The sudden and extremely sad death of Munster coach Anthony Foley cast the darkest of shadows over the opening weekend of the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup. His loss is felt in his home province and across all the nations – but the highs and lows of the weekend’s on-field action still deserve to be acknowledged.
Sean Maitland and Saracens
Only a top-class finisher can touch down a try when the combined power of Ma’a Nonu and Leigh Halfpenny is trying to take you into touch, but Saracens’ Maitland did just that in the ninth minute of his side’s historic 31-23 Champions Cup win at Toulon.
Maitland reached forward as he was tackled and grounded the ball one-handed in the right-hand corner. The officials took a long look at the replays before deciding he had scored.
Saracens’ other wing, Chris Wyles, scored one of the tries of the weekend, finishing off a move which was started by a fabulous break and offload from Mako Vunipola to Man of the Match Owen Farrell. A few moments later lock George Kruis produced a magnificent long pass to Maro Itoje and he put Wyles over on the left.
Vunipola wasn’t the only Saracens front-rower showing off some special handling skills at the Stade Mayol. Hooker Jamie George cut a superb line through the Toulon defence then offloaded out of the back of his hand to put Richard Wigglesworth in for Saracens’ second try.
The English club resisted a second-half comeback from the modern-day Kings of Europe and became the first club to beat Toulon in the Heineken or European Champions Cup.
Stephen Myler and Callum Clark
Northampton Saints got their Champions Cup campaign off to a winning start with a 16-14 triumph over Montpellier thanks to Myler landing a penalty with the last kick of the match.
Earlier in the game Clark had capitalised on a deft offload from Louis Picamoles after a sharp break and terrific pass from Harry Mallinder to score the Saints’ only try. Clark was double-tackled in the corner by Benjamin Fall and Nic White and they turned him onto his back, but still had the strength to touch down.
Montpellier’s Fijian wing Nemani Nadolo also deserves plaudits for a fabulous blind offload out of a tackle on halfway to Joffrey Michel, who sprinted up the left wing and put Frans Steyn over for a try.
Connacht centre Ronaldson landed a last-quarter conversion to put his side ahead against Toulouse and ultimately seal a 23-21 Champions Cup win for them. Bundee Aki battered his way over the line with 64 minutes on the clock to tie the scores at 21-21. Ronaldson made no mistake with the kick, having taken over the duties from Jack Carty who had missed two conversions and a penalty.
Ronaldson also caught the eye in the first half when he came within inches of scoring a spectacular try after a length-of-the-field move. The centre was stopped just short, but Niyi Adeolokun was on hand to finish in the corner.
The Wales centre was Man of the Match in the Scarlets’ impressive 28-11 win over Sale Sharks in the Champions Cup and one passage of play after 62 minutes encapsulated Williams’ contribution. He stripped the ball from big No 8 Josh Beaumont in contact then, as the Scarlets charged up the pitch, Williams took a pass from Jonathan Davies and almost immediately flipped the cleverest of passes behind his own back, knowing Gareth Davies was there. Davies kicked the ball through and although the move didn’t lead to a try, it showed what skills Williams has in both defence and attack.
Juan-Martin Fernandez Lobbe
His team were losing 28-23 with 76 minutes on the clock, so the Toulon back row could have been forgiven for not being in the best of moods. However, when referee John Lacey told Fernandez Lobbe he was being substituted, the Argentinean exchanged a quick low-five and slap on the back with the official before trotting off. At a critical point in a high-stakes game, it was great to see such a fine bit of friendly sportsmanship.
The quality of Wasps’ opponents – Zebre – left a lot to be desired but any team which scores 12 tries in a Champions Cup match deserves praise and Wasps beat their previous highest winning score, winning margin and try total in their 82-14 trouncing of the Italians.
Cipriani was the inspiration behind the win, with his quick hands, pin-point kicking out of hand and excellent vision creating try after try for the English side. Toulouse away will provide a much sterner test next week, but Wasps won’t be short of confidence.
Trailing 13-9 with eight minutes of their match v Ulster to go, Bordeaux didn’t look like winning this Champions Cup tie. But they scored three tries before the final whistle to complete a 28-13 win and deny Ulster even a losing bonus point.
Sébastien Taofifenua barged over in the corner, an extraordinary run out of defence by Metuisela Talebulamaijaina created a penalty try (more of that later) and Blair Connor ran from behind his own line at the death to score the final try.
The Scottish team walloped Leicester 42-13 in the first Champions Cup match of the weekend and it was Glasgow’s power and physicality in the rucks, mauls and tackles, and their extraordinary speed and precision in attack which was the Tigers’ undoing.
Leonardo Sarto was named Man of the Match but this was a fabulous team performance against high-quality opponents. The Warriors mean business in Pool One.
The Irish province got their Pool Four campaign off to a winning start and their star performers included Josh van der Flier, Joey Carbery and Man of the Match Isa Nacewa.
Nacewa scored a crucial solo try when Leinster were 19-11 up but had a man in the sin bin early in the second half. He grabbed the ball from a ruck, burst through the fringe defence and brushed off two tackles on his way to the line.
Carbery, on his European debut, made 92 metres with the ball in hand and beat 11 defenders, while van der Flier was terrific in attack and defence.
Challenge Cup stars
Justin Tipuric scored an astonishing solo try in the Ospreys’ 45-0 trouncing of Newcastle Falcons in the Challenge Cup.
The Wales flanker leapt and reached to catch a high ball on halfway, broke up the middle, chipped over centre Craig Willis and collected his kick to score.
Edinburgh achieved a 59-12 win in Romania against Challenge Cup debutants Timosoara Saracens and both Stuart McInally and Nasi Manu scored hat-tricks.
Rhys Priestland kicked 20 of Bath’s points in their 25-22 win at Pau, punishing the home team’s indiscretions and not missing from the tee at all.
It would be great to be able to say more about the Challenge Cup games, but as Sky Sports didn’t show a single section of action from that competition in their highlights programme and BT Sport only showed the Tipuric try, it is difficult to pick out the best performances.
Matt Toomua and Ma’a Nonu
This duo were both sin-binned for tip tackles in their respective Champions Cup matches and Toomua was extremely lucky not to see a red card instead.
The Australian centre picked up Finn Russell 12 minutes into the Glasgow v Leicester clash and upended him. The only thing which stopped Russell landing on his head was the fact he just managed to get his left elbow down onto the ground first. He landed on his back and so Toomua just spent ten minutes of his Leicester debut in the sin-bin rather than being sent off.
Nonu dumped Brad Barritt on his back early in the second half of Toulon’s clash with Saracens, when Toulon were trailing 25-9. It was a bad tackle – but marginally less so than Toomua’s.
Gordon Reid and Aaron Shingler
These two forwards had a chance to grab a bit of personal glory in their respective teams’ Champions Cup triumphs, but both fluffed the opportunity. Prop Reid was celebrating his 100th appearance for Glasgow Warriors and looked like he was going to crown the special occasion with a try when the ball came down the line to him on the left wing. However, with just a few steps between him and the line he failed to catch the ball and the chance went begging. Reid raised a smile in the immediate aftermath with a superb comedy punching of the corner flag – a definite knock-out blow.
Shingler had an opportunity to set up a score for the Scarlets in the second half of their clash with Sale Sharks. He only needed to catch the ball as it came swiftly down the line, and then pass to DTH van der Merwe outside him, but he dropped it.
Mathew Tait and Freddie Burns
The Leicester Tigers defence has been horribly porous this season and they conceded another hatful this week as Glasgow Warriors beat them 42-13. They didn’t help themselves by gifting two interception tries to the Scots when they were chasing the game near the end.
First, with 67 minutes gone, Tait spilled the ball under the pressure of a tackle from Nick Grigg when he was trying to offload to Greg Bateman and Mark Bennett picked up the loose ball and raced 80 metres to score the bonus point try.
Nine minutes later Burns zipped a pass to the left but the only person there to take it was Man of the Match Leonardo Sarto and he sprinted from his own half to score his second try.
There was plenty of eye-catching rugby to enjoy during Saracens’ 31-23 win in Toulon, but the French centre stole a little bit of the limelight himself with this season’s version of his always slightly crazy hair. The dreadlocks have had a prolonged encounter with a bleach bottle and the effect is pretty startling. As if Bastareaud didn’t already stand out enough…
Referee Nigel Owens had no hesitation in penalising Montpellier centre Frans Steyn for conduct “against the spirit of the game” when the player shouted “miss” as he raced up to attempt to charge down Stephen Myler’s conversion after Callum Clark’s try.
This crude attempt to put Myler off only resulted in the Saints’ fly-half being allowed to retake the kick, with no charge-down attempts allowed, and he nailed it.
The referee made a controversial and important call during Ulster’s defeat in Bordeaux by sin-binning Sean Reidy and awarding a penalty try against him for an early tackle on Baptiste Serin as he attempted to score a try.
Yes, Reidy did grasp Serin’s shoulder a moment before he got the ball, but the Bordeaux player still gathered it safely and fell over the line, however Reidy’s momentum took them both into touch before the ball could be grounded.
Doyle said to Reidy: “You have made contact early and tackled him. That has stopped him grounding the ball.” However, I don’t think the early tackle did stop Serin touching down, as he still got the ball under full control.
Ulster were 14-13 down at the time, so the penalty try and yellow card were decisive and, in my opinion, too harsh. I think a fairer call would have been a penalty for the early tackle, and nothing more.