We currently find ourselves just over the top of the season for the Celtic, or as it’s now officially known, the Rabo Direct Pro 12 league. With 12 rounds played, and 10 more to go there’s still a lot of room to try to get things to go very right or for multiple disasters to come visiting, so no better time than to see where things stand, who’s poised for greatness & whose pride is coming just before a fall.
The bottom four, starting from the bottom of the table, are Aironi Rugby, Newport Gwent Dragons, Connacht Rugby and Edinburgh Rugby.
Aironi have consistently been the whipping boys of the league since the two Italian sides were introduced. While they haven’t made the progress that their fellow countrymen have made in the league (and in play), they have serious intentions, and a serious pack, the signing of Bergamasco being a prime example of both. However I don’t expect any more than a couple of home wins over the rest of the season, if that.
The Dragons haven’t had much to roar about this season, only barely scraping in above Aironi with a draw in the difference. Whilst they don’t seem to travel well, their home ground is both a sandbox and formidable, with vocal and strongly opinionated supporters. I can only see them finishing in the bottom end of the table, but can see supplying a few banana-skin moments at home along the way.
Connacht are a side that have been both thrilling and disappointing in previous seasons, and are currently breaking hearts on the west coast of Ireland. Between being 10 minutes away from beating Harlequins away, and missing out on taking Leinster’s scalp by about 2 inches on the last kick of their most recent game, they just can’t seem to catch a break. Not far off breaking that cycle, but all too late for this season.
Now moving to Edinburgh, other than recently retaining the services of two promising young Scottish 10s and the try scoring machine that is Tim Visser, haven’t impressed much other than an away win against Treviso. With just four wins to their name the best they can hope of for is to strive for a mid-table position. Just to be clear, that’s not why Paterson retired. Probably.
Shoring up the mid-table currently, again starting at the lowest position, are Ulster Rugby, Benetton Treviso, Scarlets and Cardiff Blues.
Ulster have been under-performing to date in the domestic league. They have a cracking front row, a world class international blindside flanker in Stephen Ferris (remember him Genia?), and some genuine talent in the backs, notably Andrew Trimble, and with a great win against Munster just under their belts I can’t help but feel that they’re turning a corner. May well fight their way into the playoffs.
The success story of the Italian franchises, Treviso have really begun to assert themselves this season. The promise held by their powerful pack is now being matched by beginning to link up with their now competent backs, and they are reaping the rewards. Quite a tough, physical prospect, especially at home, they will almost definitely be the cause of some disappointment before the season’s end.
Scarlets have been playing some decent rugby to date this season, with their giant teenage sensation winger George North playing no small part. Having achieved back to back wins over the Christmas derby matches, and with only one loss in the last 7 matches, they will be looking to grind out a playoff place over the remaining rounds. Whether they can successfully maintain this level of play however remains in doubt.
Their regional rivals Cardiff Blues retain the services of openside Sam Warburton, hard-done by hero of the Welsh World Cup effort (from a Welsh perspective in any case), battle-hardened prop Gethin Jenkins, and perma-tanned on-again off-again rugby player and dancing reality show sensation Gavin Henson to name but a few. Whilst playing an attractive running game, they are currently ham-strung by a lengthy injury list, and their last seven matches being won by the home side each time, so they may struggle to make the cut come the sharp end of the season.
The top four teams on the table, yet again from the lowest position on, are Munster Rugby, Glasgow Warriors, Ospreys and Leinster Rugby.
Munster are a side that need little introduction, with a proud Celtic & European record, but are currently facing a dilemma that combines an ever growing injury list with four away losses on the trot, including an unprecedented loss to Ulster in their most recent game. Despite their current difficulties, they are currently the only team to have won all of their Heineken Cup matches so far this season, and with a combination of determination, brute strength and some truly outstanding players it would be foolish to discount them at any stage of the competition. Being able to call on Ronan O’Gara’s boot doesn’t hurt either.
The better performing of the Scottish sides at the moment, Glasgow are enjoying some fine form having only lost three games to date but with two draws diluting their tally. Their standout player at the moment is Ruaridh Jackson, an exciting young flyhalf who is developing well and is stepping up at international level for Scotland too, with solid performances in the World Cup. The most consistent Scots side for some time, and most definitely in the mix for the playoffs.
Next up are the galacticos of Welsh rugby, the Ospreys. In recent years they are almost always near the top of the group, and with the best current defensive record in the league, a solid pack and backs as dangerous as Tommy Bowe to call on, this year is no different. Having lost James Hook, Mike Phillips and Lee Byrne to France doesn’t seem to have damaged them as much as had been expected by some, myself included. Will almost definitely make the playoffs, and usually bring on a good game to watch too.
Finally, sitting pretty 6 points clear on the top of the table are my own side Leinster. The successes of last season in winning the Heineken Cup and coming second to a hungry Munster in the Celtic league final look to have been built upon this season with a greater depth in all positions and an effective player rotation policy. Playing a superbly entertaining high tempo running game, with keeping the ball alive a high priority, they seem highly likely to reach the domestic finals again this year. And quite possibly tilting at the Heineken Cup final at the same time. Entirely unbiased opinion of course.
With all that said and done, the harsh realities of rugby are that anything can happen on a given day, and there’s no sure winner until that trophy is lifted. With the successes of the Celtic teams so far in Europe this season, as in previous ones, the one thing you can be sure of is that there will be tears, cheers, and plenty of entertainment along the way.
Footnote: @RugbyKino will be reporting on this weekend’s results early next week, and likewise after each round.