In the usual Monday morning article, Ben Coles rounds-up the best of the weekend’s action, focusing on the first round of the Heineken Cup. After three days of excellent rugby, here are our best bits.
Irish make a statement but Munster not shut out
The weekend’s marquee game left neither side’s fans disappointed, in front of a 20,000-strong vocal crowd at the Madejski. Irish got the home win they knew they would need to be an active force in this year’s competition, whilst Munster clawed back a bonus point at the death which could prove crucial by the time the two teams meet again in Limerick.
It was an excellent game, poised on a knife-edge for most of the first half, and the tension as Munster tried to force their way back into the match in the second half was like that of a test match. The defence from both teams was resilient, particularly from Irish in the second half when Delon Armitage stopped the man mountain Tony Buckley from going over. Munster’s losing bonus point claimed with the last play of the game makes Pool 3 all the more fascinating.
Hear our exclusive interview with London Irish fly-half Ryan Lamb: [podcast]/Podcasts/LondonIrishRyanLamb.mp3[/podcast]
Treviso rattle Leicester at the Stadio Comuniale de Monigo
Those teams who think they’re in for an easy ride against Treviso will take Saturday’s excellent performance against Leicester well into account. In a high-scoring game where the lead changed back and forth all afternoon, Treviso gave Leicester a real scare. It took a late score from Alesana Tuilagi in the 77th minute to get the win for the Tigers, who in the end came away with a very successful five point haul.
Thomas Benvenuti and Kristopher Burton grabbed all the points for the Italian outfit, and a repeat of last season’s shock 9-8 win over Perpignan looked on the cards for much of the game. A very impressive performance.
Wasps run Toulouse close in France
The men from Wycombe came close to pulling off what would have been a surprise result in round one as they left the Stade Toulousain crowd biting their nails. Dave Walder in particular was excellent, his tactical kicking in the wet keeping Wasps in the game. They may not have the star names of years gone by, but this was a vintage Wasps performance.
Contrastingly, Toulouse may have all the big time players, but in the wet they struggled to kill off the opposition, and when David Lemi brilliantly touched down to put Wasps 16-15 up, a famous away win looked on the cards. Fortunately for the hosts, David Skrela’s reliable boot nudged them back ahead from a penalty at the scrum, and disaster was avoided.
Scarlets and Perpignan produce a thrilling exhibition
If the tension was to be found on Saturday at the Madejski, then the flair was down at Parc y Scarlets. In a belter of a game, at one point the Scarlets were ahead up 40-15, only to see USAP claw their way back with three second half tries. Stephen Jones racked up 28 points for the home side, including one of their four tries, one of which features as our try of the weekend. The Welsh side produced some fantastic moments of attacking play and have put their hand up for the title of most entertaining side in the competition. It will be interesting to see how they get on away from home.
French debutants have contrasting weekends
Two teams experiencing their first taste of Heineken Cup rugby this weekend were Toulon and Racing Metro 92. Both teams have received significant financial backing over the last few seasons with the aim of getting them to compete in this competition, and so it was interesting to see how they fared.
Toulon have been unfortunately placed in this year’s group of death, but with the quality of players such as Jonny Wilkinson, George Smith and company, they were never going to be underdogs. Their win over the Ospreys was a good start, the match-winning try from former England wing Paul Sackey in particular a lovely piece of play.
As for Racing, they had the unenviable task of travelling to the RDS to play Leinster, and whilst they put in a strong effort – Frans Steyn’s 66m penalty the highlight – they left themselves with too much of a deficit to make up. An intriguing first weekend for both sides, who I expect will become Heineken stalwarts over the years to come.
Try of the weekend goes to Llanelli’s Rhys Priestland. A simply breathtaking team try, and a strong early contender for try of the season. The ball was shipped wide, Morgan Stoddart broke through the defence, before superbly flicking the ball out of the back to Regan King, who within a split second did the same into the path of the flying Gareth Maule. The outside centre drew the last man to send Priestland flying into the corner for his second. Such brilliant hands, it was a moment of pure rugby magic.
This weekend’s Hero is Ryan Lamb of London Irish. His game was going to have go up a few notches against Munster and he showed great maturity, producing arguably his best performance in a London Irish shirt. It finally seems as though he has managed to find the balance between controlling the big games and his natural flair. If he continues to impress and prove critics wrong, then international honours cannot be ruled out.
The Villain of the weekend is Bath scrum half Michael Claassens. Sat in front of the posts on the Biarritz try line, and with Olly Barkley in the pocket and waiting, Claassens decided to throw the ball wide to Watson. The makeshift number seven, in the absence of Lewis Moody, was isolated and Bath lost the chance to go ahead. It was three points that really should have been taken, and as a result Bath lost a game that they needed to win if they want to progress in this year’s competition.
By Ben Coles (@bennycoles)