The penultimate round of the European Rugby Champions Cup brought contrasting fortunes for some of the tournament’s front-runners.
Leinster kept up their recent dominance with an emphatic win over Glasgow Warriors, Exeter Chiefs routed Montpellier to resuscitate their hopes of qualifying and Clermont slipped to a surprising defeat to Northampton Saints, potentially making their route through the knockout rounds that bit more testing.
We rounded up the XV that impressed us the most over the past three days, but do you agree?
- Rhys Patchell, Scarlets
The late change to the Scarlets line-up that saw Patchell drop to 15 to cover the injured Leigh Halfpenny looks like a stroke of luck in retrospect, with the playmaker proving the perfect complement to young Dan Jones at fly-half. Whenever Scarlets were able to generate quick ball, they had either Patchell or Jones ready to pull the strings and the Bath defence just couldn’t cope with the tempo and ingenuity of the Patchell-led back line.
- James Lowe, Leinster
The Kiwi had a fine European debut, scything open his former coach’s side in Dublin, just seeing him pip Josua Tuisova, who also had a superb showing on Sunday afternoon. The interplay between Lowe, Jonathan Sexton, Isa Nacewa and Jordan Larmour was a joy to watch and the sky would look to be the limit for the Leinster back three as they continue to grow together.
- Hadleigh Parkes, Scarlets
Chris Farrell was close, Thomas Combezou was closer, but even with the Scarlets back line decimated by injuries, Parkes was still able to spearhead a unit that tormented Bath, shining both as a ball-carrier and a support-runner. He was able to constantly find gaps and doglegs in the Bath defensive line and put down a big marker ahead of the Six Nations.
- Isa Nacewa, Leinster
The PRO14 dominance of this back line continues, with the Fijian’s biggest challenge coming from the Scarlets’ Scott Williams. Age doesn’t seem to affect Nacewa, whose versatility has been such a valuable weapon for Leinster over the years and never more so than this season. As a distributor and a runner, he had his way with the Glasgow defence.
- Olly Woodburn, Exeter Chiefs
It was a showcase in clinical finishing from Woodburn, who scored two tries in Exeter’s 41-10 victory over Montpellier. In addition to his brace of tries, Woodburn was also his usual reliable self in defence and in the aerial game, as well as never giving the South African midfield of Frans Steyn and Jan Serfontein any sniff of unleashing rapid wing Gaby Ngandebe.
Munster’s Keith Earls was also in fine form.
"That is a world class finish!"
Olly Woodburn scores his second try of the game in absolutely incredible style!
Just look at that finish… and it was the bonus point! ? pic.twitter.com/YiW8AisfdJ
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) January 13, 2018
- Christian Lealiifano, Ulster
The Australian bid farewell to the Kingspan Stadium in the perfect fashion, guiding Ulster to an impressive victory over La Rochelle. Both Anthony Belleau and Sexton had fine showings from the fly-half position in their respective games, but were given slightly easier rides by their packs in one-sided affairs, whereas Lealiifano was pivotally involved in gifting Ulster the advantage over the French side.
- Danny Care, Harlequins
Maxime Machenaud went well in Paris, whilst Gareth Davies had his way at the Rec, but Care sparked an almighty Harlequins comeback at the Stoop. His passing, kicking, running and tempo was all high standard and whilst the balance of him spelling Ben Youngs for England is unlikely to be tinkered with, the Harlequin could not be doing any more this season to earn the starting spot.
- Dany Priso, La Rochelle
La Rochelle might have been on the losing end of the result in Belfast on Saturday afternoon, but Priso put in a dominant effort at the scrum. He kept himself busy in the loose, too, but it was the dissection of Rodney Ah You at the set-piece that really stood out.
- Ken Owens, Scarlets
A mention here for Dylan Hartley, who put recent criticism behind him to have a very solid outing in Northampton’s win over Clermont, but Owens was the unheralded spark behind Scarlets’ clinical drubbing of Bath. In addition to a fine showing at the set-piece, Owens also carried strongly in the tight, laying the platform for the region’s scything play in the wider channels.
- Uini Atonio, La Rochelle
Atonio was part of the destructive La Rochelle scrum that tore into Ulster at the Kingspan and it was comfortably the standout set-piece unit of the weekend, even in defeat. Stephen Archer went well for Munster, whilst Ben Tameifuna made his presence known at the contact area in that same game, but neither turned in as imposing of a performance as Atonio.
- Tadhg Beirne, Scarlets
The Irishman may be Munster-bound at the end of the season, but he turned in an immaculate performance at the Rec to keep alive the Scarlets’ European title hopes this season. An ankle-breaking step sent the lock in for a well-deserved try in the first half, but it was his constant success as a carrier, breakdown operator and linkman that really saw him stand out in round five.
Trademark @scarlets_rugby ?
"From one side of Bath to the other!"
That's one of the tries of the season ? pic.twitter.com/qh21sN88Vy
— Rugby on BT Sport (@btsportrugby) January 12, 2018
- Scott Fardy, Leinster
Exeter’s Mitch Lees deserves a shout, but the nod goes to Fardy, who capped his excellent performance against Glasgow with two tries. The tries were just reward for his industrious outing at the RDS and added welcome gloss to 80 minutes of keeping everything tidy and organised for Leinster.
- Dave Ewers, Exeter Chiefs
James Chisholm was a big part of Harlequins’ impressive comeback against Wasps, but Ewers put down quite the marker for Eddie Jones ahead of the Six Nations. His carrying stood out, overpowering Montpellier in the tight, an area where they usually exert their will on opponents. He helped generate quick ball for Exeter, too, with smart, accurate clearing at the breakdown.
- James Davies, Scarlets
Chris Cloete and Yannick Nyanga both flashed in Paris but neither quite matched the 73-minute effort that Davies put in at the Rec. It’s hard to imagine the clamours for Davies to get a Wales call-up could get any louder, but with performances like this one in Europe, they inevitably will. In terms of consistency at the breakdown, there is no more proficient operator in the northern hemisphere on current form.
- Zach Mercer, Bath
Sam Simmonds, Alex Tulou and Nizaam Carr all put their hands with noteworthy performances and it might seem odd to go with Mercer, who was part of a well-beaten Bath side. Mercer was a man apart in the Bath pack on Friday night, though, consistently breaking the gain-line and until James Phillips arrived, he was the only Bath forward to do so. A couple of handling errors early didn’t shake his confidence and he battled, with plenty of success, throughout the game, even when Scarlets had the result wrapped up.
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