ADAMS PARK, ENGLAND – Home teams dominated the proceedings in the European Rugby Champions Cup, with nine out of ten hosts victorious. The weekend was marked by an increase in tries, a fair share of competitive matches, and some blowouts. All in all, it was a typically absorbing weekend of European rugby which puts us one weekend closer to the knockout stages. As always Rugby Wrap Up has you covered with our pool by pool round recap.
Clermont saw off Munster for the second consecutive weekend, triumphing 26-17 at the Stade Michelin. Things started well for Munster, who slotted two penalties in the first fifteen minutes. Clermont put together some lovely rugby to round out the half, scoring tries through flanker Damien Chouly and wing Seru Nakaitiaci. The Frenchmen went into the half ahead 15-6. Ian Keatley pulled Munster back within six with an early second half penalty, but that was as close as Munster would get. Chouly crossed for a second time in the 72nd minute. Munster managed to hang on to grab a bonus point thanks to an immediate response in the 74th minute from Duncan Casey, but they were unable to press home to nab a late draw. The loss places Munster in a tough spot, on 10 points, well behind Saracens’ 13 and Clermont’s table topping 14. Munster will need victories against Sale and Sarries, preferably with bonus points to have a shot at one of the second-place finisher quarter-final berths.
Saracens took care of business at the Allianz Park against Sale, defeating their league rivals 28-15. A week after lining up as inside centre, Owen Farrell resumed his fly half berth and played well throughout. The deposed England star kicked five out of six, missing a lone conversion to finish with 13 points. Danny Cipriani missed the match for Sale, who started Nick McLeod in his place. Saracens had two tries by the 57th minute, and looked on course for a vital bonus point. However, they were unable to convert second half pressure into scores, and Mako Vunipola scored their third with only six minutes to go. The victory officially eliminated Sharks from European contention. Sale were unlucky to be put into an exceptionally difficult group in their return to European action, but all groups have become far more difficult with the contraction of the competition. Next season beckons for Steve Diamond’s side, but they will have to make it through a crowded Premiership field to secure a spot in the second European Champions Cup.
Harlequins fought bravely before succumbing to Leinster, 14-13. Quins were missing Nick Evans and Chris Robshaw through injury, while Leinster ran out in front of a packed and passionate Aviva Stadium crowd. Early on, Leinster dominated possession, but as new commentator Brian O’Driscoll noted, they were unable to break Quins’ line with any regularity. At one point, Leinster took ten phases in the middle of the field to make ten yards, a passage of play which summed up the first twenty five minutes of a scoreless first half. Ian Madigan finally put the men in blue on the board with a penalty, and Isaac Boss crossed the line for the hosts in the thirtieth minute. Tim Swiel was dreadful from the tee for Harlequins, missing at least two easy kicks in front of the posts. In Swiel’s defense, he was forced into the position by injuries to both of Quins’ first choice fly-halves, but the youngster did not cover himself in glory early on. Swiel eventually found his kicking boots, and converted his last three under great pressure. However, it would not be enough for Quins, who allowed a solitary penalty in the second half, but were unable to close an 11-3 halftime gap.
Wasps dismantled Castres in their final match at Adams Park, giving their fans a quality London send-off with a 44-17 victory. Tom Varndell bagged a brace in the 56th minute. The rout was one early though, when prop Jake Cooper-Woodley crossed in the fourth minute. It was the first of the day’s seven tries for the Wasps, who will move to Coventry in time for their match this weekend against London Irish. Wasps secured their bonus point before the half in another abject display from their French visitors. The only gray cloud hanging over a perfect weekend was the news that Joe Launchbury’s recovery is behind schedule. Wasps now sit two points behind Harlequins and face a real chance of qualifying if they can find a way past Quins and Leinster in their final two matches.
Toulon exacted revenge for their round three defeat, comprehensively outplaying Leicester in the south of France to a final score of 23-8. Owen Williams was unable to replicate his magnificent display from the previous round. His kicking from hand was poor throughout the match, and Leicester struggled to create offensive opportunities. In a curious piece of captaincy, Ben Youngs opted to go for the posts with his team down by 18 in the 56th minute. Williams knocked over the penalty, but the Tigers were still more than two tries behind, and they never again threatened Toulon’s 22. Leigh Halfpenny was his normal faultless self from the tee, kicking five of his six chances at goal. Toulon were ahead 16-0 by the 24th minute, and never looked in any danger of letting Leicester back in the match.
Scarlets shocked Europe once more by defeating Ulster in Llanelli, 22-13. Rhys Priestland exerted a vise-like grip on the match, kicking four consecutive penalties in the first half to send Scarlets into the locker room ahead 12-0. Following their win at home against Leicester, Scarlets have demonstrated that they are a force to be reckoned with at home in a group where many considered them to be also-rans. Ulster managed to draw within two points after two Ruan Pienaar penalties late in the second half, but Jonathan Davies put the game away with a 78th minute try, and Rhys Priestland robbed Ulster of a losing bonus point by kicking the conversion. Ulster were effectively knocked out of the competition with the loss, and the Northern Irish team has lost three out of four thus far in the campaign. The Ulstermen are far too stubborn to give up easily, and could play the role of spoiler in their final two matches against Leicester and Toulon. The second place side in Pool Three is unlikely to see the quarterfinals, with Leicester currently sitting in that position on 8 points, the fewest of any second placed team in the competition.
Montpelier, Castres’ partners in abject French misery this season, went down to Bath 32-12 in their second consecutive Friday night fixture. Matt Banahan had a hat trick by the 51st minute, but Bath struggled once more to secure an all-important try scoring bonus point. It was only thanks to a magnificent inside line by Horacia Agulla in the 78th minute that the English team did not miss out for the second consecutive week after an overwhelming display. If Bath could put together a full 80 minute display, they would seem to be one of the best sides in Europe at the moment. George Ford is in imperious form, while Sam Burgess looked dangerous in his first full match. Bath coach Mike Ford revealed that had his team not been forced to push for the bonus point, he would have played Burgess in the pack for the final twenty minutes. In other notable news, Montpelier’s Benoit Paillaugue was lucky to escape a red card for an apparent tip tackle in the 51st minute, and Francois Louw made his first appearance of the club season for Bath.
Toulouse managed to outlast Glasgow for the second consecutive week, winning a cagey match 12-9. Duncan Weir nearly brought the Glaswegians back after being subbed on in the 58th minute, but Glasgow were unable to push for a try after his 73rd minute penalty that brought the match to its final score. Glasgow had 55 percent of the possession in the match, and nearly 60 percent of the territory, but for the second consecutive week found it very hard going against a stolid French defense. As one might expect, this was a match dominated by the set piece. Glasgow had 18 lineouts to Toulouse’s 13, but the Scottish outfit’s 15 turnovers eventually proved decisive.
Treviso demand a thesaurus to describe their level of abject performance at Franklin’s Gardens on Sunday. Northampton hung 11 tries on the hapless Italians, including seven in the second half. Substitute Samu Manoa recorded a hat trick between the 61st and 72nd minute, and the Saints did not let up from that point. Ken Pisi also nabbed three tries of his own, while Ben Foden rounded off the afternoon in style with a try of his own in the 77th minute. Unsurprisingly, the 67-0 demolition is Northampton’s best-ever European result, beating out their 68-21 victory over another Italian side in 2006-07.
Racing Metro enjoyed a victory over a resilient Ospreys outfit, recording a tightly fought 18-14 win. Juan Imhoff and Teddy Thomas made their way onto the scoresheet during a dominant first half period from the Parisians, before Ospreys mounted their now customary second half fightback. Rhys Webb and Eli Walker managed to pull Ospreys within a point in the 71st minute, but a dream comeback was not in the cards for a second consecutive week. Racing absorbed the Ospreys pressure and kicked a penalty after time expired to give the scoreline a very thin gloss. Northampton and Racing are separated by only a point, with the Saints on top with 15. Racing will likely secure one of the second place quarterfnalist berths, but they would prefer to have a home quarter-final, having demonstrated throughout the group stage that they are a much better side in Paris.