Heineken Cup hits the spot
October 11, 2009
Northampton celebrate a famous win over Munster at Franklin's Gardens © Getty Images
England France Ireland Italy Leicester Tigers London Irish Northampton Saints Ospreys Perpignan Scotland Wales
It has been a tough few months for European Rugby Cup Limited, the guardians of the northern hemisphere's most prestigious club competition - the Heineken Cup. They have had to stand by and watch the reputation of their flagship tournament sullied by a summer of damaging headlines in the wake of the 'Bloodgate' scandal.
The problems uncovered by the resulting investigation were not theirs alone but it came to light on their watch and so they would have craved the opening round of the new season like John Mills yearned for a beer throughout the British war-time movie Ice Cold in Alex - desperate to see their tournament hit the headlines for all the right reasons.
No offence to the current northern hemisphere season but we needed a refresher - a reminder of how good this sport can be and what a great show it can put on. And the opening exchanges in the battle for European supremacy did not disappoint - hitting the spot like a cold beverage in a bar in Alexandria having dragged a Land Rover across a desert.
The game of the round played out in Pool 1 at Northampton's Franklin's Gardens home where they took on perennial challengers Munster in a repeat of the 2000 tournament finale. As on that occasion, the Saints emerged triumphant with fly-half Shane Geraghty delivering a timely virtuoso performance under the watchful gaze of England manager Martin Johnson.
Bursting with confidence and full of invention, the 23-year-old pulled the strings for a battling and priceless 31-27 victory in what is an incredibly competitive pool - is there anything but in this competition? Munster are not a great side for nothing and despite not being at their best with their big names arguably lacking a little game time they almost conjured a late turnaround to spoil the Saints' party but in the end had to make do with a losing bonus point. The home side celebrated the final whistle as if it were the Stade de France in May - such is the value placed on a victory over the Men of Munster.
Pool 1 was blown wide open earlier in the day with Treviso's stunning 9-8 victory over reigning Top 14 champions Perpignan. France's best sides are not renowned for producing their best form on their travels but defeat in Italy would not have been expected - this was a huge shock. The Super 10 side had previously lost their last eight games in the competition, and 15 at home, with their last victory coming against the Dragons almost two years ago. The Catalans are no strangers to Treviso's Stadio Comunale di Monigo home having been drawn in the same pool for the past four seasons but on this occasion they were frustrated by a determined defensive effort and were left to rue a series of missed opportunities.
The eagerly-awaited Pool 6 clash between Leinster and London Irish may not have been the free-flowing try-fest that many would have hoped for but was enthralling all the same. The Premiership side's 12-9 victory in Dublin ensured the tournament's defending champions suffered defeat in their first outing the following season for the first time since Toulouse were upset by Edinburgh in the opening round of the 2003-04 season.
Fly-half Ryan Lamb emerged from the bench to kick his side to victory in a contest dominated by the boot to underline the Exiles' title credentials and the growing stature of coach Toby Booth. Leinster began ominously but they were undone by an exemplary defensive showing and at the lineout where hometown boy Bob Casey orchestrated the downfall of his former team.
Elsewhere in Pool 6, the Scarlets offered hope to fans that have had little to celebrate in Europe of late - with just one success in their last 13 European matches - with a 24-12 victory over Brive. Scarlets' No.10 Stephen Jones was one of several Welsh fly-halves in the groove which will no doubt have Warren Gatland sleeping easy tonight.
Pool 3 produced arguably the most entertaining match of the weekend with Leicester and Ospreys offering up a six-try 32-32 thriller in front of a bumper crowd at Welford Road. The Welsh side stole the initiative and led by two converted scores early in the second half but lacked a killer instinct which allowed the Billy Twelvetrees-inspired Tigers to grab a share of the spoils. Pool rivals Clermont Auvergne made a winning start with a 36-18 win against another resolute Italian side in the form of Viadana.
In Pool 2, French side Biarritz had more luck on their travels than some of their compatriots - notching a narrow 22-18 win at Glasgow. Not for the first time the boot of scrum-half Dimitri Yachvili proved invaluable for the Basque club with the No.9 getting the better of Glasgow fly-half Dan Parks in a kicking duel. The other Pool 2 clash was also decided by the boot with Gloucester fly-half Nicky Robinson delivering the killer blow in a 19-17 victory to ease the pressure on the Premiership club and deny an impressive Dragons side a winning start to the campaign.
Stade Francais made arguably the most impressive statement in sweeping Edinburgh aside 31-7 in their Pool 4 clash in Paris. First-half tries from Julien Arias, Sergio Parisse, Pascal Pape and Lionel Beauxis meant the bonus point was in the bag before the game was even a half hour old. The Top 14 giants are already slated to appear at the 80,000 capacity Stade de France five times this season and in that kind of form do not be surprised if they make that six and finally get their hands on Europe's biggest prize.
But they may find some cause for concern with Ulster finding some eye-catching form in their 26-12 victory over Bath at Ravenhill built on the kicking exploits of Ian Humphreys.
In Pool 5, Cardiff Blues put their recent league woes behind them with a 20-6 victory over a disappointing Harlequins side. For both sides the game also took on a cathartic nature with the Blues' last appearance having been their painful penalty shoot-out loss in last year's semi-finals while Quins bowed out last season under the 'Bloodgate' cloud. The victory came at a cost for the Blues but the win will galvanise the rest of the squad.
Toulouse, the most successful side in the competition's history, sounded a warning to their rivals with a crushing 36-17 victory over Sale in the weekend's final game which also saw winger Vincent Clerc claim top spot in the tournament's all-time try-scoring list. But they will face sterner tests of their credentials in the coming months.
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