As the Champions Cup pools wrap up, Iain Morrison looks at what we’ve learned from the first stage of Europe’s toughest competition.
1 Zebre stink
While you have to admire the principle of everyone getting a team into the main gig, Zebre are stinking up the place so badly that the integrity of the whole competition is undermined. The Italian bottom-fishers have conceded 52 points to Toulouse, 66 to Connacht and a whopping 82 to Wasps…even my maths can calculate that that is over a point a minute.
2 Play the 80
We kinda knew this one already, but if we were thinking of backsliding Wasps came up with a timely intervention to mend our ways, or rather two of them. Their twin games against Toulouse were both decided in the final minute. Jimmy Gopperth converted Nathan Hughes’ try in the final minute of the match in France to snatch a draw. In the return fixture scrum-half Dan Robson scored a try in the final minute to earn the win.
3 Pro12 clubs are resurgent
The big beasts of the English and French leagues have dominated events for the last five years but the game is evolving and the leading Pro12 clubs are adapting better than most. Essentially the likes of Leinster, Glasgow and Connacht are identifying space and transferring the ball quickly to take advantage of it rather than endlessly rumbling into the opposition. Jonny Sexton’s cut-out pass for his team’s first try against Montpellier was a thing of geometric beauty. Ica Nacewa’s catch and pass for Leinster’s second was faster than the blink of an eye. Brilliant stuff.
4 Leinster are back to their best
It may be the canny signing of Stuart Lancaster or the return to his best form of stand-off Jonny Sexton or the emergence of twin props Tadhg Furlong and Jack McGrath, who are the match of anyone in world rugby, but Leinster are back to their awesome best and the Dubliners are as good a bet as anyone for the cup.
5 Finn Russell can be world class
But he isn’t yet on a consistent basis. He was brilliant against Racing 92 in Paris but less effective on the return leg when several kicks and one forgettable pass went astray. Complaining about Russell, below, may be splitting hairs – he is several furlongs ahead of his nearest challenger – but world-class operators make fewer mistakes than he does and margins are tight at the top.
6 Referees make mistakes...no, really!
Scottish rugby fans know this to their cost but few of them are as glaringly obvious as the one made by replacement referee Mathieu Raynal, who was only on the field when Connacht welcomed Wasps to the Sportsground because Jerome Garces had tweaked his hamstring. With the clock in the red numbers, Raynal allowed Connacht to kick to the corner and take the lineout from which they scored the winning seven points. After the match European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) made the unusual move of admitting the official’s error. “Hugely disappointed” they may have been but Wasps had no option but to suck it up.