LEICESTER, ENGLAND – On Sunday night, Leicester wrapped up a European Champions Cup weekend which saw six out of seven English sides victorious, with the only exception being Sale, who played Saracens. It was a remarkable performance from the Premiership sides, highlighted by Harlequins comfortable victory over Irish giants Leinster and the Tigers’ victory over reigning European champions Toulon.
Munster and Clermont played out a tight match in Limerick which saw the visitors win, 16-9. Clermont started off brilliantly with a try in the first minute from Fritz Lee, who peeled off from a lineout and went into the corner. From there, Ian Keatley brought the men in red back into the contest with a penalty, but Wesley Fofana finished off an impressive move to put Cleremont ahead 10-3 in the 30th minute. The teams traded penalties, and the French went into the half ahead by 10. Munster were unable to capitalize on numerous opportunities after the break. Interestingly, the Irish giants made only two substitutions in the entire match. The second half was a dull affair, marked by forward dominance and few clean opportunities. Clermont were happy to see out their priceless away victory, which put them in first thanks to their two bonus points.
Supporters in Salford saw Sale and Saracens engage in a cagey affair, with Mark McCall’s team coming out on top, 19-15. The match represented a massive improvement from the Sharks, but Sale are now in danger of repeating their last campaign in Europe, where they produced a single forlorn victory. Charlie Hodgson converted the first penalty of the match before Owen Farrell crossed in the 14th minute. The deposed English fly-half, who started at inside centre had an immense match to quiet his critics. George Ford will surely be given the start against Wales in February, but Farrell took the first tentative step on the road to recovering his reputation before the World Cup. Though Sale crossed the line twice to bring themselves to within a point in the 61st minute, Owen Farrell’s drop goal in the 65th would end the scoring.
Harlequins exacted revenge for their 2009 quarterfinal defeat to Leinster, dispatching their foes 24-18. Quins’ returning England stars were outstanding, while Danny Care looked dangerous around the breakdown. Ian Madigan kicked six penalties for Leinster, who were unable to cross the try line. Leinster’s scrum was particularly woeful, and the Irishmen will look forward to the return of Cian Healy with keen anticipation. Leinster’s lack of their trademark clinical finishing ability was clear in the first half, when Rob Kearney had a pass intercepted meters from the try line and returned by Aseli Tikorotuma. Things will have to be much better next week if Leinster expect to stay in contention for the top slot in Pool Two.
Castres’ troubles continued undiminished, as the Top 14 bottom feeders capitulated at home to Wasps. Wasps managed to secure their bonus point with two tries in the final ten minutes, including a penalty try awarded after a high tackle by Sitiveni Sivvatu. Andy Goode showed there was life in his old boots, converting three of the tries and slotting two penalties. Castre paid for Rory Kockott’s inability to convert some difficult kicks, and have now lost all three of their European matches, with away fixtures to face against Wasps and Leinster.
Leicester shocked Toulon with a hard fought 25-21 victory at Welford Road. The Tigers have faced difficulties in the past few months, as a long injury list has prevented the team from reaching its best form. However, with a full first choice front row, the Tigers scrum was a rock-solid platform all night long. Leicester raced out to a 13-0 lead before Toulon capitalized on two major errors- an errant pass from Owen Williams that Bryan Habana returned for an intercept try, and a scrum gone wrong that led to Drew Mitchell waltzing in for a try untouched. Owen Williams was named man of the match for an assured performance, kicking well from hand and taking in a twenty point haul. The result throws the group into chaos, with three teams sitting on two wins. Toulon have the advantage thanks to their losing bonus point, but there will be plenty to talk about before the fixture next week in France.
Ulster dispatched Scarlets without trouble, handing the Welsh region a 24-9 drubbing. Things started brightly before a Jonathan Davies yellow card in the 12th minute. Ulster took full advantage, scoring fourteen points in the sin bin period before Rhys Priestland reinserted Scarlets into the match with two penalties, drawing his team to within 5. However, Tommy Bowe and Rory Best put the match away with tries in the 59th and 68th minutes, awarding Ulster a valuable bonus point of their own.
Toulouse hung on in an ugly affair against Glasgow, winning 19-11 on the back of Sebastien Bezy’s 14 points. Finn Russell was shown a yellow card in the 36th minute, and Toulouse punished the Warriors by scoring thirteen points in six minutes of game time. Russell pulled a penalty back for the Glaswegians, but the damage was done. The Warriors back line, who were so threatening as a unit for Scotland, failed to create the necessary space against a solid French defense. A 61st minute yellow card to Leone Nakarawa effectively ended the match as a contest. Demonstratively, Toulouse had 15 clean breaks to Glasgow’s 4. If the Scots are to finally make it to the knockout stages, they will have to beat Toulouse at the Scotsun and hope for some help from other results in the final two rounds.
Bath and Montpellier endured terrible conditions on Friday night in the south of France. With standing water visible on the pitch, Bath went about their business in the first half, dominating territory and possession en route to 23 points in a perfect opening 40 minutes. George Ford was impeccable, playing the conditions perfectly, while his opposite number Enzo Selponi, struggled to adjust. Bath looked well on the way to a necessary try-scoring bonus point before a raft of substitutions disturbed their momentum. In the final 20 minutes, the match petered out to a foreordained conclusion, despite the introduction of Sam Burgess. Burgess was guilty of a few high tackles, and might be in trouble if he doesn’t learn to wrap, and quickly.
Racing Metro drew a resilient Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium, conceding a 74th minute try that knotted things up at 19. Ospreys’ forward pack took a while to find their feet, but they were unquestionably in the ascendancy as the end of the match approached. Biggar uncharacteristically missed from right in front of the posts, putting pressure on the Ospreys. The Welsh team responded magnificently, and the match tying try was a thing of urgency and beauty.
Treviso round out our wrap-up as they so often do, with a depressingly overmatched loss against superior opposition. The Italians never looked much like challenging Northampton, and the Saints secured their bonus point by the 49th minute. Treviso did a creditable job in the first half before conceding twice in two minutes to open the second, and effectively end the match. Northampton eventually cruised, winning 38-15.