Standout comeback performances. Covid-19 cancellations and walkovers. These have been the prevailing themes for Pool B teams to contend with so far. Hawkeye Sidekick reflects on the action so far.
Lyon were the standout team in round one of the Pool B fixtures. Their 55-10 win over Gloucester Rugby was sensational. Gloucester Rugby were unfortunate to be the team that had to take that barrage as Lyon’s fast tempo and marauding pack created try scoring opportunities aplenty. Covid-19 cancellation meant that a banana skin fixture to Scotstoun was averted and with it a 0-28 road trip win. Ten points from ten and they looked primed to take one of the four playoff berths. A dangerous side if they can secure a home quarter final.
Racing 92. There has been no hangover from that traumatic Champions Cup final to Exeter Chiefs. Racing 92 were pushed all the way by Connacht Rugby in the opening round but then delivered an ominous away win to dismantle Harlequins at the Stoop securing another bonus try point win. We know the talent in the squad. They will qualify from this pool but the questions and demons on whether they can win this competition will be answered next Spring.
Toulouse continue to develop into a cohesive free flowing side. They possess the two best half backs in European Cup rugby in Dupont and Ntamack. Their back line play is sensational with Cheslin Kolbe showing his class in that opening round hard fought win to Ulster Rugby.
His ability to create a line break from nothing is quite exceptional. Covid-19 prevented an intriguing rematch with Exeter Chiefs and I look forward to seeing both teams face off after Christmas; a titan clash. Toulouse would be confident of securing a win over an Ulster Rugby side with nothing to play for. A side who will be close to this title.
Munster Rugby. After a slow opening round performance at home to Harlequins, it looked ominous at Stade Michelin with ASM Clermont Auvergne ripping through the Munster Rugby defensive line. Four tries secured within twenty-five minutes and one would have thought that was it for the Irish province. Munster Rugby though did not read the script and what a comeback!
The pack got on the ascendency. Josh Wycherley massive in the set piece. CJ Stander all conquering. JJ Hanrahan clinical off the tee and in open play. Each Munster Rugby player delivered. Eight points from two games. The next two games are crucial. ASM Clermont Auvergne will look to come to Thomond Park and exact revenge in round three so 50/50 game and it could require Munster Rugby to go to the Stoop and secure a five point performance which given Harlequins fixture in round one looks tough. They are realistically looking for nine points in the next two games to advance to the last eight of this competition.
ASM Clermont Auvergne. The good, the sublime and the awful in these two opening round fixtures. The side in full attacking flow, on the front foot have put opposition in serious trouble thus far. They hit fifty plus points on the road to Bristol Bears and as mentioned secured a bonus try point against Munster Rugby within twenty-five minutes.
However, conditioning and discipline issues have surfaced in these two games. Pen count has been high and allowed Bristol Bears and Munster Rugby to secure field position and points in the second half of games. The squad are awesome but both Bristol Bears and Munster Rugby will be confident of exposing more defensive frailties in the remaining fixtures of this pool phase. A class side. Penaud is so good at the moment. Dangerous side still.
Bristol Bears. A baptism of fire at home to ASM Clermont Auvergne but after a ropey first quarter, they responded and scored four tries themselves. I like Sheedy at ten for the Bears and when they start to sped up the game, quick ruck ball has caused issues for both ASM Clermont Auvergne and Connacht Rugby in round two. Pat Lam returned to Galway and the Bears pack setup the platform to win 18-27 on the road. Bristol Bears have a return fixture with Connacht Rugby in round three and a win there could mean an interesting away fixture to ASM Clermont Auvergne to potentially decide a top four playoff berth if Munster Rugby slip up.
Exeter Chiefs showed their strengths with a dominant opening round display at home to Glasgow Warriors. 42-0 was emphatic. Covid-19 though stepped in and resulted in Toulouse being awarded the 28-0 home win in round two so it is playing catchup now for the reigning Champions Cup holders.
Two wins a must and potentially two bonus point try wins are required to increase the pressure on those above them. Toulouse at home at Sandy Park and then a trip to Glasgow Warriors with nothing to play for. Covid-19 may have impacted the standings here after that Toulouse cancellation.
Gloucester Rugby must be applauded for their comeback win over Ulster Rugby at Kingsholm. After that thumping in the opening round, Gloucester Rugby were facing down the barrel of another defeat as Ulster Rugby looked to have secured a game winning position but a late burst saw the West Country side get over the line and win 38-34.
European campaign is still alive but they need to win out their fixtures to be in the playoff mix. Ulster Rugby may feel that there is unfinished business with Gloucester Rugby in round three and then a home fixture against a Lyon side who could be interested in lining up a first team squad to secure a top seeding to the quarter final. A daunting challenge.
The other four teams in the pool look like their European Champions Cup campaign is done but European Challenge Cup playoff is still alive. Ulster Rugby will be devastated by that Gloucester Rugby loss; they had the game well under control but then let Gloucester Rugby control the fringes late on and gain line breaks followed.
Connacht Rugby’s inconsistency in Europe exposed in the last two weekends; a strong display to Racing 92 in round one but then a flat performance against Bristol Bears, a game they needed to win in round two. The decision making on the pitch at the end of that Bears loss was poor.
Harlequins. They defended well at Thomond Park and provided massive physicality but they were ripped apart by Racing 92 last weekend in all areas of the park. Racing 92 should put more hurt on the Stoop side in round three and then Munster Rugby looking for a win and perhaps settle unfinished business with Harlequins after round one will follow in the final round. Good potential in this side but they are a season or two away from competing with the European heavyweights.
Glasgow Warriors. The season has spiraled from one loss to another. Guinness Pro14 form has transitioned into European Cup action. Covid-19 cancellation has resulted in an early elimination from Champions Cup but the Challenge Cup playoffs could harbor a potential season defining path to success. Rebuild mode currently and news that Adam Hastings is departing at the end of the season is a huge blow.