Heineken Champions Cup: Round 1 Reflections

Drama galore in round one

The first round of Heineken Champions Cup games are in the books. The round had it all; last gasp drama in several contests with some unbelievable performances for all the good and bad reasons. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action. 

Standout Team: Leinster Rugby

It might be only one round into the competition but that Leinster Rugby performance last Friday night particularly second half will have put all opponents on notice of the levels required to even compete with the Irish provincial juggernaut.

I do not use the word juggernaut lightly; this side is stacked with world class talent and then the squad depth coming off the bench in the third quarter with the likes of Jack McGrath, Sean O’Brien and Scott Fardy.

Wasps were facing an uphill task without the Nathan Hughes and Joe Launchbury but both players would have struggled to stem the tide of Leinster attack after attack. Wasps manfully tried to keep in the contest but once Luke McGrath scored that try just before half-time, the writing was on the wall. 

Skill set central came out in the second half. Sexton’s pass between the legs. Furlong playing like a season three quarter and his pop pass to James Lowe who is playing at a different level was an action reel highlight. The relentless nature that Leinster Rugby continued to work the scoreboard was an ominous sign for all in Leinster Rugby’s pool. Toulouse and Bath Rugby will be sufficiently warned. A superb start to the competition. 

Standout Games:

Two games come to mind here. The after effects of Storm Callum had a massive impact in the South West England and West Welsh region. Two of the games held in these regions were standouts; the quality of fare immense given the atrocious weather conditions. Howling wind and rain and Exeter Chiefs / Munster Rugby along with Scarlets / Racing 92 provided superb entertainment. 

Exeter Chiefs and Munster Rugby was an old school arm wrestle. Neither side gave an inch. Munster Rugby worked the Exeter Chiefs tackle count, kept the ball in hand and must be complemented for their opening period performance playing against that gale force wind. Exeter Chiefs showed their potency with their try; superb pack. Jack Nowell on the wing was a constant menace. 

Munster Rugby struggled to breakdown a resolute Chiefs defense but credit the sub bench impact here. O’Donnell’s ball carry prior to Stander’s try was top notch. The front row replacements steadied a scrum set piece which looked to be going away from Munster Rugby. I thought James Cronin and John Ryan had powerful cameos. Ball handling issues and there was some soul destroying concessions when in range to score. Cloete’s disallowed try a perfect case study point. 

Exeter Chiefs to their credit refused to buckle and when Joey Carbery kicked the ball out on the full with minutes left, the scene was set for the hosts to win with a last gasp dropped goal or penalty. Credit Munster Rugby, the defensive shift at the end, camped on their own line and forced the error. A draw was a fair result. The return fixture in January looks epic already. 

Total ball break for Scarlets late on conceding a late penalty try to Racing 92. The game ebbed and flowed throughout. Both sides absorbed what the other threw but it looked like the hosts had done enough but Racing 92’s front five put the pressure on and unfortunately for Scarlets, they were unable to respond. Leigh Halfpenny had opportunities but the windy conditions made kicking a lottery. Incredible drama. Scarlets are suddenly in playoff rugby mode; need a win over Leicester Tigers next weekend. 

Knucklehead Moment:

Freddy Burns has had enough from the keyboard trolls this weekend for his horrific lapse against Toulouse so I am going to focus on RCT Toulon. How anyone in the RCT Toulon ranks thought with three minutes left to not go for the posts needs their head examined. I thought it smacked of arrogance and contempt for their opposition, delighted that Newcastle Falcons won thereafter. A superb triumph for Newcastle Falcons, a win to build the season around now. RCT Toulon are spiraling into the abyss this season; their lack of game management and leadership striking today. 

Unlucky Team:

Glasgow Warriors. They played all the rugby today against Saracens but were unable to break down a resolute Saracens side. The refereeing for me left plenty to be desired; the constant penalty concession by Saracens before half-time and no yellow card was weak officiating.

The Itoje incident is something that come back and haunt the England international yet this season; cheeky move and one that Glasgow Warriors should put on their dressing room wall for the return leg. Itoje needs to be careful; discipline is becoming an issue with the player and this antic (if seen by some as hilarious) will only put the spotlight further on the player. 

Glasgow Warriors were exposed in the pack battle; when they required go forward ball, they did not get it from their front five and that ultimately cost them the game but there sufficient evidence here that Glasgow can get back into this pool starting with a now tricky encounter against Cardiff Blues who had a superb 21-30 road trip win over Lyon who may give up the ghost on this competition.

Heineken Champions Cup Preview: Pool 3

Saracens look strong

This has the potential to be a superb pool full of inventive play and bonus point try performances. A pool where Saracens line up against reigning European Challenge Cup winners Cardiff Blues, Lyon and a Glasgow Warriors who this season need to stand up and deliver in this competition. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the pool.

Saracens looking to make amends

Lions tour. Injuries. Lack of form all contributed to Saracens only barely getting to the last eight of the competition last season. They were a team condemned heading to the Aviva Stadium to face a relentless Leinster Rugby and lessons from last season have being learned. 

Saracens in this pool looked a prime competition contender. Minimal weak points from the pack, half-backs into the back line. I am looking forward to see how Jamie George evolves in the competition this season; his set piece and mobility will be to the fore. Maro Itoje in the lock position is a supreme athlete, interesting to see how his discipline has evolved since last season where he was feeling the wrath of match officials more times than not. 

Wigglesworth and Farrell form a formidable half-back partnership and then you add the promising Lozsowski in the mix, competition is strong in this area of the park. The back line contains the experience Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch who will look to unleash the likes of Alex Goode and Liam Williams into the line at a regular rate. 

Saracens start their European crusade this season with a tricky road trip to Glasgow Warriors at Scotstoun. Can Glasgow Warriors prove themselves in European Cup action? A terribly disappointing effort last season and Dave Rennie will need to call on Adam Hastings to be the x-factor for his side as Finn Russell has departed for life at Racing 92. 

Glasgow Warriors will provide expansive passage of play from deep but question marks abound on the front five when facing slick, efficient counterparts. They were found wanting last season against the likes of Exeter Chiefs, Leinster Rugby and Montpellier and I am not sure if it has improved to the extent required to compete with the likes of Saracens. 

The side are a superb Guinness Pro 14 outfit but there are lingering questions on when this side will evolve and be considered as a contender in European Cup competition. The opening fixture to Saracens will answer those questions quickly. 

Cardiff Blues come into the competition on the back of progressive form in Guinness Pro 14 action. A home win against Munster Rugby has set morale soaring. Evans, Anscombe can control games and with the likes of Halaholo, Lane, Harries out wide to score tries; it is a real potent attacking edge. Furthermore, an abrasive pack led by the likes of Turnbull, Navidi, Nick Williams will mean that no pool opponent will get an easy game from the Welsh side. 

Lyon. The debutantes in this competition are stacked with squad talent but whether European fare is their priority (skeptical) remains up in the air. Doussain and Beauxis provide a formidable experience half back experience and with a solid pack and back line, the side at home will be a match for anyone but as European Challenge Cup experience has shown, the side’s mindset when in Europe can be questionable. 

Verdict:

Saracens are the form side in this pool; their domestic form is 6/6 and their toughest conceivable game could this weekend in Glasgow. If they safely negotiate this fixture, Saracens could run the rule over all other pool opponents before Christmas and safely secure a pool winner berth. 

Question marks on the other sides in this pool. The mini-league between these sides could see teams potentially cancelling each other with home wins. Glasgow Warriors could nick a playoff best runner up but I need convincing.