What a way to get over the calamity that was the Rugby World Cup in Japan by getting stuck back into one of the best tournament’s European sport has to offer.
The Heineken Champions Cup provided Irish rugby fans with the perfect cure for our World Cup hangovers as each province lit up the opening weekend en route to four wins from four.
Ulster got the ball rolling early doors on Saturday stretching their undefeated streak over Bath to five with an assured performance at the Recreation Ground. Jacob Stockdale might not have done much over the course of 80 minutes, but his match-winning tackle/interception was one of the highlights of the year, not just the weekend.
Leinster put 33 points on Benetton thanks to a hat-trick of tries from the returning Garry Ringrose. However, the real story from Leinster’s win was the performance of Rónan Kelleher who, at this point, looks like Ireland’s next starting hooker.
Munster rounded off Saturday evening in dramatic style clinching a last-minute bonus-point win away to Ospreys. Jeremy Loughman impressed for the southern province throughout. While Andrew Conway conjured up yet another moment of magic that will have fans pleading with Andy Farrell to give him a run of games in the national side. He definitely deserves it.
Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, Connacht went and blew the wheels off the wagon when they bounced back from multiple late injuries and conceding a try after 70 seconds to eke out a three-point win over Montpellier at the Sportsground.
So, four wins from four on opening weekend. It doesn’t really get much better than that. It sets out our stall and it lets the rest of the competition know that all four provinces of Ireland are among Europe’s elite.
Hold on a second though…
Such is the beauty of the Heineken Champions Cup that come Saturday evening things could be looking just as bleak as they did four weeks ago when New Zealand steamrolled us in Yokahama.
It’s Ireland versus France four times over and guessing the outcome seems nigh on impossible.
Ulster welcome Clermont to the Kingspan on Friday night in what is sure to be a red-hot atmosphere in a city where supporters are known to be extra boisterous for the Friday night lights type fixtures.
The Challenge Cup holders are having a somewhat up and down season thus far and sit sixth in the Top 14. However, they put seven tries and 53 points on Harlequins at the weekend and will look to the in-form and powerful Isaia Toeava to cause Ulster problems in the same manner that Semesa Rokoduguni wreaked havoc for Bath at the weekend.
Clermont in many ways mirror the French national side in that you just never know which side is going to turn up. While home advantage will count for a lot, this is no gimme for Ulster. If Clermont play the way everyone knows they can, they could take the driver’s seat in Pool 3.
Andy Friend’s charges pick up the slack on Saturday afternoon when they face a formidable trip to Toulouse to take on the four-time champions at the Stade Ernest Wallon.
Last year’s semi-finalists haven’t been firing on all cylinders so far this season and have lost five of their nine Top 14 fixtures to date. However, they are a side that can spring into life when needed most, as shown at the weekend when the scored 16 unanswered second-half points to come from behind and beat Gloucester on the road.
They’ll be heavily fancied this weekend against a Connacht side still struggling with injuries.
Leinster are the only province to face a side that lost their opening-round game. The signs may point towards another win, something that is hard to rule out given their dominance in this tournament over the past two seasons.
However, Lyon are five-points clear domestically with last weekend’s 25-14 loss to Northampton Saints just their second defeat of the season. They showed real character to fight their way back into the game after trailing 19-0 at half-time and they’ll relish the visit of the 2018 champions this weekend.
As the saying goes, save the best until last.
Munster are back in Thomond Park on Saturday evening and Racing 92 are the visitors. Simon Zebo returns and it is sure to be a special night rounded off with a titanic battle.
Two legitimate European powerhouses desperate to claw their way back to the top, expect fireworks. Racing may have beaten a second-string Saracens side last weekend but you can only beat what’s in front of you and they did so in style with Finn Russell pulling the strings in one of the outstanding performance of the weekend.
Russell, Zebo, Teddy Thomas, Virimi Vakatawa, Brice Dulin. There are no shortage of superstars in the Parisian matchday squad. While they may be languishing towards the bottom of the Top 14, it’s important not to read into their domestic form too much, Munster have their work cut out.
So, there’s plenty to shout about after a fantastic opening round. However, we could be back under our World Cup rocks just as quick as we came out if results don’t go our way this weekend.
But that’s what makes the Heineken Champions Cup so special and given what Irish rugby fans experienced over the last two months, the tournament acts as the perfect hangover cure for our World Cup woes.
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