All to play for as the half-way point in this season’s pool stages approaches, here are a few of the talking points from a decisive weekend of action…
Young Glasgow team rip up the rulebook with another win on the road
So often in the Champions Cup Pool stages home form is the key to qualification. So when Dave Rennie’s young Glasgow side went down to a narrow defeat at Scotstoun to a wily and experienced Saracens side in round one, it looked a tough ask for the Scots to regain composure and momentum in their Pool, especially with two successive away matches to follow. Yet two rounds later and Rennie’s side have emerged with maximum points from trips to Cardiff and Lyon respectively to sit well in contention for a quarter-final berth at the half-way stage.
Having looked a touch naïve in playing so fast and loose in defeat to Sarries, Glasgow have shown the courage of their convictions by maintaining this exciting brand of running rugby with the likes of Adam Hastings, Huw Jones and Stuart Hogg at the forefront of this sizzling attack as Lyon were brushed aside for a convincing 42-22 win in France this weekend.
With both Cardiff Blues and Lyon stepping up from Europe’s second-tier Challenge Cup this season, some may point out that Glasgow are not facing the most formidable of opponents in these early stages but wins on the road in Europe against any side are not to be sniffed at.
Sitting in second place four points behind Saracens, Glasgow still have a mountain to climb in order to qualify as Pool winners but should they match their away-day feats against Lyon and Cardiff at home they will be well-placed to secure at the least a best runners-up spot, and with their form on the road no side will look forward to hosting such dangerous opposition in the knock-out stages.
Edinburgh and Toulon wins throw exciting pool 5 wide-open
At the start of the season, fans may have been forgiven for overlooking Pool 5. What looked at the time to be a fairly predictable Pool has proven to be anything of the sort following the opening two rounds of fixtures, with former champions Toulon being swept aside by Newcastle and Edinburgh, whilst Dean Richards’ Falcons side lead the way in Europe despite sitting at the bottom of their domestic league.
Round Three may have brought a touch more normality to proceedings with Toulon earning their first win of the campaign against French rivals Montpellier, and Newcastle’s storming start in Europe coming to an abrupt halt with a heavy defeat against Edinburgh, yet with just five points separating Edinburgh (11) at the top from Toulon (6) at the bottom everything is still to play for in this most manic and exciting Pool going into the final six fixtures.
A quick glance at the group as well as some of the performances seen so far might suggest that this group is anyone’s to take, but with just one away win (Newcastle at Toulon) so far from the opening six fixtures, Newcastle and Montpellier will be quietly confident with both sides to play two of their remaining three fixtures in front of home support.
Ireland’s history-makers return in style to maintain the provinces’ push
Three weeks on from that famous night in Dublin, and some of Ireland’s heroes returned to the field of play after a well-deserved break. With key players such as Jonny Sexton (Leinster), CJ Stander (Munster) and Jacob Stockdale (Ulster) having been rested for the past few weeks by their respective provinces with one eye on these European ties, the three Irish sides went out in full force with their key men refreshed and ready to go.
The result – three wins out of three for the Irish sides who at the mid-way point in the pool stages all look in good shape to secure qualification. Having salvaged a draw from their opening game at Exeter, Munster have reeled off two home wins to sit top of their pool. Defeats on the road in round two for Leinster and Ulster respectively, left less room for error for the other two provinces especially with tricky-looking away matches in round three. However both sides successfully navigated those challenges, with Leinster digging out a narrow win in Bath, whilst Ulster ran out deserved bonus-point winners against the Scarlets. Although Leinster and Ulster sit second in their respective pools, they both have home advantage for two of their remaining three matches.
With Stander (Munster) and Stockdale (Ulster) scoring tries for their sides, and newly-crowned World Player of the Year Sexton pulling the strings effectively for Leinster, the return of many of these Irish internationals was the key to this Irish clean sweep and keeps all three of them in contention for the quarter-finals.
Gloucester and Newcastle proving experience is over-rated
At the start of this campaign if you were to pick between Exeter and Gloucester as the most likely to go and challenge for this season’s Champions Cup trophy, not many would have picked the Cherry-and-Whites. Yet three matches in and it is last season’s Challenge Cup runners-up Gloucester who look the best placed of the two English sides to emerge from Pool 2. The Johann Ackermann revolution gathered even more momentum this weekend as his side bullied the Chiefs pack up-front before the likes of Danny Cipriani and Ollie Thorley did the damage in attack to produce arguably their finest display of the season in a convincing 27-19 win at Sandy Park.
An Exeter side that has appeared in the last three Premiership finals, Rob Baxter’s men seem incapable of cracking Europe and are all but out of this season’s competition already, having failed to win any of their opening three matches. Gloucester on the other hand have adapted well to the step up in class this season and with two of their remaining three matches to be played at Kingsholm are right in contention for qualification from their pool.
With both the Scarlets and Wasps also joining the Chiefs without a European win this season, that is three sides who some had down as pre-tournament favourites, all likely to fall at the first hurdle, whilst Champions Cup novices Gloucester and Newcastle remain well in the hunt for a spot in the last eight.
By Jon Davies