Who can hold a candle to Toulon?
October 14, 2013
Maxime Mermoz celebrates one of his two tries © Getty Images
With the dust now settling on the first round of an eventful Heineken Cup weekend, the Monday Maul picks out some of the key talking points.
The Yin and Yang of English rugby
For the first two thirds of Saturday, following on from Ulster's win over Leicester and Connacht nearly upsetting Premiership league-leaders Saracens, it was looking bleak for English clubs in the Heineken Cup. The Scarlets ripped Harlequins apart and Castres out-muscled and out-kicked Northampton Saints.
Awards of the Weekend
But then came Jonny May and Billy Twelvetrees who managed to inspire their beleaguered Gloucester to a 27-22 win over Perpignan, a triumph which may yet breathe new life into a side that has struggled for form in the early stages of the season. Despite James Hook's heroics at fullback, the Cherry and Whites deserved their win. And on Sunday, the Exeter Chiefs produced the best 40 minutes of rugby seen anywhere this weekend to put five tries on the Cardiff Blues in the first-half - such was the Chiefs' dominance, they only made 14 tackles during that time. They eventually ran out of gas in the second 40 and were hit by two sin-binnings but still got the win and the bonus point. Job done.
Leinster start well in righting wrongs
The three-time Heineken Cup champions simply did not have an answer to Clermont's power last year in the pool stages and failed to reach the knockouts. Defeats home and away to the team who ended up losing finalists were a harsh lesson for Joe Schmidt's side but they went on to win both the PRO12 and the Amlin Challenge Cup. This year, they seem a different beast. Under Matt O'Connor's tutelage, Leinster's win at the Ospreys was opportunist and packed with physicality.
The two Seans - O'Brien and Cronin - shone while Jimmy Gopperth showed there is life after Jonny Sexton. It will not go down as one of their famous Heineken Cup wins, but it was an essential victory for the men in blue.
Scarlets' electric back line
Should we really have been surprised at the ease at which the West Wallians scythed through Harlequins? Perhaps, but not due to criticism of the Scarlets, but more because of what we have grown to expect from Conor O'Shea's team's defence. They have a reputation for being well organised and diligent but even they had no answer to that exciting crop of backs running out at Parc Y Scarlets.
The Scarlets will not go on to win the Heineken Cup, but anything they do in the tournament will be done at 100 miles-per-hour and with an easy-on-the-eye swagger. Scott Williams was superb at inside centre for the Scarlets while his namesakes Rhodri and Jordan also scored sensational tries. With Jamie Roberts crocked, Scott has the Wales No.12 shirt to lose.
The Welsh fly-half issue
How much longer can Wales ignore James Hook? He was playing at fullback for Perpignan on Saturday but with Leigh Halfpenny the, quite rightly, first choice No.15 for Wales, Hook would probably target the fly-half shirt. The weekend's matches would have made interesting viewing for Warren Gatland and the rest of his Welsh backroom staff. Dan Biggar had an off-day against Leinster while Rhys Priestland was back to his 2011 best against Quins and was a constant threat both with boot and hands.
For the Blues, Rhys Patchell was average against the marauding Chiefs. And then there's Hook. He was brilliant against Gloucester and by all accounts, is tearing up the Top 14. He has previously been fairly low down the pecking order in recent times under Gatland but even he may find it hard to ignore the form of the man from Port Talbot living in the Pyrénées-Orientales.
Those resurgent Scots
Nobody gave Edinburgh a prayer before they faced Munster at Murrayfield on Saturday. But with Matt Scott and Greig Laidlaw at the forefront of everything they did well, the Scots shocked the men in red and struck a timely blow for Scotland's European claims. Prior to the weekend's matches, Edinburgh were being used as an example of what was wrong with the current structure of the Heineken Cup. Their poor form in the PRO12 and their abysmal European campaign last term were two aspects used as a foothold for the Anglo-French argument over the unfair nature of the current set-up.
Team of the weekend
But credit to Edinburgh. They are fully aware their PRO12 form needs to improve but Saturday's performance against Munster shows there is still plenty of life north of the border.
Toulon set the benchmark
There were a few whispers that Glasgow Warriors may just cause an upset when they travelled to France to face the Heineken Cup champions. But in the first-half, Toulon put 34 points on Glasgow and bar Clermont Auvergne, it is hard to see who will come close to Bernard Laporte's men this term. Matt Giteau was brilliant for the French and such is their ridiculous strength in depth that when Jonny Wilkinson was forced off, they had Frederic Michalak in reserve. They are champions for a reason and will be there or thereabouts at the end of the competition.
Plenty to ponder for Stuart Lancaster
Wednesday sees Lancaster confirm his England squad for the autumn Tests as he announces who will replace the injured Tom Croft, Brad Barritt and Manu Tuilagi in the EPS. The weekend's games would have given him plenty of food for thought as he saw Luther Burrell struggle against Castres while Exeter's back-rowers Tom Johnson and Dave Ewers were both brilliant on Sunday. There were other positives for Lancaster; Brown was the only player to come out of their defeat to Scarlets with his reputation enhanced while Owen Farrell did well against Connacht.
He called for players to impress ahead of this weekend of rugby. Chris Robshaw and Tom Wood will perhaps feel they had more left in the tank while Matt Kvesic saw yellow against Perpignan. Elsewhere in the back-row, Ben Morgan failed to even make Gloucester's 23-man squad for the match on Saturday, with the No.8 experiencing an ill-timed slump in form. But his team-mate Jonny May was excellent while Saints duo Dylan Hartley and Lee Dickson did well. Lancaster, who is renowned for leaving no stone unturned, will have a good idea of who he is going to name, but seeing his players either flourish or flounder on Europe's biggest stage may cause some last minute changes of heart.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.
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