Heineken Cup Semi-Finals Preview

29 04 2010

Semi-finals don’t get much bigger than this as four colossal forces of the Northern Hemisphere game come face to face this weekend in the Heineken Cup. Four top quality sides, two Irish and two French, will do battle to determine who contests the final on May 22 in Paris. Both are mouth-watering encounters and both will be of a ferocious intensity. It is games such as these which make the Heineken Cup so special.

The first semi final takes place on Saturday in what has all the potential to be a classic. Leinster fans will vividly remember their trip here in 2006 in the quarter final of the same competition with the memory of Contemponi going from underneath his own posts and Hickie finishing off the move in the corner still burning bright.

However, these are new teams and a new challenge awaits the men in blue. They will, nonetheless, be buoyed to see Johnny Sexton and Rob Kearney return to the squad. It is yet unclear if both will be fit and you feel that Sexton’s fitness in particular is of critical importance to the Leinster cause. Leinster are taking every measure to get him match ready and they need to. Shaun Berne is a tidy ten but not in the same class as the likes of Sexton and you would fear for him under pressure in Le Stadium with the Toulouse back row bearing down on him. The Sexton decision will be made on Thursday but given the sheer magnitude of the game, he will be given every chance. If he doesn’t make it, the return of Kearney and his big left boot becomes hugely important.

Leinster will need all their guns blazing if they are to emerge from the South of France with a victory on this occasion. Toulouse will undoubtedly take them on up front and around the fringes, having watched Clermont do this so successfully at stages in the RDS. The French will bring their power game and the likes of Jennings, McLaughlin and Heaslip will undoubtedly have a containing job on their hands at times throughout the game. Similarly the French will look to go wide and the blitz defence utilised by Leinster will have to be at it’s sharpest to prevent players such as Heymans and Poitrenaud getting the ball in space. O’Driscoll will shoot up and Leinster’s judgement in this facet must be entirely accurate.

A key for Leinster will be the stifling of Yannick Jauzion. If the imperious no.12 begins to get over the gain line and get his off loading game going to runners either side of him, Leinster will be in trouble. They can’t afford to let the Toulouse centre in behind them as he will punish them. The forward battle will be key and if the Leinster eight can achieve some parity with their French counterparts, they have a chance.  There is no doubting they can score tries if they get some ball and plyers of the calibre of Heaslip and O’Driscoll can hurt any team in the world. On paper it looks a stretch for the men in blue but if their forwards can match those of Toulouse, its game on and anything can happen.

Munster come into their semi final frustrated that they will not have their captain and leader-in-chief Paul O’Connell at the helm. He is a big loss but this is Munster’s ninth semi-final in twelve years and this team have been in situations just like this before. Biarritz are not without their own injury problems with Damien Traille ruled out and doubts over the classy Harinordoquy. The number eight had an operation on a broken nose last week but Serge Blanco declared: “Imanol will play”.

Like Leinster, Munster come into this game on the back of a disappointing Magners League defeat but that does not tell the whole story. They were immense against Northampton in the quarter final and this side are capable of lifting their performances to a new plain when they really have to. You think back to that game in Perpignan in December and you get a flavour of what this side is capable of. There is a tempo Munster can go to in Heineken Cup games such as these which sometimes eludes them in the Magners League.

This will be a brutal encounter and if Munster can produce the same speed of ruck ball as they did against Northampton, they will be tough to beat. Players like De Villiers and Wallace will need to get them over the gain line and from there; their high intensity game (steered by O’Leary) can drive them to victory. They will have to pick their moments however and there will surely be times when O’Gara will look to kick a few corners on the hard ground of San Sebastian. The Biarritz winger Ngwenya is lightning but O’Gara will test him and he may not look so impressive going backwards with the ball over his head.

This Biarritz side are a quality outfit despite their lowly position in the Top 14 and their pack in particular will test the men from Limerick. They showed against the Ospreys that they are a formidable side in the San Sebastian and Yachvilli is a smooth operator. Iain Balshaw can expect a few aerial bombardments from O’Gara early on and if he doesn’t deal with them efficiently, he can expect them for the rest of the afternoon. Munster will also look to get some quick ball out to Keith Earls as on this hard ground, he can be potentially devastating.

Different challenges wait for the two Irish powerhouses and both are hugely difficult tasks. The mission looks less attainable for Leinster given their opponents but they are more than capable of producing something special to win against the Gallic giants. Two titanic tussles await and whisper it, but the two provinces could feasibly set up that all Irish final. What an epic occasion that would be.


Dimitar Berbatov- Prince or Pauper?

25 04 2010

The enigma that is Dimitar Berbatov continues to baffle us all amidst rumours that he is set for the Old Trafford exit door at the end of the season. Following his £30 million move from Spurs to United, he was touted as the perfect United player; the next Eric Cantona. However since that day, comparisons with the mercurial French man hold little weight. At the moment, Berbatov looks more like a poor man’s Nicolas Bendtner rather than Cantona.

One thing Cantona could do so brilliantly was pop up in big games with big goals and he did this regularly in the Premiership. I struggle to think of one big goal Berbatov has scored for United in his two seasons at the club. In big games, he goes missing. Too often he drifts in and out of games and he has never really imposed himself on the pitch in the red of United. It can be argued that this is just his style but a £30 million striker should be exerting more influence than he has been.

Much has been made of his languid playing style but in truth this wouldn’t be much of an issue for United fans if he was producing the goods in front of goal. While on this poor run of form, he should be grafting harder than ever to endear himself to the supporters. The problem is the perception of him is that he doesn’t care and his body language doesn’t exactly exude hunger. Carlos Tevez wasn’t exactly burning up the scoring charts for United but he worked so tirelessly whilst on the pitch that the fans loved him for it. He always looked liked he cared and wanted to play for the jersey. In many ways Tevez is the very antithesis of Berbatov; the crafty Argentinean is all substance while Berba firmly subscribes to the style over substance mantra.

There is no denying the class of Berbatov; his touch is among the best the Premiership has seen. His form at Spurs was at times breath-taking. He was the fulcrum of that side and worked extremely well in tandem with Robbie Keane and Aaron Lennon. However he is not the main man at United and the different style of play perhaps is not best suited to his game. But the reality is that he simply hasn’t delivered since his move from London. Yes there have been glimpses and it hasn’t been all bad but Berbatov will be ultimately judged in relation to his price tag and that doesn’t make for pretty reading. The cost of each goal he has scored for United is £1,180,000 having scored 26 times for the Red Devils. During the same time period at White Hart Lane, Berbatov had scored 19 times more. This should not be the case given the supposed better service and greater number of chances he receives at Old Trafford. He has not started every game but Ferguson has given him every chance to cement his place in the side. In fact it was probably Fergie’s loyalty to Berbatov in his opening season that forced Carlos Tevez out the door.

Is the end in sight for Berba’s Man United career? Logic would suggest that it would make poor business sense to sell Berbatov in the summer as they would not receive close to the £30 million they paid for him. However it would appear that Fergie has lost nearly all faith in the Bulgarian. When he rushed Rooney back from injury, refused to bring on Berba early against Bayern, it appeared a transparent lack of belief in the no.9 to produce something for him. In the big games and with everyone fit, Berbatov doesn’t start. The Scot plays Rooney up front on his own with two from Valencia, Park, Nani and Giggs supporting him. In fairness to Berbatov, he had a decent game against Spurs on Saturday but you still never fancied him to pop up with the winning goal. That is a measure of his current lack of confidence as much as anything else.

If United did pursue Robben or Ribery in the summer, Berbatov could be used as a makeweight in the deal given Bayern are known admirers of his and he has had success in the Bundesliga before. Similarly, a swap plus money deal would be more attractive for United as the financial loss they suffer on Berbatov wouldn’t be as apparent. However the current United financial situation is unclear and it would be surprising if a Villa/Benzama/Ribery type signing arrived at Carrington before the start of the new season. The arrival of the Mexican Hernandez to Old Trafford may well signal the end of the comings and goings in the striker department already. If Fergie could swindle £40 million out of the Glazers for David Villa, Berba would surely be on his way..

Ultimately, even with his class, it just hasn’t happened for Berbatov at United. The fans have yet to fully accept him and they remain conspicuous in their silence in regards to the big Bulgarian. It is a far cry from the raucous renditions of ‘Argentina!’ afforded to Tevez in his time there. His personality and style isn’t as loveable as the diminutive Argie and his form hasn’t aided his cause. If he is still at Old Trafford next year, he should return sharp, hungry and focused and thank himself lucky that he has a second chance.

Best Knockouts of All Time

23 04 2010

Johne Murphy Quickfire Interview

19 04 2010

After a hugely successful spell in Leicester, Johne Murphy is returning home and joining Munster in the summer. There he will look to continue his fine form and push for Ireland caps. Murphy has matured into a top class winger but now its time to find out the truly important things about himself and his Leicester team-mates! There is also a full interview with a more serious tone en route..

Best Player you’ve played with: Geordan Murphy

Best Player you’ve played against: Jason Robinson

Best Rugby Moment in Career: Beating the springboks at Welford Road, most surreal night of my life

First Position: Started at scrum half

Hardest hit you’ve taken: Brian Lima nearly split me into millions of pieces when we played Bristol one year

Worst Habit: Sucking my fingers!

Highsest Darts Checkout: 2!!

Football Team supported: Leicester City

Gaelic or Hurling: Gaelic, Ellistown GFC all the way!

Ideal WAG: Sarah Harding or Megan Fox!! Both!!

Favourite Film: Mary Poppins


Quickest Player: Tom Varndell

Slowest Player: Julian White

Worst Dresser: There is a few! Toss up between Jordan Crane and Mefin davies!  But Mef gets is with his Canterbury tracksuit bottoms about 12 years old and a Queensland jersey!

Worst Dancer: Jordan Crane

Biggest Joker: George Chuter

Biggest Moaner: Jim Hamilton

Most Intelligent: George Chuter

Least Intelligent: Toss up between Castro and Lewis Moody!

Person you least want to go into the cubicle after: Boris Stankovich

Worst taste in music: Danny Hipkiss

Ladies Man: Ben Woods

And finally, who is the Longest in the Shower?!: See ladies Man!! They go hand in hand!!


Heineken Cup Quarter Finals Review

13 04 2010

The two Irish provinces left in the Heineken Cup maintained their impressive recent form in the competition and secured two mouth-watering semi-finals against the French. However, these were encounters of the highest standard and Leinster, in particular, will be grateful to be over that particular hurdle as this was a classy Clermont side and had Brock James produced his usual strike rate with the boot, it would have been a very different story.

The game at the RDS on Friday night seemed to eclipse anything that happened in the Six Nations and served as a reminder of why this competition is so special. Clermont came flying out of the blocks and their power play up front combined with their ability to go wide had Leinster struggling to contain them. At 10-0 down, you feared for Leinster as it looked at one stage they would be blown off the park. However, this Leinster side is made of sterner stuff these days and they came back at the French side with O’Driscoll drawing in three defenders before brilliantly slipping the pass out the back door to the dynamic Jamie Heaslip. The classy number eight seems to have everything in his arsenal to become one of the modern greats of Irish rugby. This all-action ball carrying performance was contrasting to his outstanding defensive display in Thomond Park a week earlier and at the moment there seems little point in having a man of the match competition when Heaslip is playing; his form is that prolific.

The pre game kicking fears lay at Jonny Sexton’s doorstep but it was Brock James who ultimately succumbed to the pressure and he never looked to really fancy those drop goals at the death. The fear for Sexton now is whether he will make the quarter final in Toulouse, having fractured his jaw towards the end of the game which would typically take 3-4 weeks to heal. The out-half stepped up and missed only one kick, releasing some of the burden from his shoulders and steered Leinster to victory in doing so. The other injury worry for the men in blue will be Rob Kearney who sustained ankle ligament damage and will also be touch and go for that semi-final too you would think.

If James was off his game, then the two Clermont thoroughbreds on the wings were most certainly not. These two wrecking balls were a danger throughout and caused Leinster endless problems with their power, pace and hunger. Malzieu in particular gave Shane Horgan a night he will want to forget and had Leinster lost the game, that charge-down would have haunted him. Worryingly, the Leinster scrum seemed to suffer with the exit of CJ Van Der Linde but strong performances in the pack from the likes of Heaslip, McLaughlin, Jennings and Hines gave Leinster an edge when they really needed it.

Leinster ultimately came through a stern examination from a quality side and were perhaps a little lucky to do so. But do so they did, and they are developing a knack for consistently winning big games and that can only be a good thing coming into the business end of the season.

Munster came into this game once again being doubted and once again they produced something special in the Heineken Cup. There is no side like this one when their backs are against the wall and incredibly, this will be Munster’s ninth Heineken Cup semi-final in twelve years.

It was interesting to hear Sir Ian McGeechan say that Northampton had lost this game the minute they won the toss and decided to play with the wind in the first half. Their strategy to go out and rack up a score in the first forty minutes backfired. McGeechan claimed that Northampton would have no chance of winning in Thomond Park with Munster playing with the wind in the second half and O’Gara kicking the corners and so it proved. However there was so much more to this Munster performance than simply kicking the corners. Munster played the game on their terms, visibly lifting and slowing down the tempo when they chose. They shot out of the blocks and came thundering into Northampton early on, signalling their intent up front with a powerful drive. As brutish as their pack were, their backs oozed class all day and Warwick went over for their first score in a fine move.

Although trailing at the break 16-13, you never really feared for Munster and you get the feeling that they didn’t either. O’Gara was majestic after the break and poor Chris Ashton must have been sick of the sight of that ball booming over his head and into the corner. Once again, the pace of Tomás O’Leary at the base was excellent and was a major factor culminating in a fine try for Jean De Villiers who charged over and continued his fine form. Increasingly, the partnership of De Villiers and Earls looks to be a potent one. Earls has matured visibly over the last year and looks a quality 13 and Munster’s best strike runner.

The fears for the Munster scrum looked to be coming true after an early scare but they subsequently steadied the ship and ultimately became the dominant scrum. Marcus Horan had possibly his best game since returning from injury and Jerry Flannery was a force of nature around the pitch although he looked like he didn’t know where he was at one point.

The talk of crisis last week concerning Munster will now be subsided for talk of a semi-final in San Sebastian and it is game in which they will probably go in slight favourites. Leinster definitely won’t have the favourites mantle but although this Toulouse team are outstanding, they have won there before. The two Irish provinces once again came though in the Heineken Cup in two top quality matches and what chance of a meeting the final? It couldn’t happen…… Could it?

Tiger v Nike v Christian Bale

12 04 2010

He came, he saw…. he didn’t conquer. But fair play to him for making that unbelievably distasteful ad with Nike as we now have months of videos such as this on the horizon:

Heineken Cup – Munster v Northampton Preview

9 04 2010

It is rare that one looks at a home Heineken Cup quarter final for Munster with trepidation but that is this case for this Saturday at Thomond Park. Munster come into the game on the back of a loss on their home soil to Leinster and that game also served to highlight some of the cracks in the side that have appeared at different junctions throughout the season.

It is similarly rare that a side will arrive at Thomond Park with so much confidence and they will do so for many reasons. The Saints have won their last five Guinness Premiership games in a row and lie second in the table to Leicester with a game in hand. However, it will be their near miss in Thomond Park in the final stages of the group stages which will give them most belief. Northampton could have won that game and not many sides can come to Thomond Park in the Heineken Cup and claim that.

One of the areas Munster will come under strain will be the scrum. The trio of Dylan Hartley, Euan Murray and Soane Tonga’uiha will be looking to exert extreme pressure here and gain an edge for their side. The last time Munster were beaten at home in the Heineken Cup, Leicester came with a similar philosophy. If the Munster scrum does falter and the service to O’Gara suffers as a result, then Munster will find it very difficult. Munster will be hoping that their captain will return to the fold as Paul O’Connell would make a massive difference up front to the men in red. Shaun Payne said in a press conference last week that they were hopeful of O’Connell being fit for the tie which wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence but you wouldn’t bet against the Munster captain coming back into the fold come Saturday. O’Connell’s line-out prowess, physicality and drive would aid the Munster cause greatly. Mick O’Driscoll would not let anybody down but the sheer presence of the Lions captain would lift the fans as well as the team. Munster’s line-out will be crucial to their success, particularly if their scrum does come under pressure as it will serve to put them on the front foot and get people like David Wallace running hard, straight lines in midfield.

In order to steer Munster into the right areas, O’Gara will need quality and crisp service and the last thing he wants is a wavering set-piece and the Northampton back-row in his face for the day. Munster will surely look to kick corners early on and play the game as close to the Northampton 22 as feasibly possible. O’Gara’s tactical kicking will have to be extremely accurate though as Ben Foden and Chris Ashton can be devastating. Ashton is the top try scorer in the Guinness Premiership with almost double the amount of his closest competitor and is just one off the pace in this season’s Heineken Cup with six. Ashton is an out and out finisher with genuine pace. Foden’s performances this season have been similarly impressive and his effort in Paris for England only highlighted his class. He looks like England’s full back for years to come. Aimless kicking to these two firebrands could result in catastrophe.

One boost for Munster in recent weeks has been the outstanding form of Jean De Villiers. The big South African has been proving his worth in recent games and if Munster can give him one on ones with Northampton defenders and get him over the gain line, they could cause problems for Northampton. Munster will also be hoping for a fit Keith Earls as he can be frightening for any defence as he displayed in some electric performances in the Six Nations. Munster will look to play high tempo rugby to create holes in the Northampton defensive line and no one will be more central to this than Tomás O’Leary. The scrum-half showed against Wales in the Championship just how effective he can be and he has the capacity to single-handedly lift the tempo of this game. Again though, he will need good ball delivered by the eight men in front of him in order to have a real impact.

Northampton seem to have the edge in a number of departments, particularly if O’Connell isn’t fit enough to play, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Munster are formidable at home in the Heineken Cup and they generally perform well when their backs are against the wall and when they are coming in for criticism. This is the case just at the moment after a disappointing third defeat to Leinster. However, Northampton won’t bring with them a massive fear factor of the Limerick ground having experienced it so recently and come so close to winning. This promises, as in January, to be an extremely tight affair with one score to potentially decide it. On present form, you would have to fancy Northampton but it is Munster and it is the Heineken Cup so you may as well through away the script and brace yourselves.