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.
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.