TOULOUSE, FRANCE – European rugby can certainly use a week long breather after an absolutely frenetic first round of action in the newly christened Champions Cup. The intent of reducing the field from twenty-four to twenty teams was to re-balance the competition, and though it is early, the initiative appears to have succeeded triumphantly through the first round. RugbyWrapUp will have you covered all season long with recaps of the weekend’s action, but if you missed any matches, you can check them out here.
Both matches in Pool 1 were thrillers, going down to the final minutes. Few expected Munster and Sale to produce the match of the weekend, but the teams combined in an absolutely enthralling encounter on Saturday morning. Sale had a dream start to their European campaign in the first half, racing to a 23-7 lead through a combination of exciting attacking play, stalwart defense, and Munster carelessness. Danny Cipriani kicked three penalties in the first twenty minutes to ease Sale into the match before Sale struck before the half with tries from flanker Magnus Lund and center Johnny Leota. The Irish side responded with two catalyzing changes to start the half, subbing props BJ Botha and James Cronin on in the forty fourth minute. The substitutions had the desired effect, bolstering a struggling Munster pack, and the men in red responded with tries from Andrew Conway and Conor Murray to draw the score to 23-21 with 15 minutes remaining. Munster had all the momentum, but Danny Cipriani kicked almost immediately following Murray’s try, only to see his score cancelled out in the 71st minute. Ian Keatley played the hero with a dramatic last minute drop goal to win the match for Munster, 27-26, and break Sale hearts. Still, the Sharks performed much better than anyone had expected, and one suspects they would have been content with a losing bonus point before the match. Seeing all their dominance come to naught clearly broke hearts in Manchester, and Sale are ruing a famous loss, rather than a famous victory.
Clermont came to Allianz Park with something to prove after having lost their Heineken Cup semi-final in truly embarrassing fashion last season. After an wary opening period where both sides felt the other out, tries started to flow from the wings. Chris Ashton and David Strettle each crossed twice, while Zach Guilford also garnered a brace for the Frenchmen. Strettle’s tries in particular were admirable individual efforts, while Ashton showed the characteristic poaching instinct for club that deserts him in England colors. Charlie Hodgson demonstrated his typical assurance in midfield, before Owen Farrell was welcomed back into the mix in the 76th minute. Though it was a limited cameo for the young fly-half, Stuart Lancaster will be relieved to see his starting number ten on the field after initial doubts that Farrell would be fit for the Autumn Internationals. After being tied 10-10 at the break, Sarries eventually pulled ahead to stay and dispatched Clermont 30-23.
Harlequins and Castres kicked off the new era on Friday evening, with Quins putting their domestic troubles behind them in an assured 25-9 victory at the Stoop. Danny Care scored the evening’s only try, but Nick Evans was hugely influential with the boot, scoring six penalties for Harlequins, who had been labeled one of the worst kicking sides in England last week. At the half, it looked as though viewers were in for a cagey affair, but Castres ill discipline cost them dearly over the course of the last forty minutes. Though the teams were tied 3-3 at the half, the vast majority of the match was played in Castres half.
Wasps gave Leinster a scare in Dublin, but the new-look Irish side were eventually able to prevail, 25-20. Leinster lacked ten players who had started their last European match in April, and they looked like an unfamiliar side in the first half. Christian Wade scored a magnificent solo try, and Wasps looked set to go into the half with a commanding 20-8 lead before Ian Madigan slotted a conciliatory penalty right before the break. From there, Leinster’s defense was extraordinary, allowing no points in an impressive second forty minutes. Leinster kept applying pressure, with the decisive period coming between the 50th and 60th minute, when the Dubliners scored two tries to draw ahead 25-20. From there, the frantic pace of the game seemed to take its toll on what had been clinical finishing, though each side’s defense deserves the lion’s share of credit for keeping the match close.
Leicester and Ulster share a pool for the second consecutive year. Despite the Tigers’ early season struggles, an inspired first half ensured that there would not be a repeat of their home defeat from last campaign by dispatching Ulster 25-18. Leicester scored three first half tries through Owen Williams, Graham Kitchener, and Freddie Burns, and appeared to have their try scoring bonus point, only to have a Leo Ghiraldini try wiped out by Ben Youngs foot being in touch when he passed. Manu Tuiliangi departed the match in the 15th minute, forced a reconfiguration that did not appear to hurt the Tigers inventiveness. However, Ulster showed their pedigree by fighting back to secure a losing bonus point. Indeed, it briefly looked towards the end of the match as though the Northern Irish team could secure something more, but the Leicester defense held firm in the last ten minutes to secure an all-important home victory in the “Pool of Death.”
Scarlets showed that they are not in Pool Three to merely make up the numbers, putting in a competitive showing on Sunday before eventually succumbing to Toulon, 28-18. Leigh Halfpenny kicked three penalties and two conversions for his new team, putting aside the bitterness that threatened to envelop his transfer when it was discovered that he was unable to play in the first rounds of this season. More displays like this will cement his position as Jonny Wilkinson’s goal kicking successor in the south of France. Scarlets hung within ten points until the 70th minute, when Steffon Armitage scored a try to put Toulon ahead 28-13 and effectively end the match. Armitage’s appearance certainly means that his move to Bath is off, and he put forth an impressive effort that was justly capped by the try.
Few thought Glasgow would produce one of the most decisive displays in round one against Bath. The Scots were able to replicate their fine domestic form with no trouble, trouncing an in-form Bath 37-10. The match certainly laid down a marker in the pool, and demonstrated that Glasgow may finally be ready to take the next step in European competition. Glasgow scored five tries, securing their bonus point in the 65th minute through Nikola Matawalu before putting an exclamation point on the victory in the 70th minute thanks to Mark Bennett’s second try of the match. Jonathan Joseph scored the only try of the match for Bath, but the English side has some soul searching to do before the next round commences.
Montpellier and Toulouse played out an all-French affair, where Toulouse continued their mini-revival with a 30-23 victory over their opponents. Luke McAlister started at fly-half over Toby Flood and provided eight points from the boot, but Flood gave a play-making spark off the bench. Toulouse were 13-10 ahead at the half thanks to a late Yohann Huget try, and extended their lead shortly after the break through Thierry Doussain. Montpellier continued their recent tradition of providing a good match, but coming away without any concrete gains aside from a losing bonus point.
Treviso are unquestionably the whipping boys of Pool Five, and they lived up to their reputation with a rancid display against Ospreys. The early season Pro12 leaders dismantled the Italians, running in four tries, each converted by Dan Biggar. Ahead of Wales’ November schedule, Biggar continues to stake his claim to the fly-half berth with assured displays. Biggar also slotted three early penalties, putting Ospreys on the path to coast towards victory.
Northampton and Racing Metro gave fans something to talk about with an action packed display in Paris that saw the Parisians prevail 20-11. A Mr. Hyde version Racing Metro came out of the gate strong with a fourth minute try, and Northampton struggled to deal with Jonny Sexton until he was subbed off in the 73rd minute. Phil Dowson gave the scoreline a late shine with a try, but Stephen Myler missed the conversion, ensuring that Racing would get the victory, and Saints were denied a bonus point.
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