10 things we learnt from the Heineken Cup openers
October 16, 2012
Quins' Danny Care had good reason to smile following his side's victory over Biarritz at The Stoop © PA Photos
The rollercoaster ride that is the Heineken Cup got underway at the weekend with a host of facinating clashes - but what did they teach us?
1. Political squabble will have to play second fiddle to on-field action
Europe's finest delivered a timely reminder of how special the Heineken Cup is and what a great asset it is for the game as a whole. No domestic competition comes close to it in terms of thrilling, edge-of-the-seat entertainment with the see-saw encounter between Sale and Cardiff Blues and Racing Metro's gutsy win over Munster hopefully just a taste of things to come. Hopefully the suits can get their act together just like the clubs do this time of year.
2. Exeter look at home among Europe's elite
The Chiefs wasted no time in making themselves at home in the Premiership following their promotion to the top flight and they look set to make a similarly seamless step up to the Heineken Cup stage having more than held their own against defending champions Leinster in their opening game. The Chiefs departed the RDS with a hard-earned bonus point and will clearly be a sizeable thorn in the sides of their Pool 5 rivals.
3. France have a midfield gem on their hands in the form of Gael Fickou
The weather did its best to ruin the eagerly-awaited showdown between Toulouse and Leicester but there was still one significant bright spot - the performance of teenage sensation Fickou. The 18-year-old lit up the game with a moment of magic that saw him pounce on a loose pass from Tigers wing Niki Goneva before chipping through and racing on to collect his own kick and claim a notable try. He certainly made an impression with Leinster centre Brian O'Driscoll Tweeting: "What about this fella Fickou. 18 years of age! Uh oh...."
4. Rash thinking will cost you dear
The Heineken Cup is constantly referred to as the nearest thing to Test match rugby in terms of intensity and that kind of pressure was evident in the opening round of European action in the form of some woeful decision making. Munster's Conor Murray was arguably the worst offender with his decision to run back a kick from inside his own 22 with his side's game against Racing Metro still in the balance. Lacking support, the penalty was inevitable once he had been snared and Olly Barkley was able to give the French side some valuable breathing space. Leicester's Ben Youngs was another to suffer as the result of a rush of blood. His decision to tap and go rather than take a relatively easy three points served as a major let-off for Toulouse who never looked back.
5. French clubs will dominate this season's competition
While the European aspirations of some French sides are up for debate with the likes of Montpellier opting to ring the changes ahead of their opener, others such as Toulon, Clermont and Toulouse clearly have their game faces on when it comes to the Heineken Cup. All three flexed their significant muscle in powering to victories with all conjuring an impressive mix of brute force and flair. On this evidence, expect all three to be there or thereabouts come crunch time.
6. Life on the Med works wonders for your game
There is clearly something in the water in Toulon or perhaps it is the Mediterranean sun that rejuvenates players lucky enough to play under it? Jonny Wilkinson wasted no time in shrugging off his injury woes after swapping Newcastle for the south of France and now the Armitage brothers are also rediscovering their best form at the Stade Mayol. England and maybe the Lions are very lucky if they can ignore such talents.
7. Danny Care in box seat to claim England No.9 shirt
The Quins scrum-half's livewire display against Biarritz will have certainly caught the eye of the England management and combined with the hammering Leicester rival Ben Youngs received in the wake of his side's defeat at the hands of Toulouse it would appear that Care is destined to claim the No.9 shirt for the clash against Fiji next month.
8. Blues flanker Sam Warburton is hard as nails
Sam Warburton lasted just six minutes of his side's defeat to Sale due to a nasty-looking dislocated finger injury. It wasn't pretty - see for yourself - but the Wales skipper is made of stern stuff and managed to Tweet a picture of his predicament while he waited for medics to realign his finger. You might think he would be out of action for some time but no, chances are he'll be lining up against Toulon at the weekend.
9. Danny Cipriani's still got game
Six straight defeats meant the heat was on at Sale ahead of their clash with Cardiff Blues and no one was feeling it more than playmaker Danny Cipriani. His failure to make an impact since his arrival contributed to the fact that he started the game on the bench but he responded to the setback with a game-changing 30 minute cameo that inspired a dramatic turnaround of events and propelled his side to an outstanding victory. But can Cips and the Sharks kick on?
10. There could be life after Evans
When Harlequins fly-half Nick Evans limped out of his side's match against Biarritz with an ankle injury it appeared the home fans had good reason to worry - their key playmaker was sidelined with their European campaign just seven minutes old. Ben Botica stepped into the breach and the 23-year-old son of former All Blacks international Frano proved a more than able deputy by steering his side home and bagging 18 points in the process. With Evans set to be sidelined for some time, the next few weeks are set to be a trial to see if Quins would sorely miss the Kiwis services if he opts for pastures new when his contract expires at the end of the season.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.