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Stuart’s Preview of the HEC Weekend Ahead

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    Stuart’s Preview of the HEC Weekend Ahead

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    <H2>Barnes - European vacation</H2>
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    I woke up Monday morning with the nearest thing I have left to a spring in my step, honestly. That’s the effect the Heineken Cup has on me. Half way between the passion of the Premiership, the free flow of the Magners League and the extra pressure of an international, this is just about the best place for a rugby tournament to be positioned.

    Take New Zealand and Ireland out of the equation and the best of the Heineken would fear few of the international sides. Australia may have hammered Scotland but would you fancy their test team at Thomond Park. I certainly would not.

    A few fixtures stand out this forthcoming weekend. The Scarlets and Toulouse is one of them. The West Wales side have an extra edge to their back play and a competitive pack. Toulouse might need to find their best to beat them otherwise they could be making an unusually early exit. I fancy the Scarlets to keep up their momentum and scupper them.

    Another French team has a tough away fixture with a Magners league team Saturday as unbeaten Agen travel to Leinster. In this game the pressure is firmly on the Irish team. Agen already have a precious away win at Gloucester while O’ Driscoll’s team lost - perhaps complacently — in Edinburgh. Defeat will be a hammer blow to one of the tournament’s most attractive and not unfancied sides.

    Twenty four hours later and Munster face Cardiff Blues away while England’s champions, Sale, have to lift themselves from their woeful tale of injuries and somehow beat Stade Francais. If they manage this it will most probably not be pretty but it would be a memorable effort.

    The tournament is a reminder that there is more to rugby than developing players for international rugby. It is one of the most successful recent additions to the European sporting calendar. This weekend may see a few further additions to the growing list of unforgettable games.

    If I had to choose one match that might just ignite, it is Friday at Stradey Park, Llanelli Scarlets versus Toulouse. Dwayne Peel face to face with Elissalde, Regan King out to show the international stage that he can produce against the elite when he meets Yannick Jauzion; should be great.</DIV></DIV></DIV>


    06 December 2006

    Club success formula for international glory

    IT’s amazing how success at international level and by club sides in Europe tend to go hand in hand. In the years when France and England dominated the Six Nations championship, their clubs invariably won the Heineken Cup.

    Hence it’s hardly coincidental that Munster’s achievement in winning the tournament last season ran parallel to Ireland’s climb up the international pecking order. With the Heineken Cup resuming once again this weekend, evidence from the autumn internationals points favourably towards an Irish team being in the final shake up again.

    England’s poor form is mirrored by the fact that none of their six participants have managed to remain unbeaten in Europe this season. At present only Sale, Wasps and possibly Leicester have any realistic chance of making the knockout stages. Of those, Sale were dealt a cruel blow in November losing Andrew Sheridan, Charlie Hodgson, Elvis Seveali’i and Jason White to long term injuries. This will have a devastating effect on their attempts to win the competition for the first time.

    Despite the poor form of the national side, French opposition remain the biggest threat to Irish ambitions. Four of their sides are unbeaten after the opening two rounds — Perpignan, Stade Francais, Biarritz and Agen. Interestingly, none of that quartet has won the trophy. Toulouse also remain in contention despite losing to Ulster in Ravenhill.

    Leinster’s defeat at the death against Edinburgh in their most recent European outing has left them with little room for manoeuvre. Their home clash against Agen on Saturday now becomes a must win affair. The loss of Felipe Contepomi playing for Argentina could not have come at a worse time for Michael Cheika’s team. Contepomi has been the driving force behind Leinster over the past twelve months and is the one player they could not afford to lose.

    The major plus for Leinster ahead of back-to-back games with Agen is that they start with home advantage. While Agen secured a crucial away victory against Gloucester at Kingsholm, their away form in the French championship has been abysmal, losing all eight games, including a defeat to lowly Brive last weekend.

    However they have one key advantage — their squad was largely uninterrupted by the autumn internationals — only Pepito Elhorga featured in the French team. Also, the outstanding Rupeni Caucaunibuca only appeared once for the Pacific Islanders. On his day, the Fijian flyer is the best attacking wing in world rugby.

    While conditions negated the prospect of any positive rugby in the clash with Ulster in Belfast on Saturday, Leinster have more reason to be pleased with a draw. But they have serious problems in the front row. With Will Green injured, Leinster are struggling at tight head. Former Garryowen prop Fosi Pala’amo was injured on Saturday and they now face the prospect of drafting in a wild card, Northland’s Stan Wright for this game.

    Under these circumstances, the Agen front row with former French international Alessio Galasso and All Black Kees Meeuws is sure to create difficulties at scrum time.

    It could also cause organisational issues at the lineout where once again Leinster will have a huge dependency on Malcolm O’Kelly for possession. Home advantage could prove the difference in this one but it will be tight.

    Ulster chase their first ever win on English soil in the Heineken Cup when they take on London Irish at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday. Ten years ago coach Mark McCall, along with David Humphreys and Kieran Dawson, headed to London for a career with the Exiles as Ulster struggled to come to terms with the demands of the professional game.

    It is somewhat ironic therefore that these two veterans return with an infinitely superior package including some of the best young talent in the Irish game.

    It would be
    Excellence is hard to keep quite - Sherrie Coale


      Two good reads
      Is it only a game?
      And its Thomond Park NOT Thomond



        Very good reads.

        Barnes's love affair with the Heineken Cup is infectious , albeit that he has a huge vested interest.

        He is in awe of Thomond Park , and rightly so.



          Just reading Stuart Barnes I really like the way he writes (&amp; talks) about rugby. Yes I know he is rightfully very complimentary about Irish rugby at the mo and has always been excellent (&amp; v complimentary) when writing about Munster and that undoubtedly helps to like him, but for me, its that he's a players writer, you get the feeling of him writing about it from a players (fans) perspective but with the analysis skills of a pundit &amp; ex international player, &amp; a good one at that.The bit about the hop in the step cos of HC week and really looking forward to Llanelli v Toulouse are things true rugby fans appreciate. Keep itup Barnsey boy!!!
          Munster were great when they were Munster.

          alas they are just north munster now.......