Florian Frescia was paid on a ratio of carries to yards gained – say a modest €10 a pop – he’d owe Mourad Boudjellal €66.50.)
Q is for Quite, as in, quite an astonishing defensive effort from two Glaswegians – apologies but the links are starting to get tenuous as we approach the arse end of the alphabet – as Jonny Gray (76) and Ryan Wilson (70) finished one and two on the Hit Parade as the Champions’ Cup’s top tacklers. They’ll need all that and more in the Plastic Pitch Derby at Saracens in the quarterfinals.
R is for Racing ’92, the Champions of France, the runners-up in last season’s Champions’ Cup who lost five of their six games to finish bottom of Pool One. Even Leicester Tigers were above them, which says it all.
S is for Sin Bin, and specifically the Scarlets, who (along with Stade Toulousain) didn’t pick up a single yellow card in their six pool games but who’ve gathered 9 this season in the GP12 (only Glasgow have conceded more.) Answers on a postcard, please, to Wayne Pivac, c/o Parc y Scarlets, Wales.
T is for Two, being the number of teams who didn’t concede a try in the first forty minutes of any of their pool games. Indeed the earliest score against Munster was 59 minutes (Henri Chavancy/Racing ’92) and against Saracens was 53 minutes (Scott Williams/Scarlets). Munster, for the record, conceded an average of 3 points in their six first halves. Jaw-dropping.
U is for Unbelievable and covers a vast swathe of ground. How unbelievable is it that Bath should score 2 tries in their first three games in Pool Four of the Challenge Cup and then score 23 in their next three? Or that Exeter Chiefs – on second halves only – should beat Clermont Auvergne 31-28 in Pool Five, the only problem being that they’d lost the first halves 3-55. Those Chiefs need to get off the bus a bit more sharpishly.
V is for Villain, and yes, I’m afraid we’re talking about you, Halani ‘Aulika of Sale Sharks, who coughed up 14 penalties in three starts and three turns off the bench. Mind you, props are always misunderstood.
W is for Worst, the worst match in Europe this season – bar none – being the Bath/Bristol game in Round Two of the Challenge Cup. Bath Head Honcho, Todd Blackadder, walked into the Interview Area afterwards and – unprompted – said, ‘Jesus Christ, if I’d paid to watch that, I’d want my money back.’ The prosecution rests.
X marks the spot – any spot you’d care to pick, I mean it, any blade of artificial grass you fancy – where Richard Wigglesworth’s next kick will land. There are mortars that aren’t as accurate as Wigglesworth, which is why Saracens got him to hoof the ball a staggering 101 times during the pool stages. His closest challenger was the eternal runner-up, Finn Russell, with 79.
Y is for Yell, the one Frans Steyn came out with back in October as he tried to charge down Stephen Myler’s touchline conversion during Montpellier’s visit to Franklin’s Gardens. (I think he actually shouted ‘miss it’.) Anyway, Myler duly missed, Nigel Owens gave Steyn a right wigging and ordered a retake, which Stephen slotted. But here’s where it gets interesting. Montpellier lost the game by two, so had Frans kept his flap shut, Montpellier would have left the Gardens with a draw and with two match points instead of one. And what was it that kept Montpellier behind RC Toulon in the quarter-final qualification stakes? That’s right, points difference. Frans Steyn is one of the nicest guys in rugby but Jake White might be having a yell of his own down in the south of France this week.
Z is always for Zebre but this time it’s for Zebo; the cheeky so-and-so celebrated his 101st start for Munster with his 51st try, ignoring the four-man overlap to use his famous brute strength to barrel through three Racing ’92 tackles and waft the ball over the whitewash. The man is a bloody crowbar and – apparently – the best kisser in the Munster team. Or so he says. (See ‘K’)
26 JANUARY 2017