Irish internationals lead the way as Clermont downed at noisy Kingspan
Ireland’s new head coach Andy Farrell was an interested observer at the Kingspan on Friday night, and he will have been satisfied with what he saw as Ulster’s Irish contingent produced a big display to down French giants Clermont in Belfast.
With both sides having won their openers, this contest was key as to see who could take an early foothold in Pool 3 and in front of a partisan home crowd, the hosts were too strong for the visitors with Jordi Murphy and John Cooney scoring the crucial tries that ultimately proved the difference.
Clermont, so strong and powerful in round one, were a shadow of the side that put Harlequins to the sword with Ulster dominating possession and territory throughout. Having seen Alivereti Raka and Peceli Yato run riot against the Quins, Ulster went about restricting their influence and Clermont’s star duo were pretty much anonymous for most of the contest. In contrast a man-of-the-match performance from the destructive Marcell Coetzee coupled with classy moments from half-backs Cooney and Billy Burns along with the marauding and evasive running game of full-back Will Addison, paved the way for an Ulster triumph that sees them take early control of Pool 3.
Having missed out on World Cup selection, Cooney and Addison had a point to prove and both players as well as prop Marty Moore were star performers on Friday night, with Cooney in particular on a hot streak of form as his second try in as many European games proved to be the match-winner. With the Six Nations on horizon their performances on another famous Ulster European night will have given Farrell much food for thought.
Saints show their steel to complete Italian job
Northampton Saints made it two from two in this season’s competition with a comeback win in a thrilling contest against Benetton. Having shared out 64 points and eight tries between them over 80 minutes, it was up to Saints fly-half Dan Biggar to settle the contest which he did with a nerveless penalty with the clock deep into the red to secure a bonus-point win for Chris Boyd’s visiting side.
Having comfortably dispatched Top 14 leaders Lyon in their opening match, Northampton travelled to Italy knowing another win would set them up nicely for a tilt at the knock-out stages. Pro 14 outfit Benetton however are no mugs on their own patch and blitzed their opponents in the first-half scoring three tries to race into a 25-8 lead with half-time approaching. Despite this the Saints hit back for a crucial score just before the break with the ever-threatening Cobus Reinach going over to reduce Benetton’s lead to ten points at the break.
Boosted by Reinach’s late intervention the Premiership side came out all guns blazing in the second-half as full-back George Furbank took centre stage with a couple of mazy runs helping set up scores for Thomas Sleightholme and Tom Collins that – coupled with a Biggar penalty – saw the Saints take a seven-point lead going into the final quarter. Benetton hit back with their fourth try this time from a driving maul, but a deliberate knock-on from Iliesa Ratuva gave Biggar the opportunity to seal a stunning win.
In their first season back in the Champions Cup for a couple of years, Northampton have settled right back in to top-level European rugby and with top-class international quality at half-back in Cobus Reinach and Dan Biggar to complement an exciting and imaginative back-line they could be a real threat in this season’s competition. Bigger tests of course lie ahead with a double-header against four-time European Cup winners Leinster to come in December but Boyd’s men have given themselves a great opportunity of securing a surprise quarter-final berth.
Ill-discipline costs French sides again
Following Sébastien Vahaamahina’s senseless red card in France’s quarter-final defeat to Wales at the World Cup, you might have thought the French sides would have been extra careful to avoid any further moments of madness costing them dear this year. Yet somehow as only French sides know how they continue to implode in spectacular fashion with both Montpellier and La Rochelle guilty of needless red cards that could well undermine their European campaigns.
Having already suffered a heavy home defeat to Exeter in round one, there was little room for error when La Rochelle travelled to England to face Sale Sharks. With the game firmly in the balance at 10-7 to the hosts approaching half-time, La Rochelle’s Pierre Bourgarit proceeded to press the self-destruct button to his team’s chances of victory by placing his fingers near the eye of Sale’s Tom Curry in what looked like an eye-gouging action. The referee had no choice but to send the Frenchman off and with that an already tough task became even harder. Sale may have made hard work of it in the second-half with a disjointed display but the visitors never really recovered from Bourgarit’s sending off, conceding an eye-watering 17 penalties in a match they eventually lost 25-15.
A couple of hours later across the channel, another Anglo-French contest saw one side reduced to 14 men. An imposing start from hosts Montpellier had saw the French side run in three first-half tries to open up a comfortable 24-10 lead over Gloucester in Pool 5. An opening-round defeat at Connacht coupled with a perfect start from Pool rivals Toulouse had Montpellier already playing catch-up, and at half-time with a comfortable lead secured and three tries scored a priceless bonus-point win seemed on the cards to narrow the gap at the top of the Pool. Step forward Jacques du Plessis to throw a spanner in the works, as the lock forward was sent off for an elbow to the face of Gloucester forward Gerbrandt Grobler – an action not too dissimilar from Vahaamahina’s hit on Wales’ Aaron Wainwright. Suddenly from looking to grab that all-important fourth try, Montpellier now had a precarious lead to protect with Matt Banahan’s converted try early in the second-half already having cut into Montpellier’s lead. Gloucester may have managed a further score and a penalty during the second-half but two penalties from the boot of Benoit Paillaugue eventually saw the hosts squeeze a narrow 30-27 win despite a nervy finish that almost saw Gloucester steal it at the death.
Montpellier may have won but du Plessis’ stupid act cost his side at a time when they looked likely of grabbing maximum points from the match, and bonus-points can often be the deciding factors in Champions Cup pools. La Rochelle are as good as out already after two losses and Montpellier have a mountain to climb to avoid a similar fate.
Munster storm back to rescue draw after Russell torment
Two of this year’s favourites cancelled each other out in a pulsating clash as Munster recovered to secure a 21-21 draw against Racing 92. After a couple of near misses in recent years many Racing fans will be hoping this will be their year and they will certainly take heart from a captivating performance that almost saw them leave Munster’s Limerick fortress with a famous win. Much like Anfield on a Champions League night, there is something special about top-level European rugby under the stars at Thomond Park and with Munster having lost just four of 40 European matches at their iconic ground, Racing’s display should make the rest of Europe sit up and take notice.
Racing fly-half Finn Russell was the star of the show here and kicked things off in some style with an exquisite piece of skill for the opening try, as he dinked a delightful ball in behind Munster’s packed line – nutmegging Rory Scanell in the process – and collected his kick-through to dot down. Racing continued to show off their artistry in attack with former Munster-man Simon Zebo releasing winger Teddy Thomas who cleverly chipped the ball over a defender before collecting his kick to run in under the posts for another impressive score. JJ Hanrahan’s penalties were all Munster had to show for as half-time approached but they soon sprung into action with a late score for Keith Earls in the corner reducing Racing’s half-time lead to three points.
Another penalty from Hanrahan brought the scores level early in the second-half but Racing and Russell soon hit back with the mercurial Scot ghosting through a gap in the Munster defensive line before releasing the fleet-footed Juan Imhoff to scorch his way to the line. With the resulting conversion successful, Racing had a seven-point lead to protect and defended manfully for most of the second-half under relentless pressure from the Munster attack. However that pressure eventually told five minutes from time with Hanrahan launching a pass out wide for Conway to score, before Hanrahan tied the scores up and despite both sides’ best efforts to seal a last-gasp win the points were eventually shared.
Sitting alongside each other at the top of Pool 4, both will still fancy their chances of qualification. Racing may have left disappointed having led for large parts, but whereas in previous years they have often proven a soft touch on the road they look far more solid and mature this year and with classy footballers like Russell, Thomas and Zebo they are still amongst the favourites for this year’s crown. Munster showed impressive character as they often do to come back and salvage something, but their prospects will be further tested with a double-header against reigning champions Saracens to come.
By Jon Davies