Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: All to play for in Round 4 as the Champions Cup hots up
Last Updated: 11/12/17 2:45pm
Stuart Barnes reviews Round 3 of the Champions Cup and looks ahead to the thrilling return legs that lie ahead...
1. Halfway through this season's Champions Cup and I reckon it is four teams down and sixteen remaining.
Of the quartet done and dusted, the most bitterly disappointed has to be Glasgow. The Warriors have won every one of their Guinness PRO14 games, they have lost all three of their European contests - two of them at home.
A losing bonus point did not register as any sort of consolation on Friday night. Montpellier, hardly the most impressive of travellers, deserved their win.
Between now and the PRO14 play-offs, the Warriors have worryingly few important games. They missed Stuart Hogg and Callum Gibbins but injuries are a fact of professional rugby life.
The Scottish team are both sharp and intelligent but maybe a little under-powered at the highest of levels. I wonder whether this might prove to be the case when Scotland meet the more forward-orientated international teams that comprise the Six Nations?
2. Of the other three 'losers', Benetton can take the most. They may not have won a game but they came within five minutes of beating both Toulon at home and Scarlets away.
On Saturday, they had a man red carded in the first half and still had the PRO14 champions scrambling around in the dying moments of the game. No wins but huge improvements.
They are playing well enough to throw whatever is Italian for 'spanner' into the workings of their pool.
3. Harlequins were well beaten at home for a second time. They will be disappointed but their problems pale into insignificance next to those in Northampton.
I don't know what words there are for the Saints. An awful performance against the Ospreys at the Gardens.
They are averaging over forty points a game against and conceding six tries a game. They were embarrassed in last season's tournament, they have been humiliated this time around.
There are no excuses, just the facts of a slow and steady decline gathering speed. Grim times at the Gardens.
4. What the hell was the Osprey and soon to be Saint, Dan Biggar, thinking from our studios as Northampton's pride disappeared into the dark December night?
A reliable source tells me one Northampton supporter leaving the ground on the hour mark passed the studio and suggested he check the small print of his contract with the Saints. Gallows humour when there is nothing else about which to laugh.
5. Grim times for the Aviva Premiership. If Clermont beat Saracens Monday night - I don't think they will - the Premiership will have suffered a whitewash. It wasn't so many years ago that prominent figures within the Premiership organisation were questioning the ability of the Celtic teams to compete with the financial clout of the English and French.
Whether this weekend was an anomaly or not, it proved that European rugby isn't quite as simple a matter as the financial haves and have-nots. Everyone, English included, should celebrate that fact.
6. Ireland scored a three-nil victory against English counterparts. Let's start with Leinster. Their win at Exeter has to be the most impressive result of them all. They took the Chiefs on at their own game and outplayed them - in Exeter.
The decisive try came off the back of 44 phases but what I liked was a decision midway through the second half, to take three points and an 11-8 lead rather than the almost universal kick to the corner. A game of few points, grab them when you can. Pragmatic winning rugby.
Exeter have it all to do to reverse the result in Dublin. This was the performance of a vastly experienced European force. A statement of intent.
7. Their old rivals, Munster, were equally impressive but beating Leicester at home isn't quite the seismic event a win at Sandy Park represents. I was taken with the Munster performance against Ospreys a week earlier in Cork. The win was no surprise, nor the emphatic nature. They are an improving team.
A word on the breakdown. Munster threw in numbers in a way rarely seen. Leicester were blown off the ball and out of the game.
Unmentioned for much of the match maybe but I'll put in a word for Rory Scannell who is the glue behind the Munster scrum. Whether running, passing, tackling or kicking, he is excellent in that unfussy way of his.
8. 'Unfussy' is not the sort of word to use when describing La Rochelle. The antithesis of Leinster. Only three games of Champions Cup experience, a freedom with the ball in hand from all parts of the field and a focus on attack.
If these sides meet at a later stage of the tournament it would make for one of the great style contrasts. Nothing wrong with either. There are lots of ways to skin cats and win rugby games.
La Rochelle demolished Wasps. They were wonderful with the ball in hand. I nearly spilt a glass of wine in excitement - on more than the one occasion. But, and it is a but in this tournament, the fabulous French team is conceding plenty of tries and points themselves.
This weekend they travel to Coventry where Wasps are in pretty much a win-or-bust situation. If the English club lose, qualification is out of their hands. Dai Young's men scored 29 points themselves in La Rochelle but can they check the rampaging offloading game of European rugby's new rugby heroes?
You can see that one Sunday lunchtime on Sky Sports. I'm off to the UK capital of culture for some sophisticated rugby. What a game it promises to be.
9. One day earlier and I am back in my old stomping ground of Bath for what is likely to be another sort of game altogether. It was a full frontal physical battle in Toulon which the hosts just about deserved to win.
But Bath were close enough to know that given home advantage and, hopefully, a recovered Taulupe Faletau, they can reverse the result. The West Country side has only scored four tries so far this competition.
If they cannot get their own bonus point at the very least they must prevent Toulon escaping with anything. This is a tight, taut pool.
10. I thought Andrew Brace refereed the game in Toulon well. I also thought the Jonathan Joseph pass which led to the first try was clearly forward, and that a few other contentious calls were perhaps wrong, but the game flowed.
Most of the time he backed himself and he didn't allow players to hassle him. There is no Utopia, no perfect officiating, even with the TMO system. What there must be is consistency and control; Brace delivered both of these on the Med.
The tournament also delivered in Round 3; expect as many thrills this weekend as English club rugby goes on a retrieval mission. It is going to be good, very good.