CASTRES, FRANCE – The third weekend of the Heineken Cup threw out more surprises than a burst piñata, including one so big that – even in this era of week-in week-out sports-writing hyperbole – it qualifies as a 100 percent genuine shock.
The shock was not Racing Metro’s 32-8 loss to Harlequins. The Top 14 side moved the fixture from their usual ground to Nantes, so lost a hefty portion of that home advantage boost you’d expect. They played like an away side, too.
Racing have not lived up to high expectation so far this season, so it’s probably safe to say they were there for the taking. Conor O’Shea’s Quins – who desperately needed a win to keep their faint qualification hopes alive – took everything they could. Nick Evans scored 17 of the Londoners points, as they put on what was arguably one of the finest performances on a rugby field in Heineken Cup history.
Nor was the shock Toulon’s laboured victory over Exeter Chiefs. On paper, the 2013 champions should beat any other club side on the planet. It seemed they were taking no chances, with Jonny Wilkinson, Bryan Habana, Drew Mitchell, Mathieu Basteraud, Matt Giteau, Chris Masoe, Ali Williams, Bakkies Botha and Juan Smith all in the starting line-up. But the Chiefs played out of their skins from the first minute to the last, and – Florian Fresia’s fifth-minute try apart – stopped their star-studded opponents in their tracks time and again.
Wilkinson was strangely off target, missing four kicks at goal, and eventually handing over kicking duties to Giteau, before rediscovering his touch with a late drop goal to seal matters. At the end of the day, a win’s a win. Toulon are a point clear of Cardiff at the top of Pool Two. And they should have an easier time at Stade Mayol next weekend.
It’s taken some time, but pundits – and Rugby Wrap Up’s ‘experts’ – are finally realising that betting against Castres at home is a fool’s errand. So, the weekend’s Heineken Cup shock wasn’t their hard-fought Friday night 15-9 win over Ospreys at Stade Pierre Antoine.
The first half ended 6-6, as Castres scrum-half Rory Kockott missed three penalties. But the hosts showed more attacking flair in the second period and were worth their win in the end, even though they had to hang on desperately as Ospreys pounded their line in the closing moments.
And the weekend’s Heineken Cup shock definitely wasn’t Ulster’s 48-0 mullering of Benetton Treviso at Ravenhill. That was one result that was expected. It was just a question of how big the win would be. As it turned out, Ulster ran in seven tries to move seven points clear of Leicester in Pool Five. With their next match also against Treviso, they are now the hottest of favourites to qualify for the knockout phase of the competition.
No. The shock came at Toulouse’s Stade Ernest Wallon on Sunday, where the four-time Heineken Cup champions lost to Pro12 basement side Connacht 14-16. With Munster and Leinster also winning, the fourth Irish province made it another clean Heineken Cup sweep this weekend. Pat Lam’s side won for the first time on French soil in the tournament, and condemned Toulouse to their first home Heineken Cup defeat since 2009 in the process.
After Dan Parks kicked them into a 13th-minute lead, the visitors were ahead for all but five minutes of a game that was played at about three times normal speed. There was even time for the video referee to disallow a stunning Connacht try for a slight knock-on nearly 80m further back.
The rest of the weekend’s Heineken Cup games ran pretty much according to pre-match scripts.
Leicester dutifully beat Montpellier in an eight-try 41-32 thriller at Welford Road. After being 24-3 down inside 15 minutes, Fabien Galthie’s men came within a minute of heading home with two bonus points, when Francois Trinh-Duc converted Pierre Berard’s 78th-minute try. But Ryan Lamb’s last-gasp drop goal pulled the hosts nine points clear and leave the Top 14 side with plenty to do if they are to qualify for a second successive quarter-final slot.
It’s no wonder, then, that Tigers’ boss Richard Cockerill is expecting a backlash when the two sides resume hostilities at Stade Yves du Manoir next weekend.
Munster moved back to the top of Pool Six as they walloped Perpignan 32-8 at Thomond Park. It was all over as a contest after 35 minutes as the hosts ran in three tries and the Catalan side lost Camille Lopez to injury. Munster wrapped up the bonus point midway through the second half.
Cardiff had moved briefly to the top of Pool Two on Friday night, with a 29-20 win over Glasgow Warriors at the plastic Arms Park. Leigh Halfpenny kicked 16 points for the Welsh side, while Rhys Patchell and Alex Cuthbert both touched down. Even without seven of the side that so thrillingly beat Toulon here in October, the hosts had too much firepower for their Scottish visitors, and raced into a 16-0 lead in the first 30 minutes.
As expected, Saracens cruised to a 39-10 victory at Zebre’s tiny Stade XXV Aprile, and Clermont extended their astonishing winning streak at Stade Marcel Michelin with a 32-11 walk-in-the-park win over Scarlets. The Welsh side just about held their own for the first half, but were blown away in the second 40, as Napolioni Nalaga touched down twice, and Jamie Cudmore and Mike Delany also scored.
Leinster made sure of a bonus point before the half-time whistle as they destroyed Northampton Saints to take control of Pool One, the so-called Pool of Death. Luke Fitzgerald scored a hat-trick, and Brian O’Driscoll, Eoin Reddan and Jamie Heaslip all notched up tries. With two away wins, and their next match – also against the Saints – back at fortress RDS next weekend, Leinster should have one foot in the knockout phase of the competition before Christmas.
Edinburgh’s 100th Heineken Cup tie ended in defeat as party-poopers Gloucester won 23-12 in front of fewer than 5,500 fans in the 67,800-capacity Murrayfield. It started well for the hosts, as Greig Tonks scored the game’s opening try after six minutes. But the visitors responded with three tries of their own to head back to Kingsholm with four points in the bag and their qualification hopes enhanced.
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