Rocky's Rumble: The 2009/10 Heineken Cup Semi-finals
27 April 2010 12:50pm
Rocky Elsom, the pundits player of the tournament last year and Heineken Cup winner with Leinster last season, gives his view on the two-semi finals this week.
Toulouse v Leinster - Saturday May 1st
If the Heineken Cup could be scripted this would be it. On one side there is arguably the greatest club in European Cup history, fielding one of the strongest squads in provincial rugby and having the advantage of a fortress like home ground advantage. Travelling down to meet them are the current Heineken Cup Champions, the new european power club Leinster, who can more than match Toulouse's playing roster and have some history in Toulouse that would bring a smile to any Leinster fans face.
For those who aren't aware, in 2006 Leinster travelled to Toulouse for a quarter-final most expected them to lose. Their squad seemed inferior, carried a reputation for not rising to the big occasions and were faced with the biggest challenge in European club rugby; Toulouse in Toulouse. What Leinster produced was one of the greatest attacking displays of running rugby the Heineken Cup had ever seen. A newly appointed Michael Cheika achieved at his first attempt what nearly everyone had failed to do before or since. An away win against a much fancied, higher ranked Toulousean outfit playing at home. It was a great moment for Leinster, but could prove an even greater source of motivation for their hosts.
For Leinster this will be it. If they can bring enough game down with them to beat Toulouse they will surely go on to win the tournament. This side of the draw is undoubtedly the toughest, no team would envy Leinster's task, however it's these types of occasions that create the legends the competition is famous for. In my mind Toulouse must go in as favourites to this one.
This is will be the stage for the real contenders to stand up. O'Driscoll's involvement will of course be crucial, but they'll need the likes of Jamie Heaslip, who has established himself as a big match player to also be firing on all cylinders. It's a case of strength vs strength as everywhere where Toulouse is strong Leinster reciprocate. The Toulouse back row often dominates in the Top 14, though with a tricky thigh injury to Thierry Dusautoir and Louis Picamoles, who was limping the last we saw of him, injuries may play a role. Leinster on the other hand have Kevin McLaughlin who has exceeded expectations and Shane Jennings who is one of Europe's best 7's and a real handful for any side, backing up Heaslip whose dominating carries have been one of Leinster's real aces. With Jauzion in the centre and in form of course
Toulouse are going to be dangerous but just like Clermont they'll be out gunned in the centre by two of world rugby's finest. There is still some uncertainty surrounding Johnny Sexton and the state of his jaw but with the seemingly indestructible jaw of Shaun Berne ready to step up should Sexton not be fit, Leinster will still have top class ball distribution. The word is that Sexton may start, which given his ability to score points in big games would come as a welcome bonus to the team.
Up front Toulouse are formidable, but you couldn't ask any more of the Cook Islander Stan Wright who with CJ looked damaging around the field in the quarter. It'll be a battle amongst the lesser numbers. The tight forwards will be tested around the breakdown by an in form Byron Kelleher and this could be a crucial factor in this game. With very little between the two sides Kelleher's ability to open up defences can mean points for Toulouse but almost as importantly it could mean a slowing of an otherwise aggressive defensive line. The big mistake (or glaring inability) Stade Francais made was to give Toulouse too much time to play.
It seemed as though they sealed their own fate, through an inability to cut down Toulouse's time and space and as a result never looked comfortable. That is a factor of the game that won't be lost on Leinster. However when a half back asks too many questions around the ruck a team has no option but to slow their line speed and this could lead to big trouble for Leinster. Especially considering Leinster's dominate displays in this stage of the 2009 HC Finals relied heavily on aggressive, suffocating defence that allowed the Dublin based side to physically assert themselves. Kelleher is a player that can do this to Leinster and it could undo a big part of what has made Leinster so successful.
I think both teams are experienced enough and have the calibre of players to arrive at the ground and be ready to perform. Both teams pose significant threats to the other and I feel this maybe one that is decided by work ethic and mental toughness. Guy Noves will no doubt have his group primed for what is often their time of the season and if there is one thing Michael Cheika knows how to do it's take the fire burning inside his players and turn it into a raging inferno. So it would seem unlikely either side will die wondering and I'd guess both Noves and Cheika would feel that the victor of this match will almost certainly go on to claim the Heineken Cup of 2010 which will mean one hell of a game.
Biarritz v Munster - Sunday May 2nd
The week of the quarter-final Biarritz looked an inspired team. Imanol Harinordoquy was leading the way with morale was high. They were not only making a run for the Heineken Cup but were also getting their Top 14 and Heineken Cup 2011 affairs in order with strong performances. They met an Ospreys outfit loaded with stars unable to contain Ngwenya and co who ultimately fell 2 points short. It seemed in San Sebastian three weeks ago that better things were to come for Biarritz, however things lately seem to have turned for the worse. They've still yet to qualify for next year's Heineken Cup (this year's tournament now being their only direct route), they have lost key men like Traille at the wrong time and they've found themselves up against Munster, albeit at home. It's looking like the end of the road for Biarritz and it is Munster who are ready to take full advantage. Munster aren't without their problems but McGahan's men seem better equipped to deal with it
Traille has been ruled out with what has been described as a 'hurt forearm' and needs 4 to 6 weeks which is possibly code for a fracture but either way the French international leaves a hole. Imanol Harinordoquy is also in the wars with a broken nose. Now no one ever expects a broken nose to stop an international player from taking the field, but if it required surgery and a cast then chances are it was a nasty break and could probably expect some unwanted attention on Saturday. I don't expect to see Harinordoquy being carried off after a knock to the nose but if it's his intent and front-footed approach that has been leading the side I'd say the loss of vision and ease to bleed may mean he's restricted in his duties. These are two key players to not have out there or be off their game but there is a silver lining for Biarritz. First; replacing Traille maybe Karmichael Hunt, the former Brisbane Bronco (Australia Rugby League) who has stopped off in Biarritz before going to join the Gold Coast (Australian Football League/Aussie Rules) AFL franchise. He may not be the perfect rugby centre but he definitely can play and has all the necessary skills.
Second is Munster aren't coming in with a clean bill of health themselves. Howlett has a suspect hamstring and did not play the most recent game and still remains an injury concern. Keith Earls is in a similar boat to Howlett but with a groin problem and the big one is Paul O'Connell who it is reported is still not right and it is possible he may not play, which is going to be a big let off for the Biarritz lineout and I'd expect the Munster front row would have appreciated his help for what they're about to face.
Finally and this could be a genuine trump card for Biarritz, they have Barcella and this could be his day, which is just as well as Johnston and August have had a cloud over their fitness of late. Barcella is the French prop that tore into the All Black and Springbok scrums in the autumn and I'd say he'd be pointing the lens right at John Hayes on the weekend. If Barcella can get himself to his damaging best for Biarritz and their lineout doesn't have to deal with O'Connell things could turn for the better for the home side in Basque. Points are at a premium in these games and Biarritz need Barcella to be applying the blowtorch from the first scrum of the game and the earlier he lets the referee know he's the dominate scrummager the better. This may be a lot of responsibility to drop on your loose head in a Heineken Cup Semi but they are going to need it. Even with the possible injuries Munster look too strong and their composure in these types of matches will serve them well.
Both teams know each other well having played in the Final in 2006 - Munster's first tournament win and Munster losing to Biarritz in San Sebastian in 2005. Yachvili will punish any indiscipline and Biarritz will look to run Munster across the park and run them ragged but I can't see that being enough on the day, even if the aging Munster have been somewhat off the pace of late. VERDICT: MUNSTER
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