Expect the Unexpected
The general wisdom is to expect the unexpected – and we were not disappointed in the first round of the Heineken!
I finished up my predictions prior to kick off by suggesting that there would be some surprising results – well I did at least get that right.
It’s too early to give a detailed analysis of every game (as if I could do that anyway!) so I am going to summarise it by looking at the two games in each pool.
Leinster, are always strong contenders and they got off to a flyer in probably the toughest group by knocking over the Ospreys at their home ground. Both sides fielded several players from the successful Lions tour and Sean O’Brien showed no tour hangover by romping in for the only try of the game. Former Junior All Black Jimmy Gopperth converted and kicked three penalties to seal an impressive win. Without even a bonus point at home the Ospreys will now struggle to get out of this pool.
In the other group match Northampton Saints fell 19 – 13 to Castres at Stade Pierre Antoine. They could have picked up more than a losing bonus point – Castres gained 7 points from an intervention to a Luther Burrell pass. He will want to do better if, as expected he features in the autumn. Castres put up a might defence to deny the Saints who will need to beat the Ospreys at home next weekend to give themselves a chance of making the quarter finals.
I was tempted to leave this pool til last – the two amazing games produced 20 tries with the losers both getting a bonus point – not for being within 7 points but by scoring 4 tries – away from home!
Exeter Chiefs raced to a bonus point with 4 tries in under half an hour leaving Sam Warburton’s Cardiff Blues shell-shocked at half-time by 41 – 3.. Dean Mumm led the rampaging Chiefs forwards and scored himself. The Blues staged a comeback in the second half to get their bonus but ran out on the wrong end of a 44 -29 hiding…Phil Davies the Blues coach will not be fooled by the better second half performance which was aided by 2 yellow cards for the Chiefs.
The other game followed a similar game of two halves – Toulon, the holders, also tore to a bonus point in the first half – their 4th try coming after 34 minutes as they led comfortably going into the break. Cue a second half revival from Gregor Townsend’s Glasgow who scored four converted tries which strained the Toulon crowd’s nerves. Normal service was resumed though and a sixth try from Matt Giteau put Toulon comfortably home 51 – 28.
Jonny left injured before half time but will be back for the trip to Cardiff – the Welsh will be chuffed!
Saracens struggled to put away Connacht in Ireland but Chris Ashton’s try saw them home 23 – 17. They probably expected more than just 4 points when US International Wyles went over in the 6th minute. But the Irish team kept in touch for virtually all the match with Farrell’s kicking making the difference in the end. They will be hoping that Toulouse have a similar tough time when they arrive at the Sportsground.
Toulouse strolled to a 5 point win in Zebre and the stage is set for a monster battle when Saracens play host to them this Friday evening at Wembley (more than 50,000 tickets have already been sold for what promises to be an epic tussle for supremacy in the group)
Another tough group and Harlequins are already struggling – an inspired Scarlets team winning at the Stoop by 33 – 26. It already looks like Quins will be the first casualty in this pool – where two very strong French sides make up the rest of the group.
Racing played Clermont on Sunday in the final game of the weekend and managed to overcome last season’s losing finalists by 13 – 9. My bet is that the outcome of this group will depend on the return fixture when Racing head south to Clermont, although I’d love Harlequins to prove me wrong.
Leicester don’t do well in Belfast – but at least they came away with a losing bonus point from a 22 – 16 defeat on Friday night. They won’t be too worried, Welford Road is a hard place to get points and Leicester will soon have a number of key players returning from injury.
The other game saw Montpellier take all 4 points from their visit to Treviso. Treviso is no longer an easy ride for visiting teams and Montpellier will be pleased with what looks like a comfortable win – although would have liked a bonus.
If the Harlequins result was unexpected – Edinburgh putting away the mighty Munster was earth shattering. Edinburgh have not started the season well – and Munster are – well – Munster.
Munster had looked always in control without ever getting out of sight. Edinburgh were competitive and combative and Laidlaw deservedly won the man of the match – he might even have got it on the losing side. But an opportunist try from Tim Visser saw the home side home – and Munster clutching just a bonus for their troubles.
Further south and west Gloucester just scraped home against Perpignan thanks to a late Jonny May try that helped them to a 27 – 22 win. Perpignan are an impressive side and this was a good comeback from Gloucester – not just in this game but from the mauling that the Chiefs gave them in the Premiership last week – also at Kingsholm. Welsh international James Hook scored all of Perpignan’s points which included two tries and as drop goal – it would be surprising if he isn’t somewhere on Warren Gatland’s radar.
Phew – what a first round – a couple of big shocks and a massive 12 bonus points were picked up. They are likely to be important when we get to the 5th and 6th round and teams work out just what they have to do to qualify. Expect the permutations to include teams who need 4 tries and some who just need to lose by less than 7 in their final match.
I’m not going to look at the Amlin Cup (2nd tier trophy) until it gets to the later rounds – scores of 90 and 60+ make it hard to take too seriously at this point – mind you Toulon and Exeter weren’t far behind against tough opposition.
Bring on R2 this weekend – especially the battle of Wembley on Friday night!