Monday December 10th 2018
The Champions Cup served up another intoxicating blend of shock results, controversial moments and daring feats of individual brilliance during a high-octane weekend. There were famous wins for some big names, but others suffered disappointing defeats and find themselves on the brink of an early elimination. Here are the five key talking points from the third round of Heineken Cup group games:
Exeter’s campaign lies in tatters
The Chiefs are all but out of Europe after a shock defeat at the hands of Gloucester left them winless after three games and rock bottom of Pool 2. Exeter may be on fire in the Premiership, with eight wins from nine games, but they cannot seem to crack Europe. They enjoy a 12-point lead over third placed Gloucester in the Premiership table, having battered them at Sandy Park a fortnight ago, but they slumped to a 27-19 home defeat on Saturday. They were undone by the brilliance of Ollie Thorley, who thrived in treacherous conditions, and Gloucester were deserved winners with tries from Willi Heinz, Jaco Visagie and Ben Morgan. Munster lead the way on 11 points after they thrashed Castres 30-5, while Gloucester now have eight points, Castres are on five and Exeter are all but eliminated. They still face tricky away trips to Munster and Gloucester and Rob Baxter will have to go back to the drawing board in a bid to figure out the Champions Cup.
Toulouse show no signs of losing
Few were expecting Toulouse to lose away at Wasps, and the French powerhouse duly delivered by battling to a 24-16 victory thanks to a fine second half performance. The French team were physical and clinical inside the Ricoh Arena and that will give them great confidence ahead of the reverse fixture next weekend. Toulouse are now one of just three teams to enjoy a 100% record in this season’s Champions Cup, alongside Saracens and Racing 92, and they are sure to be a popular choice in the Sporting Index Outright Index for victory in this competition. Leinster and Saracens remain the favourites, but Racing 92 and Toulouse look like intriguing dark horses in this competition as they keep securing impressive victories.
Leinster back in business
Bath’s hopes of progressing in this competition also ended on a damp afternoon at the Rec as Leinster proved too strong for Todd Blackwater’s troops. They decided to confiscate 1,500 Leinster flags on supposed health and safety grounds, but that could not dampen the enthusiasm of the Irish team’s supporters as they celebrated a crucial victory. The defending champions suffered a bruising 28-27 defeat in Toulouse in their previous game, but they are now back in business after grinding out a win thanks to an interception try from Ireland winger Jordan Lamour. He seized a long pass from James Wilson of Bath and ran almost half the length of the pitch to cross for the key try. The Leinster defence held strong on this dark, blustery afternoon, with James Ryan looking particularly impressive, and the team showed why they are the favourites to win this tournament for a fifth time this season.
Scotland the brave
No Scottish team has ever lifted the Heineken Cup, but Edinburgh and Glasgow Warriors should both head into the knockout stage of the competition surging with confidence. Edinburgh took advantage of the Falcons’ injury problems to secure a thumping 31-13 win on Friday night and that leaves them top of Pool 5. They will relish the return fixture in the Scottish capital after their sizeable international contingent returned to action and overwhelmed Newcastle in the second half. The English RFU is now apparently considering head coach Richard Cockerill as a replacement for Eddie Jones after his impressive tenure there. Meanwhile, Glasgow bolstered their chances of reaching the knockout stage by securing a strong bonus-point victory in Lyon, courtesy of two tries from Adam Ashe and further scores from George Horne, Stuart Hogg and Huw Jones. Glasgow were rewarded for their attacking intent and they can approach the rest of their campaign with optimism.
Saracens give Cardiff the blues
Saracens displayed their remarkable strength in depth as they extended their unbeaten run to 21 matches with a routine victory over Cardiff Blues. Mako Vunipola returned to action, but Saracens were shorn of the services of George Kruis, Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje, yet they still scored seven tries and blew the opposition away. Director of rugby Mark McCall is a hard taskmaster and he told BBC Radio 5 Live: “We are where we want to be in terms of the tables, but we aren’t where we want to be in terms of our performance. We have had glimpses, but we have a lot of work to do still.” They are in ominous form, but comments like that should strike fear into the hearts of their rivals, as this team still has the potential to generate a massive improvement in performance levels. Write Saracens off at your peril in this competition.