After a period of intense anticipation, this weekend was about one thing: Europe. Cross-continental competition has a happy habit of exposing special rugby. Thankfully, that trend is continuing. Here is what happened.
Ulster and Clermont set bonus-point pace as Chiefs worry champions
Misty, ethereal evenings accompanied by a raucous Ravenhill horde have become an innate feature of the Heineken Cup over the years and, especially in light of terrible tragedy that started this season, there was simply no better place to raise the curtain for the competition’s latest campaign. Even shorn of their immensely influential blindside Stephen Ferris through injury, the Ulstermen fittingly delivered. Inspired beyond their impressive Pro 12 form, they simply overran Castres.
Iain Henderson deputised brilliantly for Ferris in the back row, the 20-year-old’s uncompromising lines becoming a prominent feature of the hosts’ sweeping attacks. Grabbing a brace of scores and exercising composed game management from scrum half, diminutive dynamo Paul Marshall was also exceptional. Castres certainly contributed gamely with well-worked tries from Marc Andreau and Marcel Garvey, but Ruan Pienaar’s last-gasp scamper under the posts to grab a bonus was all Ulster deserved.
Ospreys were forced to work just as hard for their own five-point haul on the same night over at the Liberty Stadium, eventually dismissing determined Treviso. In a perilous group jam-packed with big guns, Ashley Beck’s robust finish in the final moments might prove crucial.
If Alun Wyn Jones’ men did not fall foul of the predicted doom and gloom for the Welsh regions though, Scarlets certainly vindicated the critics in Clermont Auvergne on Saturday. Despite an early injection of optimism following Jonathan Davies’ score, the subsequent (rather stupid) sending off of Morgan Stoddart killed off the contest just prior to half-time. Thereafter, the home team wreaked havoc. Indomitable up front, Morgan Parra enjoyed a flawless platform and orchestrated a rampant 49-16 victory that featured five tries.
The other Pool 5 tie amounted – in terms of European experience at least – to a bona fide David and Goliath affair. Heading over to Dublin to face the reigning champions, Exeter were not given a hope. As always, the Chiefs punched far above their weight. Tom Johnson and peerless skipper Tom Hayes revelled in what became a tense, intriguing, try-less dogfight and Leinster’s stellar names were tamed by industry. In fact, the teams were only split by Jonny Sexton’s late penalty. Unbelievably, Exeter left the Emerald Isle with two-thirds of possession and nagging disappointment. Rob Baxter can be extremely proud.
Mixed results for English heavyweights
A lot of Harlequins supporters would have been gnawing feverishly at finger nails after 17 minutes of their side’s match against Biarritz on Saturday evening. As Nick Evans limped from the field, a team on a run of two straight defeats had lost their maestro. Even having gone ahead through Danny Care’s sniping score, the Premiership holders appeared vulnerable, something that was confirmed when Arnaud Heguy levelled proceedings for the visitors.
As it happened, no one need have worried. Ben Botica emerged from the bench to kick 18 points and turn in a hugely mature display. At the coalface, Nick Easter made yards and George Robson fought hard. Care was at his impish, spiky best throughout. Eventually, thanks to Seb Stegmann’s controversial try at the death, the Twickenham Stoop faithful went home glowing from a bonus-point win. In a pool that also includes Zebre and Connacht– who overturned the Italians 19-10 on the same afternoon – Harlequins have laid down a significant marker. Conor O’Shea is smiling again.
By their own admission, Saracens are due a decent European campaign. A squad that has gelled fantastically to become a domestic superpower in recent years has failed to find consistency on a higher plane. Well, they could not have made a more purposeful start this time round. A 45-0 thrashing of an abject Edinburgh unit sent jeers ringing around Murrayfield at the final whistle. Tries from Joel Tomkins, Owen Farrell, Chris Ashton, Alex Goode and Charlie Hodgson – who finished with 25 points – meant the boos were music to the Fez-Heads’ ears. However, as Racing Metro and Munster proved during a tight tussle that Olly Barkeley’s boot edged for the Frenchmen, things will get tougher for Mark McCall and co.
While Edinburgh were utterly awful – and duly ripped apart by a furious Mike Bradley – their compatriots were far more competitive at Franklin’s Gradens. Indeed, marvellous South African Josh Strauss and Sean Lamont pulled Glasgow away to a 15-0 platform. Unfortunately for the Scots, Saints were stung into action for there – to the tune of four unanswered scores either side of the break.
Across The Channel, another set of East Midlanders confronted something sterner – Toulouse, the Top 14 juggernaut. With a history of high-octane tussles behind them in the annals of this fantastic tournament, Leicester and their Gallic nemesis renewed hostilities with aplomb. Initially, with the help of muscular showings from Dan Cole, Steve Mafi and Thomas Waldrom – deployed at openside because of Julian Salvi’s broken hand – the Tigers edged ahead in a compelling arm wrestle. Then Gael Fickou intervened, the 18 year-old centre conjuring an opportunistic try from nothing that gave Toulouse a sniff of victory just before the break. That was all they needed. They are not four-time winners for nothing.
Cipriani superb and Toulon ominous while Amlin opening brings pain for London Welsh
Having endured rather woeful starts to their respective seasons, Cardiff Blues and Sale arrived at Salford City Stadium intent on catharsis. In the form of a 67-point thriller, it came for the Aviva Premiership’s basement boys and, more pertinently, for Danny Cipriani. Making a return from illness, he orchestrated a stirring comeback that could well banish the bad form of Bryan Redpath’s boys. Garnering a vital assist and try in a 30-minute cameo, Cipriani sparkled. “I want to start,” he declared at the end. It wouldn’t be him if there wasn’t a bit of controversy. In the same pool, quietly-touted Toulon began very well, dispatching Montpellier 37-16 thanks to a second-half double from Delon Armitage.
You could quite easily have missed it, but this weekend also saw the first foray into Amlin Challenge Cup action,Gloucester beginning with a Thursday evening win in Mont de Marsan. Sadly, Andy Hazell’s ferocious outburst and subsequent sending off will be the abiding memory. Elsewhere across the round,Worcester smashed Spaniards Bizkaia Gernika by 80 points, Bath battered Bucuresti and Wasps negotiated a tricky encounter with Newport. London Welsh were not so fortunate, and were handed a 68-19 hiding by Stade Francais. Hopefully, they will learn some serious lessons and move on. That is how the Exiles work.
Three fly-halves comprehensively hogged the running for Hero of the Weekend. There was Paddy Jackson of Ulster for his decisive decision making in the first Heineken Cup match since his Twickenham meltdown in May. Harlequins’ Ben Botica deserves a mention as well. Danny is my man this time, though. Cipriani reminded us of his talents delightfully. Is the autumn too soon for international re-introduction? Almost certainly. Don’t give up on him yet, mind.
Andy Hazell made selecting a Villian of the Weekend rather straightforward. There is no place for manic, mindless violence on that scale in our sport. Gloucester’s claims of eye-gouging to goad their man do not excuse it. Actually, they are quite disappointing.
Surely for the first time ever, Bakkies Botha wins Try of the Weekend. Following a bruising career for the Boks, the gnarled lock has found a new lease of life among fellow superstars at Toulon. His score during Sunday’s thrashing of Montpellier comprised of a twenty-metre saunter and an outrageous dummy. A sniper in the stands got him as he crossed the whitewash, but Botha was not to be denied. His team will take some stopping, too.