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There were thrills and spills aplenty as this season’s Champions Cup got underway with wins for both Leinster and Ulster, while Munster produced a battling performance to earn what might yet prove an invaluable draw at Exeter Chiefs.
Reigning champions Leinster kicked off the 2018-19 Heinken Champions Cup in fine style on Friday night with a 52-3 thrashing of Gallagher Premiership side Wasps at the RDS. James Lowe (he really looks to be enjoying his rugby right now) and Luke McGrath both crossed twice in an eight-try romp as the home side looked imperious against a Wasps outfit that was, admittedly, missing a number of key players. It lays down a serious marker as to their intentions in this competition as they seek to become the first club to win it for a fifth time but, true professionals that they are, they won’t be getting too far ahead of themselves as they prepare for a major test against Toulouse in France on Sunday (LIVE on BT Sport 2 from 3pm).
Munster produced what could be the performance of the round as they battled to a 10-10 draw against Exeter Chiefs at Sandy Park in a game dominated by the elements. The visitors played into a strong breeze in the first half but, despite a late Luke Cowan-Dickie try, still managed to limit the damage to a 10-3 deficit at the break . They dominated the second period and were duly rewarded when CJ Stander crashed over and Joey Carbery converted to level the scores with 25 minutes remaining. Munster had the better of the chances after that, but neither side could add to their tally and were forced to settle for two points apiece from the encounter.
It was the first time that Johann van Graan’s side had come away with anything other than a defeat from their travels this season and is proof positive that, when it comes to the Champions Cup, Munster can and will raise their game. Skipper Peter O’Mahony was superb was stand-in scrum-half Duncan Williams who made a superb try-saving tackle at one end shortly before Stander crossed at the other. The result should give them plenty of confidence as they prepare to face Gloucester at Thomond Park on Saturday (LIVE on BT Sport 2 from 12.30pm) in front of what is sure to be a packed house.
Ulster produced a stirring second-half performance to beat Leicester Tigers 24-10 at the Kingspan Stadium on Saturday. After a snorefest of a first half which saw the visitors register the only score courtesy of a George Ford penalty, the home side came alive in the second period as lock Alan O’Connor, centre Will Addison and winger Jacob Stockdale all crossed to turn the game decisively in their favour, with talisman scrum-half John Cooney adding three conversions and a penalty.
Leicester replied late with a try from centre Manu Tuilagi, but they were well off the pace and deservedly left with nothing at the final whistle. However, Dan McFarland’s men may rue not securing a bonus point in what looks set to be a competitive pool – next up is a visit to Paris on Saturday to face last year’s runners-up Racing 92 (LIVE on BT Sport 3 from 5.15pm).
It was a good weekend for Connacht too as they overcame Bordeaux Begles 22-10 in their opening Challenge Cup game at The Sportsground. Next up for them is a tough trip to English side Sale on Saturday who looked good in their 41-24 dismantling of Perpignan in France on matchday one.
The Champions Cup is no stranger to drama and there was no shortage of talking points from some of the other games over the weekend either. Perhaps the biggest of all was Bath v Toulouse at The Rec and the unfortunate Freddie Burns. On a day where he actually scored 15 points, including a very well taken try in the first half, he committed the rugby equivalent of a mortal sin which ultimately cost his side the game.
Having missed a couple of very gettable kicks towards the end of the first period in a tight match, the former England back’s afternoon went from bad to worse in the final few minutes of the 22-20 defeat. First up he missed a gilt-edged chance to put his side back in front when his penalty from straight in front of the posts rebounded off the upright (I might have slotted that one myself!). However, he looked to have made amends with three minutes to go as he cut through the Toulouse defence and headed towards the posts. The celebrations began as he beat the club crest on his chest and blew a kiss to the crowd which only allowed veteran Maxime Medard to sneak in to knock the ball from his hands before he’d had a chance to put it down. It was the clanger to end all clangers! He was substituted almost immediately afterwards, the game was lost and he has apparently been subject to wide-scale abuse on social and other media ever since.
But it was hard not to feel some sympathy for him as he sat utterly crestfallen with head in hands on the sideline as the last agonising seconds of the game played out. It is only sport, after all. He made a mistake. Nobody died - we need to remember that. Hopefully he will be back soon, stronger and a lot wiser. Amazingly, that’s not the first that has happened this season at Bath. On the first day of the domestic campaign Tom Homer also fluffed his lines with the try-line beckoning, dropping the ball as he went to put it down in a narrow defeat to rivals Bristol. A strong lecture from the coaching team is called for to ensure it never happens again.
Bath’s defeat leaves them with an uphill struggle to qualify for the knock-out stages from Pool A which also contains Leinster and Wasps. Toulouse may have been a shadow of their former selves in Europe over the past decade, but this was a big result for the four-time winners and might just be enough galvanise the Top 14 outfit ahead of the visit of old rivals Leinster this Sunday . Should Leinster come away from the Stade Ernest-Wallon with a victory, it would be hard to see them not topping the pool. Still, as the saying goes: ‘many a slip betwixt cup and lip’.
In the other game, Wasps welcome Bath to the Ricoh Arena on Saturday (LIVE on BT Sport 2 from 3pm) for a game that, even at this stage of the tournament, neither side can afford to lose.
Pool 2 looks up for grabs after matchday one. Munster’s 10-10 draw at Exeter was a superb performance and could well prove crucial in getting to the knock-out stages. They welcome Gloucester to Thomond Park on Saturday who themselves will be boosted by their narrow 19-14 victory over reigning Top 14 champions Castres at the Kingsholm Stadium. A bonus-point victory for van Graan’s men would give them control of the pool, but they could be without Keith Earls who is suffering with a hamstring strain.
In the other game, Exeter face a tough trip to Castres on Sunday (LIVE on BT Sport 3 from 12.45pm) with both sides knowing that a defeat could well spell the end of their chances for this year.
Saracens look like a serious proposition this season after an impressive defensive display saw them beat Glasgow Warriors 13-3 at Scotstoun. It’s a sobering thought considering Glasgow are runaway leaders of Pool A in the PRO14 as they huffed and puffed throughout but always looked second best to a very composed and physical Premiership outfit who won this competition in both 2016 and 2017.
Although they worryingly lost both Vunipola brothers to injury (with Billy set to miss up to three months with a broken arm), Saracens look set to have a big say in the outcome of this year’s competition. They host Lyon this Saturday (LIVE on BT Sport 2 from 5.15pm), knowing that a bonus-point victory would see them firmly in control of the Pool 3 ahead of back-to-back clashes with Cardiff Blues in December. The Welsh side, fresh off a well-deserved 30-21 victory over Lyon in France, host Glasgow on Sunday (LIVE on BT Sport 3 from 3pm) with the Scots now desperately needing a win to kick-start their campaign.
A late penalty try gave last year’s runners-up Racing 92 a crucial 14-13 win at Parc y Scarlets. Undoubtedly good enough to go all the way in this competition this time out, the result puts them in pole position in Pool 4 as they prepare to welcome Ulster to the U Arena this Saturday. Scarlets have been severely weakened after losing several players over the summer and it is now beginning to show and they will need a big performance as they head to Welford Road to face Leicester Tigers on Friday night (LIVE on BT Sport 2 from 7pm).
Pool 5 looks the most likely to produce a shock at this stage as Newcastle Falcons beat Toulon 26-25 at Stade Mayol, the French side’s first ever home reverse in Europe, while Montpellier edged out Edinburgh 21-15 in a thrilling encounter at the Altrad Stadium. The Scots outfit have played some good stuff at times this season and will strongly fancy their chances as they welcome Toulon to Murrayfield this Saturday (LIVE on BT Sport 3 from 3pm) for what is already a defining moment for both teams in this year’s competition. Meanwhile, Newcastle host Montpellier in the other game in the pool on Sunday (LIVE on BT Sport 2 from 12.30pm) knowing that a win will give them a big chance of making the knock-out stages.
One week in and already there is so much to consider. So many connotations, so many variables - the Champions Cup never fails to deliver. Roll on matchday two!
Image: INPHO/Billy Stickland
eir sport will be the home of the PRO14 for the next three years. You can watch all 152 matches of the 2018-19 season on eir sport, with up to six LIVE matches every week. You can also watch EVERY Champions Cup game LIVE including ALL TEN from matchday two this weekend.