It was one of those glorious European weekends that featured upsets, nail biters and underdogs showing plenty of bite.
Gloucester managed to upset all the bookies with a scintillating victory down in Sandy Park in a game where they were on top of the home side. The Exeter Chiefs are quite rightly admired across the land as one of the best teams in the Premiership and had set out their stall before the start of the season. Rob Baxter stated quite firmly that this season was the time for Exeter to be a serious challenger in the Heineken Cup. It is that publically announced ambition which makes Exeter’s set of results in the competition look quite alarming.
It is a mystery why the South West side cannot somehow step up to Europe given their class and the pedigree that they have shown in the Premiership. The game featured hideous weather conditions which may not have helped but what also did not help was the power and game control Gloucester bought to the match. Exeter’s go to weapon never really got going until the final minutes and in a twist of irony Gloucester’s catch and drive was in fine working order.
Kudos must be given to the Gloucester forwards with the back row fiercely contesting every breakdown and local boy Jake Polledri having a stormer. Young Ollie Thorley, the winger everyone is suddenly talking about, scored a cracker. The lad is just so powerful and explosive. To me, even as a front row forward I think he looks the real deal. It is not just pace and power as he also reads the game and has lovely footwork. Eddie Jones should be watching this young man if he is not already.
It seems odd to say it, but you would now have to fancy Gloucester as the firm favourites for the return leg back in Kingsholm. Baxter probably knows his team are out, but he wants them to still try and go for 3 bonus point wins to give themselves a chance of qualifying. The Chiefs will need to improve vastly if they genuinely want to put themselves in the frame. I suspect the knowledge they are all but out of the comp may well mean they play with more freedom and could just squeak through - but with Gloucester in this kind of form it is not looking likely that they will do their West Country cousins any favours.
Bath Rugby must have been a bit put out with all the pre-match build up to their fixture which treated the arrival of Leinster in the city as something close to a royal visit. However, Bath were in no mood to genuflect and roused themselves from the lethargy they have been displaying recently to put in their best performances of the season. Missing around 7 first choice starting internationals plus both fly halves crocked- on paper it was looking distinctly dodgy for the blue black & white boys however this was a performance to savour.
Leinster are having a mini wobble now with the loss to Toulouse probably playing on their mind they started the game tentatively and never really got their game going. One of the main reasons they couldn’t was the incredible stint put in by both Sam Underhill and Francois Louw. The two flankers were everywhere cutting down Leinster’s time and forcing them to play a static game behind the gain line. England have got themselves a gem with young Sam who has developed from a supposedly one-dimensional tackling machine to an all-round top-class back rower. The weather once more played its part, but it was the same for both sides and Leinster could never really find much fluidity. An intercept tries given by Bath was the decider which is gutting for Bath, but they did have their opportunities to come back in and win the game. Inaccuracies and dropped balls stymied them but I am sure Todd Blackadder and the team were feeling just that little bit more positive in the changing room after the game. As for Leinster – I think relief would have been the overriding emotion.
Another big traditional club took on some European royalty with a low confidence Tigers travelling off to Paris to take on the rock stars of the Top 14 - Racing 92. The Parisians have now got a stadium to match their status with the La Defense Arena with its roof, monstrously sized screen and laser lighting looks like it is waiting to host Bruce Springsteen not a rugby game. The Tigers, finally fielding their dream midfield, had George Ford oozing class alongside Matt Toomua and Manu Tuilagi and looked really slick with crisp passing and handling. The forwards stepped up and worked hard around the pitch with Ellis Genge at one point making a bullocking charge up the field mowing down French tacklers in an awesome display of aggressive and powerful ball carrying. Despite what was in fact a rather fine display from Tigers the home team looked comfortable and duly cruised to a bonus point win. I am hoping Tigers will feel that back on the narrow Welford Road pitch with their own partisan crowd they could pull out another big performance and maybe hand the Parisians their first loss in this competition.
The Welsh are a conundrum. Flying so high internationally with 4 wins in the Autumn Internationals yet in Europe the teams are flagging and do not seem strong enough. Money is always an issue for Welsh sides and maybe we need to look at the big Welsh names not plying their trade in Wales – Faletau, Liam Williams, Biggar, Rhys Webb, Charteris, Jamie Roberts alone – that is one heck of a loss of star names for the regional sides to handle. The painful solution could be to reduce the regions still further to three sides but like all these decisions there may well be unintended consequences.
The Cardiff Blues could have sent a stronger side up to London to face Saracens but choose to rest a few. The team they sent, however, with Gareth Anscombe just out of the red number 10 shirt was good enough in the first half to be leading at the break by 5 points. Not apparent on the TV however was the powerful wind blowing into Saracens faces in the first half which meant the five-point lead was never going to be good enough. Add to that a slew of powerful Sarries forwards continually carrying into the Blues the Welsh team were totally overpowered in the second half. Ollie Robinson the Cardiff Blues flanker who is uncannily like his Dad Andy, was quite magnificent throughout with several steals at the breakdown and a ferocity and work rate around the pitch that was deserving of a mom award. Back home next week there is a good chance the Blues will raise their game even more and Saracens will do well to remember the scenario last year when the Scarlets after being soundly beaten at Allianz fought to a draw in the return fixture denying Saracens the four points.
The Falcons unfortunately sent a patched-up team to Edinburgh for a fixture I had thought would be a stormer. The ERC officials sadly turned a deaf ear to coach Dean Richards pleas to be allowed to bring in an academy tighthead as he bizarrely lost all three of his props to training ground injuries a few days before. In his pre-match interview Dean was furious as Falcons had to field a loosehead in a position he had never played before and Richards was also unable to have a full front row on the bench. Hmmmm. Seems to me common sense went missing here as Richards was hardly bringing in an All Black prop in a last-minute game play! Edinburgh duly won the game and it will be interesting to see if Richards has targeted the home game and will re-introduce the likes of Toby Flood and Nicky Goneva.
Wasps put in another decent performance but like Tigers and Bath it was just a bit too late. Although they played some very nice rugby they were once again lacking in attack as Kiwi import Lima Sopoanga didn’t quite find his teammates wavelength. Injuries have played a big part in Wasps’ struggles this season and here the curse struck yet again as one of their best forwards, Nathan Hughes, who had been playing a blinder was hors de combat during the match. Again this looks another English side unlikely to qualify but for the sake of the competition and pride for the club and players it would be good to see a more injury free Wasps side take on Leinster at home after Christmas and show the Irish province that the battering in Dublin was a one off.
Sub plots abound next week with the return fixtures and after Round 4 I am fully expecting Leinster, Racing, and Saracens to be looking comfortable and Toulouse, Gloucester, Glasgow and Munster to be in the race. But this is European rugby and we have also got used to giant killings and upsets so let’s bring it on and tuck in next week for another round of tasty European rugby.