Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Champions Cup Is Off And Running

MunsterRugby_1

The Champions Cup pool stage got underway this past weekend, and kicked off the action that will continue through next spring. Unfortunately as a result of the tragic attacks in Paris, four of the opening 10 fixtures have been postponed. But with six contests in the books, we got our first look at the clubs vying for a knock-out berth in this year's championship. Here's how things went in each of the five pools.

Pool 1



With the fixture between Oyonnax and Ulster postponed following the attacks, Saracens and Toulouse were the only clubs in action in Pool 1. This was an intriguing contest heading in, because while Saracens looked to be the stronger side, they've had a very mixed bag of success under similar circumstances in past years. Specifically, Saracens had won 18 of their last 24 pool matches, but only one of the last four against French teams. As it turned out, the English club's poor luck against French competition didn't matter much over the weekend. Saracens delivered a decisive performance, setting the tone with a stellar first half of play. With a 32-7 win, Saracens jumped out to a lead in the Pool.

Pool 2



In Pool 2, too, only one match was played, with Clermont Auvergne vs. Bordeaux-Begles needing to be postponed. Ospreys and Exeter Chiefs took the field, and the home side prevailed in Swansea. Ospreys won 25-13 in what was described by some as a somewhat-lacklustre outing across the board. Exeter coach Rob Baxter suggested that the players were distracted by the larger concerns of the weekend after the events in Paris. But he was also critical of his own side's competitive "immaturity" during the contest. Indeed, it looked as if Exeter will have its work cut out for it in the Pool.

Pool 3



Racing 92 and Glasgow were postponed, leaving Northampton Saints and Scarlets as the only clubs in action, and the two delivered the most closely contested match of the opening round so far. Northampton took it 15-11, securing a strong opening advantage in the Pool but doing so in worrisome form. Telegraph's sports section examined things largely from the Northampton perspective, and suggested that Northampton director Jim Mallinder breathed a sigh of relief when the contest came to a close. Such was the nature of this pairing, as Scarlets mounted a late challenge and nearly stole the win. The relief is also due to the fact that Pool 3 will be particularly challenging moving forward as Racing Metro and Glasgow get in on the action.

Pool 4



Pool 4 was the only one in which both opening matches actually took place. And interestingly enough, both winners secured particularly meaningful advantages, securing the four points from victory as well as the additional point for scoring four tries. Munster demolished Benetton Treviso in Ireland in a match that was appropriately termed "a purposeful maul" in one recap. And in the other fixture, Leicester overcame an early deficit to take a somewhat-surprising 33-20 win over Stade Francais at Welford Road. Again, one must wonder about the mental state of the French side following the Paris attacks, but it was nonetheless an impressive opening for a capable Leicester side that looks ready to of advance.

Pool 5



The only match played in Pool 5 was between Wasps and Leinster, and the main takeaway was that there may be a very legitimate opposition to Pool and Championship favourite Toulon. Betfair's betting section previewed the group play ahead of the weekend's action and suggested as much, stating that Leinster, Wasps and Bath would present a tough examination for Toulon. Sure enough, Wasps certainly look capable of doing so after the opener. The Coventry side delivered a beating to Leinster, winning 33-6 in the most lop-sided result of the weekend matches. Wasps are currently scheduled to face Toulon in England on November 22 in what will become one of the most interesting fixtures of the second round of Pool matches.

All things considered, it was an incomplete but nevertheless revealing opening round of fixtures. The rest of the matches will surely be completed as safely and efficiently as possible, and we'll truly be underway.

Harpin On Rugby

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