This round of matches was always going to be one of the most intense. Round 4 is often the last opportunity to nail the points you need to be in with a chance to qualify for the quarters. Both Exeter and Saracens will be heartbroken with their narrow defeats on the road but it was good to see both Bath and Wasps lighting up the round with their crucial wins.
Unfortunately there were a few no shows from our Premiership teams with proud clubs like Leicester Tigers, Harlequins and Northampton Saints probably all out of Europe already.
Indeed overall it’s not been a great two weeks in Europe for the Premiership teams with the slightly disturbing fact that there were only two wins out of 12 games played. I am not sure what we can put it down to but there is no doubt our players have a tough and relentless league which does not allow coaches the luxury of resting key players before big European games. French sides virtually play two different teams in their league with the away games regularly forfeited with second strings sent on the road whilst the first choices are kept fresh for the home games. The Irish have a different system with players contracted to the IRFU so they are given plenty of rest and protected for the European competition.
Harlequins had a very slim chance to qualify if they could beat Ulster away in Belfast but in a pretty fast and loose game their leaky defence meant despite scoring tries they waved Ulster through for six of their own. Their fly half Marcus Smith - who is so young I am sure he just got his A level results - continues to play with a maturity and composure that older players must envy. It wasn’t great however to see England prop Kyle Sinckler lose his head in the game and shoulder charge an Ulster player followed up by mouthing off to the home fans. Hopefully Graham Rowntree, a wise old head, will sit him down and read the riot act. For sure Eddie Jones won’t be impressed and Kyle is so talented it would be a real shame if he loses his England place.
There was a cracker of a game over at The Rec with Bath quietly coming up on the rails in this competition with a fine old win over Euro heavyweights Toulon. Anthony Watson was in sizzling form and Matt Banahan chalking up an amazing 250 games for the club seems to get better with age. Bath look in a decent position to qualify in their group with games against Benetton and a misfiring Scarlets to come. It’s a tight pool however where it will probably come down to bonus points to separate Toulon and Bath.
The Premiership Champions Exeter Chiefs came slightly unstuck with tough back to back games against Leinster. Rob Baxter, the likable Cheifs coach, said at the beginning of the season their next challenge was to improve in Europe. But the two losses against the Dublin side may mean this is not the year they kick on in this competition. Exeter started brilliantly and looked like they meant business and when Jonny Sexton went off early with an injury you felt this was the chance of a famous away victory. However ultimately Chiefs were undone by the steely determination of Leinster and the boot of the ageless Isa Nacewa who kicked with deadly accuracy.
Over in Wales there must exist some real confusion about who exactly are the real Ospreys. Is it the hopeless Pro 14 team who are sitting miserably at the bottom of their conference league? Or is it the Champions Cup Ospreys who are now in second place in a pool containing Clermont and Saracens! Northampton seem to have thrown in the towel and the predicted departure of their coach Jim Mallinder did not seem to act as a spur to put in a big performance away at the Liberty Stadium. To be fair the Saints team that started was not quite first choice but still disappointing for their European ambitions to be extinguished from the comp quite so early.
After Saracens’ horror show of a performance in an icy North London on Monday they did what their coach asked and regained that Wolfpack mentality. It was always going to be a massive challenge to go over and get a result in the madness of the Stade Marcel Michelin but they near as damm did it. The most encouraging thing for Mark Mcall’s men was the defensive effort where they kept Clermont tryless. There were also two cracking tries scored by the visitors and the attack looked sharp and effective. The Sarries scrum creaked a bit and discipline was a big issue. You just can’t concede that many kickable penalties and it handed Clermont the game. For last year’s champions there is a slither of a chance that they can qualify if they win both games in January but they need to travel to Ospreys who will be nursing their own hopes of an upset. If they do sneak out of their pool they should have all their superstars back from injury by April and there won’t be any team relishing a visit from them in the quarter finals.
Leicester Tigers fans have had a pretty disappointing European campaign but there was good news with the return from injury of both Manu Tualagi and Matt Toomua. That back line must be one of the best in the Premiership with the England half backs, the try machine Jonny May and two world class centres. The Welford Road faithful will be praying Manu has now put that horrendous run of injuries behind him and they get to see him back to his best. Away to Munster was another tough old assignment although I did think beforehand that the Tigers could get the win. Penalties were again a factor and a try from man mountain C J Stander proved the difference. It looks like Leicester are now out of Europe once again so will now be eyeing up the Premiership trophy to top up the cabinet which has been a bit bare over the last few years.
A word also for the Cherry & Whites who put on a real show at Kingsholm. I was pleased to see the team play to the end and rattled up a whopping 11 tries. Some lovely play with fly half Billy Burns conducting affairs brilliantly. I feel this is all part of the confidence that is being instilled in the team by new coach Ackerman and it is getting the team in a place where winning games is the norm.
So not all doom and gloom and reasons to be cheerful. With Christmas on the horizon can I say I hope all you rugby fans have the most wonderful time and without being too corny believe me that all the angst of sport fades into insignificance at this time of the year when it is all about spending time with family and friends. Until of course the next fixture! Happy Christmas everyone!