Hawkeye Sidekick

European Rugby Champions Cup: Round 3 Reflections

The European Rugby Champions Cup Round Three is now in the books, a couple of standout results to digest in this blog posting. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action.

Pool 1: La Rochelle have one foot in the quarters. Ulster impress.

The weekend where La Rochelle produced a sensational performance to beat Wasps to effectively have one firm foot into the quarter final phase. The style of play is so easy on the eye, the ability to attack from anywhere on the pitch is a joy to behold and Wasps at times were chasing shadows. The usual suspects came to the La Rochelle party again. The back row performance was on point for long periods with flanker Levani Botia crossing over twice. Botia is an immense ball carrier and offloading player. Winger Vincent Rattez also crossed over for a brace as La Rochelle continued to create line breaks.

Wasps’ cause was not helped by an early sin bin but the 30-12 half-time spoke volumes on their inability to stem the attacking threat of La Rochelle but also inaccuracies in their own play creating promising opportunities for La Rochelle who have being a superb advert for the competition.

Given the way they are playing, they are destined for a top four seed ranking and no-one will relish going to La Rochelle and a fervent home crowd. 49-29 was an excellent advert as well for the game. Credit to Wasps, they refused to give up and their four try haul was admirable given their defensive struggles. A reverse fixture next weekend should prove interesting to see how Wasps react to this defeat.

All credit to Ulster Rugby who got their competition back on track with a hard fought win on the road to Harlequins. This was a performance which to a man Ulster delivered. The pack much maligned in recent weeks produced their most cohesive performance to date and their opening quarter set the tone for the remainder of the contest. Stockdale continues to be a prominent player with ball in hand and his opening half try was excellently worked. Several superb offloads and quick hands from Ulster pack and back players resulting the in form Ireland international to touchdown.

Harlequins struggled for consistency throughout but they threatened to produce a fightback as prop Sinckler crashed over early in the second half. The fightback failed to materialize as the Ulster pack regrouped led magnificently by Ian Henderson. Penalty count was being won by the visitors and with Cooney in excellent kicking form, the result suddenly went away from Quins who are realistically looking at an early pool elimination but if they were to beat Ulster Rugby next Friday night, could signal the end of the Irish province chances of last eight progression. Intriguing stuff.

Pool 2: Snow puts pay to Saracens clash, Ospreys find form.

The inclement wintry conditions across Ireland and Great Britain put paid to one of the eye catching games of the weekend. Saracens vs. Clermont Auvergne postponed due to snow and probably a welcome relief for Mark McCall’s who will look to regroup and see if they can get a couple of more squad players fit for the trip to France next weekend. This left only Northampton Saints and Ospreys on tap and it was a most welcome win for Steve Tandy’s charges.

The eleven point win does not do justice of how dominant the Welsh region was in this contest. The pack set the platform and the half-back / back line took over in a devastating thirty-five minute spell either side of half time. Dan Evans at full back produced a sublime performance and crossed over twice as they did Jeff Hassler. Habberfield. Fonotia completed the rout.

With the locals restless, Saints responded with five tries in the second half but this was a significant loss for the club. Is the Jim Mallinder era about to come to an end given the torrid Aviva Premiership performances as of late and last season?

Lack of cohesion, hunger and game management were key traits but credit to the Ospreys who were bright with ball in hand and took advantage of several defensive lapses. A key result for the Ospreys, they need to build on this and look to continue this form into the Guinness Pro 14. Northampton Saints are in crisis, players and management will need to regroup and look to respond at the Liberty Stadium but looks remote given this performance.

Pool 3: Leinster produce professional road trip win. Glasgow exit.

Leinster Rugby were excellent in their 18-8 win on the road to the tough and durable Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park. On another day, Leo Cullen / Stuart Lancaster’s men should have being 15-0 up after twenty-five minutes. Luke McGrath who impressed again at nine crossed over after excellent work from Sexton, officiating crew rules that Sexton’s had touched the sideline (minute if it happened). Devin Toner looked to have gone over but the line of questioning from Poite to TMO left the answer in limbo so five meter scrum.

Exeter Chiefs were hanging on by their fingertips and a yellow card was issued to Williams for persistent scrum infringements. Leinster Rugby composure today really was to the fore and Sexton crossed over out wide after some good work from the pack where Furlong, Healy, Toner, O’Brien and Conan were immense, Exeter Chiefs though refused to go away and they started the third quarter with gusto.

A superb try from the impressive Short leveling the scores at eight a piece but the composure and experience of Leinster Rugby kicked in thereafter. They absorbed their sin bin and then set out to respond after the hosts try. Excellent pack play and phases where Fardy was a beast throughout setting the platform for Conan to cross over to seal the deal. Leadership in huge abundance as Nacewa took over place kicking from Sexton to slot over a penalty and the conversion.

Four points for Leinster and significantly no points for Exeter Chiefs who worked hard, had their moments but pack advances were repelled by the immovable Leinster Rugby defense, some massive hits at the end of the opening half to deny Exeter Chiefs a try. A key moment of the contest. Leinster Rugby with home advantage will look to consolidate with another win over the Chiefs next weekend. A bonus point win would provide Leinster Rugby with a superb opportunity to stake a home quarter final berth.

The biggest disappointment of the competition have being Glasgow Warriors. Imperious in Guinness Pro 14 action, their lack of discipline and pack weaknesses were ruthlessly exposed on Friday night as Montpelier scored a 22-29 road trip win. It all looked so good for the Warriors early on with the home side creating several line breaks. Sarto was having a stellar evening, finishing off a sweeping move from deep. 22-5 should have being the premise to move on and secure the bonus try point but an off the ball incident from Turner proved fatal.

The French side started to impose their will in the pack exchanges and two tries quickly were conceded. The penalty try even more galling as Gray was sin binned. From a position of hopelessness, Montpelier were now in utter dominance. Glasgow Warriors tried to get back into the contest but the French side had built a sufficient buffer.

Glasgow Warriors were punished for indiscipline and the scrum struggled. They are out of Europe before Christmas. Guinness Pro 14 is going well but Dave Rennie is now fully aware of the weak points which need to be addressed. Montpelier are back in the competition, a bonus point try win is the prerequisite next weekend. Otherwise, Leinster Rugby will be out of sight.

Pool 4: Munster dominance. Castres cause surprise.

Johann van Graan’s debut under the lights at Thomond Park could not have gone any better. A comprehensive 33-10 win over a Leicester Tigers who were a well beaten outfit. Munster Rugby set the tone and physicality early and never relinquished that position of strength throughout. Chris Cloete was sensational in the breakdown exchanges, his dynamic and explosive back row play causing several steals. He was ably assisted by O’Mahoney and Stander who ball carried and provided leadership throughout.

Four tries scored by Munster Rugby in this contest. Marshall crossing over in the first quarter as Leicester Tigers defensively lapsed. Zebo took advantage of a stellar kick behind to score. This was a sensational night for Ian Keatley. Two years ago, the fly-half was subjected to boos from a small section of Munster Rugby supporters against Leicester Tigers. The performance last night was on point throughout, took responsibility and launched Arnold at regular intervals.

Scannell at twelve work in tackle count, kick game was immense. Wootton was on point as was Conway but a nasty collision ended his night and Leicester’s full back who sustained a broken jaw. The physicality at time was brutal but Munster Rugby always seem to have the edge. Two further tries were scored after the interval. O’Mahoney scored after several patient phases and after Leicester Tigers scored their try, the hosts emphatically responded with their bonus point try from Cloete as the pack’s maul crashed over.

Munster Rugby will be under no illusions for next weekend’s reverse fixture. Leicester Tigers are fighting for their ERC season next Sunday and expect a backlash but with the assured performances of Murray and Keatley, Munster Rugby will view the fixture with a high level of confidence.

Johann Van Graan’s era has started well and the Bulls style of play was seen in glimpses, direct running style with quick ruck clear outs the order of the day. Stander at eight was immense.

A vital win but plenty of twists and turns to come from this pool as Castres upset Racing 92 with a home victory. I did not see all the game but the closing stages saw Castres finish the game strong with a ten point burst to win the contest. Racing 92 need to win with a bonus point try to get back into this pool again next weekend against their compatriots.

Pool 5: Toulon and Scarlets stumble in their wins

The Chris Ashton slice kick which gave Bath Rugby the lead has being well played in social media circles but Toulon need to regroup and decide on a specific game plan. They are caught in whether they are a pack orientated side or free flowing back line. The cohesion between both units at times was missing and it allowed Bath Rugby to get extremely close to causing a shock upset road win.

Bath Rugby were combative for long periods and Ashton’s gaffe gave the West Country side an opportunity to win heading into the third quarter. The hosts though to their credit stayed patient, went to pack game plan and the defensive gap was exploited with the late try scored by Belleau. Bath Rugby will feel confident of turning over Toulon this weekend. For Toulon, a wholly unconvincing performance, things need to get better.

Scarlets produced their bonus point try winning performance but given that they played against a fourteen man Benetton Rugby side and only won by five points raises questions. The attacking side of play was excellent at times and a couple of early tries looked to set the Welsh region well on their way to victory but concentration lapses allowed Benetton Rugby with try scoring opportunities who scored four tries themselves in this 33-28 loss.

Scarlets will look to build on this performance next weekend and another bonus try point win is required but food for thought in video analysis on Monday. Benetton Rugby continue to show their resiliency and determination to stay in games. This pool is wide open and it is anyone’s guess who will top the pool.