IT’S THE GROUP OF DEATH! It’s scarcely credible that this phrase has taken hold in rugby and managed to survive in commentary. It doesn’t have any notable lineage [for example, it’s not old naval slang or public school code], it’s an enormous overstatement – nobody calls failure to qualify from another group a death, so why should this be a ‘group’ of death? – and it’s really quite crass.
It’s the sort of modern over-statement that doesn’t sit well with rugby, where the method of scoring is still called a ‘try’, and you still have positions like tighthead prop and second five-eighth. If rugby were to adopt the sort of language from which GROUP OF DEATH! has managed to cross over, we’d have Right Scrum Masters, Megaboot Generals and VICTORY TOUCHDOWNS!
What happens if you don’t qualify from the GROUP OF DEATH! Your failure is actually accepted by both critics and fans with a gracious/wistful acknowledgment that while things didn’t go your way, you had the odds stacked against you in the GROUP OF DEATH!
Anyhoo, this year’s GROUP OF DEATH! is comprised of Clermont Auvergne, Leicester Tigers, Ulster and Edinburgh. OH DEATH!
Leicester have got off to the slowest of starts in the Premiership, hamstrung by a sizeable proportion of their squad being away at the World Cup and a number of injuries to those players who were 4F at home. Richard Cockerill has been bleating and moaning about everything under the sun – what’s new? – and is mystifyingly yet to realise that all his ‘outspoken’ comments are drivers that ultimately work against the Tigers in tight encounters.
The Mole has little sympathy for Leicester. They have an enormous squad [46 senior players listed, of whom about 20 are internationals] and that’s the price you pay once every four years in being the biggest club in England. Cry me a river!
Still, they’ll be a team worth watching this time out, and probably for different reasons than you might expect. Firstly, the hype regarding the emergence of Manu Tuilagi as England’s great hope in the centre is – for once – not entirely diproportionate. Secondly, George Ford has recently been named IRB Junior Player of the Year, and has seen a good bit of game time with the Tigers this season. He was born in 1993, which is guaranteed to make pretty much anybody who can read feel old. All the talent in the world, this kid.
There is serious potential in the Youngs , Flood , Ford , Twelvetrees  and Tuilagi  midfield – obviously some of them will have to miss out this season, but it could well be that viewers of Group 4 will be watching the Fewcha of English Rugbeh.
Outside of them they’ve got the big bopping Alesana Tuilagi and the veteran Georan Murphy, and up front they’ve still got considerable grunt in the extremely under-rated Ayerza [a really quality prop], Castrogiovanni [who is resembling a flat-track bully more often these days] and Little Joey Cole.
Clermont Auvergne, while being a nightmare draw for anybody in the tournament over the last five years, have never actually delivered on their threat. With the likes of Aruelien Rougerie, Naps Nalaga, Julien Malzieu, Morgan Parra and Brock James, they had amongst the most threatening – and certainly one of the biggest – backlines in the tournament. The depth of their front row of Domingo, Scelzo, Ledesma, Paulo and Zirikashvili was staggering; a couple of highly experienced, world class players mixed with dynamic ball-carriers and top-notch scrummagers.
I could be wrong, but I think Clermont’s best days might be past them. Rougerie looked very ordinary for the great majority of the World Cup, and the legendary Ledesma and Scelzo have departed, as has the phenomenal try-machine Napolioni Nalaga. Bonnaire had a great knock-out campaign for France, but while obviously a tremendously durable and effective player, he’s not a fantastic ball-carrier. With Sione Lauaki having gone to Bayonne, they may struggle somewhat with that aspect of the game.
New additions Sitiveni Sivivatu, Nathan Hines and Leigh Byrne bring a huge amount of international experience and ability to the team, but the Mole is suspicious that they have arrived on the downslope of their careers. David Skrela is a bit of a turkey. Obviously he’s an experienced French international who has won medals with Toulouse, but he has forever had question-marks hanging over his mentality when it comes to big matches. Frankly, he’s not the most credible of out-halves.
Ulster look to be going backwards. The talented and highly touted youngsters in their backline – Gilroy and Spence in particular – didn’t make the impact it was hoped they would be able to produce in the absence of their senior team-mates at the World Cup. While Andrew Trimble and Paddy Wallace were away, the Ulster backline regressed significantly in terms of their basic skills. Passing, catching, line-depth, alignment … all were shown to have significantly dropped off from last season.
Up front there have been some fairly spectacular non-performances in the Pro 12. The effect that Rory Best has as captain was pronounced in his absence, and his return will make a huge difference to the forward mindset. Tom Court didn’t have a bad World Cup, and as long as he is kept on the loosehead side, the Ulster scrum shouldn’t suffer too much. John Afoa has yet to be integrated into the side, but you’d imagine that he’ll do a very capable job. Some of his rugby at the end of last seasons Super XV was absolutely first-rate, and there’s nothing like winning a World Cup to give you confidence. Tuohy and Muller should form a complementary partnership in the second row, and the former will be closely watched. He has been touted as a possible replacement for Donncha O’Callaghan in the No4 jersey for ireland in the recent past, but it seems that Donnacha Ryan’s run of good form may have closed that avenue off for him, or at least edged the Munsterman ahead. Sure Deccie will never drop Donncha anyway, what am I talking about!
It’s in the backrow where there are tough calls to be made. Brian McLaughlin would do well to start picking Willie Faloon at No7 for Ulster, a point which the Mole has made a number of times before. It’s not that Faloon is David Pocock’s twin, it’s just that Chris Henry is a really, really sh*t openside. That’s not his fault. I’d say Willie Faloon would make an even worse No8. The Mole’s point would be that players should be picked in the position in which they are most capable.
I appreciate that McLaughlin’s hands were tied to a large extent with the injury-enforced absence of Stephen Ferris last year, and that Ulster needed ball-carriers in the backrow. However, Ferris’ return to Ulster colours should go hand-in-hand to Faloon’s reintroduction. Ferris is so physical and so explosive that Faloon’s lack of physique can be parlayed away against his expertise as a linkman. Personally speaking, I’d have Henry at No8 ahead of Pedrie Wannenberg, but that’s a coach’s call.
The Mole has a feeling that this isn’t going to be a great campaign for the Ulstermen.
Viadana. Sorry, Aironi. It’s pretty implausible that these chappies are going to have a storming Heineken Cup. They’re currently last in the Pro 12, and as loathe as the Mole has been to pony up with the credit for the three other teams in Group 4, Aironi are a long way behind them. A long, long way.
There’s no shortage of forward power or experience: Bortolami, Peruginig, Ongaro, del Fava, Quintin Geldenhuys and Josh Sole have racked up a huge number of caps for Italy between them, and the ball carrying heft of Nick Williams – when he can be arsed – is a formidable weapon. Masi, Orquera and Tito Tebaldi are the pick of their backs, and while Masi is a hard-running type of a foreigner, Orquera has too many holes in his game to make up for the nice touches he occasionally adds, and while Tebaldi is another talented sort of a chap, he’s hardly Diego Dominguez.
The gloss has somewhat come off Italy since their World Cup. Both Ireland and Australia put them to the sword conclusively and showed what a limited team they are, even with a full hand to deal from. It’s difficult to think that Aironi are anything more than a pale imitation of their national team, and will be dealt with as such.