Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Challenge Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Challenge Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille and a victory that could help them qualify for next year’s Champions Cup.

rugby Challenge Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Castres, Worcester, Dragons, Enisei-STM

Let’s be honest, this looks like an easy group for Castres. Worcester will likely be fighting against relegation from the Premiership, the Dragons seem to struggle every year and Enisei are always going to struggle to compete in the competition until they get to play weekly against high-level opposition. If Worcester do choose to put in the effort with this competition, they do have the chance of winning home and away against Dragons and Enisei, which could give them a shot of a best runner-up spot.

Pool 2

Scarlets, Toulon, London Irish, Bayonne

If we don’t see 2 teams from this pool qualify for the knockouts, then I’ll be shocked! Bayonne and Irish are both here by virtue of being promoted into the Top 14 and Premiership respectively, so will likely focus on consolidating their league position. The Scarlets had a poor season but if they can get their squad back in fighting shape with no adverse effects from the World Cup, then I think they have every chance of topping the group given Toulon are losing a number of influential players. If Irish’s new stars can quickly gel and they put some effort into qualifying for the knockouts, then I think they have every chance of pushing Toulon down to 3rd.

Pool 3

Wasps, Edinburgh, Bordeaux, Agen

Given the strength of the Top 14, I can’t see Bordeaux or Agen putting too much stake in this competition given they both finished in the bottom 5 last season. Wasps has a poor season and have lost some stars this summer, but they have also brought in some quality replacements and will also have Jimmy Gopperth back from injury, while Lima Sopoaga will hopefully do better this year with a season of playing in the Premiership under his belt. Meanwhile, I expect further success from Edinburgh, provided the aftermath of the World Cup does not impact them too much. If these 2 play in the final week, it would not surprise me if the winner takes the pool.

Pool 4

Stade Francais, Bristol, Zebre, Brive

Like Bayonne, I don’t expect Brive to put any real focus into this competition as they will be looking to stay in the Top 14 following their recent promotion from Pro D2. Zebre showed some promise last season in the Pro 14, but I worry that they may struggle in the aftermath of the World Cup. Bristol and Stade Francais look the clear favourites in this group and if either of them can beat the other away from home, then I would expect to see them finish top.

Pool 5

Cardiff Blues, Leicester, Pau, Calvisano

Leicester had a torrid season but expect to see them improve this year and challenge for at least a best runner-up spot. Calvisano are a great example of the success Italy are beginning to have since Conor O’Shea came in to sort everything from the bottom up, but I think they will be lucky to get anything other than potential bonus points in this pool. Cardiff are on the up and have signed some dangerous wingers, but Gareth Anscombe will be a loss and they need to hope that Jarrod Evans continues to grow as he has been if they want to progress. Pau look to be the strongest in this pool, especially with Ben Smith, Luke Witelock and Dominiko Waqaniburotu joining, but I don’t expect Leicester and Cardiff to make it easy for them.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Castres, Scarlets, Wasps, Stade Francais, Pau

Best runners-up: Edinburgh, Bristol, Toulon

Who do you think will make the knockouts? If you enjoyed this, you can also find my thoughts on the Champions Cup pools here.

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

Champions Cup 2019/20 Pools Overview

The pools for the 2019/20 Champions Cup were announced on Wednesday and now teams can begin to plan for their campaigns. 20 teams are split into 5 pools, with each team playing the other 3 in their pool at home and away. Once the 6 rounds of pool matches are over, the pool winners and 3 best runners-up qualifying for the knock-out stages.

While the impact of the Rugby World Cup can’t be fully predicted yet, and the order of the fixtures currently remains unknown, predictions can be made over how each pool will play out as the teams aim to make it to the final in Marseille.

rugby Champions Cup 2019-20 Pools

Pool 1

Leinster, Lyon, Northampton, Benetton

Last season, Leinster had the challenge of emerging from a group that also contained soon-to-be Top 14 Champions Toulouse and did it with aplomb, qualifying with 5 wins and 25 points. This season it appears that things will be far simpler as I can’t imagine any teams here will be able to seriously compete against them over the pool stages, while their strength in depth means that they can also likely survive the impact of players returning from World Cup duty. Benetton did a great job to qualify on merit with the new qualification set-up, but I think that they will see qualification for the knockouts as a step too far this year, though I could see them potentially winning home matches against Lyon and Northampton. I’m not sure if either Northampton or Lyon will be able to separate themselves sufficiently enough to earn a best runner-up spot, but if one of them can win all 3 home games and at Benetton, they are putting themselves in a strong position.

Pool 2

Exeter, Glasgow, La Rochelle, Sale

Could this finally be the year that Exeter finally start living up to expectations in Europe? To me, there is a big drop off after the first 2 teams and I think that the matches between Exeter and Glasgow will decide the pool, while the loser has every chance of a best runner-up spot. That said, Sale and La Rochelle are not easy away matches and having to travel to one or both of them before they are mathematically eliminated could be a serious banana skin.

Pool 3

Clermont, Ulster, Harlequins, Bath

Clermont look the overwhelming favourites in this pool, but Ulster showed last year that they are a dangerous team and another season’s experience makes me confident that they can win their home games and pull off at least 1 victory away from home. Harlequins showed some good stuff in 2018/19, but I think that they may struggle to balance competing in the Premiership and this competition. Meanwhile Bath are an unknown prospect having moved on from Todd Blackadder as Director of Rugby, but I struggle to envision a club with a rookie DoR being competitive in this pool.

Pool 4

Saracens, Munster, Racing 92, Ospreys

Poor Ospreys! Wales’ only representative this season qualified by beating the Scarlets in a playoff, but it is hard to imagine them emerging with more than 2 home victories (and even that may be optimistic) from what is arguably the pool of death. It’s hard to imagine any of the other 3 losing away from home, but this could very much come down to how each team deals with the impact of the World Cup. Despite that, Sarries still have incredible depth and I expect them to come out with a victory, and Ospreys could prove crucial in determining who earns a best runner-up spot as a win at the Liberty Stadium will likely be a key component in separating Munster and Racing.

Pool 5

Toulouse, Gloucester, Connacht, Montpellier

Understandably the group that I was paying closest attention to during the announcement as it involved my beloved Gloucester Rugby. Toulouse will be the clear favourites in the group, but if they face Gloucester soon after the World Cup, then I think the Cherry & Whites have every chance of picking up a crucial win. I expect Toulouse to still earn to spot, but if Gloucester can win all their home games, I think that they can win in Ireland and if Montpellier is their final game, then a Gloucester victory is very possible if Montpellier are already out, which I think could be likely as I don’t think they will travel as well to Connacht.

 

So, putting my neck on the line, I think the 8 semi-finalists will be:

Pool winners: Leinster, Glasgow, Clermont, Saracens, Toulouse

Best runners-up: Exeter, Ulster, Munster

Who do you think will make the knockouts?

Man Down: What next for Froome and Ineos?

Man Down: What next for Froome and Ineos?

Last weekend, Chris Froome was preparing to take part in his 7th Critérium du Dauphiné with a view to being ready to challenge for a record-equalling 5th Tour de France title. Now, he finds himself recovering in hospital, after a high speed crash on a practice run left him with a fractured right femur, broken hip, fractured neck, fractured elbow and fractured ribs.

Such a serious set of injuries will not be a quick recovery and estimates of the time he will be out are starting at 6 months. So the question becomes: What next?

Team Ineos

cycling geraint thomas no1
Geraint Thomas will now surely be Ineos’ team leader as he goes for back-to-back Tour de France victories

I start with Ineos as they are the ones who have more immediate thoughts, with the Tour kicking off on July 6th, they knew immediately that there was no way their team leader would be taking any part following his crash. Luckily, if any team can lose their team leader less than a month out from a Grand Tour and still expect to emerge with the winner, it’s Ineos. Last year’s race showed just how strong they were, with Geraint Thomas winning the race and young Colombian Egan Bernal starring in the mountains. Bernal was in fact meant to be the team leader at this year’s Giro, only to miss his opportunity due to injury. While Froome may have been option A, Ineos’ option B and option C would be option As in pretty much any other team.

Slightly longer term, Bernal’s injury also gave a chance for young riders Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov to experience leading a team. While they may not quite be at the same level as some of the other team leaders around them, they also went with a relatively young team to the Giro, and a more experienced line-up (including other top domestiques like Vasil Kiriyenka, Michal Kwiatkowski, Luke Rowe and Wout Poels) could give them every chance of competing. Sky have plenty of strength and while Froome is a loss, they can overcome this and may even look back at this as a great opportunity to give some of the next generation of stars more experience.

Chris Froome

As for Froome, recovery is the only thing that’s important right now. I’m no medical expert, but if he is back riding in 6 months then I’ll be shocked. In fact I wouldn’t be surprised if, given his previous accomplishments (he has 6 Grand Tour Victories to his name, potentially soon to be 7 after Juan José Cobo was stripped of his 2011 Vuelta a España title after being found guilty of doping), he made the decision to retire from racing, which would be a shame for him to go out in such a disappointing way.

cycling chris froome yellow climb
Have we seen Chris Froome in the yellow jersey for the last time? – Image by ruby_roubaix

If he does come back, will he be able to get back to his best? He will be 35 by the time next season’s Grand Tours come around, an age above which not many riders have won a Grand Tour, especially the Tour de France. If he does return to competing, then I think it far more likely that he is frequently used as a super-domestique for another team leaders and an option B or C in the Grand Tours. He rode as a domestique in the recent Tour de Yorkshire and marshalling the team to help Chris Lawless take the team’s first race victory under the new sponsors. With a number of Ineos’ top domestiques aging, this may be the perfect role for Froome to fill and help the next generation for a couple more years.

Whatever happens in Froome’s future though will likely depend on the success and speed of his recovery. Fingers crossed he has a successful recovery and we get to see him riding for another Tour de France title again in the future.

RWC2019: Predicting the Ireland Squad

RWC2019: Predicting the Ireland Squad

With the Pro14 and Premiership over for another season, thoughts are turning towards the World Cup and who represent their countries in Japan. The final days of May saw Joe Schmidt announce a 44-man training squad to prepare for the tournament.

This will be Joe Schmidt’s last Ireland squad selection as he has announced that he will be leaving his role as head coach after the tournament. This time last year, Ireland were on fire following a Six Nations Grand Slam and were about to go to Australia for a series victory. However, a number of stars under-performed in this year’s Six Nations and suddenly they look a lot more beatable.

Having had the chance to look at the training squad and some of Ireland’s other recent squads, I chose to pick the Irish for my next squad prediction. To be clear, this is not a matter of picking the 31 I would take, but rather who I think Joe Schmidt will take, so I have tried to avoid any biases I have towards any specific players.


Journey to RWC2019 series:


So without further ado, I think that Ireland’s 31-man squad will be…

Prop

No shock here if you have read my other squad predictions, but I am expecting Ireland to travel with 5 props. Cian Healy and Tadhg Furlong are 2 of the best props in the world at this point and are almost certainly going to be the starters. Jack McGrath is a top-quality replacement at loosehead and though he has had some injury issues this year, I fully expect him to still make it onto the plane providing he proves his fitness, though I expect a 3ʳᵈ loosehead to travel as an insurance policy in the form of Dave Kilcoyne. As for the second tighthead spot, I expect that to go to Andrew Porter, who was the regular replacement for Furlong in the Six Nations.

Hooker

Joe Schmidt took 3 hookers to the last World Cup an I would expect the same again here given the much longer distance for a replacement to travel. Rory Best will be the clear favourite to start here and will be hoping to end his career on a high, while I fully expect Leinster’s Sean Cronin and Munster’s Niall Scannell to travel as his replacements.

Second Row

Ireland have an embarrassment of riches at lock, as shown by the fact that Quinn Roux does not make the 44 despite playing in 4 of Ireland’s 5 Six Nations games this year. Devin Toner is a key part of the Irish lineout so will surely travel along with Leinster teammate James Ryan. With some of the back rowers missing due to injury, I think that Tadhg Beirne will earn a spot off the back of a couple of great seasons with the Scarlets and Munster. It wouldn’t surprise me if Jean Kleyn takes the 4ᵗʰ and final spot, but I have instead gone for Iain Henderson due to his international experience.

Back Row

Peter O’Mahony has inherited Richie McCaw’s invisibility cloak and gets away with murder at the breakdown and constantly chopsing at the officials, so he is guaranteed a spot, as is CJ Stander, who had a poor Six Nations but is another quality player and experienced leader in this team, while he can also cover both flanker and number 8. Jack Conan is a different style of number 8 to Stander and in my opinion looked the better option earlier this year, so he will surely make the plane. The losses of Sean O’Brien and Dan Leavy to injury are huge, so Josh van der Flier is all-but guaranteed a spot and Jordi Murphy gets my vote for the final spot, though I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Henderson was used as a 6 and a 5ᵗʰ lock (most likely Kleyn) taken.

Scrum Half

When he’s a his best, Conor Murray is one of the best 9s in international rugby, so there is no way Schmidt doesn’t take him. However this is where things get a little harder to predict. Given Murray has not been at his best this year, I considered taking 3 scrum halves, however Schmidt only took 2 to the last World Cup and seemed hesitant to take Murray off the pitch in the Six Nations despite his poor form, so I instead chose to pick just one other halfback. John Cooney did well when given the chance in the Six Nations and is also an option kicking off the tee, however I think that Kieran Marmion‘s performances for Ireland before injury will have been enough to earn him the spot. Honestly, any of the 4 scrum halves in the training squad have a good argument to make it onto the plane!

Fly Half

Like Murray, Johnny Sexton has been nowhere near his best this year but there is no way Schmidt will leave him out now. Joey Carbery has been the go-to replacement for Sexton and has had some great moments for Munster this season, so I expect him to travel, while his ability to also play at fullback adds to the versatility of the squad and opens up a spot for Jack Carty, who had a great Six Nations when given the chance.

Centre

Joe Schmidt often includes 4 centres in his squads and with me predicting that he will only take 2 scrum halves, that leaves enough slots open to do this. The first 3 largely pick themselves: Bundee AkiRobbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose. I think the 4ᵗʰ spot will go to Chris Farrell, who took part in 2 rounds of the Six Nations this season.

Back 3

All the selections I have made have left space for 5 players in the back 3. Simon Zebo is of course ineligible due to playing in France, which is a real shame. I think that Keith EarlsRob KearneyJacob Stockdale and Jordan Larmour are the obvious picks here and I think that Andrew Conway takes the final spot as he has been around the squad more often than Mike Haley and Dave Kearney in recent years and has 5 tries from 12 appearances so far.


So those are my picks for Ireland’s 31-man World Cup squad, who do you think makes the list?

Bigger Bench? Big Thumbs Up!

Bigger Bench? Big Thumbs Up!

The Northern Hemisphere club season may not be fully over yet (the Top 14 playoffs continue until mid-June) but eyes are already turning to international rugby with the beginning of the World Rugby U20s Championship today.

With my focus having been on the Premiership and Pro14 and already looking ahead to the World Cup, I must admit that the U20s fixtures yesterday caught me unprepared, so I was very surprised when I saw the matchday squads consist of all 28 players in the squad.

This is a change being trialled in the tournament. The number of possible substitutions remains at 3 in the front row and then 5 more, but the usual 8-man bench is extended to 13.

Personally, I absolutely love this trial and hope that it comes into practice through more tournaments in the next couple of years. With the way that the game has evolved in terms of player safety, substitutions have become more important than ever, so to have 4/8 positions on the bench filled by specialists (2 props, hooker, scrum half) is extremely limiting. Expanding the bench to 13 players means that you can have cover for every position (maybe just 1 winger and 2 back rows) which allows for much better reactions to injuries and also more tactical flexibility, without putting teams with less depth at too much of a greater disadvantage by still only allowing 8 total replacements.

While it’s still early days, I’m really excited by this trial and can’t wait to see how things go moving forwards.

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

Eyes on the Ball Awards: Premiership Rugby 2018/19

The Premiership is over for another season and it is time for club rugby to take a step back in favour of the international game. Congratulations to Exeter, whose dominance in the regular season saw them earn a playoff spot earlier than ever, also to Saracens who followed up their Champions Cup victory over Leinster with a victory over Exeter at Twickenham to complete the double. Commiserations to Newcastle as well, who finished the season bottom of the league and will drop down to the Championship, with London Irish taking their place.

But before thoughts can move fully onto the internationals and the upcoming Rugby World Cup, it is time to make my picks for the 3ʳᵈ annual Eyes on the Ball Awards: a set of awards slightly different to what you will see at official ceremonies. Let me know what your picks would be for each award.


Eyes on the Ball Awards:


Individual Awards

Best Breakthrough: Alex Dombrandt

This award is pretty clear in what it represents: a young player who can look back on the season as the year he broke out and earned the recognition of the wider public as opposed to just those in the know about their specific club.

Honourable mentions here must go to Harry Randall, who took his chances well stepping up from the Championship to the Premiership, Bath’s Ruaridh McConnochie and Rory Hutchinson and his fellow Northampton youngsters, who took their chances when injuries gave them the chance to play. Some people have called Tom Curry and Ollie Thorley breakthroughs this season, but I feel that they were already relatively widely established. Even if I had been considering them though, my pick would go to Harlequins’ Alex Dombrandt. The back rower only made his debut in November but went on to be a regular for Harlequins, with his physicality and underrated speed a hard combination for opposition defences, while he also finished the season 3ʳᵈ in the turnover charts with 19. He finished his season with a deserved start against the Barbarians and was arguably one of the best players in the game, so could find himself pushing for a spot in Eddie Jones’ World Cup squad.

Best Newcomer: Danny Cipriani

In both of the previous seasons that I have done the award, this has gone to someone new to the league, however this award is actually open to anyone new to their team, even if they have moved from another Premiership club. Such has been the case with this year’s winner, Danny Cipriani. Teammate Franco Mostert was also in the running, but international commitments meant that he did not feature until later in the season, whereas Cipriani’s golden wrists were making highlights from round 1. Johan Ackermann gave the keys to the squad to Cipriani and he took the club’s performance to a completely new level, firing them from 7ᵗʰ to 3ʳᵈ in the space of a year. Named Premiership Player of the Season and RPA Player of the Year, it’s crazy to think that he may not make England’s World Cup Squad.

Fond Farewell: Mathew Tait

The Fond Farewell award is for someone who is retiring at the end of the season after a career worthy of note.

This year, there were so many players that deserved a mention – James Haskell, George Smith, Marcelo Bosch and James Horwill amongst them – but this year I ended up going for Mathew Tait. Formerly of Newcastle and Sale, Tait has been at Leicester since the 2011/12 season, while his career has also seen him represent England in both 7s and 15s, becoming a runner-up in the 2006 Commonwealth Games and RWC2007. A highly talented and versatile player, injuries have interrupted his career far too often and it ended up that a failure to recover from a Achilles injury saw him announce his retirement in February.

I also want to take a moment to mention Wayne Barnes here, who will be retiring after the World Cup so has just refereed his final Premiership game with the final. In my opinion, he is currently the best referee in the world and will be greatly missed over the coming seasons. If England don’t make it to the final, then he should be finishing his career in charge of the biggest game of the year.

Bon Voyage: Santiago Cordero & Tom Savage

This award is similar to the last, but instead looks at players leaving the Premiership to continue their career in another league.

I could not pick between two players for this award, for vastly different reasons. Tom Savage has been such a big part of Gloucester since making his debut in the 2011/12 season and has been a loyal servant, including captaining the club for the 2013/14 season. He now moves to Japan to play for Suntory Sungoliath and I wish him the best of luck. The other player to earn this award is Exeter’s Santiago Cordero. Joning from Jaguares in February 2018, Cordero may not have spent anywhere near as much time in the league, but has been one of its stars. I remember him wowing crowds at the last World Cup and was very excited to see him enter the league. He did not have the best start at Exeter however, but I love that he then requested to play in the 2018 Premiership 7s tournament to help play himself back into form and he has been incredible this year. Had he not found himself out injured in the final weeks of the season, the trophy may now be on its way to Sandy Park rather than Allianz Park. Now as he heads off to Bordeaux due to Exeter being unable to keep him while remaining within the salary cap, the Premiership will be a less exciting place.

Cojones Award: James Lang

The Cojones award goes to someone who had the balls to do something at great risk.

I found this a hard one to think of this year, but a moment stuck in my memory from Harlequins’ final game of the regular season, away to Wasps. Down 27-25 and requiring a win to take the final playoff spot away from Northampton, Quins earned a penalty on halfway, though when the spot was given by the referee it was a few metres further back. Despite appearing to be limping slightly and having not kicked such a long distance all season, replacement James Lang took the tee and went for the three points with the final play of the game… only to see the ball drop just short – to the point that the ball may have gone over had the kick been from the spot of the offence! While the call may not have worked out in Harlequins’ favour, I love that Lang was willing to put the pressure on his shoulders and take the risk rather than try kicking towards the corner and trying to work another scoring opportunity.

Team Awards

Head-scratcher Award: The Matt O’Connor Debacle

This award is for a team decision that just left me wondering why it went how it did.

To me, nothing came close this year to matching the mess that was the start of Leicester Tigers’ season. Last season did not go well for them and saw them miss out on a playoff space for the first time in 13 years, while they never really looked deserving of a spot in the top 4. I personally felt that Tigers should have moved on from him over the summer, but they kept him in place only to move on after an embarrassing 40-6 opening round defeat, leaving Geordan Murphy to try (and fail) to pick up the pieces all season. This was such a poor season for Leicester and I can’t help think that sticking with O’Connor until the season started was a big part of that.

Biggest Disappointment: Newcastle Falcons

It was hard not picking Leicester here after narrowly avoiding relegation, but last season hinted towards issues and they had some awful luck with injuries to stars like Mat Tait and Telusa Veainu, while their England stars missed time due to international commitments.

While Newcastle also had their issues with injuries and internationals, I did not feel that it was to anywhere near the same degree and they in fact dropped more places than Leicester by going from 4ᵗʰ to last and being relegated with a match still to play. It’s a shame to see one of the few northern clubs drop out of the league and I hope they make an immediate return, but I feel they can have no argument about coming bottom.

Biggest Success: Gloucester Rugby

Exeter and Sarries obviously need a mention for their successes in the league and final respectively. I was very close to picking Bristol here after narrowly missing out on Champions Cup rugby in their first season back in the top flight, but in the end I couldn’t look away from my cherry and whites.

Despite clear signs of improvement last season, they still finished 7ᵗʰ with 56 points. This year, the addition of a few big names saw Gloucester finish safely in the top 3 with 68 points. All that despite injuries leaving the club with minimal options in the front row (full credit to Josh Hohneck and Fraser Balmain who had to play a ridiculous number of minutes this season), back row (Matt Banahan had to be the replacement lock in one Champions Cup match) and back 3 (Jake Polledri came on as a winger towards the end of the season) at different points in the season… something that could have ruined any team! Both as a Gloucester fan and also from a less biased perspective, I can’t wait to see how they do next season!