Leinster, Munster, and Harlequins all impress, Connacht defy the odds
Leinster reinforced their title credentials with an emphatic 40-7 victory over the Northampton Saints in Pool One, and in the process, arguably put in the performance of the tournament thus far. The veteran Brian O’Driscoll was superb throughout, whilst winger Luke Fitzgerald showed good composure, and was able to capitalise on Leinster’s dominance with a hat-trick of tries. The Saints will need an immediate and dramatic return to form in Dublin next weekend, or else their Heineken Cup hopes will be dead in the water. Elsewhere, Castres narrowly edged out Ospreys, 15-9, and the French champions will be thankful for the boot of Rory Kockott, which has kept them in the hunt for qualification.
Although most eyes were on Exeter Chiefs vs Toulon in Pool Two, the performance of the Cardiff Blues in their 29-20 victory against Glasgow was one to savour for fans of the Blues, and certainly goes against what we have come to expect from both sides in the RaboDirect PRO12 this season. Fly-half Rhys Patchell will have piqued Warren Gatland’s interest with his exceptional display, and he certainly outperformed national compatriots Dan Biggar and Rhys Priestland on a busy European weekend. Toulon maintained their place at the top of the pool however, as they escaped Sandy Park with a hard-fought 14-9 win, thanks in large part to the formidable breakdown work of Steffon Armitage.
Connacht defied all expectations in Pool Three, as they managed to upset European heavyweights Toulouse, 16-14, at Stade Ernest-Wallon. The win keeps Connacht well and truly alive in the group, despite the fact they have struggled in the PRO12 all season, and they will already be excited about the prospect of welcoming the French giants to Galway next weekend. Saracens were made to work hard by Zebre early on in the other game of Pool Three, but the Londoners were clinical and powerful with ball in hand, and ultimately cruised to a 39-10 win in Italy, with Chris Ashton grabbing a brace of tries in the process.
Pool Four has arguably been the most exciting from a neutral’s point of view thus far, and it certainly didn’t disappoint in round three. Harlequins, who were struggling for form during the opening rounds of the Heineken Cup, bounced back superbly, dismantling a strong Racing Metro side, 32-8, in Nantes. The game was a tale of two Nicks, with Nick Evans and Nick Easter both playing head and shoulders above their opposition, and both players grabbed tries to garnish their performances. The Scarlets were unable to replicate a similar result in France, and although they were well in the game at half time, trailing Clermont by just three points, they were overpowered in the second half, and ultimately succumbed to a 32-11 loss.
Momentum swung dramatically in the game between Leicester Tigers and Montpellier at Welford Road, but the clinical nature of the Tigers was enough to secure a thrilling 41-32 victory. Miles Benjamin continued to reward the Leicester faithful for their patience during his injury troubles with a brace of tries, whilst the return of Vereniki Goneva transformed the back line into a far more threatening unit than it has been in recent games. A winning bonus point was not enough to give Leicester the lead in Pool Five however, as Ulster managed to cross the try line seven times on their way to a 48-0 win against a hapless looking Treviso side, and the Irish province remain top of the group.
Munster stole the headlines in Pool Six, as they blew the visiting Perpignan side away, winning 36-8. Given the travails French sides often endure on the road, and the fortress that is Thomond Park, a Munster win was hardly unexpected, but to do it in this fashion will have given head coach Rod Penney much heart. Sean Dougall, Keith Earls, and the engine room duo of Paul O’Connell and Donncha O’Callaghan were all excellent, although Munster will need to step up another gear if they want to leave Perpignan with a win in round four. Edinburgh struck early against Gloucester, but the English side bounced back admirably, winning 23-12 at Murrayfield, albeit without the try bonus point they desperately craved.
London Irish outclass Stade, Wasps and Bath prosper away from home
Bath, London Wasps, and London Irish all continued their 100% start to the Amlin Challenge Cup, with wins over Rugby Mogliano, Grenoble, and Stade Francais respectively, keeping them all well in control of their pools. Newcastle Falcons also won, beating Calvisano 37-15, and are now involved in a tussle with Brive for the top spot in their group, but a loss from Worcester at home to Biarritz effectively ended their European aspirations, whilst Sale’s defeat at the hands of Oyonnax embroils them in a dogfight with Biarritz for pole position in Pool One. Newport rounded off the action from the home nations in the Amlin, as they saw off the challenge of Bordeaux-Begles, winning 40-24 at Rodney Parade.
Try of the Week went to Luke Fitzgerald for his second effort against Northampton. His score set the tone for Leinster in their thoroughly impressive victory over Northampton, and a fantastic between the legs pass from the incomparable Brian O’Driscoll added gloss to the flowing team try. Miles Benjamin’s first for Leicester against Montpellier was also a strong contender, as the winger displayed his strength, speed, and footwork, with a bit of individual brilliance.
Nick Evans is the Hero of the Week for leading an inspiring Harlequins performance in Nantes. The fly half barely put a foot wrong against Racing Metro, and he looked to be back to his vintage best, as he sparked Quins’ dynamic back line, and was effective kicking from both the tee and hand. The resilience and teamwork of Connacht in their victory against Toulouse was astounding, and they’re a very unlucky runner-up.
Collective Villain of the Week this week, and it goes to the Northampton Saints. As impressive as Leinster were, Northampton were equally abject, and outside of Samu Manoa, Lee Dickson and George North, none of their players seemed to turn up on Saturday. A huge turnaround is needed if they are to get anything from Dublin next weekend.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images