Heineken Champions Cup: Round 2 Talking Points

Danny Cipriani

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

18 thoughts on “Heineken Champions Cup: Round 2 Talking Points

  1. On the Scotland’s 10 point I think Duncan Weir deserves a mention who has been fantastic at Worcester. I think he was unlucky not to get a call up.

  2. Fine margin’s in Bath’s group – but for Freddie’s little moment and Davies’ missed penalty (or the first 10mins of second-half vs Wasps) we’d be top of our group!

    1. Disagree with Craig’s request to replay the match but its pretty farcical that Kaino and Pointud have both been retrospectively banned after clear, red card-worthy offences were missed by the officials. The inconsistency and lack of quality officiating is more frustrating than the clampdown on illegal hits.

      1. Jake, agree about the inconsistency bit. However, I don’t see Kaino’s tackle as being a clear cut red. Didn’t see the Pointud’s incident, so can’t comment. Additionally & in part, similarly as with Cipriani’s ‘tackle’, Scannel, as a sideline commentator observed, ‘dipped’ into the tackle. Therefore & particularly, as Scannell wasn’t injured in the slightest, are ball carriers not also, or even more so, culpable by deliberately driving head down into tackles in the knowledge that they can do this with impunity & whereby the tackler cannot. I don’t always like or agree with some rules, but have also stated that they must be applied (if only for consistency). Therefore, my contention here about tackles may, on the surface @ least, seem contradictory. However, what I’m also advocating, is that the tackle law be reviewed to have a balanced, rather than a jaundiced application to it & where the onus for player welfare & fair play, is placed not ONLY on the tackler, but also the ‘tacklee’. Are you reading this Scannell? And BTW of course, Headlip’s skewed view that Munster were good (or even ‘great’ on occasion) & Gloucester weren’t, was tedious & hardly invoked my empathy with ‘his’ team. Yawn!

        1. I think we are on the same lines here Don. My gripe isn’t with the tackles themselves, its the lack of consistency in applying the laws. The comment on Kaino and Pointud wasnt aimed at criticising the players, but was more expressing my frustration that two tackles deemed to be red card worthy were only picked up and punished retrospectively. Whether you think Kaino should have been red carded or not, the law suggests he should have been but the referee didnt apply this thinking. If both cards had been issued Bath probably would have won, playing 13 men for a large part of the 2nd half.

  3. In respect of reds, Jerome Kaino’s recent card & a subsequent 5 week ban seemed somewhat heavy handed. I agree with player welfare being paramount & that the prevention of injury via cards is appropriate. However, in Kaiono’s case, surely his tackle, being chest to chest & given that his arms thereafter came up to ‘envelope’ his opponent, his red & following ban were inappropriate? As Kaino is taller than his tacklee, what was he meant to do? Go down on his knees to effect the tackle? Additionally, as I didn’t ‘t see any hard shoulder contact with the tackled player’s head, I also don’t see how else JK could have actually downed the guy, as he was also trying to prevent an offload being made. The solution is for WR’s lawmakers to make any tackles above the waist illegal. Forget all this armpit or nipple line stuff. They are too near the head to be clear cut! Of course, banning tackling altogether is an alt cure.

    1. Cip’s red was a farce. He was trying to pull out of contact because he saw the player was already falling and simply didn’t have time to get out of the way. Complete accident and refs should have the discretion to recognise that. Valpulu probably had to go, but C-D was cynically and deliberately running an obstructive line to prevent access to the ball carrier, as is prevalent in the game today. It could be argued that his was the first offence and should have been punished as well. If refs don’t do their job players get frustrated and hand out their own “justice”. In general I still think that careless clearing out causes a lot more head injuries than high tackles. On a more cheerful note, what a great weekend’s rugby. Plus a question. Why do Leicester nearly always look a sharper side when Harrison takes over from Youngs?

      1. Disagree re: C-D. My feeling was he was trying to provide a support line to either bind on to Moon, or to receive a little pop pass a la NZ, or to try and be there to help secure possession in the tackle (as Exeter were already getting hammered with turnovers even at this stage in the match) – although yes, it does also allow for the option of a pass behind him by Moon, which means it is shielded from a potential tackler. (And before you ask, yes I believe it is possible for him to be intending all these things simultaneously; it’s the sort of thing a coach would pick up on as a good balanced strategy with options, and the players would be drilled to run lines and be prepared for multiple options as such.) That he did so rather poorly I would agree with; particularly after the first tackle on Moon, C-D ended up in front of the carrier and did block a clear tackle by Valpulu, but Valpulu’s tackle height was all wrong and he ran a high risk of contacting with Moon too high as well – so he was being equally clumsy.
        Point I’m getting at is, I do not believe it is fair to be accusing C-D of a cynical play (given that it is very likely he was NOT intending a cynical play in the first place) and arguing for punishment for him also, purely because the opposition player then made a total hash of his tackle height, but hit him instead of the ball-carrier. That would be crazy.

        1. VJ, seems like a long way of stating that C-D done good, tacker done bad. Surely the only ? is; ‘was C-D blocking the tackle/r or not’?

          1. Andy had opened the door to the murky world of ‘player intent’, so I elaborated to cover more points and bases.

        2. Don’t think we disagree about much here Don. My view is that there have been a substantial number of changes made to the laws in the past few years without sufficient consideration of their accidental consequences or recognition of the fact that coaches will be hyper analysing them to find ways round them.

          1. Indeed Andy, but nevertheless, we’re getting too many bagels for putting in too much effort for posting here! Regrds.

    2. The problem with tackles below the waist only Don is that if done in the old fashioned “safe” way the tackled player tends to fall past the tackler. This would increase the number of rucks and the temptation to give the man on the floor a good shoeing. (Oh for the good old days). Besides, lots of head injuries are caused by knees and hips. The problem is that the tackle, rather than being a means to bring a man down is now an aggressive attempt to impact the tackled player as hard as possible. This power tackling is too often carried out with little regard for correct technique, leading to injury, and with players getting bigger and more powerful all the time is not about to go away. The partial answer is clearly less games, more consistent refereeing and more consideration by the clubs for player welfare. Something has to give soon. Too many good young players are having to leave the game for it to be sustainable much longer.

      1. Andy, it’s not in the too distant that the Irish were being complimented on their so called ‘choke’ tackle, via Les Kiss was it? Anyway, if the ‘stand up’ tackle is causing unsustainable head injuries, then it ought to be outlawed. However, it’s never usually down to 1 cause. IMO the changing of the ruck n tackle law is also responsible. As you state, ‘in the good old days’, when fwds were fwds & in rucks instead of clogging back lines, perhaps their being in the latter now, with bigger guys tackling smaller guys (also called backs) too is a significant cause of head injuries, especially in stand up tackles? Also, if players are getting head injured in ‘low’ tackles, then more emphasis on technique with use of the correct shoulder & positioning of the head should be enforced. And, bigger tacklers won’t necessarily go backwards when tackling. I’ve also posted here on law revision in respect of tackling, which may be of interest.

    3. Don – I will have to disagree with you here. Kaino could have gone lower and wrapped Roberts up, avoiding the collision to the head entirely. I can understand that he wanted to win the collision but imo it should have been a red for clear, direct contact to the head. In contrast to Cips, where there was little force in the contact, Kaino smashed Roberts who had to leave the field with concussion. I would also say that 5 weeks is fair given Kaino persists in committing these sort of offences; whether with the ABs, the Blues or with Toulouse he seems to persistently hit players high with this type of tackle.

      1. Jake, was Kaino’s tackle illegal then? That is, standing upright to stop the man & the offload? Also, as you generally state that Kaino has always effected this type of tackle, but without stating actual actual occasions (probably near impossible, I know), is yr view not based on bias as well? Intent doesn’t count in this rugby law’s context, but why would Kaino need to deliberately concuss Roberts? He’d already stopped the guy. Seemed like an incidental head on chest clash to me, Kaino being taller. And my point is that a 5 week ban was disproportionate. Also, if it had been Billy V similarly tackling an opponent instead, would you have been quite so righteous in yr condemnation? You’re under oath now!

        1. I think shoulder to the head is considered a foul…don’t you Don? Well last summer he was carded for the ABs v the Lions and then also carded the next very game for the Blues…both for high hits. Kaino also himself stated he needed to address his tackle technique. So not so much bias as observation, but since we are on the topic how far would you go to defend the mighty ABs? Not sure anyone mentioned intent but I would imagine concussion would stop anyone.

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