CASTRES, FRANCE -It has come late in his career, but Jonny Wilkinson has been taught a harsh lesson by the rugby gods.
After years of letting nothing slip to the media, he told French sports journal L’Equipe in the days leading up to Toulon’s predicted walk in the plastic Arms Park against Cardiff Blues that the defending Heineken Cup champions were out to win every game in the competition.
He probably won’t let slip anything quite so daring in public again – at least until he hangs up his boots for good. Not after the Blues weathered a Toulon storm and a Cardiff cloudburst to win 19-15, thanks to Gareth Davies’s try three minutes from time and 80 hard-fought minutes of bloody-minded determination to battle for everything.
It was the shock result of a second weekend of high-intensity, high-quality Heineken Cup rugby that everyone just how good European rugby can be.
Those who saw Toulouse nick a tenser-than-tense 16-17 win over Saracens in front of a 61,000-crowd at Wembley needed no reminding, however.
For 72 minutes, Sarries fought a heavyweight Toulouse side to a near standstill, only for a four-time Heineken Cup winners to deliver a decisive blow courtesy of a Louis Picamoles try. It wasn’t quite a knockout, but it shook the hosts. Their desperate late, late 22-phase fightback whimpered to a halt when Owen Farrell’s weak drop-goal attempt was charged down and Maxime Medard hoofed the ball out of play to start the Toulouse party.
Not even the early departure of Luke McAlister with an injury that is likely to keep him on the sidelines for up to three months would have dampened their post-match spirits – at least until they left London.
The Top 14 side are one of three unbeaten teams in this season’s Heineken Cup. The other two two-for-twos are Irish – and also former champions – Leinster and Ulster.
Judging by the scoreline, Leinster enjoyed a relatively straightforward 19-7 win over Castres. But the game was tighter than the result suggests. Leinster were helped by the visitors’ indiscipline – they saw two go to the bin in the second half – and the TMO deciding that CO flanker Pedrie Wannenburg late touchdown was inches shy of the line.
That decision denied the visitors a losing bonus point, and also meant that last season’s Amlin Cup champions are early favourites to qualify from the Pool of Death. Their two games against Northampton Saints in December will be crucial.
Ulster had an easier time at Montpellier. They brought the hosts’ unbeaten home record this season to a shuddering halt and made a mockery of their lofty position in the Top 14. Ulster won 25-8 – thanks to a wonderful sweeping end-to-end move neatly finished by Irish flyer Andrew Trimble and the combined kicking firepower of Paddy Jackson and Ruan Pienaar. The latter’s siege-gun boot will have opponents wary of conceding penalties from almost anywhere on the pitch.
In 18 years, no teams that have lost their first two Heineken Cup pool games have gone on to qualify for the knockout phase. This is bad news for Premiership outfit Harlequins and Pro12 trio Ospreys, Zebre and Treviso.
Vern Cotter’s Clermont needed a win after losing at Racing Metro last week – and they weren’t about to let Quins end their 64-match winning streak at Marcel Michelin. They racked up three tries, courtesy of Lee Byrne, Wesley Forfana, and Thierry Lacrampe – starting at scrum-half in place of the banned Morgan Parra – in the opening 30 minutes.
Tom Williams popped up to give Quins a scintilla of hope just before half-time. But – although the visitors fought hard and were able to pick up a losing bonus point with Nick Evans’ last-gasp drop goal, their hopes of reaching the later stages of the competition are fading fast.
Ospreys, meanwhile, found Northampton too slick, too quick, and too tough at Franklin’s Gardens as both sides looked to make amends for opening weekend defeats.
Saints’ mighty locks Courteney Lawes and Christian Day were the driving forces behind the home side’s powerhouse display that fell cruelly short of a Pool of Death bonus point. And it leaves Ospreys with a tough double-header against Castres in December.
No one seriously expected Treviso or Zebre to make much of a mark on the Heineken Cup. The former were away to Leicester at the weekend, while the latter faced a Connacht side buoyed by their performance against Saracens in the opening weekend.
It took Richard Cockerill’s Leicester 17 minutes to score their first points thanks to the boot of captain Toby Flood – and the full 80 minutes to pick up a bonus point, as they won 34-3 at a rain-soaked Welford Road.
Pat Lam’s Connacht, meanwhile, were made to work surprisingly hard for their 33-6 victory at Stadio XXV Aprile. The hosts dominated long periods of the first half and the early part of the second, but were unable to make possession count, while Mr Reliable Dan Parks kicked 23 points for the visitors.
Gloucester are likely to avoid any sanction from competition authorities despite making 12 changes to the side that beat Perpignan on the opening weekend for their visit to Munster.
Heineken Cup rules state that teams are expected to pick their best available side. But, even though Billy Twelvetrees, Henry Trinder, James Simpson-Daniel, Freddie Burns, Jimmy Cowan and Matt Kvesic were among those rested for the trip to Thomond Park, it’s unlikely that Gloucester will face any authoritarian backlash. After all, six full internationals were still in the squad – and the rules allow for squad rotation.
Not that they could do much against a Munster side with a point to prove. The Cherry and Whites fought hard, but tries from Damien Varley and Johne Murphy helped the two-time champions to a 26-10 win.
Perpignan brought Munster’s conquerors Edinburgh back down to earth with a James Hook-inspired bump. The Welshman kicked 11 points as the French side came back from 7-3 down at halftime to win 31-14, picking up a bonus point in the process.
A near length-of-the-pitch rolling maul was probably the highlight of Racing Metro’s epic 26-26 draw at Scarlets. The French side could – and probably should – have won it, but Jonny Sexton missed a late penalty and an even later drop goal as the Welsh side hung on for grim death after being 20-10 up at halftime.
Exeter Chiefs remain the surprise leaders of their Heineken Cup pool, despite a 20-16 defeat at Glasgow Warriors’ Scotstoun Stadium. A try for the visitors’ Dan Ewers five minutes from time meant for a nervy finish, but the Scots held on for the win that means only one point separates all four teams, with the Chiefs and Toulon both on six, and Glasgow and Cardiff on five.
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