A weekend where statements of intent were issued; a weekend where teams are now under pressure and a weekend where teams are looking at a bleak January provided a significant upturn in December fixtures scheduled. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.
Pool 1: La Rochelle and Wasps win big
A massive occasion in La Rochelle today. The first European Rugby Champions Cup home fixture for the Bay of Biscay outfit and unfortunately for Ulster Rugby, they were the first team to visit in this competition.
A promising opening half suggested Ulster Rugby were up for the task but the second half was a demolition derby by the hosts as they dismantled Ulster’s pack and then the explosive line speed and power exposing gaps out wide to score at will in the third quarter.
Ulster Rugby had no answers but to be fair, quite a few teams in this competition would have struggled given the physicality and speed of this French outfit. La Rochelle have made their intentions clear; they want to go deep in this competition with a brand of rugby which catch the eye for the neutral in December.
Wasps double header planned and one would hope that Wasps’ injury count will have reduced to allow them to compete with the power of La Rochelle. Wasps had a comfortable 41-10 win over a Harlequins side who struggled for tempo and and precision to unlock the hosts defense.
Quins controlled possession for long periods of the opening period but were trailing 21-3 due to some defensive lapses as well as a pack who struggled to defend the Wasps maul. It is hard to see Quins staving a claim to one of the eight quarter final spots but they could derail Ulster Rugby’s hopes if they win one of the December fixtures.
Wasps showed plenty of promise in today’s outing. Wade and Bassett were prominent in attacking threat and made Harlequins paid for sloppy attacking play; great intercept for Wade. All to play for in Pool 1 but La Rochelle look a class above so far in this pool. Ulster and Wasps under pressure for a solid December while Quins are out of it.
Pool 2: Saracens, ASM Clermont emerge from the pack
A decisive weekend in Pool 2. Saracens and ASM Clermont have pulled clear of Ospreys and Northampton Saints but their wins were far from resounding as expected. Kudos to Ospreys who produced a stirring effort to be within two points of Saracens last night; four try count as well to secure two points on the night. Five try haul as well for the hosts whose pack also asserted dominance with a penalty try. Excellent contest.
ASM Clermont produced an efficient performance to beat Northampton Saints 24-7. Cassang’s try was superb; great aerial take and then evaded several tackles to run from distance. Dylan Hartley’s discipline issues surfaced with a yellow card on thirty minutes; was punished on the scoreboard with an ASM Clermont try just on half-time. Bonus point win and Clermont were able to keep Northampton Saints at distance in the second day despite a try from Christian Day who was the standout for the Saints.
The two heavyweights of the pool lock horns in rounds three and four. Saracens and ASM Clermont will learn plenty about their competition credentials with two bruising encounters expected. I sense two home wins right now and it is imperative then that either Ospreys or Northampton Saints make a clean sweep of their December fixtures to put pressure on. However, I think two homes games could the form book nod here as well. A decisive gap has opened from the top two; question is who wins the pool?
Pool 3: Leinster Rugby and Exeter Chiefs produce standout performances
Two road trip wins and the manner in which both Leinster Rugby and Exeter Chiefs won are standout round moments for me personally. Jamie Bhatti was at lengths to stress that a key season objective for Glasgow Warriors was not to be defeated at Scotstoun. Well, that goal was smashed in the second half as Leinster Rugby claimed a deserved bonus point win.
The opening period was where this contest was won. Leinster Rugby recovered from an early try concession to dominate the pack exchanges. Cian Healy was excellent and his try which showed soft hands in the Leinster pack broke Glasgow’s resistance. 10-17 lead playing against a strong wind was a statement and the second half with Sexton game managing superbly meant that Glasgow Warriors despite having good moments were not close enough to inflict any significant pressure to the visitors and Noel Reid’s sealed the win.
No loser point for Glasgow and things look bleak with a December fixture combo against Montpellier and Nadolo. However, what is Montpellier’s mindset now after their 24-27 reversal to Exeter Chiefs today? Nadolo inspired the hosts to a 17-10 lead but credit to the Exeter Chiefs, their pack was awesome today and Ian Whitten’s try was a momentum change with assured game management from Steenson. Montpellier had been beaten at home just four times in the history of the competition, and had won their last four home Champions Cup games. Armand had a superb afternoon; two tries and an all action performance.
Leinster are in pole position in the pool. Excellent ten point maul from a pool stacked with talent. Two fixtures against the Exeter Chiefs look like the top of the pool deciders. Montpellier and Glasgow Warriors will battle it out to see which of these sides will come into January with momentum. To be honest, both well off the playoff pace for now. Glasgow Warriors have being the letdown of the tournament, make no apology in saying that, the quality of squad assembled should be delivering better European results.
Pool 4: Leicester Tigers cakewalk; Munster win arm-wrestle
Two contrasting fixtures and highlights the disparity between the French team ambitions in this competition. Racing 92 had a go at Thomond Park. Castres frankly did not and awoke from their slumber just before the 55th minute when they had already conceded the bonus point. Leicester Tigers were the more organized, more hungrier and more determined side throughout. The hosts pack controlled exchanges and Castres were in retreat mode as soon as May went in for his customary try. Great season start for the former Gloucester player. Leicester Tigers could only beat what was in front of them, they did so ruthlessly but tougher challenges await. Castres, thank for coming!
Munster won the proverbial arm-wrestle in Thomond Park. Stormy conditions reduced the expansive style of play to zero. Munster somehow managed to pull a result out of the bag despite a malfunctioning line-out. Keatley’s game management and Murray’s try pivotal. Racing 92 still a key player in this pool. The pool is down to three teams with Castres clearly not interested with their road trip performance.
December fixtures will be crucial but will not decisive as Leicester and Munster will make up ground on Racing 92 who I sense will get ten points from Castres in the December schedule as the English / Irish battle will be split 1-1 (two home wins). Tournament organizers should be worried about Castres for the remainder of this pool campaign on the basis of this performance. Shambles.
Pool 5: Toulon survive, Bath win mud-wrestle
Scarlets are now in serious danger of missing out of playoff rugby. The reigning Pro 12 champions were exposed in the pack where Bath Rugby thoroughly deserved their five point win. Bath Rugby played the conditions better than their hosts but wanted to launch the ball out wide but the conditions were horrendous, ball retention an occupational hazard and it was a round where the Pro 14 leading lights (Scarlets and Glasgow Warriors) showed massive weakness in the pack, teams will try to exploit that going forward.
Bath can thank Priestland for the win; kicking was on point throughout. Six penalties. Bath Rugby got the job done and now look forward to squaring up to a Toulon Rugby who are showing flashes of brilliance and then flashes of appalling play. Benetton Rugby should have won yesterday but they panicked in the late exchanges to give Trinh Duc a penalty opportunity which he did not miss. T
Toulon’s three tries were well worked but defensively were all at sea in the opening period. Better teams will take Toulon to task and Bath Rugby could be that particularly at the Rec in December.
Scarlets realistically need ten points from their next two December fixtures against Benetton Rugby; not an easy task considering the Italian’s performances this season in Pro 14 and yesterday. Bath and Toulon to lock horns and who knows what other superstars will be in the Toulon squad books come December? Bath should be confident in competing against Toulon based on the pool performances so far.