LOS ANGLES, CA – The rugby world should be standing proud this week after the events of last Friday’s horrific attacks in France. Seeing the scale of the atrocities at hand, every fixture in theEuropean Rugby Champions Cup was preceded by a poignant minute of silence, a remembrance of the victims and all those affected by this tragedy. Most of all, the traveling French teams showed unwavering resilience and passion, representing their respective cities and the entire nation of France with honor, dignity and courage. Rugby is widely known for its high level of off-the-field hospitality, camaraderie , and support, and the displays of solidarity across European rugby attest to that fact.
Although four of the ten games over the weekend were postponed due to the attacks in France – all postponed games having been scheduled to be played on French soil – Round 1 of the European Rugby Champions Cup proved to be just as interesting and exciting as always.
Leicester 33 – 20 Stade Francais
Welford Road, Leicester
Matt Smith, Vereniki Goneva, and debutante Brendon O’Connor were outstanding for Leicester as they rallied from an early eight point deficit to beat last year’s Top 14 champions and secure a vital bonus point.
Stade Francais started the scoring midway through the first half after brilliant pass play from Julien Arias and Hugo Bonneval got the French side within inches of the try line, with the score eventually coming from a pop-pass off the floor from Bonneval to scrum half Julien Tomas.
After a converted penalty from Morne Steyn made it 8–0 to the visitors, Leicester responded with fast wide ball from the ruck and brilliant line running from Goneva and O’Connor to put the Tigers over for their first points the game. The Tigers would’ve been three points down going into the break had it not been for centre Matt Smith’s surging try into the left corner that put them up 12–8 at the half.
Kiwi footballer Brendan O’Connor scored his first points for Leicester only a minute into the second half, dotting down in the right corner after scooping up fumbled ball from the kick-off.
Despite a try from Stade’s Paul Williams to ensure the game remained a contest and a late try from Julien Arias, Leicester saw off the French champions comfortably, especially after Ben Youngs tapped a quick penalty from 5 m out and scored the bonus point try for the Tigers.
Stade will look for more continuity from their open play and need to cut down on mistakes as they move forward, while Leicester must continue to be a formidable opponent in the wider channels if they want to move to the knockouts.
Munster 32 – 7 Benetton Treviso
Thomond Park, Limerick
Munster attained a bonus point to victory over Treviso on Saturday after a very shaky first 40 minutes.
After only four minutes, Munster were ahead thanks to a try from South African BJ Botha, who recently re-signed with the province on a six month term after deciding to forego retirement (for the lovely Irish winter weather I assume).
After having lost their last 32 previous away games in Europe, Treviso were given a shimmer of hope when Braam Steyn charged down and scooped up an Ian Keatley kick and ran it back for the visitors to bring the game level. Keatley converted a penalty at the 20 minute mark to bring it to 10–7 before a scrappy, scoreless second-quarter sunk in until half time.
Unfortunately for Treviso their attacking spirit and strong defence fell away after 50 minutes and Munster took complete charge of the contest.
Munster captain CJ Stander scored two tries for the province in the game’s final quarter, earning him a Heineken Man of the Match award. Substitute Duncan Casey came off the bench to put over Munster’s third try after a superb line-out maul obliterated the Treviso defence.
The Irish side finally got their bonus point with eight minutes remaining in the contest when scrum-half Conor Murray found winger Simon Zebo in space on the left to put over Munster’s fourth of the game.
Saracens 32–7 Toulouse
Allianz Park, North London
Whether it was the events of Friday night that took their toll on the storied French side or if it was just a lack of preparation, Toulouse was outclassed by a Saracens side that played brilliantly.
Sarries flyhalf Owen Farrell got the scoring for the home side started off early with two penalties, taking advantage of a strong wind behind him to score points and dictate the game through the use of brilliantly worked strategic kicking.
Mako Vunipola put over the Saracens first try of the game after hard running from Owen Farrell got them into scoring position. Farrell proceeded to slot the conversion and three more penalties before the half was over to put his side up 22–0 after only half an hour.
After being pressed by constant Sarries attacks and turnovers, the referee handed out a yellow card to Toulouse’s Census Johnston for repeated infringement, a blow that would send French club into the break 27–0 down after a try from American Chris Wyles on an overlap sent him into the corner for Saracens third of the game.
Toulouse knew that they needed to get the second half started on better footing, but Chris Wyles sought to dash any French hopes after he and Owen Farrell pushed their way through defenders for the Saracens last score of the game to make it 32–0.
Toulouse head coach Ugo Mola began to make some changes after seeing his side continually obliterated, putting in a new front row that began to turn the scrimmages in Toulouse’s favour. The French club began to use their bench depth to their advantage and slowly turned the tide of possession against Saracens.
The French club finally got on the board when substitute hooker Christopher Tolofua crossed over on a pick and drive, with Sebastian Bezy scoring the conversion to make it 32–7. The last half hour of the game went scoreless despite hope from the French, but Toulouse did manage to remain staunch on defence under the guidance of Thierry Dusautoir and stop the Saracens from attaining that vital bonus point, something that may come in handy farther down in the pool stages.
Northampton 15 – 11 Scarlets
Franklin’s Gardens, Northampton
The rain was lashing down at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday night as Lee Dickson and his Northampton Saints took on current Pro 12 leaders, Scarlets, in front of a vibrant crowd.
Northampton opened up the scoring early in the game through winger Ken Pisi’s break off an attacking scrum in the seventh minute. New Northampton fly half JJ Hanrahan got the afters to make the game 7–0 and score his first points for his new club.
DTH van der Merwe made his presence known for the Scarlets early on in the game by forcing a penalty after getting tackled on a breakaway, setting up fly half Steven Shingler who made it 7-3 after 16 minutes. Shingler put one more penalty over the bar in the first half after Saints winger George North stomped on Scarlets winger Michael Tagicakibau.
The Scarlets struggled their way through the rest of the first half, working against a Northampton set piece that was at its best from the very start.
After being only a point down at the break, the Scarlets started the second half off looking for their first try of the game, and found it when scrum half Gareth Davies split through a gap and hit the afterburners to put them up 11–7. Shingler smacked the ball against the post on an easy conversion and missed out on a vital two points.
It was no longer than Scarlets had the lead when Northampton drove down the field and clawed it back, utilising a superior set piece line out and driving maul to smash through the Scarlet defence, with prop Alex Waller putting over the try. Flyhalf JJ Hanrahan missed the touchline conversion but put one more penalty through for the Saints before the games and, giving Northampton the four point victory and the Scarlets a useful losing bonus point.
Leinster 6 – 33 Wasps
RDS Arena, Dublin
Leinster were absolutely atrocious against a strong, well-prepared Wasps side that came to Dublin with every intention of leaving with all four points.
The Wasps opened the scoring through a penalty kicks by fly half Ruaridh Jackson that came from a Jack McGrath infringement at the scrum. Johnny Sexton brought the game level only five minutes later after the Wasps were caught off side on a Leinster counter-attack.
Wasps hooker Carlo Festuccia gave up two penalties in succession to give Leinster the opportunity for a six point lead, but Sexton missed one and only put the hosts up 6–3, only to be cancelled out by another Jackson penalty and a 50 meter Elliot Daily penalty to put the visitors ahead.
Wasps’ winger Christian Wade scored the first try of the game after Leinster winger Dave Kearney fumbled around in defence and allowed a kick to bounce up and over his head, eventually bouncing straight into the hands of Wade who scooped the ball and scored. Jackson then converted the conversion from the touchline to put the wasps ahead by 10 points in the space of 10 minutes.
It only got worse for Leinster from there, starting in the second half with an easy giveaway to Wasps scrum-half Joe Simpson who easily dotted down for the Wasps’ second score of the game to put them ahead 23–6 after the conversion.
Leinster’s attempts to draw back the highflying Wasps were marred by mistakes and poor decisions, allowing the London team to sit in relative comfort. To add insult to injury for the Irish province, Wasps’ fullback Charles Piutau scored a try at the end of regulation to make it a convincing 33–6 victory for the London side.
This will be a game Leinster fans will want to quickly forget.
Ospreys 25 – 13 Exeter
Liberty Stadium, Swansea
In front of a 7000+ crowd at the Liberty Stadium in Swansea, the real story of Round 1’s final match was Dan Biggar who compiled 20 of the Ospreys’ 25 points in an excellent display of kicking ability that we saw in his work for Wales at the World Cup.
The opening quarter of the game was all slanted in the Ospreys favour as they pressured Exeter consistently, eventually forcing the Chiefs to give away two penalties, both of which Biggar easily slotted over the bar to put the Ospreys ahead 6–0.
It wasn’t until the 25th minute that the Chiefs on the board following a Gareth Steenson penalty that breathed new life into the south England side. After a Luke Cowan-Dickie try was called back for a knock on, the Chiefs finally got on with the try after James Short run around his opposite wing for the score to make it 10–6 at the half.
The second half effort from the Chiefs was ruined by a slew of errors and miss opportunities that allowed the boot of Dan Biggar to bring the Ospreys into the driving seat. Two penalties and a drop goal by the 55th minute put the hosts ahead 12–10 before Fijian centre Josh Matavesi scored the Osprey’s first try after intercepting a hospital pass between the two Chiefs centres.
Exeter had no reply to Biggar’s boot and ended up succumbing to a 25–13 loss in their first Champions Cup game of the year.
Now let’s look at the how our expert panel performed. It was far from an optimum opening weekend with four games postponed due to the Paris Terror Attacks. As a result the pick review sheet will have a yellow highlight noting that the game was postponed. So it left 6 games to pick from and see who won this week.
Blaber: 4-2, with the mild shame of getting the Pick of the Week wrong. An ugly Northampton victory cost him the PoW and the poor performance by two road teams Exeter and Toulouse gave him the two losses.
Harrington: 4-2, with a postponed Pick of the Week. He backed a Toulouse side that was in good form in the Top14 and paid for it and picked Leinster to win at home which made sense on paper but sdaly not on the field.
JWB: 4-2, with the mild shame of getting the Pick of the Week wrong. Champions Cup new boys Exeter disappointed a couple of experts including JWB. Meanwhile Leinster disappointed everybody but Mssr. Blaber.
Frechette: 3-3, with a postponed Pick of the Week. Like Mssr. Blaber, Mssr. Frechette was hurt by the performance of the two road sides Toulouse and Exeter. However, the utter failure of Leinster to show up at home was the big difference in Frechette not making it a 4 way tie for first place.
Yeats: 3-3, with the bonus of getting the Pick of the Week right. Yeats’ all-Ireland selections ended with him going 1-1 however he decision to actually use his head and not his heart and pick Northampton was a positive. However Yeats backed two French sides against English sides for obvious reasons and went 0-2 and that is why he ended up with a .500 record for the week.
Nelson: 2-4, with the bonus of getting the Pick of the Week right. Mssr. Nelson like almost everybody else was let down by Leinster. He backed the Top14 champs Stade Francias to win on the road and got it wrong. Those two wrong calls were compounded by Scarlets falling short and Exeter under-performing.
Round 1 is in the books and there is a long way to go. Anything can happen, so we will see if any of the early leaders can keep up the pace. Stay tuned, don’t blink and the RWU Expert Panel will have picks ready for round two this weekend.
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