Heineken Cup hits the spot time and time again
November 14, 2011
Munster's Ronan O'Gara celebrates clinching a memorable victory for his side at Thomond Park © Getty Images
If you needed a reminder that the Heineken Cup is the most thrilling club competition in the world then Europe's finest obliged with a series of enthralling clashes as this season's competition kicked off over the weekend.
As reports of disquiet among leading sides apparently concerned that the tournament is not maximising its financial potential hit the newsstands, the Heineken Cup did what it does best by serving up a feast of drama and excitement and the kind of intensity normally reserved for the latter stages of a Rugby World Cup. So absorbing was the fervour that you had to remind yourself that this was the opening round of the competition and not the do-or-die desperation that accompanies the climax of the Pool stages. As a result, any fan feeling a little weary in the wake of the sport's recent showpiece in New Zealand will have been immediately refreshed by the tournament that reaches where others seem simply unable to reach.
Leading the way, not for the first time, were Munster who wrote another famous chapter into their rich European history with a simply sensational final flourish in the hypnotic confines of their Thomond Park home. Northampton were the visitors, or victims, who were cruelly despatched by veteran fly-half Ronan O'Gara at the end of a pulsating encounter. The Saints more than played their part in the game and were on course for an historic victory - only Leicester have won a Heineken Cup game in Limerick - until Munster conjured an epic final rally with the clock run down that totalled 41 phases and finished with a superb long-range drop goal from O'Gara. The losing bonus point will be of little consolation to a Northampton side who will never get a better chance to claim a famous win. It should be of little surprise to learn two-time winners Munster put some indifferent league form behind them on their return to the European stage but they still trail Scarlets in Pool 1 who claimed an equally impressive victory over in-form Castres at Parc Y Scarlets.
Glasgow's last gasp win against Bath in their Pool 3 game at Firhill also had pulses racing but instead of the long drawn out agony inflicted across the Irish Sea, their triumph was sealed in the blink of an eye and relied heavily on good fortune rather than the brutal efficiency boasted by the Munster pack. The boot of fly-half Tom Heathcote and high-profile signing Stephen Donald appeared to have steered a far from impressive Bath to an opening round win but they were made to pay for their shortcomings by a vicious twist in the tale. Chasing the game with time running out, Glasgow No.10 Duncan Weir saw a drop goal attempt blocked but it fell kindly for lock Richie Gray who ended a week during which he announced his intention to leave the club with a try under the posts that stunned Bath and sparked delirium among home fans that had seen their side notch the only two tries of the game.
The victory puts the Scots in control of the Pool after defending champions Leinster were forced to dig deep themselves to just secure a share of the spoils in their clash with Montpellier at the Stade de la Mosson. Fly-half Jonathan Sexton, the province's match-winner in last season's final, stepped up to land a crucial penalty amid a chorus of boos to save Leinster's blushes.
As it was, only one French side laid claim to a victory over the weekend and unsurprisingly it was four-time winners Toulouse who prevented the drought - although there was a fair amount of controversy surrounding their comeback win against Gloucester. Fullback Clement Poitrenaud crossed for a late try after what looked to be a forward pass from Timoci Matanavou to give his side a priceless advantage in a rollercoaster of a match. Gloucester looked set to steal it after a second half try from eye-catching centre Henry Trinder, who formed a dangerous partnership with a revitalised Mike Tindall keen to prove a point having been given the boot by England earlier this week, but it was not to be. They should take plenty of belief from the game but they are now playing catch up in Pool 6 with Harlequins setting the pace after they saw off a battling performance by competition newcomers Connacht at The Stoop.
Cardiff Blues produced arguably the best showing on the road with what will surely prove to be an invaluable victory over Racing Metro in Colombes. The Blues denied their hosts a foothold in the game with tries from prop Tau Filise and winger Alex Cuthbert and the boot of Dan Parks carrying them to a deserved win that was marred by a broken leg for lock James Down. Hot on their heels in Pool 2 are Edinburgh who notched an impressive win of their own against London Irish with replacement Greg Laidlaw delivering the knockout blow.
Premiership champions Saracens launched their latest assault on Europe's top prize with the biggest win of the weekend against Treviso at Vicarage Road. The hosts' five tries to two victory had Owen Farrell's finger prints all over it with the rising star bagging 22 of his side's points. But they are unlikely to get everything their own way in Pool 5 after the Ospreys back up their strong early season form with a notable success against Biarritz in Swansea. The unswerving accuracy of fly-half Dan Biggar proved to be the key to their success with the playmaker landing seven penalties and a conversion.
Leicester Tigers returned to winning ways by sweeping Aironi aside as expected in their Pool 4 meeting in Viadana but their failure to bag a bonus point against the PRO12's basement side in what is set to be a keenly contest Pool may come back to haunt them. As a result only points difference separates them from Ulster who came from behind to beat Clermont Auvergne thanks largely to the efforts of fly-half Ian Humphreys who scored all of his side's points at a raucous Ravenhill.
You've got just enough time to catch your breath before we do it all again this weekend.
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Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.
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