Round four of the European Rugby Champions Cup is in the books, a weekend which ended the European Cup ambitions of several sides, much needed momentum created by several others ahead of crunch January European fixtures. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action and looks at the current quarter final picture.
As it stands
After four exciting rounds of European Rugby Champions Cup, here are the consolidated overall standing heading into the January fixtures.
Pool 1: Wasps win to setup intriguing January fixture set
Wasps and Ulster wins in round four have opened this pool wide open. Ulster Rugby’s bonus point win over a weakened Harlequins side provided further evidence that Les Kiss’ charges are starting to produce more consistent, cohesive performances.
Several players stood for the Ulster men on Friday night. John Cooney deserved top billing; his two tries and precise kicking off the tee provided the platform which Ulster Rugby never relinquished in the second half.
Quins did provide some anxious moments for Ulster Rugby in the opening period with several notable line breaks but once Ian Henderson and pack knuckled down in the third quarter to setup the platform, this result was never in doubt.
Huge ball carrying performances from McCloskey particularly in the opening period and the mercurial talent that is Jacob Stockdale resulted in a over worked Quins tackle count which led to several Ulster line break tries late on.
A satisfying two weeks for Ulster Rugby; this is the blueprint for which the team need to produce week in, week out. An intriguing fixture set against Wasps and La Rochelle beckons.
Will eighteen points be enough to secure a quarter final berth? All to play for Ulster Rugby. Ian Henderson was an athletic freak on the night, the player continues to grow in stature and his work rate and leadership last weekend bodes well for the province and national team. The Lions tour has elevated the Ulster forward to new levels of performance.
If you read my blog last week, I had my doubts that Wasps would get anything at home to a marauding La Rochelle outfit at the Ricoh Arena. Dull, dreary wintry conditions meant that this was a pack battle and surprisingly the Wasps pack were decisive winners of the contest setting the platform for a well merited 21-3 triumph over the French outfit.
This was a performance which many teams will take note of. La Rochelle were quite frankly unable to establish any platform in the contest, stifled upfront and the Wasps back row did an excellent job of stopping quick ruck ball and controlling their possession as well. Eastmond on his introduction was sharp with ball in hand and with the speed merchant of Daly out wide, La Rochelle defensive were unable to stop the hosts.
Daly’s try was superbly worked with the pack forcing La Rochelle to defensively over commit to the fringes allowing space out wide, good offloading as well in the move in trying conditions.
Dai Young will feel that it is still there for his side. Quins are out of the competition so the final game of this pool could yield a five point return. The key fixture is their home clash with Ulster Rugby, a winner take all fixture you feel given that La Rochelle should pick themselves up and secure a bonus point over Quins. It is setup superbly in this pool, another reason to love this pool format.
Pool 2: Clermont win, Saracens on the rise, Ospreys win again
A fascinating round five of this pool beckons at the Liberty Stadium. Clermont should top the pool now given their narrow victory over a much improved Saracens yesterday. The line breaks and space afforded to Clermont on Monday night were nowhere to be seen in the return fixture and it was the boot of Morgan Parra which secured the 24-21 victory. Nine point haul for the French side is a good return though.
Saracens leave Clermont with a loser bonus point secured, pride restored but it is now crunch time for Mark McCall’s men as they now next face a rejuvenated Ospreys outfit who took Northampton Saints apart for a second consecutive weekend, securing the bonus point in the process in their 32-15 win.
A devastating burst midway through the third quarter secured the bonus point and took the game away from the Northampton Saints who were better than last weekend but game management at times opened the door which the hosts exploited.
Rhys Webb, Justin Tipuric were the standouts in this contest. Webb will be a huge loss for the Welsh region next season, his line breaks were to the fore. two smart tries on the day.
Tipuric was at his typical best this weekend, dominant in the breakdown exchanges, providing ball carrier support throughout which was rewarded with his try in the second half. A huge European Cup fixture set looms large for the club in the New Year.
Can Ospreys produce a cohesive display to upset Saracens? Plenty of observers will be watching and conceivably, it is knockout rugby from here on out for both Saracens and Ospreys to make the last eight of the competition. Another pool which will have plot twists before it is all said and done.
Pool 3: Leinster survive Chiefs test. Montpelier secured five point haul
Leinster used their get out of jail card at the Aviva Stadium against an unlucky Exeter Chiefs in round four. Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster will be happy with the result but the performance and discipline was nowhere to the standard required.
On another day, Leinster Rugby could have being down to fourteen players permanently. Cian Healy can consider himself extremely lucky to only get a yellow card for his high tackle in the opening period.
Leinster Rugby were strangely slow off the blocks, ponderous with ball in hand (not helped by Sexton’s early departure) and Exeter Chiefs took full advantage with two well worked tries. Ross Byrne then came on was leveled soon after his introduction, surely tournament organizers have to review protocols as the player did not look right coming back onto the pitch.
Exeter Chiefs will have learned plenty from these two European Cup fixtures. They competed well but they will have learned that when on top, points need to be put on the board particularly when your opposition is down a man.
They controlled affairs for long periods in that opening period but their advantage at half-time was scant for the work rate and tempo produced. This quick tempo was never going to be maintained by the English side in the second half and credit to Leinster Rugby as they started to establish a much needed platform.
Isa Nacewa was absolutely heroic in that second half. His leadership, ability to get the game going forward with positive line breaks set the tone and others followed. Luke McGrath after a shaky start had an excellent second half and his excellent support running paid off as Dan Leavy offloaded (slightly forward) to the scrum half to score the decisive try of the contest.
The home crowd after booing the match officials at half-time were now jubilant and with Gary Ringrose more and more threatening in the final quarter, the margin of victory could have being more. A reality check of sorts for Leinster Rugby but given the circumstances, the spirit and resiliency of the side shone through.
Exeter Chiefs still have a major say in this pool. A road trip fixture to Glasgow Warriors is a must win before French outfit Montpelier come to Sandy Park. The Chiefs will pose serious issues for their remaining pool opponents and could derail the Montpelier challenge in the final pool fixture. Leinster Rugby should now secure a home quarter final berth. They will be confident of beating Glasgow Warriors at home and with a loser point potentially against Montpelier on the road enough to secure that much coveted home quarter final.
Nadolo was a monster (as predicted on this blog last week) in Montpelier’s bonus point win against a luckless Glasgow Warriors who contributed massively in a high scoring contest. The Fijian winger gain line stats were off the charts, scored an early try and when his side needed second half inspiration provided the platform to create the third try of his side when the game was in balance.
Montpelier will be first to admit that this was far from a vintage performance, poor exit strategy resulting in Glasgow’s opening try which saw the Scottish side secure a four try haul. The line breaks created by Glasgow Warriors in the three quarters will also be keenly observed by opposition in the pool. Montpelier in with a good shout but big improvement is required to advance to the last eight. The Exeter Chiefs game looks like a banana skin fixture on this form.
Pool 4: Munster Rugby kept their cool. Racing 92 secure bonus point win.
A weekend where the words ‘composure’ and ‘calm heads’ were key. Munster Rugby seized control of this pool with a mature, composed performance over a wild Leicester Tigers outfit at Welford Road. The hosts struggled to keep their emotions in check from the first whistle and the penalty count excessively high (11 vs. 2) in the first half, Raynal had no option but to issue a yellow card on Dan Cole just on half-time.
Munster had to endure a shaky first quarter but grew into the contest as the home side’s discipline evaporated in the foggy, wintry conditions allowing Ian Keatley to work the scoreboard. The Dan Cole yellow card was decisive as Munster Rugby scored their try in this period, excellent line break from the impressive Conor Murray and CJ Stander crashed over from close range.
A nine point lead was too much for Leicester Tigers and the cameos of Toomua and Tuilagi lacked the cohesion required. Munster Rugby defensive were on point and the breakdown was controlled by the Irish province in the last quarter. A decisive road victory and Johann van Graan’s charges will look with confidence to the January fixtures starting with a road trip to Racing 92 and a home game against Castres at fortress Thomond Park.
Racing 92 secured an expected five point haul over Castres but the red card for Imhoff could be a huge incident in the outcome of this pool. The head butt was stupid in the extreme but given the pack’s dominance on the day where Donnacha Ryan was excellent, Racing 92 were full value for their win. The pack in particular was on point, mauls were effectively and caused Castres massive headaches throughout.
The red card was the sour note for Racing 92 and Castres will look to focus on domestic action from here on out. Potential second string selections beckon for their remaining fixtures which is good news for Munster Rugby on the final game of the pool. The pool is now a two horse race with Munster Rugby in pole position to secure the pool.
Pool 5: Watson inspired Bath. Scarlets put pressure on.
Anthony Watson was in sensational form for Bath Rugby as they moved into top spot of the pool with a hard earned 26-21 win over Toulon at the Rec. Watson was a constant danger with ball in hand and his line speed at times was too much for Toulon to defend.
Bath Rugby took advantage of a superb start, going ten points up early doors but did have to withstand Toulon pressure in the second quarter. Cue Watson to settle home fans nerves, this is a defining result for Bath Rugby and sets up an exciting home fixture against Scarlets in January which is another winner take all pool fixture.
Toulon must reflect on this loss; defensively inconsistent, side lacked the cohesion when the game in the balance to secure the road trip win. They are still in a good position with a home trip to come over an already eliminated Benetton Rugby looking like a five point haul. The road trip to Scarlets could make or break their European season. Toulon need a home quarter final as their road performances this season have seen massive vulnerabilities.
Scarlets enter the January fixtures with renewed confidence as they secured their five point haul over Benetton Rugby in Italy. The performance was much more improved from a defensive perspective. Bonus point win secured thanks to trademark running lines from deep. Benetton Rugby struggled to create any tangible line breaks until the final exchanges, too little too late.
Scarlets have a huge final two fixtures. They are both must wins starting with Bath Rugby on the road. This pool is wide, wide open. It is very hard to predict who will top the pool and there is a big danger that the three teams in the mix could nick points from each other to only see one team progress. Exciting times come the New Year!