Well if you thought the Premiership has been exciting, this week’s European action will have you wetting your pants, with tries galore and hits that should come with an 18 certificate this weekends action really was the benchmark for all European weekends.
As usual we will start with Friday nights game at the Rec where the Scarlets were out for revenge and looking to reverse the result that came from round two where Bath took the win at the Parc de Scarlets. It was indeed the Scarlets that came out firing and totally overwhelmed the west country team 17-35 to take the points that puts them in control of pool 5. Scarlets really seem to have hit form at the right time and tries from Beirne, Asquith, Parkes and Williams certainly displayed their attacking intent.
On to Saturdays games where the lunchtime kick-off saw La Rochelle travel to the Kingspan to take on an Ulster team severely lacking in form. It was the Frenchmen that came out of the blocks firing, keeping Ulster on the back foot and having all the possession, all the possession payed with La Rochelle taking an early lead, this wasn’t to last though. Half an hour into the game Ulster seemed to go up a gear, whilst the French champions looked tired after their early exertions, and started taking the game to the visitors. After tries from Best and a bit of magic from young Jacob Stockdale in the first half, Ulster looked in control. The game was never secured though but Ulster came through to a 20-13 win to take their position at the top of the table.
Next up saw Exeter welcome table toppers Montpellier to Sandy Park with the Premiership champions needing a bonus point win to keep any hopes alive of going through to the knockout stages. Many of the rugby public, including myself assumed Exeter would put this game aside and instead focus their attentions on the league, but Rob Baxter and his team obviously had other ideas, fielding his strongest possible squad. This decision came good as Baxter’s men took the game 41-10 and showed the rest of Europe what Devon’s finest were capable of. The Chiefs looked in total control from start to finish and tries from Ewers, Simmonds, white, Armand and two from Woodburn really outclassed their French counterparts.
HARLEQUINS v WASPS
Off to South London where the injury hits Wasps team took on Harlequins at the Stoop. Again like Exeter, Quins could have been excused for not taking this game too seriously as they stand no chance of qualification from pool 1, but again, they decided to go all out for the victory with their squad selection. The first half made the decision look a bad one with three unanswered Wasps tries from Eastmond, Carr and Johnson looking like game had been taken away from the Londoners. Rather than lay down and die Quins looked to this as a personal challenge and came back at the Coventry based team as if they had everything to play for. Inspired by young fly half James Lang they took the game to Wasps and tries from Chisholm and Lang himself made the score respectable but the real turning point came with 10 minutes to go when a high tackle from flanker James Haskell had the England man seeing red. This galvanised the Harlequins team and an incredible step from replacement hooker Elia Elia had him going in the corner to put Quins within 2 points. With both Marcus Smith and James Lang now on the pitch the London team looked to play expansive rugby and this payed dividends as Danny Care darted over the line to take the full five points and a 33-28 win!
NORTHAMPTON SAINTS v CLERMONT AUVERGNE
Now, as a Northampton fan, I must admit I was dreading this game at Franklin Gardens, welcoming one of Europe’s royalty in Clermont Auvergne. Last week was certainly an improvement for Saints, taking the win against Gloucester but would this be enough to take on Morgan Parra’s men? Well, as Remi Grosso went over for a fantastic try early doors I would have said a resounding no, but all the hopes and prayers of the loyal Saints fans at the Gardens had finally come true. Saints were everything they haven’t been in recent months and took the game with an unbelievable 34-21 win. Tries coming from Harrison, Tuitavake, Pisi, Reinach and an exceptional try from Ben Foden that really rolled back the years. Although the Saints won’t qualify that win will certainly do Northampton the world of good.
OSPREYS v SARACENS
The final game of Saturday had Saracens take on Ospreys at the Liberty Stadium. Saracens really looking for a good win to stand any chance of qualification and the Ospreys looking to take the top of the table and take advantage of Clermont’s slip up at Northampton. The game promised much with the amount of attacking talent on show here but as a lot of important games go it went the way of cagey nervousness. You could feel neither team could afford to lose and that showed on the scoreboard with a 15 all draw, all the points coming from kickers Dan Biggar and Owen Farrell. This result leaves Saracens much to do and their only chance of qualification being as a best runner up. Not what the current European champions would have expected coming in to this year’s tournament.
LEINSTER v GLASGOW WARRIORS
On to Sundays games with the hope that the action will carry on in the same fashion as the previous two days. Our first game sees the Scottish flag bearers Glasgow as they visit the on-fire Leinster team at the RDS. Glasgow, without Fin Russell, Jonny Gray and Stuart Hogg, to name a few, were always going to struggle but the electric Leinster really took advantage with a phenomenal attacking performance winning the game 55-19 through tries from Murphy, Cronin, Sexton, Lowe and a brace each from Nacewa and the brilliant Fardy. In fairness to the understrength Warriors team they never stopped trying and two tries from Matawalu and one from Ashe gave them some consolation.
TOULON v BENNETON
The second game of the day saw the proverbial David vs Goliath with Toulon taking on Italian minnows Benneton Treviso at the Stade Mayol. Benneton have been in very good form of late but a lack of quality throughout the squad was always going to make today a tough day at the office and this proved to be the case with Toulon taking a 36-0 win. Tries from Belleau, Bastareaud, Bonneval and two from Fijian powerhouse Tuisova saw the three time champions stroll to an easy win. Although this game isn’t a bright point for them the Italians will really take heart from their performances this year.
RACING METRO v MUNSTER
Next up has the cosmopolitan Racing Metro welcome Munster to the newly built Olympique Yves Du Manoir. Munster went into the game 4 points clear of Racing at the top of pool 4 and were hoping to extend that lead and book their place in the next round with a game to spare. This game really was as close as the score suggests with neither team getting the upper hand and the 34-30 win to Racing has if anything, only made the final pool games more exciting.
CASTRES v LEICESTER TIGERS
Our final game takes us to the Stade Pierre Antoine where Leicester travel to Castres in what was only a dead rubber with neither side being able to qualify from the pool. Leicester’s selection reflected this with much of the team being the second string players. With this in mind I still don’t think they would have expected to take a hammering like they did. Castres, being led by ex Harlequins fly half Benjamin Urdapilleta, really took the game to the Tigers with the stand off kicking his early penalties and chipping in with a try himself. Castres will be happy with their 39-0 win but Tigers will have to reflect on the fact that they failed to score any points at all.