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Story-packed opening Champions Cup weekend provides a rugby boost

By Paul Smith
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Despite the chaos brought about by COVID-19 the Heineken Champions Cup has filled our screens with some brilliant action during the course of its opening weekend.


With this year’s competition featuring only four pool stage games ahead of a two-legged round of 16 getting off to a winning start was an essential priority while some gripping stories also emerged.

Channel Four hit the jackpot

With director of rugby Dai Young and 41 other squad and staff members watching from a COVID isolation hotel near Crawley Cardiff seemed to have little chance of turning over reigning champions Toulouse.

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The Alex Ferguson of French rugby

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The Alex Ferguson of French rugby

And this did eventually prove to be the case as the French giants left an atmospheric Arms Park with a 39-7 success.

But the cobbled-together underdogs, whose line-up featured several young hopefuls and on-loan semi-pros, first put in a characterful display which saw a Josh Adams try give them an early lead.

And things were then topped off when 2021 EPCR European Player of the Year and  man-of-the-moment Antoine Dupont went on to inspire his team to a comfortable win.

Just what the doctor ordered for club and regional rugby in Wales where the watching terrestrial TV audience were royally entertained.


Leicester’s revival is the real deal

Should any doubts have persisted regarding the longer-term sustainability of Leicester’s unbeaten start to the season they were surely blown away by their battling 13-16 win in Bordeaux.

In exactly the type of clash upon which the Heineken Cup has built its reputation the clubs currently sitting top of the English Premiership and the French Top 14 locked horns at the Stade Chaban Delmas.

And following a tight encounter it was Steve Borthwick’s Tigers who extended their winning start to the season to ten games courtesy of George Ford’s late match-clinching penalty.

With a double-header against Connacht to follow before Bordeaux make the return trip to Welford Road, the former giants of English rugby are short-priced favourites to clinch a top seeding for the competition’s knock-out stages.


The Munster spirit is alive and well

Ronan O’Gara kicking the Munstermen to Heineken Cup success was once a staple diet for Irish rugby followers.

In more recent times Leinster have overtaken the men from Limerick on the European stage but – with COVID-19 again providing the back-story – Munster were back in the headlines this weekend.

Like Cardiff Johann van Graan’s side were depleted, missing 34 squad members because of quarantine measures, following their recent ill-fated United Rugby Championship trip to South Africa.

But they rallied to get their European campaign off to an excellent start with a comfortable 14-35 away win in Coventry against a Wasps side whose seemingly annual injury woes were further compounded by a COVID outbreak and the 25th minute sending off of Brad Shields.

In another parallel with Cardiff, the result has sparked a joyous reaction much of which centres on the involvement of young players who are usually seen performing in the All-Ireland League.

Harlequins show their resilience.

The English champions won their title with some superb attacking rugby and that approach has continued to typify their approach this term.

However, Tabai Matson’s side showed they also have plenty of backbone by claiming an extremely hard fought 18-20 success in South West France.

Castres have a formidable reputation at the intimidating Stade Pierre Farbres where they were unbeaten in the Heineken Champions Cup since early 2015.

But tries from Alex Dombrandt and Louis Lynagh plus ten points from the boot of Marcus Smith allowed Quins to hold off a late comeback from their hosts.

The English champions now face a double-header against Cardiff before Castres – who first have to twice face Munster – visit the Stoop. Like Leicester, a strong qualification for the last 16 already beckons.

Big Guns still have plenty of firepower

Leinster and Racing 92 have both logged plenty of semi-final appearances in the last decade and both of these European giants again flexed their muscles on the opening weekend of this season’s competition.

Flanker Wenceslas Lauret grabbed a hat-trick as the Parisiens showed their class with a 14-45 win over Northampton Saints on opening night at Franklin’s Gardens.

Racing ran in five tries as winger Juan Imhoff also notched a brace, while scrum-half Maxime Machenaud kicked 20 points.

Given that the Saints are enjoying their best start to a Premiership season in some years this made quite a statement on a weekend when Montpellier and Stade Francais both provided limp away performances while suffering heavy defeats at Exeter and Connacht and Clermont lost at home to Ulster.

Meanwhile Jamieson Gibson-Park grabbed two tries as four-time European champions Leinster kicked off their campaign with a 45-20 win over Premiership crisis club Bath Rugby at the Aviva Stadium.

Leo Cullen’s team face their toughest pool stage test next when they visit Montpellier.


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