After an enthralling first round of hard-fought competitive fixtures in the Champions Cup, here are the talking points from an intriguing round two…
Scottish swagger at No.10 as Racing and Glasgow turn on the style
Test-quality fly-halves are like London buses. You wait years for one, and then two appear from nowhere. Scottish rugby fans will know all about that after watching their country struggle for some years to find a No.10 capable of starring on the international stage. Yet in Finn Russell and Adam Hastings they now have two exciting attacking options to choose from as Gregor Townsend’s young Scotland team build towards Japan 2019.
This weekend’s Champions Cup action saw the two outside halves lead their teams to impressive victories, with Russell’s 17-point haul paving the way for Racing 92 to run out comfortable winners over Ulster, whilst Glasgow’s Adam Hastings was in scintillating form with ball-in-hand as the Warriors secured a bonus-point win on their travels against Cardiff Blues.
Always a talented showman, Finn Russell has gone up another level this season adding a greater consistency and accuracy to his game that marks him out as one of the best in Europe in a Racing 92 side that look capable of going all the way. Glasgow supporters would have been sad to see their talisman Russell depart in the summer, but in young Hastings – son of former Scotland and Lions full-back Gavin – they have another exciting talent of a similar mould to Russell, who after a tough baptism of fire against Saracens’ Owen Farrell in round one is clearly learning fast as Cardiff found out to their misfortune. With Racing and Glasgow both playing an expansive attacking style of play, expect these two tens to play a pivotal role in this season’s entertainment.
Renaissance man Medard leads the charge as Toulouse rewind the clock
Despite their illustrious history in Europe, Toulouse in recent times have become the forgotten men of European rugby. Since their last European title in 2010, the French giants have reached just one semi-final (2011), whilst in two of the last three seasons they have failed to make it out of the pool stages. Much has changed since Toulouse last ruled Europe but one constant throughout that time has been the presence of full-back Maxime Medard.
A veteran of over 250 appearances for Toulouse along with 50 international caps for France, Medard has seen it all in a career that has included European Cup and Six Nations titles as well as a World Cup final appearance. Over the last few years much like his club side, the 31-year-old has been something of a background figure but this season’s Champions Cup has seen a resurgence for both player and club. With two wins from two – including an impressive win over reigning champions Leinster this weekend – Toulouse look in good shape to push on and seal a knock-out place and Medard has played a key role in those triumphs. In round one he saved his side from defeat by knocking the ball out of Freddie Burns’ hands just before the Bath-man was to ground the ball for what would have been a match-winning try, and this week he produced a man-of-the-match performance running in two tries to help his side to a narrow win over tournament favourites Leinster.
While its too early to say for certain that Toulouse will go far in this year’s competition, their quick start this season has given them a great chance and any team with their sort of pedigree in Europe should not be underestimated.
Falcons and Chiefs showing domestic form goes out the window in Europe
You’ve either got it, or you haven’t. The contrasting fortunes of Newcastle Falcons and Exeter Chiefs at home and in Europe this season would suggest that is the case when it comes to European competition. Struggling at the foot of the Premiership table, the Falcons backed up their momentous victory in Toulon with another famous triumph over French opposition as the much-fancied Montpellier were beaten 23-20 at a raucous Kingston Park, to leave Dean Richards’ men top of their Champions Cup pool.
On the flip side of that, Exeter may be sitting pretty at the top in the domestic league but defeat in France against Castres this weekend coupled with their draw against Munster at Sandy Park in the last round leaves them with little room for error in their remaining games if they are to successfully navigate their pool. Despite their great success in the Premiership over the last few years, progress in Europe’s top competition has proven hard to come by for the Chiefs having failed to make it out of the pool stages in four of their five previous Champions Cup campaigns.
On the other hand, 14 years after their last appearance in the Champions Cup the Falcons are flying high at the top of their pool with two wins from two leaving them in a great position early on to secure a quarter-final berth. Given their domestic form it is hard to put your finger on the form of these two in Europe, for one Champions Cup rugby has been a welcome reprieve, whilst for the other the competition has proven something of a stumbling block to their early-season momentum. In these early stages however, not all hope is lost for Exeter and neither is Newcastle’s work done but their respective starts prove once again just how unpredictable the Champions Cup can be.
Red, a more common colour?
Discipline has always been a key component in rugby, with flashings of yellow being a quite common sight as referees get tired of teams’ repeated infringements and send someone off for a ten-minute break. However the changing of the laws in modern-day rugby means that where once red cards were an irregular occurrence, nowadays they are increasing in regularity.
This weekend saw two red cards brandished by referees across ten matches. Gloucester’s Danny Cipriani and Castres’ Maama Vaipulu were the guilty parties and in both cases by the letter of the law the respective referees made the right call. With referees being told that any contact with the head by the shoulder of a defending player is worthy of a red card, neither player can have many complaints. Cipriani may count himself slightly unlucky as he looked to be trying to pull out of a tackle when his shoulder collided with the head of Munster attacker Rory Scannell.
There was nothing unlucky about Vaipulu’s sending off with the Castres flanker producing an aggressive and reckless challenge that caught the chin of Exeter’s Luke Cowan-Dickie with the Chiefs man off the ball. Although both calls were correct there were also several other challenges that went unpunished across other matches that depending on your interpretation could have been deemed worthy of a red card. Player welfare is of course the most important factor in all of this – especially when it comes to contact with the head – and given rightly the more focus given by referees to this area of the tackle, this weekend is unlikely to be the last time we see flashes of red this season.
By Jon Davies