Big statements in Europe could change up URC look
NEWS: The United Rugby Championship, set to resume this week, might have a whole new look as some teams have made dramatic statements in Europe which could make their re-entry in a quite different space to where they were before the break.
The Stormers kingpin and now Springbok squad member Deon Fourie said it before his team’s first game – the Champions Cup is a special competition because the teams pull out all the stops, invariably go in with full-strength sides, and the players raise their games.
He based that view on his experience picked up in his five years playing for the French club, Lyon.
That phenomenon of the competition taking some to a different level was very much on view this past weekend, with some of the overseas URC teams making quite dramatic statements that should both impact positively on their own confidence and change outside perception of them.
And no team did that more dramatically than the Welsh entrants in the elite Champions Cup, the Ospreys.
Watching the Ospreys outplay the French champions Montpellier away from home made it almost impossible not to shout out at the television – “Hey, who are these guys, I haven’t seen them before?”
We have seen them before.
They are the team lagging in the 14th position on the URC log at the halfway point. They drew with the champion Stormers on an inclement night in Swansea, otherwise, their pickings from the current URC season have been lean indeed.
At this rate, their chances of getting back into the Champions Cup next year are virtually zero. They need to finish in the top eight to qualify or be the Welsh Shield champions, which is how they got into this season’s edition of the Champions Cup. Both objectives are far away at present.
Yet against Montpellier, they cooked, and their 11-point win flattered the French team. It was the Ospreys who were pressing for the bonus point try in the end and it completed a game where they thoroughly underlined just how good they could be if they were at full strength and focused each week.
It was a good weekend for Welsh clubs in the Challenge Cup too, with Scarlets delivering a rugby lesson to the Cheetahs in Parma, thus underlining the difference between being part of the URC and not being part of it.
For the Scarlets are even worse off on the log than Ospreys are – they are 15th, just one ahead of Zebre. The Dragons went down narrowly at home to the French club, Pau, but Cardiff thrashed Newcastle away to complete a 75 percent success rate for Welsh clubs from the weekend of European competition.
Whether that translates to a resurgence for them in the URC will be known in the coming weeks, where there will be a series of derbies over the festive period. What we do know is that Munster started a resurgence before the end of the last phase of the URC, and they have carried that into the Champions Cup.
The Irish provinces tend to lift themselves for games in Europe and have often punched above their weight. They sent out the message that they are still dreaming of European glory with the grit they showed in beating Northampton Saints away on Sunday. It was a game of two halves – in the first Munster showed the improvements they have made to their attacking game, in the second they produced a staunch defensive effort against a Saints team that camped on their line for long periods.
That there were no points scored in the second half was as much a testament to the Munster defensive effort as it was to the error rate of opponents who just couldn’t get their power game to click for them in the vibrant atmosphere that increasingly became enveloped in frustration at Northampton’s home ground of Franklin’s Gardens.
Munster only lost to mighty Toulouse by five points in their home game the week before, something that made the away win even more of an imperative for the Limerick based team, so they will return to the URC, where they are steadily climbing the log, in a buoyant mood.
That’s also the mood that Edinburgh should bring back to the competition after following up their away losing bonus point against Saracens the previous week with a highly impressive 31-20 home win at the DAM Health Stadium over the French club, Castres.
URC leaders and now Champions Cup pool leaders Leinster did what was expected of them when they hammered Gloucester 57-0, with the small print being that Gloucester sent an understrength team for this away game. But it was a weekend where the other Irish province, Ulster, had the pressure further piled on them as they followed up their big loss away the previous week with a loss at home to the Champions Cup title holders, LaRochelle. Dan McFarland’s team did put up a more spirited effort and they had a losing bonus point to cling to following a seven point defeat.
Among the local teams, it was the Sharks who ended the fortnight of Champions Cup action flying the South African flag, and they will be hoping to carry that momentum into the derby phase of the URC as they look to make up the ground they have lost on the log in recent times.
The Stormers, currently tied second with the Bulls, will be counting the cost of the injuries they picked up in their good win over London Irish while the Bulls clearly targeted the URC derby ahead of Champions Cup when they rested their first choice team for the trip to Exeter.
Results of Champions Cup
Bordeaux Begles 16 Sharks 19
Leinster 57 Gloucester 0
Exeter 44 Bulls 14
Edinburgh 31 Castres 20
Lyon 20 Saracens 28
Leicester Tigers 23 Clermont Auvergne 16
Ulster 29 La Rochelle 36
Stormers 34 London Irish 14
Montpellier 10 Ospreys 21
Toulouse 45 Sale Sharks 19
Northampton 6 Munster 17
Harlequins 14 Racing 92 10
Challenge Cup results
Lions 30 Stade Francais 12
Glasgow Warriors 26 Perpignan 18
Brive 24 Connacht 31
Toulon 29 Bath 7
Cheetahs 26 Scarlets 45
Dragons 21 Pau 27
Bristol 35 Zebre 19
Newcastle 10 Cardiff Rugby 47
Bayonne 7 Benetton 45