The Heineken Cup returned to centre stage this weekend with the first round of matches in this season’s battle for European supremacy. For a precious couple of days we were able to forget the ongoing row over the future of the competition and once again delight in the special brand of rugby that this competition so often produces. The opening exchanges did not disappoint with a host of thrilling clashes, the odd upset and several inspirational performances.
Toulon too hot for Glasgow
Defending champions Toulon offered an ominous statement of intent with a 51-28 demolition of Glasgow in a sensational clash in the sunshine at the Stade Felix Mayol. Glasgow will have travelled in hope of an upset having set the pace in the RaboDirect PRO12 but they were simply blown away by the form side in France’s Top 14 whose star-studded squad certainly lived up to their billing. The hosts’ six-try romp was built on raw power with the Scots unable to live with the physicality offered by the likes of No.8 Chris Masoe who claimed a first half try after a textbook lineout drive that splintered their rivals. But the back division more than played their part with slick handling and willingness to play at pace reaping rich rewards with Maxime Mermoz and Matt Giteau leading the way with two tries apiece. However, Glasgow revealed chinks in the champions’ armour with a second half rally that should offer some comfort as they tend their wounds and sunburn.
The Scarlets wasted little time in erasing the memory of their disastrous win-less pool campaign last season with a stunning 33-26 upset of Harlequins at the Twickenham Stoop. The Welsh region produced a dazzling showing with their free-flowing rugby accounting for their Premiership rivals and securing a precious foothold in what will be an ultra-competitive Pool 4. Scarlets fly-half Rhys Priestland pulled the strings throughout but this was the Williams boys’ show. Fullback Liam Williams was majestic under the high ball while scrum-half Rhodri combined superbly with Priestland for the opening try – but there was better to come. Centre Scott Williams left Quins’ grasping at thin air on his way to the second try and winger Jordan Williams showed superb pace, power and spacial awareness to bounce of defenders in no space at all and some how conjure the crucial third try that proved enough for one of the most memorable Heineken Cup away days in recent memory.
Chiefs give Blues the chop
This maybe only Exeter’s second season in the Heineken Cup but they look so at home among Europe’s elite. The Chiefs delivered arguably the most impressive first forty minutes anywhere in the opening round with blindside Tom Johnson, lock Dean Mumm, wingers Matt Jess and Fetu Vainikolo and openside Ben White all crossing for tries. The try-glut was due reward for a brilliantly positive approach to the game best summed up by their opening score with only a few minutes on the clock. They earned a scrum on their own 22 and immediately set about running at their rivals. Their courageous endeavour took them swiftly down field with Vainikolo a key figure before Johnson powered his way over for the tone-setting score. The Blues, laden with talent including British & Irish Lions Leigh Halfpenny, Sam Warburton and Alex Cuthbert, were staring at oblivion 36-3 down at half-time but as is so often the way in this unique competition, we were treated to couple more twists and turns. The Welsh region added a little gloss to the scoreboard with a second half rally and while they still lost 44-29 they laid claim to what could be a vital try-scoring bonus point.
The man is a machine
Leinster have lost just three games in the last three seasons of the Heineken Cup and they will not lose again any time soon if Sean O’Brien maintains the level of performance he produced in helping to dispatch Ospreys in their Pool 1 clash at the Liberty Stadium. The outstanding openside, who failed to earn a place in the British & Irish Lions’ Test pack earlier this year, clearly had a point to prove against a side that contained five players that did. A dynamic presence and a demon at the breakdown throughout, he earned the turnover in the lead up to the only try of the game and then popped up again to take the ball from the equally impressive hooker Sean Cronin before crashing over for the score. It proved key in his side’s 19-9 defeat – only the Ospreys’ second home defeat in the competition since 2005. Three times Leinster have been crowned ‘kings of Europe’ – is this the start of another glory-filled campaign?
Is it a bird? Is it a plane?
Ulster drew first blood in Pool 5 with a hard-fought victory over Leicester that came thanks largely to the awe-inspiring skills of fly-half Paddy Wallace and winger Tommy Bowe. The Premiership champions had no intention of suffering another painful heavy defeat at Ravenhill and were rewarded with the first try of the game in the opening minutes. But back came the hosts on the quarter hour with the impressive Wallace spotting Bowe out wide before delivering an inch-perfect cross-kick. The Irishman then quite literally rose to the challenge, with his athleticism, experience and technique – jumping into his retreating opponent – carrying him high above Leicester fullback Niall Morris and denying his rival even the chance to get off the ground. But Ulster were not the only side to use the cross kick to devastating effect. Quins fly-half Nick Evans split the Scarlets defence superbly during their clash but in an equally game-breaking variation, No.8 Nick Easter scooped up the loose ball before feeding fullback Mike Brown who raced away for the score.
What did you make of the opening weekend of the Heineken Cup? Which side will be the last to have their name written on the trophy?