The first round of the Champions Cup brought showcased talent from all over Europe. Here are seven players who caught the eye
Champions Cup rugby was back with a bang this past weekend and though it was tinged with huge sorrow at the tragic loss of a person so dear to the rugby community, it delivered a fitting farewell to Anthony Foley, a who gave so much of himself to the European competition.
There were tries galore in the Champions Cup, moments of great skill throughout and a fair number of dramatic finishes, as the competition came alive to fill northern hemisphere fans with optimism ahead of the arrival of the southern hemisphere sides next month.
We take a look at some of the most impressive performers from the opening round of the tournament.
Jonny Gray, Glasgow Warriors
The 22-year-old lock was at the heart and centre of Glasgow’s remarkable 42-13 victory over Leicester Tigers at Scotstoun on Friday night. The Warriors dominated Leicester physically from start to finish, breaking the gain-line at will, proving a wall of steel in defence and showing brutal efficiency at the breakdown, with Gray pivotal in particular to those last two areas.
Taking charge of all forward-related matters with the referee, Gray looked every inch a future captain of Scotland in a composed and domineering outing. If he wasn’t already on Warren Gatland’s mind – he probably was – then he certainly is now and the Kiwi’s selection dilemmas at lock continue to intensify.
Louis Picamoles, Northampton Saints
A lot gets made of the lack of French players at Montpellier and Louis Picamoles gave Jake White a memorable reminder as to what French players can bring to the mix. The No 8 was the perfect combination of physical grit, relentless determination and Gallic flair, as he rampaged through the Montpellier defence on more than one occasion.
His tackle-breaking and offloads, not to mention his 102 metres with ball in hand, led Saints to a priceless win at Franklin’s Gardens and it was a showing made all the more special for the Frenchman by the fact it was against his first professional club.
Joey Carbery, Leinster
The New Zealand-born fly-half looked at home at the highest level of European rugby, as he shone in his Champions Cup debut against Castres. The former Ireland U20 player showed no signs of nervousness as he guided Leinster to a comfortable 33-15 victory at RDS.
His effectiveness at attacking the gain-line as a carrier brought plenty of success and allowed Leinster to hurt the retreating Castres defence. Probably the biggest compliment you can pay Carbery is that Leinster didn’t miss Jonathan Sexton at all on Saturday.
Owen Farrell, Saracens
Another fly-half who excelled, Owen Farrell was imperious in his first game back from injury, directing Saracens to a very impressive 31-23 victory over Toulon at Stade Mayol, a stadium which has been an impregnable European fortress for the French side in recent years.
Farrell lasted the full 80 minutes, consistently put runners through holes in the Toulon defence, kicked 16 points and compacted the width of Toulon’s attack with his blitz pressure on opposite number, François Trinh-Duc. The fly-half showed no signs of rust after his extended, injury-enforced offseason and his performance will have delighted Eddie Jones, even if the Australian is reluctant to give out too much public praise.
James Davies, Scarlets
The Olympic silver medallist was a destructive breakdown force against Sale Sharks on Saturday night and did as much as he could to warrant consideration from Rob Howley for Wales’ squad for the November internationals.
Whether he was pilfering Sale’s ball, securing quick Scarlets ball for his brother and Scott Williams to work with or acting as a link man in the loose, Davies was on top form at Parc Y Scarlets. The Welsh region have a mountain to climb with Saracens and Toulon in their pool, but performances like this from Davies give them a puncher’s chance, at the least.
Bundee Aki, Connacht
Not only was Aki the standout man in Galway on Saturday, he was one of the top two or three performers across the entire competition in the opening round. He was the archetypal dual-threat centre, keeping the Toulouse defence on their toes with his running and his distribution.
The Toulouse defenders struggled to keep Aki wrapped up and his offloads helped spark the Connacht attack and allowed the province to record a memorable comeback after a significant first half deficit. He wrought havoc for his province on the weekend and they will need him to maintain that form if they are to have a shot at the quarter-finals.
Julien Bardy, Clermont Auvergne
There were plenty of candidates from Clermont’s impressive back line but the sheer work rate of Bardy was exceptional on Sunday afternoon and played just as pivotal a role in his side’s victory over Exeter Chiefs as any of the more eye-catching attacking players did.
Bardy led the game with 25 tackles and his eight carries were more than any Clermont forward not named Fritz Lee, whilst his desire to get from breakdown to breakdown was tiring just to watch. The Portuguese flanker is one of the globally unsung heroes of the Auvergne but if they have their intentions set on lifting the Champions Cup this season, Bardy will be instrumental in that goal.