Leinster And Vodacom Bulls Lead URC European Challenge


It was a mixed first weekend of European action for the United Rugby Championship teams, with Leinster and the Vodacom Bulls leading the charge in a round where home-ground advantage appeared to mean less than it normally does.

Five of the 12 games played in the Champions Cup were won by away teams, and the Stormers very nearly added to that to make it a 50% winning record away from home with their tenacious display against Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. That’s a departure from last season, where in the early rounds the home fortresses were mostly made to look impregnable to any attempt at an invasion.

The headline game of the opening round was of course the repeat of last year’s final, and here Leinster gained some measure of revenge for their narrow defeat in Dublin as they won by seven points in a tight game played in driving rain at La Rochelle’s home ground.

Leinster’s triumph was built around a strong defensive effort, and it was undeniably the moment where we saw the value that Springbok World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber will add to an already formidable Leinster cocktail of strengths.

The commentators remarked on how much quicker the Leinster line speed was on defence, and that would have been down to just two weeks of input from Nienaber, who was long time a top defence coach before he became a head coach.

Although URC champions Munster did manage a draw at home to Bayonne, the Vodacom Bulls were the only other team from the competition to come out on top in the first round as they delivered what can be a statement performance in comfortably seeing off the challenge posed by three-time European champions and reigning English champions Saracens.

Outside of Munster’s draw, the next best performance was probably the unlucky DHL Stormers, who emerged with a lot of credit for their performance away against the formidable Leicester Tigers because they went in understrength in an attempt to get around the logistical nightmare of having to front La Rochelle just six days later in Cape Town.

Glasgow Warriors, so impressive in the URC and one of the frontrunners, were defeated by a fired-up Northampton Saints at the Scotstoun on Friday as the English side started the trend for the weekend of visiting teams doing well.

Connacht’s foray into the Champions Cup got off to a disappointing start in Galway as they were beaten by French team, Bordeaux Begles.

Cardiff fell short against French giant Toulouse, who have won the competition more than any other team, and that showed with an impressive win at home.

Ulster travelled to Bath, and despite two first-half tries for the Irish side to take a 14-8 lead into the break, a flurry from the English side in the second half saw them come out on top.

Bath are playing great rugby under Van Graan’s coaching and are one of several English teams that are showing signs of being a threat this year.

Of course, with Loftus being such a difficult venue to travel to, you cannot write off the international-laden Saracens, who did the competition a service by sending a full-strength team to Pretoria – but Exeter Chiefs, Bristol Bears, the Sale Sharks and Harlequins all joined Northampton, Leicester and Bath in being on the winning side in round one.

Two of those games were particularly exciting, with the Chiefs pipping Toulon away with a conversion by England centre Henry Slade, while the final game of the weekend, Racing 92 against Harlequins in Paris, lived up to the prediction that it would be one of the most absorbing and entertaining games of the weekend.

Harlequins, with Marcus Smith at his magical best at flyhalf, went ahead of the French side, who now include Springbok captain Siya Kolisi in their ranks and the former Stormers and Sharks star put in an excellent 80-minute shift, late in the game and then held onto to the lead in the face of a concerted final attack from the hosts.

In the Challenge Cup the two South African sides from the URC, the Emirates Lions and the Hollywoodbets Sharks, both won comfortably, with the Lions’ win over Perpignan being particularly noteworthy as the Johannesburg team travelled with a depleted squad.