Lamb on the menu, carnage at Franklins Gardens and honours even for Munster
European rugby brings the best out of every team. In a long slog of league rugby it is almost impossible to get yourself to that high level of intensity every week. Come European Cup rugby and – boy - does the mind set shift. Here you have a two week chunk of rugby where every single point is vital and performances go up so many gears as a result.
So to club fans asking ‘why don’t we play like that every week?’ I would just say you can’t! Rugby particularly with two huge components being physicality and a focussed mentality means it often takes a catalyst to produce a highly intense performance. That can be a heavy loss the previous week, a relegation game, cup final or like this weekend a European battle.
I was licking my lips at the line ups for Week 1 and I think we got an absolute feast of Euro rugby. There was a titanic clash at the Stade Mayol where the Scarlets gave Toulon a fright and heroically defended in the dying minutes to keep a precious bonus point. We had controversy at the Castre v Munster game which ended in the weekend’s only draw. If you watched the game you would have seen a slap down on the Castre scrum half which was not given and probably denied the French side the victory. There was also an intense affair in the French capital where the Tigers put on a good show against a rejuvenated Racing. They could have won the game but again a wobbly line out cost them and just a few too many handling errors. Net result though was probably satisfying enough with Racing denied the try bonus and Tigers coming away with a valuable point.
As it should be most of the games were tight affairs. There was a memorable bonus point away win for newcomers to the Cup - La Rochelle - down at the Stoop. That was an interesting result as French sides normally come out on the wrong side of away games but La Rochelle were pretty impressive. The one to look out for is their inside centre who is sensational – hard and direct but with great distribution and feet. There was also a familiar name at fly half. Pulling the strings with a great bit of accuracy and control was none other than Ryan Lamb. Interestingly he was up against another talent who is being billed as the next big thing for England. Hard to disagree when that precocious talent is Marcus Smith a genuine 18 year old wunderkind. I know it is easy to talk up these young players as Ryan Lamb, Danny Cipriani and Shane Geraghty will know but what makes this kid different is his ability at such a tender age to control a game. That means he has not just got skills but the ability to run a game. Quins are very lucky to have him and he is going to have the Kiwi master Nick Evans as a coach and mentor to make sure he realises all that potential.
One game that was not a tight affair was up at Franklins Gardens which was carnage. After the crushing defeat at Twickenham there was a feeling the Saints lads had turned a corner but it seems waiting around the corner was a giant black and red hammer. I feel the Euro Champs just have the edge over Saints who seem to almost freeze rabbit like when they face them. It’s the ‘fear’ factor and when you become a bit frightened of what a team can do to you it can suddenly turn your brain to mush and limbs to jelly. The All Blacks have benefitted from this for years where teams mentally are beaten before the whistle goes. Saints have to somehow find a way to play without the fear as the team undoubtedly is so much better than that 13-57 scoreline suggests. It would be hard to pick out any individuals in that Saracens team as I am not sure anyone had a bad game and most of them had outstanding games. The 19 year old second row Nick Isiekwe caught the eye with a powerful display in both the tight and loose and Faz after a shaky start was pretty imperious.
The game down a Sandy Park was another cracker with the Chiefs edging out Glasgow who probably deserved something out of the game. It was a massive defensive display from both teams who played with commitment and tempo. With the pool also containing the gigantic Montpellier and Euro royalty Leinster, for the neutral it is mouth watering. Exeter have started their campaign with a win over a top side so let’s hope Rob Baxter’s men can kick on from here as English Champions and make a big impression in Europe.
Spare a though for Welsh side Ospreys who are having a shocker of a season but in this competition went away to Clermont and gave those lads a bit of a scare. They did not roll over which is brilliant and let’s hope it can help fire up their season and they can go to Saracens with the knowledge they just might be able to make a game of it.
Over to the Challenge Cup where Gloucester kicked off the Euro weekend on Thursday night. I would love to be able to say they kicked it off with a win but a losing bonus point away from home is still to be cherished. The wonky lineout did not help and the lapses in concentration however I do think we are seeing new coach Ackermann putting his mark on the side and it is still perfectly possible for the Cherry & White faithful to hope the team will lift that trophy and grab that automatic qualification place for the main tournament.
This coming weekend I will be keenly watching my old team Wasps who having lost their first game out in Northern Ireland need to beat Premiership rivals Quins to keep the campaign on track. Quins however are also heading up the motorway firmly focussed on getting a win themselves. With big games all over the weekend I reckon it is time to cancel all the social plans and just book the sofa and remote control.