By Alan Dymock
EVERY YEAR, as Christmas drew closer, my school rugby team would embark upon a festive fitness regime. Regardless of how much frost there was, we would work on early morning sprints up ‘The Hill’.
It was tortuous.
In a vain attempt to get us all through it our captain, a certain Richie Vernon, would always turn before the last set of sprints and casually tell us, “think of it as six apples. You’ve only got to eat six apples.”
It was obvious what he was trying to do. He was, in his own way, telling us that we had broken the back of the challenge and only had this last set of sprints to do. He was breaking it down, albeit with an incredibly irritating analogy.
It is the same with the Heineken Cup group stages because there are only two, ahem, apples left. We are over the other side of the hump and we know who hates life and who is thriving.
So without further ado, here are our winners and losers for Round 4.
Saracens: They have avenged last week’s defeat at Thomond by rolling their sleeves up, rolling their maul up and bowling into Munster.
In truth it was their nous that won it. It was an even contest in terms of carries and passes and tackles, but Sarries were smarter with their possession, turnovers and defended their line when down to 14 men. All this means is they’re sitting pretty at the top of Pool 1.
Johnnie Beattie: The No 8 is enjoying his French exile. He has been turning in big Man of the Match performances in Montpellier and on Saturday against Cardiff he showed his quality again.
Every time he touched the ball it looked like he would shimmy his way past another shame-faced defender. He seemed to have the besting of the Blues barricades. So is Scotland calling?
Sandy Park: Exeter Chiefs’ raucous ground is geared towards singularily to intimidating the opposition. It gives power to the likes of James Scaysbrook, Tom Johnson, Aly Muldowney and Sireli Naqelevuki to wreak havoc. They just grow at home.
Exeter and the Scarlets put on an entertaining display in Round 4 and the Chiefs are now on their shoulder just a point behind Leinster thanks to this ‘W’.
They may be meeting the scarily powerful Clermont side next, but can Sandy Park be the site for a famous Round 6 victory over the champions from Dublin? Who’d bet against it?
Clermont Auvergne: My word they looked hot to trot. Performances against Leinster suggest they are favourites for the Cup this year, and not in the flimsy way we all said that last season. Cast-iron contenders.
Toulon: The Galacticos of the Top 14 simply tossed Sale up and hammered them for 62 points It’s a scoreline that haunts a coach and drives players to distraction. Sorry, that should have read: Thanks to this result, John Mitchell will be haunting his players and driving them into the ground because of a witless 62-0 scoreline. It is easy to see who the losers in this one…
Sale Sharks’ Tackle Bags: Oh dear. In their humiliating loss, Sale missed 21 tackles and shipped seven tries in the second half. The bags will be getting flogged this week. Misery thy name is training.
Sean O’Brien: The flanker made 15 carries and ran about in his usual headless-rhino-with-chilli-up-its-bum fashion, yet he was his own worst enemy, taking a yellow for a late tackle on Sitiveni Sivivatu while his side were under the cosh.
The team managed to fight back but his recklessness and haste to use his bulk in the wrong fashion does not bode well as Leinster fight to progress.
Tommy Bowe: The Ulster juggernaut was finally slowed by Northampton this weekend. However, it was the loss of Tommy Bowe to a knee injury will hurt most. He is a thoroughbred and although Ulster have a strong squad this could be the point where their season begins to get harder. They will undoubtedly make it to the quarters, but any elements of doubt must be swatted aside.
The Scottish Pro Sides: Zero wins from eight.
I will say that again: zero wins from eight.
There is no positive aspect here. Edinburgh and Glasgow have thrown out last season’s runs and racked up losses. Edinburgh in particular have been woefully, embarrassingly bad. The Warriors have said in private that they hope to win something – anything – this season. Well they can rule the Heineken Cup out for starters.
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