Chiefs deliver statement of intent in France to shed slow-starters tag
Rob Baxter’s Exeter side may have been a dominant force at home in recent years, but it has often been a different story when on their European travels. Three consecutive pool stage exits is a poor return for a side as strong as the Chiefs, and although Baxter’s side have often proven a tough nut to crack for opposition sides in Europe they have lacked the consistency to back up performances with wins – which is a must if you are to go far in this competition.
On Saturday however they produced the most professional of jobs as they secured a convincing bonus-point win at La Rochelle – ending the hosts’ impressive eight-month unbeaten run at their Stade Marcel Deflandre home. An early try from Chiefs’ Dave Dennis and a stunning finish out wide from winger Tom O’Flaherty gave the English side a healthy 14-0 lead at the break. La Rochelle quickly responded with a well-worked try for Geoffrey Doumayrou reducing Exeter’s lead, but just as it looked as if the hosts were threatening to come back into the match England centre Henry Slade plucked the ball out of the air for an interception and raced away for a score that gave the Chiefs some much-needed breathing space, before No.8 Sam Simmonds showed impressive power and leg-drive to charge his way over from close range for the all-important fourth try.
Rob Baxter called on his side to lay down a marker and that is just what they did with this brilliant display. There is still much work to do in a pool that contains Glasgow and Sale but a win away in France provides them with a vital platform from which to build and grow into the competition. Stuart Hogg’s arrival adds to what was already a strong squad and with experienced heads such as Wallabies duo Dave Dennis and Nic White to complement young exciting English talent such as Jack Nowell and the Simmonds brothers, Exeter are a far more mature side and finally look ready to make a big impression in Europe.
Classy Clermont back with a bang
After their brief and successful sojourn in the Challenge Cup last season, normal service was resumed at the Stade Marcel-Michelin as Clermont Auvergne announced their return to Europe’s top table with a devastating display of attacking rugby. In a rematch of last season’s Challenge Cup semi-final, Harlequins were once again outclassed as the French side punished some poor defending to inflict a chastening 53-21 defeat on Paul Gustard’s side.
Having strolled their way to the Challenge Cup title last season, Clermont have set their sights on further European success this campaign and if Saturday’s performance is anything to go by you wouldn’t bet against them. With French outside-half Camille Lopez pulling the strings expertly and mixing his game up beautifully from 10, Harlequins really had no answer especially against Fijian powerhouses Alivereti Raka and Peceli Yato who shared two tries apiece. Loose forward Yato in particular proved impossible to stop as he stormed his way over from 40 metres out for his second try half-way through the first half.
With the bonus point secured just after half-time through another try this time from centre Isaia Toeava, the French side could show their full repertoire of skills in the second-half and although Harlequins did score three tries of their own – the last of which coming after a sensational solo run from exciting winger Gabriel Ibitoye – the hosts proved just too strong.
Tougher tests on the road lie ahead starting with a trip to Ulster next weekend, but with the most formidable of records at home and their mix of power, pace and skill they will surely be in the shake-up in this competition come the Spring.
Toulouse stem Simpson storm to silence the Shed
This season’s tournament kicked off in Gloucester on Friday night as last season’s semi-finalists Toulouse made the trip to Kingsholm to face Johan Ackermann’s Gloucester. With many of their French World Cup stars returning to action including backs Thomas Ramos, Yoan Huget, Maxime Medard and the mercurial talent of Romain Ntamack, Toulouse were not taking the challenge of Gloucester lightly and started well as they put the hosts’ defence to work. However the early exchanges quickly escalated into the ‘Simpson Show’ as Gloucester No.9 Joe Simpson twice took advantage of turnover ball in his own half before turning on the afterburners to show some staggering pace and agility to evade Toulouse defenders and scorch over for two extraordinary solo efforts that are unlikely to be bettered during the rest of the season.
With Kingsholm rocking Gloucester settled into the match and a couple of penalties apiece from either side meant the hosts went into the break with a 20-9 lead despite their opponents dominating possession and territory. So often in the past French sides have unravelled on the road especially when faced with a large deficit, but this Toulouse side – led by All Blacks legend Jerome Kaino – are made of sterner stuff and came out in the second-half with cool heads as they looked to work their way back into the contest. This ploy proved particularly effective, Gloucester’s discipline letting them down as penalties from Ntamack and Ramos reduced the Cherry-and-Whites’ lead to five points with just over fifty minutes played. From there Toulouse went for the jugular and after a couple of strong surges took the French side right up to the Gloucester try-line, scrum-half Sebastien Bezy dotted down from the base of a ruck to score a try converted by Ramos to give the visitors a lead they never relinquished as Ramos added a further penalty before the Toulouse defence held firm to hold out Gloucester’s attack and seal a great comeback win.
Gloucester may be left wondering how they let an eleven-point lead slip and failed to add any second-half points, but in all honesty Toulouse were on the front foot for most of the match and were it not for two moments of individual brilliance from Simpson, the visitors would probably have secured a much more comfortable victory.
Gutsy Connacht make it four wins from four for the Irish
After the disappointment of the World Cup, Irish rugby supporters would have been much happier this weekend with their provinces stealing the show in Europe. Connacht’s gutsy triumph over big-spending Montpellier completed a perfect weekend with Ulster, Leinster and Munster overcoming English, Italian and Welsh opponents respectively.
With Iain Henderson stepping up to fill the sizeable shoes of Rory Best as captain for Ulster, the lock forward rose to the challenge as his side edged out Bath at the Rec with Jacob Stockdale’s dramatic try-saving intervention helping secure a narrow 17-16 win on the road. A couple of hours later and just across the border in Wales, Munster laid down the gauntlet with a comprehensive 32-13 win against the Ospreys, Andrew Conway scoring the pick of his side’s four tries.
Closer to home for the Irish faithful and 2019 Champions Cup runners-up Leinster started a campaign they hope will go one step further than last season with a convincing bonus-point win over Benetton – Garry Rinrose helping himself to a hat-trick at the RDS.
However the best was saved to last as Connacht produced a hugely-spirited team performance to overcome a Montpellier side containing Springbok internationals Jan Serfontein and Bismarck du Plessis as well as former All Blacks fly-half Aaron Cruden. In their first match back in the Champions Cup for three seasons a raucous atmosphere awaited the French side from the Galway faithful, although the visitors didn’t seem that bothered in the early stages with Cruden running in under the posts for the game’s first try. Approchaing the final five minutes of the first half , Montpellier looked to have a rather comfortable seven-point lead but that soon changed as pressure from the Connacht pack told with first Paul Boyle scrambling over from close range to score, before an infringement at the line-out saw Montpellier’s Paul Willemse given a yellow card and from the resulting play Tom McCartney was shoved over from a powerful driving maul to give the hosts a three-point lead at the break.
In what was turning into a tight and tense contest both sides cancelled each other out with a try apiece in the second half, and with the scores at 20-20 young replacement Conor Fitzgerald kept his cool to boot over a penalty that proved to be the match-winner on another special European day at the Sportsground.
Munster and Leinster will expect to qualify for the knock-out stages, whilst Ulster will fancy their chances after an opening-day win although their mouth-watering clash at home to Clermont next week should tell us more about their prospects. Connacht are less likely to challenge and lack the European pedigree of their fellow provinces, but this victory has given them a chance to stake a claim early on and no side will enjoy coming to Galway.
By Jon Davies