It was a strong start for the Guinness PRO14 sides in Europe, both in the Champions Cup and the Challenge Cup.
Leinster and Ulster both impressed on home soil, while Munster and the Scarlets came away from France with valuable points.
In the Challenge Cup there were a trio of victories for Connacht, Edinburgh and the Cardiff Blues.
Here we take a look at some of the key themes from the weekend:
LEINSTER AND ULSTER UP AND RUNNING
1. Wasps and Montpellier came into the tournament as two contenders to win the whole thing so Ulster and Leinster were going to have to hit the ground running on home soil. Ulster did just that on Friday night, battling to a 19-9 success with Charles Piutau and Jacob Stockdale again at the heart of their effort. The former was playing against his former club and was instrumental in a pair of tries in the space of three minutes that effectively won the game for Ulster.
2. Deprived of Johnny Sexton, who should return this week, and still without Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip, Leinster underlined their depth against Montpellier. They ran in four tries to secure a bonus-point 24-17 victory over the French giants that perfectly launches their European campaign.
3. Isa Nacewa is the old head who was expected to pull the strings for Leinster in the midfield, but he was forced off with injury before half-time. Instead it was centre partner Robbie Henshaw who grabbed the headlines with a man-of-the-match display. Henshaw was a constant menace with ball in hand, and he also made a couple of key interventions in defence, notably on Nemani Nadolo when the Fijian had initially brushed him off only for Henshaw to get back and haul him down.
MUNSTER FOLLOW IN LEINSTER’S FOOTSTEPS AT CASTRES
1. A year ago Leinster earned a draw at the Stade Pierre Antoine (as it was then known, now the Stade Pierre Fabre) against Castres to earn a home quarter-final. This time around it was Munster who picked up a 17-17 draw in windy conditions in the south west of France.
2. If the sign of a good team is getting a result even when not at your best, it certainly bodes well for Munster, who were sloppy out of the gate in France. Conor Murray was sent to the sin-bin for a tackle off the ball on Yannick Caballero, while Chris Farrell’s speculative pass was picked off by Robert Ebersohn for the game’s first try.
3. Munster fought back well to earn a point, and a special mention must go to their scrum, which was under the cosh in the opening exchanges. Dave Kilcoyne and co were able to weather that early storm and then turn the tables on their hosts to secure a few crucial penalties at the set-piece. With more French opposition this week in the shape of Racing 92, scrum dominance could be a vital tool for the Irish side.
WELSH COMEBACKS FALL SHORT
1. Last year’s Top 14 finalists, Toulon and Clermont, were both taking on Welsh opposition, and their clashes with the Scarlets and Ospreys followed similar patterns. Away at the Stade Felix Mayol, Scarlets got themselves into a massive hole before almost sneaking a victory, while Ospreys were similarly in trouble at home to Clermont before roaring back. That neither got a win will be frustrating, but there were signs of promise for both.
2. Last season’s Guinness PRO12 champions faced a tough trip to the south of France, and looked dead and buried when they trailed 18-0 after 23 minutes. However, as they showed in last year’s final in Dublin, they can strike from anywhere, and the back three of Johnny McNicholl, Leigh Halfpenny and Steff Evans caused Toulon all sorts of problems in the second half. The first two both crossed for tries as the Scarlets took the lead and while they couldn’t see it out, a 21-20 loss away to the three-time champions, augurs well for the rest of the campaign.
3. The Ospreys came into Europe after a difficult start to their Guinness PRO14 campaign, and quickly found themselves 14-0 down to Clermont. But they rallied well despite suffering some key injuries, with Dan Evans again a standout as he chipped in with two tries. While they eventually went down 26-21, there were signs of promise. It doesn’t get any easier for them next though, this week they travel to take on defending champions Saracens.
WARRIORS AND BENETTON MISS OUT IN ENGLAND
1. Glasgow Warriors travelled to English champions Exeter Chiefs on Saturday, while Benetton Rugby were away at in-form Bath. In the end, both were denied even a losing bonus point – but the final scorelines, a 24-15 loss for Glasgow, and 23-0 for Benetton, do not tell the whole story.
2. Arguably the game of the weekend took place at Sandy Park as Glasgow looked set to upset the Devon side. Tries from Tommy Seymour and Lee Jones had the previously-unbeaten Warriors trailing by just two points in the latter stages of the game. Exeter’s forward power eventually proved too much for them though, with Sam Simmonds’ late try ensuring Dave Rennie’s side came away with nothing. They will look to put that right next weekend when they host Leinster in an all-Guinness PRO14 encounter.
3. Benetton might have been kept scoreless at Bath but they pushed their hosts all the way in the first half. In fact, if not for a remarkable cover tackle by Semesa Rokoduguni on Tommaso Benvenuti, they could easily have led at half-time. Between that missed chance, and Robert Barbieri’s burst being ruled just short, Benetton caused Bath problems. On the return to the Stadio Monigo this week, they will hope for greater reward for their efforts against Toulon.
FLYING CHALLENGE CUP STARTS
1. Connacht looked to the Challenge Cup as a chance to launch their season, and Kevin Keane’s men did just that with a 43-15 win against Oyonnax in Geneva. Young fly-half Andrew Deegan was handed his debut and stepped up with 18 points as Connacht laid down a marker in a pool also featuring Worcester and Brive.
2. Richard Cockerill returned to England for the first time as Edinburgh coach, and got just what he was after as his team eased to a 37-14 success. Junior Rasolea’s double guaranteed them a bonus point, and with a trip to Siberia next to take on Krasny Yar, this was the perfect start for Cockerill’s side.
3. Current Top 14 leaders Lyon have been one of the surprise packages in Europe so Cardiff Blues knew they would need to be at their best in their opener. They didn’t disappoint, earning a bonus-point 29-19 success, with scrum-half Tomos Williams pulling the strings. Next up is a trip to Toulouse for a rematch of the first-ever European Cup final all the way back in 1996.
O’BRIEN IMPRESSES IN LOSING CAUSE
1. The Dragons have struggled on the road in recent times, but pushed Premiership high-flyers Newcastle Falcons hard at Kingston Park. They eventually went down 32-27 despite three second-half tries, but should take some confidence ahead of a trip to Russia this week to take on Enisei.
2. Angus O’Brien stepped into the fly-half role which has been filled for most of the season by summer recruit Gavin Henson. He took the opportunity with both hands, finishing with 12 points and a try assist in a fine all-round display. On this form, Bernard Jackman has a couple of good options at ten.
3. Zebre have started the season strongly but they were not at their best in a disappointing 45-10 loss at Agen. Jacopo Sarto scored their only try but they will hope for a much-improved display this weekend when they welcome Pau to the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.
Guinness PRO14 Final 2018 Ticket Information: Fans can save up to 20% on selected tickets, and prices start at just €30 for adults and €5 for children, and be booked via www.ticketmaster.ie