Best of the Weekend: Heineken Cup hits back in style

As soon as a set of enthralling autumn Tests take their leave for another year, some enticing European fixtures return for our viewing pleasure. Here is the pick of the action from this weekend.

Ulster flags

Connacht blow Biarritz away as Ulster march on

Two outstanding results – one slightly more predictable than the other – left Irish eyes smiling brightly as the Heineken Cup got back underway beneath Friday night’s floodlights. The first, an ambush on some prestigious Frenchmen in Galway, defined the magic of Europe’s premier tournament. Connacht, driven by an immense defensive effort and Dan Parks’ accurate boot, dismissed the considerable challenge of illustrious opponents Biarritz. With late bloomer Mike McCarthy epitomising the grunt up front after Tongan try-scorer Letu’u Vainokolo repeated his Scotland-slaying antics of a fortnight ago in the opening five minutes, the visitors could not even salvage a losing bonus point. A Basque backlash next week is essential.

Winning at Franklin’s Gardens is never easy, but Ulster have completely forgotten how to do anything else of late. First silencing the East Midlands crowd and then dismantling a side containing Ben Foden, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood, the visitors re-affirmed their undeniable title credentials with a 13th successive victory of the season. A try for each of the back three – including the exceptional Jared Payne – paved the way for Dan Tuohy to clinch the bonus point at the death. The Ulstermen appear unstoppable.

If such an impressive performance was an eye-catching facet of round three, Pool Four’s remaining match was less memorable – Castres emerging from a dour contest in Glasgow with a 9-6 triumph – three penalties from South African scrum half Rory Kockott trumping Scott Wright’s brace. Pool One comprised a couple of tight arm wrestles as well, Munster ousting Saracens 15-9 and Racing Metro consigning Edinburgh to a third consecutive loss thanks to a score from Argentinian sparkplug Juan Imhoff. An unfortunate feature of the tie at Thomond Park was a return to fallibility for Owen Farrell, the young Kiwi-slayer missing four of seven attempts at goal to a chorus of boos.

Leicester and Harlequins complete Italian assignments, Welsh woe continues

Richard Cockerill’s relief shone through his assertion that Leicester’s 33-25 result at was “five points and a job well done.” In truth, his team would have been engulfed with tetchiness as the game wore on, because despite dismantling the Italians in the first half, complacency crept in and Treviso got a sniff of ending a six-year Welford Road winning streak in European competition. Even so, the bonus point was in the bag by the break thanks to some frankly ferocious forward dominance and, though Toulouse look ominous after dispatching a hapless Ospreys outfit, the Tigers are very much in the mix. While Leicester let their foot off the gas, Harlequins were far from merciful at Zebre and ran in eight tries on the way to a 57-14 thrashing even without Chris Robshaw at the helm.

Pitted against Toulon’s stellar squad, it was always going to be difficult for Sale to snatch anything from their Pool Six clash. Despite a good degree of fight at a sodden Salford, those fears were confirmed following 12 points from Jonny Wilkinson, who prevailed in an intriguing fly half battle with the inventive Danny Cipriani. John Mitchell has an extremely difficult test ahead, but he can take solace in the fact that he has not taken charge of a Welsh region – between Cardiff’s collapse at home to Montpellier and the Scarlets defeat that gave Exeter Chiefs their first Heineken Cup four-pointer, things are looking bleak across the Severn Bridge.

Finally, Leinster headed over The Channel for a repeat of last season’s epic against Clermont. One incredible run – either the champions’ 17 back-to-back wins in this tournament or a half-century of consecutive home victories for the Frenchmen – had to end. In the event, it was somewhat poetic that a Brock James drop goal, something so palpably absent in 2010’s blockbuster quarter-final between the sides, decided matters. Leinster will, of course, come again. They always do.

Last-gasp Worcester grab spoils as Burns brings Gloucester glory

Andy Goode was the hero once again for Worcester, his penalty at the death completing a 22 point-haul and a giant-killing win over Perpignan at Sixways. Elsewhere in the Amlin Challenge Cup, London Welsh lost to Grenoble, Bath battered Calvisano and Dragons turned over Mogliano away from home. As is becoming a running theme in this column, Freddie Burns enjoyed a productive afternoon, dismissing London Irish with a try, two conversions and five penalties.

Jared Payne made Hero of the Weekend something of a formality, fizzing around Franklin’s Gardens like a man possessed, terrorising Northampton in the final stages to collect a try and a quicksilver assist. Rock solid in the less conspicuous aspects of full-back play, he is a real diamond.

Villian of the Weekend unfortunately comes from the same tie, despite Lloyd Williams falling foul of tip-tackle trouble to see red for Cardiff. Dylan Hartley is the recipient, and may be cited following what appeared to be an ill-advised elbow on Lions rival Rory Best.

No stranger to this section, Christian Wade lit up a rainy evening in Bayonne with his electric pace, capping a fifty metre strength with a subtle grubber to net Try of the Weekend. His raw talent will never get boring.

By Charlie Morgan

7 thoughts on “Best of the Weekend: Heineken Cup hits back in style

  1. Twas a brilliant weekend despite being a Blues fan. I was at that Montpellier game and the contest was so tight that it was all over with the red card. Rhys Patchell had a great comeback at 10 – whispers of a six nations debut abound after Priestland was injured.

    Hartley showed why he could be an expensive liability for the Lions – he loses his cool when the game is against him. The Aussies, kings of wind up, will be licking their lips at the thought. What was so surprising about the Ulster result was the normalcy of it – this wasn’t a titanic arm wrestle where one team edged on out on top, this was a schooling.

    Were the Ospreys really hapless? I didn’t see it, but the score was closed for 50+ mins? Can’t remember many other teams doing that down in Toulouse and being called hapless?

    A bad weekend for the Welsh regions again – but then again the only countries doing anything in this HC are the Irish and the French, with the exception of Harlequins who are benefitting from the Italian presence, as are Leicester. I guess I’m more of a glass half full guy – yes, Irish/French teams are kicking Welsh butts, but they’re also kicking English ones and they’re not getting half the grief… Must be the salary cap! :-)

    1. Of the English sides only Saints have been really disappointing (I’m ignoring Sale who clearly aren’t a HC worthy side at the moment). Quins are benefiting from being in a pool with Zebre, but Treviso are a Pro 12 mid table team and not a soft touch.

      English teams are also putting up a much better show in the Amlin thus far, which I think is always a good indicator of the strength in depth and health of the domestic competition.

      Quins, Sarries and Tigers would be second favourites against the powerhouses of Toulon, Toulouse, Cleremont, Ulster and Leinster on neutral ground. They are a rung or two above the rest, so making a semi final this year would be a good achievement for an English team. Quins stand the best chance as with 2 winnable home games they can qualify before round 6 and stand a good chance of securing a home quarter.

  2. Well I nearly got a grand slam of wrong predictions. Backed a losing French, Welsh, Scottish and English team. Should have backed the Irish as they are looking like the European powerhouses. French lack of salary cap (well you did mention it!) keeps them in second with the rest of us making up the numbers.

    Fortunately with English teams leading 4 of the 5 Amlin groups, we can at least call on strength in depth!

    Didn’t expect Agen to go down to Bucharest!

    1. I always back the Irish in the HC. I know a few guys who were around the Munster setup – as they said to me, you know how you spot an Irish rugby fan? Ask them who they want to win the most, Ireland or their province, and they will look at you as if you are mental. Province of course. The Irish structure is focused on provincial (club) excellence – like England could be if they had less clubs and the RFU owned them.

      In Wales it’s the opposite, the regions compete with Wales for players/fans, and they lose.

      In France the money is unreal, no salary cap, but that really isn’t the difference in my opinion. Much like in Ireland, in France the focus is the clubs, national team second. I think that is why these two countries dominate club rugby.

      1. The regions have historically supported the national set up well (3 slams in 7, WC semi), but the landscape has changed. Too many players get too used to losing in regions and forget how to win in a national shirt. Poor Halfpenny is on something like a 16 game losing streak. How can you expect to close out a tight international game if you never win a game.

        Do the WRU see the future as being like Argentina and Samoa, exporting the best players and ensuring they get as much top class rugby as possible? If not they had better act quick. I can’t believe Lewis is blaming agents as “vultures” and absolving himself of responsibility by pointing out the existence of a Professional Rugby Game Board. Seems he is contributing far more to the problem than the solution. It annoys me with Wales my 3rd favourite team (behind England and Samoa!), I think I would be apoplectic if I was Welsh.

  3. Have to say that I agree that if the English playing resources were funnelled into fewer clubs, the standard would be better, but am still undecided whether this would make a better England team. Fewer higher quality games leading to more hardened international players, but less chance of youngsters coming through – just look at Gilroy struggling to get a game at his province – can’t be good for Ireland.

    1. I don’t really agree Staggy. It’s not like Connacht are a powerhouse of European rugby. They’re coming along well with Elwood in charge. Parks is a great 10, and they have Vainukolo in the backline of course, but Connacht are only recently starting to become a team that is desirable to play for. Players like Gilroy have that option if they choose it. He would have a better chance of making the first first team for them. If not, Ireland’s league structure is already draconian enough, doing its utmost to keep players at home, but there’s surely no harm in a small few leaving their home clubs to play in France or England if they desire to and are good enough. He’s still young so it’s a bit early to cast judgements on whether he’s getting the opportunities. He got his chance with Ireland and assuming he can sustain good form, he should be able to galvanise his place there too.

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