Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Gloucester, Racing and Saracens impress
Last Updated: 10/12/18 2:01pm
Stuart Barnes looks at what caught his eye after round 3 of the Champions Cup, including wins for Gloucester, Saracens and Racing.
1. Let's start in West Wales - Friday night - where Ulster grabbed an eye-catching away win against last season's semi-finalists, the Scarlets. Wind forward to the 55th minute and a Rory Best turnover in the shadow of his own posts. One of those game-changing moments. It summed up what was a superb performance from the Irish captain. This was a reminder of what a fine hooker he continues to be.
Packing down behind him was Iain Henderson. Predominantly a bench man for Ireland, he too produced a mighty muscular effort. The win keeps Ulster in contention behind Racing but the Scarlets seem sunk this season. There were glimpses. Jonathan Davies showed some lovely touches but the west Wales outfit are not able to put a concerted effort together for 80 minutes. The result appears to be an early elimination from Europe.
2. The wonders of Sky planner. From Llanelli to Edinburgh and a far from vintage match. Dean Richards didn't have a front row fit for Europe and seemed more wound up with the rules of EPCR than the not so small matter of an Edinburgh team that thumped Toulon in Edinburgh in round two.
The Scottish scrum was too strong and even though Newcastle hung on for a while the pressure promised and delivered an inevitable bonus point home win. Newcastle were clearly ready for this eventuality and will be a different beast in the north east of England. Advantage Edinburgh but Richards is playing a six-match strategy and should not be discounted.
3. A trip to Exeter where Devon delivered a Saturday afternoon deluge and Gloucester a shock away win. For 14 minutes Exeter were dominant. Then Matt Kvesic kicked an aimless ball into the waiting arms of the outstanding Ollie Thorley. Alex Cuthbert made a magnificent try-saving tackle but Willi Heinz was in support to score. From then on, Gloucester were the better team.
Exeter base their set-piece on the drive of their line out. That went awry and the usual accuracy of the box kick was missing. That was the signature set-piece left in tatters. So too the ability to churn endless ball at the breakdown. Gloucester beat them there and - thereafter - comfortably enough on the scoreboard. Gloucester vs Munster looks a tasty round five game, if, that is, Gloucester can repeat the result this coming Friday night. Exeter travel north with nothing but pride for which to play.
4. Glasgow beat European newcomers, Lyon, with ease. Home advantage is no advantage for a naive Lyon side twice beaten at home. They tried to play far too much rugby from deep. This played into the hands of a notably aggressive Glasgow team. They impressed me in defeat against Saracens and victory against Cardiff Blues. Again they impressed. The quality of their defensive game has gone up from last season while George Horne is deadly sharp around the fringes. With a threatening back three, I can see Glasgow pushing for a best placed runners up from this pool.
5. A mucky old day and a relatively heavy surface at the Recreation Ground where Bath put together arguably their performance of the season in defeat against Leinster. The champions, you can argue, were nowhere near their best. Bath fans could claim that was because of the dominance established at the breakdown. Sam Underhill put in another international-class performance although it was Springbok back-rower Francois Louw who has my man of the match. For Leinster, Gary Ringrose showed plenty of class as did James Ryan (but when doesn't he?)
6. I am not a religious man, but still, something of a confession here. I didn't get round to watching the all French clash between Toulon and Montpellier and, having watched nine games this weekend I don't intend to either...there, it's off my chest. Toulon's five points keeps them alive while Montpellier managed a losing bonus point. This pool has a weird look to it, Edinburgh and Newcastle in the top half, the French giants the bottom half.
7. Once mighty Toulouse are beginning to look the part again. Two away wins in England and the scalp of Leinster, they are in a great position to qualify from the pool, either as winners or runners up. They had two men in the bin for a total of 20 minutes in Coventry but always appeared to have an edge against a Wasps team who attacked too often without wit or direction. There was one incident worth noting. Yoann Huget brushed Elliot Daly off as the Wasps outside centre drifted defensively across the field. I have watched him miss too many tackles because of his high (and poor) tackle technique from 13. He's not England's answer at outside centre.
8. Saracens suffered the indignity of being behind at home to Cardiff Blues at half-time. Matthew Morgan added to the insult, racing 60 metres from what will be one of the solo scores of this European season. In the second half, they metamorphosed into the favourites for the tournament with a high intensity, accurate 40 minutes. Mako Vunipola made a good comeback, Ben Earl added pace and power from the bench and Sean Maitland was outstanding on the wing. That was some second 40.
9. Alas, next up was Munster vs Castres. The commentator was right in saying it wasn't a memorable game, wrong to say Munster did what they had to do. Against a Castres team who looked like they had enjoyed a Saturday night out in Limerick, Munster really should have scooped four tries and all five points. The great Munster teams would not have missed out on that fifth point. The better news was that Conor Murray came through his comeback game, got involved in a few tries, playing within himself. Ireland and Munster will be delighted.
10. Racing duly obliged with five tries against poor old porous Leicester but the Tigers snatched a bonus point of their own. The big question is whether this Racing team is in any ways related to the grinding giants who gave Leinster a tough time in the final last season. This lot are flinging it around with gay abandon. Simon Zebo and Finn Russell seem to have changed the club's very DNA. Truly strange. As for Leicester, Ford never gives up, Ellis Genge produced the prop forward charge of the season to date and Manu Tuilagi didn't limp off. The Tigers look underpowered compared to Racing but I wouldn't bet against a bit of a flurry at Welford Road next week.