The first round of pool games are now in the books. An intriguing weekend with familar front runners sending ominous statements of intent, newcomers looking to impress while others face make or break fixtures this weekend. Hawkeye Sidekick mulls over the action.
Pool 1: Oh La La La Rochelle!
The story of this pool. The debutantes to this competition provided fans with familiar performance traits to beat Harlequins at the Stoop in an entertaining encounter. The hosts tried hard but La Rochelle dynamic ball carriers, running lines were exceptional at times and many sides would have struggled to come to the terms with their threat. Doumayrou (2), Priso and Forbes crossed for La Rochelle tries and aided by a solid display from Ryan Lamb secured the five points on offer. Quins could not try any harder but the lapses in concentration continued to be a killer for them. Collier, Marchant, Matthews scored well executed tries but defensively they were exposed. La Rochelle entertain Ulster Rugby next; top of the pool clash and one that could indicate who tops the pool come January. La Rochelle have provided flair, creativity and physicality in the opening round like they did in the Pro 14 last season. European Cup opponents are well warned. Ulster Rugby are in touch after a hard fought win over an injury depleted Wasps at Kingspan Stadium. A tricky encounter given the weather conditions but Ulster Rugby showed their skill and hunger with a decisive second half performance. Stockdale on the wing is an imposing player and it was a superb try to open up the contest. Wasps did expose Ulster front row issues in the scrum, more equipped side will make hay on this aspect of play. Wasps injury toll continues like Hurricane Ophelia. Gopperth was summoned from the sick bay to play ten and then twelve when injury struck the side again. Wasps and Quins are in must win territory this weekend, whoever loses is effectively out of the competition so high stakes at the Ricoh. Ulster Rugby travel to La Rochelle, a difficult fixture made harder by the performance of the French side last weekend and their first ERC Champions Cup fixture, it is a tall order. Ulster Rugby would gratefully grab a loser point right now.
Pool 2: Saracens march on ominously
The standout performance in this opening round was the emphatic 13-57 win of Saracens on the road at Franklin Gardens. This was an annihilation for Northampton Saints; the pack was destroyed in the maul, scrum, lineout and provided Farrell with the time and space to unleash the likes of Liam Williams at will. Saracens evolution to an efficient expansive running style was seen to full effect last weekend. The running lines of the ball carrier, the supporting lines from colleagues is a joy to see. Saracens pack were imperious as mentioned. Kruis controlled the lineout and exposed Saints in the process as Hartley struggled to hit second and third in the line. Eddie Jones surely must be worried on the form of his England captain. Jamie George is the form hooker for England this season. Saracens have a road trip to the Ospreys next and on the basis of their opening pool performance, another five points look a certainty. Ospreys continue to improve but again were on the wrong side of a result to Clermont who after opening half struggles regrouped and got a valuable road trip win. No Abendanon for Clermont but Steeding and Raka first half efforts were enough on the day. It was a ragged opening day performance from Clermont after an early brace of tries. They surrendered their dominance and allowed Ospreys back into the contest where Webb became a prominent figure scoring a try and controlling game management affairs. Clermont’s final quarter was a mixed bag. A couple of penalties to offset sloppy defensive work which led to two further Ospreys tries. Clermont on this form will struggle to compete with Saracens. Ospreys are looking at an early season exit from the ERC with the dominant Saracens next at the Allianz. The pressure on Steve Tandy intensifies.
Pool 3: Leinster beat Nadolo inspired Montpellier
Leinster’s 24-17 win was an excellent victory minus the services of O’Brien and Sexton. Ross Byrne stepped up producing a solid performance at ten. Carbery at full back responded to a shaky opening with a superb cameo thereafter scoring a superb try. Leinster defensive line speed at times was sublime but with Nadolo around, resistance is sometimes futile. Adam Byrne exposed on the outside on two occasions for tries, no shame in that as Nadolo is an awe inspiring physical specimen. Adam Byrne was the center of a key officiating moment during the contest; a deliberate knock-on and Wayne Barnes only issued a yellow card and not a penalty try to boot to level the scores. A key decision which could be pivotal come January. No consistency in players deliberately knocking on close to their line or when an opponent has a clear opportunity to score. Leinster Rugby got the rub of the green and got the win. Leinster travel to Glasgow Rugby who once again let themselves down in an European Cup tie. A promising opening period descended into anarchy as Exeter Chiefs pack and a misfiring Glasgow resulted in a clear victory at Sandy Park. Two early tries for Glasgow Warriors in the opening period and one would have felt that Dave Rennie’s side would unleash further woe on the hosts but Exeter Chiefs pack knuckled down and started to dominate. Glasgow Warriors front five simply did not have any answers. Exeter Chiefs led at the break 14-10 and then further increased their advantage without the services of Jack Nowell. Steenson was excellent at ten. Exeter travel to France and it will be a difficult assignment; loser bonus point is the aim and they will need to show resilency when Nadolo strikes, it is going to happen at some stage during the contest. Glasgow on the other hand have a must win with Leinster Rugby; it will be a fixture which challenges the hosts style of play. Do they strip back their expansive style and get back to a more fundamental performance driven display? Gray needs to step up and get his front five in the ascendancy. A loss here and ERC season is effectively over. High stakes game and Dave Rennie has decisions to make.
Pool 4: Nakarawa offloading masterclass
The performance of round one was the display of Nakarawa. Racing 92’s win was inspired by the second row whose ball carrying and ability to offload at all times caused Leicester Tigers massively defensive headaches around the fringes. The three tries scored from the hosts came from this offloading display. Leicester Tigers did come away with a loser point and they exposed Racing 92 defensively in that opening period with some excellent running lines. Hamilton exposed non-existent Racing 92 fringe defense and May used his afterburners to cross over. Both sides tightened up after the break and it was a nip and tuck affair; both teams spurned golden opportunities. A vital win for Racing 92 ahead of a trip to Thomond Park next weekend. Many will look at the squad selection that Racing 92 will announce during the week, a mix of fringe players and Munster Rugby will take renewed confidence, something in short supply with the Irish province in recent weeks. A labored draw at Castres who were quite frankly robbed of a home win at the death (awful officiating). Murray had to take ten minutes for the team as the hosts pack controlled the close exchanges early doors; a drubber kick causing issues and Murray had to take out the Castres runner. The Castres opening try showed a lack of ambition and game smarts. Chris Farrell’s physicality and ball carrying should have seen the centre take up the ball but instead decided to hit a trademark skip pass out wide. Teams have copped onto the tactic and it was picked off. Credit to Munster, they fought back repeatedly with some excellent phases setting up Zebo for the opening try, the period of play which saw Castres reduced to fourteen players and the quick thinking of Murray to setup Kilcoyne to crash over. However, Castres love when the game is disorganized and loose. Their second try exposed Munster defensively out wide and they took advantage of some idiotic penalty concessions. Robin Copeland was the luckiest person on the pitch when he clearly gave away a penalty at the ruck. The officiating crew unbelievably gave a knock-on only and when you consider the Zebo knock-on in the second half not pinged, Munster got out of jail. An intriguing pool which will ebb and flow.
Pool 5: Toulon win but Scarlets show intent
21-20. A cliffhanger game at the death, a loss which will yield positives for Scarlets in terms of their fightback and ability to get into position to win the contest. Toulon win but question marks abound on discipline and game management decisions. They play at time such superb rugby and then minutes later reduced to a pub league side. Trinh-Duc’s late penalty rescued the result for the hosts. Bath beat Benetton Rugby but not the runaway score that many would have expected. Benetton Rugby were in the game until the final quarter and Toulon and Scarlets will know that they will to perform at a high level to secure a bonus point win over the Italians. Scarlets face Bath on Friday night, an intriguing game, both sides will be expansive. Scarlets in must win territory. Intriguing second round of fixtures await.