Neil Francis: To avoid deep end of pool, our boys need an early splash
Opening round is crucial to Leinster and Ulster surviving qualification ordeal, writes Neil Francis
A damaging cat fight, pregnant with implication, which could signal the end to the structured order of European rugby. This could be the last Heineken Cup preview I ever do. More likely, however, will be the truly edifying prospect of Mark McCafferty's head being served on a plate.
When this is all over, the people who backed themselves and everyone else into a corner will have to fall on their swords. If you play hardball with people you have to expect a Yorker in the conkers if it doesn't work. In the meantime, let's enjoy what we truly enjoy.
One of the sad things about this particular Heineken Cup is that most Irish people wish that an Irish team would win it so that we can all shove it up the Anglo-French jacksies. It wouldn't make a whit of difference because this unseemly row is all about money and people like Mark McCafferty don't care who wins it.
Of the three realistic Irish contenders, two have horrendously difficult pools. One has a difficult pool and a bad draw, as in how the fixtures fall. One has a laughably easy pool and if they win the first match could harbour ambitions of top seed.
Munster must be biting their lips: is this the Heineken Cup or the Ballyfree League? Three plump, oven-ready, golden-basted turkeys ready for the taking. Edinburgh finished tenth in the Rabo last season. Perpignan were the last of the French qualifiers in seventh place and Gloucester sixth out of the play-offs and fifth in the Premiership. Somebody had to sell their body to the draw committee to get such a facile pool draw. It might keep Rob Penney in a job a little bit longer. The group is Munster's to lose and any sense of underachievement here will come only if they don't secure a home quarter-final.
Ulster have a gravely difficult task but at least the fixtures fall well for them. Once again, the imperative of winning your first match is occupying every coach's attention. I fancy Ulster to beat Leicester in Ravenhill purely on the basis that they have unpicked them before. That done on the proviso that if you stop them before the gainline they don't have the bullying pack of yore who would get them out of trouble when their universal game is not working. Ulster though will find that anyone who can beat Clermont 43-3 at home – that is what Montpellier did – well, you'd have visions of the meat hooks in the rendering hall. Montpellier are a pack of savages and have intelligence in the executive positions.
Ulster will come away from Stades Yves du Manoir hopefully with their manhood intact. The draw though favours them as they play Benetton home and away while Leicester and Montpellier have two barbarous engagements just before Christmas. Ulster could be leading the group and positioned well to pick off the survivor. They will however have to travel to Welford Road in their last match to qualify and that is going to be a stretch.
Les Bleus – officially the No 1 seed – le prix de boobee. Castres are the French champions, unlikely winners you might say, but they play rugby like the All Blacks. They do the simple things brilliantly and play a brand of rugby that is the best in the Top 14 and I include Clermont and Toulouse in that list. The pack is ultra-competitive and boasts the best No 8 in the Top 14, Antoine Claasen. Richie Gray, the only man I know with his own inbuilt 'See You Jimmy' hat, has slowly synched with the way his new team play. They have quality brimming all over their match-day 23. If they are bothered they could easily top this group. Leinster will have to pray that Castres have, as usual, more interest in the Top 14 which they are defending this year than the Heineken Cup and might be out of contention by the time Round 5 comes around.
Northampton will be looking to get some return on their investment. George North, Kahn Fotuali'i and Alex Corbisiero are high-calibre additions to a pretty decent squad. They are without doubt the team I dislike the most on the planet, even more than Toulon. The list of grade A baddies with rap sheets starts with Dylan Hartley meets Calum Clarke in the middle and ends with Courtney Lawes. Leinster play them in the double-header at Christmas and I fancy Leinster to win both matches. (We will look forward to those games with a special preview.)
The key to Leinster's group is in the first match. They obviously have to win that match – unfortunately they are playing a team that loves playing them and loves beating them and they know how to do it too.
One of the great lines in As Good As It Gets was delivered by Jack Nicholson's character Melvyn Udall. Helen Hunt is looking for a compliment that would prolong their disastrous date. "You make me want to be a better man," was the line that got him a reprieve. Whatever it is about Leinster but their mere presence makes the Ospreys want to be a better team. Quite often you see Ospreys treading water in the Rabo. Leinster turn up for the fixture and suddenly the performance and efficiency levels ramp up dramatically. There is no hate there like there was a few years ago with Munster, with whom they had a toxic five-year relationship. This one I do believe is born of respect.
I have studied too many videos now to see why Leinster's play is too easy to counteract for the Ospreys. The game plan is geared primarily to upset Leinster's rhythm and fluency and it works a treat. Ospreys have won too many matches against Leinster in the last five years for it to be a fluke or a coincidence.
Defensively, they are very clever. Their line speed is like something Scottie produced on the Enterprise. They are also very tight on the press, as tight as OJ's glove. They defend from the outside in, something they only do against Leinster. They push their outside centre and sometimes even their winger up in front of the line to try and snuff out the advantage that Leinster's quick passing poses. Leinster thus far haven't worked out how to deal with it. It also stops the option of bringing Rob Kearney up and chipping through.
Ospreys are one of the best teams in the league at the breakdown. They force you to commit numbers into the zone, primarily because they are confident in their ability to slow ball down in or out of the legal framework. Every Osprey at ruck time makes you win the ball again and again at the same breakdown.
They too are adept at rucking over and past the ball – a concept known today as counter-rucking. The number of times they get to break Eoin Reddan or Isaac Boss' rhythm at the breakdown is startling. Once the Leinster scrumhalves have to go digging or avoiding scraggers, their flow is stopped and their natural game is halted. Ospreys swarm at the breakdown. So far Leinster have struggled to deal with it. The Leinster ruckers will have to operate like that log-chipper in Fargo if they are to win this game.
Osprey's have four Lions in their tight five – three of them Test players. They were far too clever for Leinster at tight in the RDS a few weeks ago. Yes, referee Leighton Hodges gave everything against Leinster on that night but Ospreys will have been encouraged.
The key to it all is whether Leinster can resist the temptation to stop playing once they go ahead. If they have learned one thing from their clashes with Ospreys, it is that if you switch off and invite them on to play it will be curtains.
This is the most intriguing game in Round 1 for me and intelligence rather than resolve will sort out the Top Cat from the Officer Dibbles.