French rugby proved itself as strong as ever in the first round of European club competition this weekend. Reigning Heineken Cup champions Toulouse battled their way to an 18-16 win over Wasps, Biarritz were kicked to victory over Bath by Dimitri Yachvili, Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon cracked Ospreys at the death and Clermont Auvergne overcame Saracens 25-10 as the British and Irish sides struggled to handle their Gallic cousins.
Toulouse, who beat Biarritz 21-19 in last year’s final, scrapped their way past London Wasps on a wet afternoon in the south of France on Sunday. The greasy conditions meant flowing rugby was a rarity; Dave Walder and David Skrela simply traded points to lead their sides into the break at nine points apiece.
The game was always likely to be settled by the slightest error and, for a moment, Clement Poitrenaud looked to be the guilty man. The full-back dithered in front of Walder’s chip ahead and allowed David Lemi to steal in and hack the ball further up field. As the ball teetered towards the line the Wasps flyer was not adjudged to have applied enough downward pressure for George Clancy to award the try.
But, as play continued, the TMO brought play back and decided that sufficient force had been used by Lemi to be worthy of a try. Walder knocked over the conversion and Wasps went into the final quarter with a one point lead.
Fortunately, for Poitrenaud, the French side were not done just yet as they once again turned the screw at the scrum. Clancy penalised the visitors once more and Skrela gratefully thumped his men back into a winning position.
Nevertheless, the visitors were able to manufacture one final attempt on goal in a late bid to pinch a famous victory. However, Walder’s long-range kick drifted left of the posts, much to the excitement of the home support. On such moments are Heineken Cups won and lost.
Dimitri Yachvili, who has so often tortured England on the international stage, kicked all of Biarritz’s points as they beat Bath 12-11 at the Recreation Ground. The home side were guilty of poor decision making and indiscipline as they ultimately threw away a useful 8-0 half-time lead to crash to defeat.
Bath started the game well as inside-centre Olly Barkley kicked his side’s first points. Three minutes later and Barkley was again involved as his offload was worked wide through the hands of Nick Abendanon, Matt Carraro and finally Michael Claassens who plunged over.
However, within 11 minutes of the restart Bath had undone much of their good work. They were penalised twice and Yachvili booted both penalties over to narrow the margin to just two points. They were lucky to survive another scare too when the TMO decided that Biarritz number eight Raphael Lakafia was guilty of a double movement as he reached for the try line.
Things got worse for Bath when prop David Wilson was penalised for hands in the ruck. Yachvili knocked the resultant penalty over to give his side the lead for the first time in the game.
Nevertheless, with five minutes remaining, Bath worked a position in front of Biarritz’s posts only to inexplicably turn down the drop goal opportunity. The chance, and the match, had been lost.
The Ospreys went into this season’s competition aiming to convince onlookers that they are true European heavyweights having had a number of disappointing campaigns in recent years.
On Saturday the Ospreys once again flattered to deceive as they cracked under the pressure at the death. Despite holding a winning position for much of the second half they crumbled to a 19-14 defeat to Toulon.
The game lacked quality and was littered with modest goal-kicking. The Ospreys cannot expect to win big European away games with such shoddy kicking. Dan Biggar put his team under pressure time and time again with misplaced kicks. Jonny Wilkinson was guilty of missing a number of chances himself.
A poor first half saw the two sides go into the interval at six points apiece. Finally, after 60 minutes, Shane Williams lit up the dull affair with a scampering run down the blind-side to cross the try-line from inside the Toulon 22. Biggar missed the conversion to leave his side just five points ahead.
Wilkinson would not let his next opportunity go as he cut the deficit with a penalty. Then, with four minutes remaining, he floated a long pass out to Paul Sackey who was on hand to dive over and break Welsh hearts – again. This is becoming a frustrating occurrence for the Ospreys.
Saracens also crashed to a French defeat as they were comfortably beaten 25-10 by Clermont Auvergne. The visitors were guilty of a number of misplaced passes as they stuttered in front of a stern Clermont defence.
Derek Hougaard had a poor game in particular as he not only threw an intercept pass which Jamie Cudmore gratefully lapped up but he missed a host of kicks to finish the game with a meek five point haul.
Crucially, Saracens were unable to make the most of their host’s indiscipline when both Cudmore and then Davit Zirakashvili were sin-binned in the first half. Instead, Julien Malzieu raced to the corner to extend Clermont’s lead and then Hougaard missed another chance to close the gap. Although David Strettle temporarily reduced the arrears after touching down on the overlap, they were unable to make any further mark on the game.
Morgan Parra knocked over two more penalties while Hougaard’s final effort drifted wide again. As Saracens pressed to try and at least earn a bonus point Clermont winger Napolioni Nalaga picked up on a lost ball and raced clear to settle the match.
London Irish produced arguably the performance of the weekend as they defeated European stalwarts Munster 23-17 at their Madejski Stadium home. The Aviva Premiership leaders will have been disappointed to allow Sam Tuitupou a late consolation try though as it handed the Irish province a bonus point which could yet prove crucial.
The Exiles led 15-6 at the break as Ryan Lamb kicked four penalties and a drop-goal to Ronan O’Gara’s two goals. Topsy Ojo then extended the margin when he broke clear down the wing following an intercepted pass. London Irish offered a solid defence and Munster only ever came away with three points when they ventured into the home side’s 22.
However, with seconds remaining, their efforts paid dividends as Tuitupou was able to collect an O’Gara grubber and touch down – much to the delight of the travelling Munster men behind the posts.
Leicester Tigers were slightly more fortunate as Alesana Tuilagi’s late try finally saw off Treviso and ensured his side avoided an embarrassing opening round defeat. The Italian minnows put up a great fight and will be bitterly disappointed to have come away with just one point as the Samoan flyer’s score meant the English side ran out 34-29 winners.
Early tries from Craig Newby and Matt Smith looked to have set up Leicester for a rout of their Italian opposition but Tomasso Benvenuti crossed the try-line and Kristopher Burton added a conversion and two penalty goals to tie the game 13-13 at the interval.
Martin Castrogiovanni and Ben Youngs went over for further Tiger’s scores but Benvenuti again hit back with a try of his own. The outside-centre then added a drop-goal which could have been enough to cause an upset as it put his team a point ahead with 13 minutes remaining.
However, with three minutes remaining, Tom Croft led one final attack from deep. Leicester realised that they had numbers spare and eventually worked the ball wide to Tuilagi who powered over from 30 metres to break Treviso’s hearts.
Perhaps the most entertaining game of the weekend was found at Parc Y Scarlets where Scarlets and Perpignan ran in nine tries between them. It was a topsy-turvy encounter to say the least with the home side eventually running out 43-34 winners.
The crowd were entertained by both majestic running rugby and woeful defence as tacklers went in too high and slipped easily off their men. The French side took an early lead with tries from Philippe Grandclaude and Julien Candelon before Rhys Priestland hit back with two of his own. Sevens was in town.
Sean Lamont broke free down the wing before the ball was handed onto Regan King who fed Priestland for his first. The full back’s second was even better, an early contender for try of the season. Two back-handed passes from Morgan Stoddart and King – which were quite simply out of this world (and well worth a watch on YouTube) – gave Priestland the space to dive over in the corner. Game on!
Into the second half and the circus continued. Within minutes, the Scarlets had scored two more tries. First, King collected a hack up field and raced over before Matthew Rees barged forward and fed Stephen Jones to touch down on his way to a personal haul of 28 points.
Perpignan refused to accept defeat though as they sensed a typical Welsh lethargy entering their hosts’ play. Indeed, they quite easily helped themselves to three more tries as Adrien Plante, Ovidiu Tonita and Damien Chouly all crossed.
The French side were in fact unlucky not to take two points from the game as Jerome Porcical’s long penalty attempt fell just short at the end of what had been an absolute feast of rugby.
The Heineken Cup is back!