Battle for European supremacy kicks off
October 11, 2009
Leicester's Billy Twelvetrees is tackled by Ospreys' Dan Biggar during their clash at Welford Road © Getty Images
Toulouse 36 - 17 Sale Sharks Leicester Tigers 32 - 32 Ospreys Northampton Saints 31 - 27 Munster Glasgow 18 - 22 Biarritz Clermont Auvergne 36 - 18 Arix Viadana Scarlets 24 - 12 Brive Cardiff Blues 20 - 6 Harlequins Stade FranÃ§ais 31 - 7 Edinburgh Benetton Treviso 9 - 8 Perpignan Gloucester Rugby 19 - 17 Dragons Leinster 9 - 12 London Irish Ulster 26 - 12 Bath Rugby
The opening round of this season's Heineken Cup produced a host of thrilling clashes including defeat for defending champions Leinster and perennial title challengers Munster.
On Saturday, Northampton claimed a famous 31-27 victory over Munster in their Pool 1 meeting at Franklin's Gardens.
Saints fly-half Shane Geraghty produced a dazzling man of the match performance to steer the Premiership side to a priceless victory in a pulsating contest that was the first meeting between the teams since Northampton's victory in the 2000 Heineken Cup Final. The in-form 23-year-old finished with a personal tally of 21 points in front of England manager Martin Johnson including a superb opportunistic try on the stroke of half-time - tapping and running a penalty when Munster expected him to kick for goal.
But it was Geraghty's 75th-minute penalty which finally killed off Munster's stirring fightback, led by four penalties from Ronan O'Gara and a well-taken try from Tomas O'Leary. Winger Chris Ashton also struck twice to put the home side on course for victory with David Wallace grabbing a simple first half try for Munster after a superb injection of pace from Keith Earls.
In the end Munster were left to regret a sleepy start in which they looked vulnerable and it was not until they were eight points down that the Irishmen began to play with any cohesion and conviction. As a result their only reward was a losing bonus point while Northampton were full value for their hard-earned victory.
"We have seen Shane play at Under-20 level for England and throughout the age groups and he is a special talent," saind Saints boss Jim Mallinder. "What he has done today is to back up a number of very good performances for us this season and that is probably his best performance for us tonight.
In the other game, Treviso produced the first shock of this season's competition with a narrow 9-8 victory over Perpignan in their meeting at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo. Three penalties from the boot of fly-half Marius Goosen and a superb defensive display carried the Super 10 champions to a rare victory with a late try from Perpignan fullback Jerome Porical failing to save the Top 14 giants. Treviso's only previous victory in the past four seasons of Heineken Cup rugby came against the Dragons in 2007.
Defeat for Perpignan, who won the French title last year and reached the final of Europe's biggest competition in 2004, will severely dent their own title aspirations with ties against Munster and Northampton awaiting them. The Catalans have won only once on the road in the Top 14 this season and will need to conjure a turnaround in form to reach the knock-out stages.
Fly-half Nicky Robinson steered Gloucester to a narrow 19-17 victory over Dragons in their Pool 2 clash at Kingsholm on Friday night. The Dragons had been on course for a famous win - their first in 11 attempts against English opposition in the Heineken Cup - but the Wales international fly-half kicked 14 points with his match-wining penalty coming five minutes from time.
The visitors outscored Gloucester two tries to one after fly-half James Arlidge and No.8 Joe Bearman claimed first-half touchdowns. But Robinson proved the difference, landing four penalties and converting flanker Akapusi Qera's 25th-minute touchdown. Robinson kept his nerve when several Gloucester players cracked under pressure, yet qualification for the last eight remains open to question. They have to play French giants Biarritz home and away, in addition to visiting the Dragons and Glasgow, suggesting the European campaign could prove a hard slog.
Pool 2 favourites Biarritz held on for a battling 22-18 victory over Glasgow at Firhill. Biarritz scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili produced a man of the match performance with 14 points to dent the Scots' hopes of a first-ever quarter-final appearance.
A second-half try from Biarritz flanker Magnus Lund proved to be the decisive score after Glasgow had led for much of the game thanks to fly-half Dan Parks who kicked five penalties and a drop goal. The Television Match Official was required to confirm the score with the Englishman adjudged to have beaten Glasgow's Colin Gregor to the loose ball. Marcelo Bosch and Damien Traille also slotted drop goals for the visitors.
Pool 3 witnessed arguably the most entertaining match of the round that saw Leicester battle back for a share of the spoils with a 32-32 draw with Ospreys at Welford Road.
Billy Twelvetrees produced a man of the match display with the centre, a last minute call-up for the ill Dan Hipkiss, providing 14 points as the injury-ravaged hosts battled back from a 26-8 deficit to deny the Welsh side a famous upset.
The Ospreys had stormed ahead with tries from Shane Williams and Tommy Bowe - plus a faultless kicking performance from teenage fly-half Dan Biggar, who finished with 22 points. But the Tigers mounted a dramatic comeback with Twelvetrees adding to Johne Murphy's early try, before Argentinian winger Lucas Amorosino and then Jeremy Staunton earned the Tigers a four-try bonus point.
The Tigers - already without the likes Geordan Murphy, Toby Flood and Sam Vesty - were forced into a major backline reshuffle after Harry Ellis, Matt Smith and centre pairing Aaron Mauger and Dan Hipkiss were all ruled out before kick-off. Things got even worse for the Tigers at the interval when Anthony Allen was replaced in midfield by the former All Black flanker Craig Newby.
In the opening clash in Pool 3, Clermont Auvergne accounted for Viadana 36-18 at Stade Marcel Michelin. Two tries from fly-half Brent Russell and one each from Seremia Bai, replacement Vincent Debaty and Thibaut Privat gave Clermont Auvergne a bonus-point win.
There were also three conversions from scrum-half Morgan Parra - who kicked a penalty too - and one from replacement Brock James as the Frenchmen got their campaign off to a winning start. Viadana failed to cross the line but stayed in touch for much of the match thanks to three penalties from No.10 Pierre Hola, two from fullback Gary Law and another from prop Miguel Alonso.
In Pool 4, Stade Francais hammered Edinburgh 31-7 in Paris to sound out a warning to their title rivals. First-half tries from Julien Arias, Sergio Parisse, Pascal Pape and Lionel Beauxis ensured the bonus point was secured before the half-hour mark in Paris. Edinburgh hit back in the second period and gained a late consolation score through Ben Cairns. But the crushing loss was Edinburgh's 17th in their last 18 away outings in the Heineken Cup and consigned last season's victory at Castres to a distant memory.
Stade, who face the added pressure of being the host city for the 15th final next May, looked at ease as they flew out of the traps and rarely took their foot off the accelerator in a thrilling opening half of slick passing, flair and adventure. The bonus point came in the 29th minute when Lionel Beauxis finished off another fine flowing move to seal the home side's dominance. The visitors emerged for the second half with renowned vigour and aggression and competed well in their bid to halt the French rampage but were unable to rescue the game.
Pool 4 rivals Ulster opened their European campaign with a valuable 26-12 home win over Bath. Fly-half Ian Humphreys again produced an eye-catching performance for the home side, scoring 16 points with the boot from three penalties, a drop goal and two conversions. Ulster scored tries in either half from Fijian winger Timoci Nagusa and man of the match, flanker Willie Faloon, while a disappointing Bath could only manage four penalties from Ryan Davis.
On Sunday, Toulouse powered to a 36-17 victory over Sale in their Pool 5 clash. Vincent Clerc grabbed two tries to take his tournament tally to 30 and overtake Cardiff Blues and former Llanelli Scarlets star Dafydd James' try-scoring record in Europe's premier competition.
Maxime Medard handed Toulouse the early advantage with the opening try before Clerc's double - and then the 28-year-old French international set up Yves Donguy for the bonus point two minutes after the re-start. Donguy added a fifth try in the final quarter for the three-time champions before a spirited but under-strength Sale grabbed late consolation tries through prop-cum-lock Rob O'Donnell and wing Ben Cohen.
Elsewhere, Cardiff Blues notched a 20-6 victory over Harlequins in their Pool 5 opener at Cardiff City Stadium. The Blues, despite losing three players to injury before half-time, were good value for their victory against an error-riddled Quins side missing rested England trio Ugo Monye, Danny Care and Nick Easter.
Quins offered little in attack - a mirror-image of their poor Guinness Premiership form this term - with fly-half Nick Evans booting two penalties from four attempts. Wings Tom James and Leigh Halfpenny scored tries that briefly illuminated a dire contest, while Blues fullback Ben Blair kicked two conversions and two penalties.
There was little to excite home crowd, whose hopes of witnessing a free-flowing spectacle proved little more than a pipe dream. And Blues skipper Paul Tito was a high profile casualty after an alarming collision with Quins centre Gonzalo Tiesi that left the New Zealander requiring urgent attention.
In the other Pool 6 game, Scarlets proved too strong for Brive with a 24-12 victory at Parc y Scarlets. The Welsh region were sent to the morale-boosting win with tries at the end of each half by wing Lee Williams and replacement prop Rhys Thomas. Stephen Jones supplied 11 points with the boot, and there was also a long-range penalty for replacement fullback Rhys Priestland. Brive's points came from Andy Goode, with three penalties, and one for Luciano Orquera.
It was hardly the result Brive would have wanted, especially because it was their first appearance in the tournament for 11 years. The Scarlets went in at half-time clutching a well-deserved 11-9 interval lead, having had the bulk of possession and territory. The second half was very similar to the first with the Scarlets dominating for large periods but could not shake off Brive until the final minutes. Ironically the Scarlets' winning score came from a missed Jones penalty. The ball ricocheted off the post, before Thomas crashed over for the try two minutes from time.
Tom Hamilton pays a visit to Oxford University Women's Rugby Football Club who have recently made headlines across the world, from Tokyo to New York
"Gentlemen, if you want to see the World Cup going south yet again, you are going the right way about it," John Taylor looks at the state of European rugby
The Heineken Cup proved once again just why it is the best domestic rugby competition in the world at the weekend and Monday Maul picks out some of the key talking points