Playing away meant little in exciting start to Champions Cup
The first round of the Investec Champions Cup certainly delivered when it came to excitement, with several games going to the wire and being decided late, while the expectation that the trend of away teams struggling was challenged by the results.
Five of the 12 games played in the elite Champions Cup were won by away teams, and the understrength Stormers very nearly added to that to make it a 50 per cent winning record away from home with their tenacious display against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. That’s a departure from last season, where in the early rounds the home fortresses were mostly made to look impregnable to any attempt at an invasion.
It was a sobering weekend for the URC teams in general though, with only Leinster and the Bulls winning in the Champions Cup, while some favoured teams from the cross-hemisphere competition were delivered first round wake-up calls.
JACQUES’ INPUT ALREADY COUNTING AT LEINSTER
The headline game of the opening round was of course the repeat of last year’s final, and here Leinster gained some measure of revenge for their narrow defeat in Dublin as they won by seven points in a tight game played in driving rain at LaRochelle’s home ground.
Leinster’s triumph was built around a strong defensive effort, and it was undeniably the moment where we saw the value that Springbok World Cup winning coach Jacques Nienaber will add to an already formidable Leinster cocktail of strengths. The commentators remarked on how much quicker the Leinster linespeed was on defence, and that would have been down to just two weeks of input from Nienaber, who was long time a top defence coach before he became a head coach.
Although URC champions Munster did manage a draw at home to Bayonne, the Bulls were the only other team from the competition to come out on top in the first round as they delivered what can be a statement performance in comfortably seeing off the challenge posed by three time European champions and reigning English champions Saracens.
Outside of Munster’s draw, the next best performance was probably the unlucky DHL Stormers, who emerged with a lot of credit for their performance away against the formidable Leicester Tigers because they went in understrength in an attempt to get around the logistical nightmare of having to front LaRochelle just six days later in Cape Town.
Something had to give for them, and coach John Dobson reluctantly opted to field a second string team that didn’t play like they were second string in a game that was in the balance until the last move of the game.
GLASGOW BROUGHT TO EARTH BY SAINTS
Glasgow Warriors, so impressive in the URC and one of the frontrunners, were brought to earth by the fired up Northampton Saints at the Scotstoun on Friday as the English side started the trend for the weekend of visiting teams doing well.
At the same time, Connacht’s foray into the elite competition (they’ve played Challenge Cup for the last few seasons) got off to a disastrous start in Galway as they were thumped by the visiting French team, Bordeaux Begles. Cardiff, as might have been expected, were also no match for European giants, Toulouse, who have won the competition more than any other team, and conceded 50 in their away game in the French city.
Perhaps the most chastening experience for a URC team this past weekend was Ulster’s, as they went to Bath, coached by former Springbok assistant coach Johan van Graan, and were outplayed in a game where former Sharks Bok Thomas du Toit made much more of an impact for his new team, Bath, than former Stormers captain Steven Kitshoff did for his.
BATH COOKING UNDER VAN GRAAN
Bath are playing great rugby under Van Graan’s coaching and are one of several English teams that are showing signs of being a threat this year. Of course, Loftus being such a difficult venue to travel to, you cannot write off the international laden Saracens, who did the competition a service by sending a full strength team to Pretoria, but Exeter Chiefs, Bristol Bears, the Sale Sharks and Harlequins all joined Northampton, Leicester and Bath in being on the winning side in round one.
Two of those games were particularly exciting, with the Chiefs pipping Toulon away with a conversion by England centre Henry Slade, while the final game of the weekend, Racing 92 against Harlequins in Paris, lived up to the prediction that it would be one of the most absorbing and entertaining games of the weekend.
Harlequins, with Marcus Smith at his magical best at flyhalf, went ahead of the French side, who now include Springbok captain Siya Kolisi in their ranks and the former Stormers and Sharks star put in an excellent 80 minute shift, late in the game and then held onto to the lead in the face of a concerted final attack from the hosts.
INVESTEC CHAMPIONSHIP CUP FIRST ROUND RESULTS
Glasgow Warriors 19 Northampton Saints 28
Connacht 5 Bordeaux Begles 41
Toulon 18 Exeter Chiefs 19
Bath 37 Ulster 14
Toulouse 52 Cardiff 7
Vodacom Bulls 27 Saracens 16
Munster 17 Bayonne 17
Bristol 36 Lyon 34
Sale Sharks 28 Stade Francais 5
LaRochelle 9 Leinster 16
Leicester Tigers 35 DHL Stormers 26
Racing 92 28 Harlequins 31