When the first European weekend comes around it normally serves as the perfect time to kick back and forget it all. Those lovely, fluffy ERC guys even delayed the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup by a few weeks so that World Cup heroes were well rested and ready to reaffirm themselves as fan favourites. We should all be able to throw our cares away, partake in the oncoming feast of Northern Hemisphere rugby and thank our sporting stars for giving us the joys of Union…
Of course forgetting about it all is easier said than done.
In Julius Cesar Shakespeare wrote “beware the ides of March”. He meant this as a warning to keep one’s wits. However, as we approach the first European kick off of the year and a whole season-load of worries stomp up on us unsuspecting punters at once it is perhaps more of a case of “beware the Irish Match”.
Edinburgh play London Irish at the Madejski Stadium on Saturday and they face the prospect of a fast flowing and adventurous game against a side who came from behind to draw with an abrasive Leicester Tigers, last weekend. Although buoyed by their win against Treviso Edinburgh have yet to achieve a four-try bonus this season. They have only won away from home once. In their three victories Edinburgh have had three different 10s. I suppose you could say they have nothing to lose, but it is perhaps time for this team to settle.
With Scott and De Luca in the centres and Leonard at 10 they could be on to something. Keep them in for the third game in a row. Be wary of Irish, sure, but don’t panic and make changes. Irish have enough to worry about anyway. Delon Armitage –a man with hands like a calligrapher, but a disciplinary record like Lucifer- has now been banned for five weeks due to dangerous tackling and misses two Heineken Cup games. This follows their number 8 Chris Hala’ufia serving a seven-week ban which ends on the 29th and accusations of foul play against their prop Faan Rautenbach (although he was cleared of the charges).
The London side aren’t the only distracted Irish team, either. A whole emerald isle groaned at the news that talisman Brian O’Driscoll will miss the entire 6N, as well as probably missing most of Leinster’s campaign. The Heineken Cup will be poorer without him, and as Munster prepare to be without Keith Earls for the next four weeks at least the top Irish sides will be without some unpredictable Celtic flair.
Several other teams also face the prospect of losing players for their European adventures. Exeter Chiefs will be without top try-scorer Sireli Naqelevuki as they take their Amlin bow. Saracens are without World Cup scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth for their whole campaign. The Cardiff Blues v Racing Metro game could be without attractive names like Frans Steyn, Sebastian Chabal, Mirco Bergamasco, Gavin Henson, Leigh Halfpenny and Martyn Williams. Twitter activist Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu can’t play for Gloucester until the 29th. There will be fewer tans and less fluorescence on show during the Ospreys game. We all know about the squad shuddering news Richie Gray delivered yesterday…
Let us not get bogged down, though. There is still some silver lining. We may have more to worry about than we had expected. There may be a few more nervy moments in the Euro zone. We may have to endure some squeal inducing player profiles on Sky as every team buys into Movember. The fact still remains, though: Heineken Cup and Amlin Cup rugby is bloody entertaining!
We will still get to see the likes of James Hook playing well in a luminescent Perpignan jersey on Friday night. We get to see All Black John Afoa in the all white of Ulster against Clermont on Saturday. We get to see Sam Warburton’s vivacious return to the club fold on Friday (and in pink, perhaps). We get surprising match-ups like Worcester versus Stade Francais. We get to see Luke McAlister, Maxime Medard, Vincent Clerc, Thierry Dusautoir, Rupeni Caucaunibuca, Gurthro Steenkamp and Louis Picamoles all run at Harlequins and the imperious Nick Evans. We have Scottish participation all over the show with Gloucester and Sale flying our flag, as well as countless others from Wasps to Toulon. We get to see surprise package Montpelliers in the HCup. We are still spoilt and if we’re really, really lucky we may even see World Cup saviour Stephen Donald at Firhill on Sunday.
You may not take up a problem free philosophy, but there is still cause to kick back this weekend.