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Relaxed fly-half vital in Europe

"Imagination was given to a man to compensate him for what he is not, a sense of humour to console him for what he is." -- Francis Bacon

If we are talking about Rugby Union - then this logic applies to props - the universality of the game dictates that you can have 20-stone maladroits who look like they have emerged from the Black Lagoon sharing a pitch with Adonis' half brother who could shoot the balls off a grasshopper from 50 paces with a pea-shooter.

Props realise their importance in the professional game, particularly tight heads. It is a pre-requisite to have a strong roster of numpties in your squad. Props have become sexy. The likelihood is that you will not get too far without good props -- but you will get nowhere without a decent out-half.

It has only just struck me over the past two weekends of Heineken rugby how many matches were won by out-halves. It stands to reason that they are best placed to control the game -- so quite often the buck stops at 10.

One thing that you might not have missed is the abundance of absolute quality in this year's competition -- I can't remember seeing such a rich vein of quality performing in one competition at the same time and all performing sometimes to the limit of their ability.

There is a hotch-potch of key ingredients and drivers required to win the cup. Most often it comes down to whether you have a decent set of forwards and good halves -- the prime ingredient is a quality fly-half. That is why it makes it quite difficult to say with certainty who will win the Heineken Cup this year.

I can start by telling you who won't. As sure as there is a surfeit of quality, this is counter-balanced by some seriously flaky out-halves playing in very decent teams who are already on their way out of the competition.

In Munster's group, Northampton, last year's finalists against Leinster, are hamstrung by the presence of Ryan Lamb -- a blow-dried crow and a choker. He had a shocker against Llanelli last Friday and Northampton are gone.

Rhys Priestland, the Cinderella story, and Wales' player of the World Cup completely outplayed him and the gulf in class was demonstrated in both of their performances. Llanelli to get a bonus point in Franklin's Gardens was as difficult as it was surprising -- Munster will not win there in January.

In the same pool, Ronan O'Gara's feats need no further elaboration or deification. For a team that is refusing to be beaten and which is scrambling with the deftness of a runner at Pamplona, for all their unwavering desire, if Ian Keatley was in the hot seat for their first two games, Munster would have only two points on the board.

The only thing that O'Gara is missing at the moment is a blind-fold, a crossbow and the refrain from the William Tell Overture. Retirement? When you are having this much fun!

Pool Two should be won by Cardiff -- primarily because Dan Parks has matured into a very clever player. He was an astute acquisition and will get Cardiff further than they deserve to get.

Leinster's pool has the two out-halves who finished the World Cup final. Francois Trinh-Duc has bloomed and was unlucky not to lead France to victory.

His skill set is phenomenal. He is very quick, a great counter-attacker and has wondrous hands. You just sense that Montpellier might just give up the ghost too early to concentrate on the Top 14 and so, for Leinster, the December series against Bath is pivotal.

When Stephen Donald, the fourth choice New Zealand out-half, replaced Aaron Cruden during the World Cup final -- he looked like he had just got out of bed.

He had spent the previous six weeks drinking beer and fishing whitebait.

The reason he had done this was because Graham Henry had run out of patience with Donald's lack of bottle -- when it came to the pinch he'd flinch. If the Kiwis think he is flaky, well.

Bath have Olly Barkley back and a very decent home-grown kid called Tom Heathcote, but Donald gets the start because he cost Bath big dollars. Sexton has him for smarts and steel, and can direct with greater clarity and vision, but I'm just a little concerned of the effect of a joker/wildcard.

Nobody expected Arthur to pull Excalibur from the rock and Donald, derided at home in New Zealand, might just fool a half-decent Bath side. A half-decent Bath side coached by Ian McGeechan, he shaded the battle against Trinh-Duc in the Rec last Sunday.

Sexton's 'bona fides' though are undoubted at Heineken level and when it comes down to it he will prevail.



Flakies

Pool Four is the pool of the flakies -- Toby Flood for Leicester, Ian Humphreys for Ulster and, God help us, David Skrela and Brock James for Clermont. Three decent teams, but when the heat comes on all these guys get dry throat.

Pool Six has two superior halves. Nick Evans, who should have been brought home to New Zealand when Carter got injured, is the second best out-half in New Zealand and the best in the Aviva Premiership.

He has led Harlequins to an 11-0 start and his battle with Toulouse's unflappable Lionel Beauxis who was sure and calculated in everything he did in the predictable disappointment at The Sportsground, will surely decide the group in yet another back-to-back decider.

If you are looking for winners then, the teams that have Sexton, Beauxis, O'Gara, Priestland, Evans and Parks are the ones to put your money on.


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