Saturday, 28 June 2014

Know your Enemy: Champions Cup Pool Stage 2014-15


Founded: 1879
Ground: Kingspan Stadium (a.k.a. Ravenhill; Capacity: 18,196)
Star Man: Ruan Pienaar

In: Wiehahn Herbst (Natal Sharks), Ruaidhri Murphy (ACT Brumbies), Dave Ryan (Zebre), Franco van der Merwe (Gauteng Lions), Sean Reidy (Counties Manukau), Ian Humphreys (London Irish), Louis Ludik (Agen) 
Out: John Afoa (Gloucester), Tom Court (London Irish), Paddy McAllister (Aurillac), Adam Macklin (Rotherham), James McKinney (Rotherham), David McIlwaine (Leeds), Niall Annett (Worcester), Johann Muller (Retirement), Sean Doyle (ACT Brumbies), Stephen Ferris (Retirement), Ian Porter (Connacht), Paddy Wallace (Retirement), Chris Farrell (Grenoble) 
Ins: 7
Outs: 13

We meet again.  For the third time in four seasons we will be making a trip to Belfast to meet what has become our European nemesis.  Embarrassed in 2004, humbled in 2012 we were at least close in Belfast in 2013.  Some were happy when we settled for a bonus point defeat.

But the home leg.  Oh the home leg.  A win and Welford Road would've hosted its first European knock out game since 2007.  We were ten points up, 25 minutes to play.  Ruan Pienaar, that genius, that bloody minded never-say-die Afrikaner, inspired a huge comeback.  He scored all the points.  He charged down Flood.  He nailed his kicks.  Nobody was happy with that losing bonus point.

Their European campaign ended at the quarter finals after defeat to Saracens and a red card to full back Jared Payne.

Ravenhill opened in 1923; all 4 stands have been redeveloped in recent years.  It also bears a new name after a sponsorship deal with local building materials firm Kingspan.

Ulster have lost two southern hemisphere powerhouses from their pack as Johan Muller retires and John Afoa moves to Gloucester. Irish international prop Tom Court also moves on as does long serving centre Paddy Wallace.  

Ulster's recruitment for this season is headed by a trio of South Africans; prop Wiehahn Herbst, one cap wonder lock Franco van der Merwe and full back Louis Ludik all join from the rainbow nation.

The most telling loss might not be on the field.  Long serving Director of Rugby David Humphreys has left to join Gloucester, like Dean Richards he left the day to day coaching to others but his experience will be missed.

As well as talisman Pienaar Ulster posses British Lion Tommy Bowe on the wing and emerging Irish fly half Paddy Jackson.  Darren Cave is a classy centre with Ian Henderson a growing force in the pack.


Founded: 1908
Ground: Stade Mayol (Capacity:15,400)
Star Man: Take your pick


In: Fabien Barcella (Biarritz), Simone Ferrari (Mogliano), Guilhem Guirado (Perpignan), Romain Taofifenua (Perpignan), Andy Cramond (Edinburgh), Gerhard Vosloo (Clermont), Jean-Baptiste Grenod (Aix-en-Provence), Mamuka Gorgodze (Montpellier), Eric Escande (Montpellier), Nicolas Durand (Perpignan), Jimmy Yobo (Aurillac), James O'Connor (London Irish), Leigh Halfpenny (Cardiff)

Out: Emmanuel Felsina (Lyon), Benjamin Noirot (Biarritz), Sébastien Bruno (Retirement), Pierrick Gunther (Lyon), Joe van Niekerk (Retirement), Jérémy Lenaerts (Narbonne), Jonny Wilkinson (Retirement), Quentin Lenfant (Albi), Alexis Palisson (Toulouse), Vincent Martin (Lyon), Dannie Russow (Retirement)

Ins: 13

Outs: 11

So you've just won back to back European Cups.  Your star full back, Delon Armitage, impresses again and signs new deal.  What's an aspirant club to do?

Obviously you sign Leigh Halfpenny.  Then James O'Conner.  Why have just one world class full back when you can have three?

Not content in the backrow with World Champion Juan Smith, All Black powerhouse Chris Masoe, Argentinean captain Juan Fernandez Lobbe and English Exile Steffon Armitage you go out and sign Mamuka Gorgodze, the Georgian Goliath.

They've lost Wilko though.

Toulon are funded by comic book magnate Mourad Boudjellal, though he claims the side is now self funding.  A scary prospect.  Boudjellal took over the side in May 2006 and promptly led them to relegation.  Promoted to the Top 14 on the second attempt the side only really started to hit the heights with the signing of Wilkinson.

It took 3 attempts to become French champions; losing finals in 2012 & 2013 before claiming the Bouclier de Brennus this year.  They were last champions in 1992; a 19 year old Yann Delaigue landed 2 drop goals to beat Biarritz in Serge Blanco's final game.

Tigers are no strangers to Toulon after visiting for the 2013 European Cup quarter final, a close 6 point defeat.  The Stade Mayol has a mythic property for the Toulonnais and the atmosphere can be electric, but is old and dangerous at times.  The stadium is an accident waiting to happen, two stands are accessed from a tiny side street with no room to move for hours before kick off.

Named for local music hall star Felix Mayol and opened in 1920 it is built entirely into the local city environment giving the ground its unique charm, atmosphere and making improvement all but impossible.  Mayol also gifted the club its emblem the Lily-of-the-valley (Convallaria majalis).

Toulon are coached by former French national team manager Bernard Laporte and have a galaxy of stars available to them.  Hayman, Castro, Bakkies Botha, Ali Williams, the back row mentioned above, Giteau, Bastareaud, Mermoz, Drew Mitchell, Habana.  Surely they have to get old sooner or later?

Llanelli Scarlets

Founded: 1875
Ground: Parc Y Scarlets (Capacity: 14,870)
Star Man: Rhys Priestland


In: Peter Edwards (London Welsh), Chris Hala'ufia (London Irish), Rory Pitman (Wasps), Regan King (Clermont), Harry Robinson (Cardiff)

Out: Gareth Thomas (Ospreys), Deacon Manu (Retirement), Sione Timani (Tarbes), Josh Turnbull (Cardiff), Aled Thomas (Gloucester), Olly Barkley (London Welsh), Jonathan Davies (Clermont), Nic Reynolds (London Welsh)

Ins: 5


Another familiar rival.  Leicester have faced Llanelli 71 times stretching back to October 1896.  Tigers have taken 29 victories to the Welshmen's 37 with 5 draws.  In the professional era Tigers have won 6 to Llanelli's 3, the last two meetings in the LV Cup going the way of Llanelli.

The politics of Welsh rugby require Llanelli to go by the name "Scarlets" alone and pretend to be formed in 2003.  But the roots of this club go back to Victorian era and include celebrated victories over touring international sides including the 1972 All Blacks and against World Champions Australia in 1992.

The club opened its new home Parc Y Scarlets in 2008, the modern stadium is built on an out of town retail park.  It boasts modern facilities but the home club struggles to fill its 14,870 capacity regularly in the Pro12.  

The club is also famed for the song Sosban Fach (Little Saucepan), a tribute to the traditional tin plating industry in the town.  The club also celebrates the industrial heritage of the town with saucepans adorning the top of the goal posts.

Llanelli are coached by Simon Easterby, husband of TV presenter Sara Elgan, the former Harrogate, Leeds and Ireland flanker represented the club 180 times.  

The top name of his current charges is Rhys Priestland, the Wales international fly half.  He will be reunited with centre Regan King who rejoins the Scarlets from Clermont.

Winger Jordan Williams, small and agile, had a breakout season in 2013/14 as did lock Jake Ball.  Much like Ed Slater Ball is English, ignored by the academy system and spotted playing rugby in Australia.

Llanelli beat Harlequins at the Stoop last season with an exhillerating counter attacking game, so will be as dangerous opponent as ever.  Question marks will however linger over the pack.

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