CASTRES, FRANCE – If this turns out to be the last Heineken Cup, it has shown us all early on just what we’re about to give up.
The first weekend featured more tries than you could shake Matt Giteau at, surprise defeats, cliche-confirming rousing fightbacks, sphincter-clenching tension – and moments like Dion Berryman’s astonishing airborne try and Sean O’Brien’s mother of all hand-offs on Dan Biggar.
Until Gloucester’s Billy Twelvetrees and Jonny May gave England coach Stuart Lancaster a timely nudge ahead of his autumn international squad announcement on Wednesday, it had been a weekend to forget for Aviva Premiership clubs.
Ulster had beaten Leicester 22-16 at ‘Fortress’ Ravenhill, and Pro12 strugglers Connacht came within inches of upsetting English top-flight high-fliers Saracens at Galway’s Showgrounds, laying siege to the visitors’ tryline in a final few minutes that the word ‘frantic’ doesn’t begin to go near to describing.
The London side had dominated the game, but were relieved when the referee blew the final whistle and they were still ahead 23-17.
To make matters worse for Premiership sides, Scarlets’ flying Williams boys – Rhodri, Scott and Jordan – sliced through Harlequins’ defence like a trio of hot knives through runny butter to win a 26-33 thriller at The Stoop.
It was the Welsh side’s first win in seven Heineken Cup games, but their swaggering backs cut an easy-on-the-eye dash that will turn all their outings in this year’s competition into must-see matches.
Northampton, meanwhile, have only themselves to blame as old Heineken Cup adversaries Castres defended, muscled, kicked and intercepted their way to a 19-13 win at Stade Pierre Antoine.
But then Gloucester – orchestrated by Twelvetrees and May – put their indifferent domestic form this season firmly behind them to win a rousing encounter against Perpignan 27-22.
The French side owe their bonus point to the brilliance of James Hook. The Welsh full back will have given international coach Warren Gatland plenty to think about with his performance in the Kingsholm cauldron. Sure, Leigh Halfpenny’s name is all over the number 15 shirt – but Hook could maybe slot in at number 10, with Scott Williams at inside centre to create the backbone of a scarily good backs division.
Exeter Chiefs put on a first-half performance of astonishing, breath-taking rugby against Cardiff Blues. You could almost forgive them for not bothering to play any rugby in the second period. They won the first half 41-3, but lost the second 3-26 to end up with a 44-29 home win.
But Pro12 clubs – as the Blues and Connacht proved – didn’t have it all their own way.
There was bound to be one other Pro12 loser as Edinburgh entertained Munster. But only the die-hardest of die-hard fans of the Scottish club would have given their side a prayer against the two-time European champions.
That, however, is exactly what happened, as tries by Matt Scott and Tim Visser and the unerring boot of Greig Laidlaw guided the Scots to a 29-23 win.
Munster’s inter-pro rivals Leinster enjoyed better fortunes at Ospreys, with Sean O’Brien’s epic hand-off on an unfortunate Dan Biggar the big ‘did you see that!?’ moment of a 19-9 win on the road.
Unlike Edinburgh, who were written off ahead of their opening game, Glasgow Warriors headed to Toulon with optimistic whispers ringing in their ears. They really could spring a shock on the defending champions, the whisperers said.
Actually, no. They couldn’t.
In a first half almost as dramatic as Exeter’s, Toulon raced into a 34-0 lead at Stade Mayol. Not even the early departure of an injured Jonny Wilkinson, or a thrilling four-try fightback could prevent the inevitable. It ended 51-28, but the Warriors headed home with what could turn out to be a crucial bonus point.
That said, it’s hard to see Toulon not defending the Heineken Cup. Bryan Habana, injured in the final weekend of The Rugby Championship, watched from the sidelines as Matt Giteau made everyone wonder how much better Australia would have been if he slipped on the green and gold again.
Toulouse and Montpellier both faced Italian opposition in their opening games.
Guy Noves’ side made light work of Zebre at Stade Ernest Wallon, running out 38-5 winners – though their game is notable for Dion Berryman’s tremendous flying try. Only the hand holding the ball was in play when he touched down in the corner an scintilla of an iota of a fraction of a second before he slammed into the corner flag; the rest of his body was well over the touchline – but about 18 inches off the ground.
Montpellier, meanwhile, were flattered by the final score at Benetton Treviso. A 27-10 bonus-point victory looks convincing enough, but it wasn’t until scrum-half Jonathan Pelissie came on that they started to pull away from their dogged Italian hosts.
The final match of the opening European weekend was an all Top 14 affair and saw Clermont – complete with strange grey kit – head to Racing Metro’s Stade Yves du Manoir.
The game had much to live up to, as it followed the high try counts of Exeter / Blues and Toulon / Glasgow. It couldn’t match expectation, with Marc Andreu scoring the only try of the night as Racing won 13-9 – but it did leave the opening weekend of with one final stat-tastic fact to mention in the bar later. That nine-point score was Clermont’s lowest in the Heineken Cup since December 2010, when Leinster held them to eight at the RDS.
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