The Heineken Cup is off and running in Europe – and what a mouth-watering feast of rugby it served up! Rugby Rugby’s Howard Johnson licks his lips and relishes this taster of things to come…
Many rugby doctors have acknowledged that the Heineken Cup is the best way to shake off any post-World Cup hangover and after Round One of the 15th edition of the premier pan-European tournament it's not hard to see why. There were thrills, there were spills, controversial decisions, fine moments of individual skill and an overall standard of play that augurs well for our forthcoming entertainment. Mind you, Northampton Saints boss Jim Mallinder might need a quick trip to his local quack to go and get his ticker checked out after last season's defeated finalists again lost out in heartbreaking fashion.
After making a major contribution to a pulsating game against Leinster at the Millennium Stadium back in May and still going home empty-handed, the Saints were once again on the end of an Irish rugby mugging as they went down to Munster by 23 points to 21. It wasn’t so much the loss that hurt, as the manner of it. Leading by a gnat’s with time up on the clock, the Saints surely must have thought they’d recorded a memorable victory at Thomond Park, only for veteran Munster fly half Ronan O’Gara – playing in his 99th Heineken Cup match – to nick it for the home side by slotting a drop goal with the very last kick of the game. The score finally came after a staggering 40 phases of play from the home side as they tried to manouevre their fly half into a position where a drop was finally on. Oh, the drama!
Mallinder – gracious in defeat as ever – was quick to point out that a losing bonus away at Munster in your first game was hardly cause for skulking away with tails between legs… and indeed he was right. But you couldn’t help but feel for the men from Northampton, who had more than contributed to a massively-thrilling game.
Things were even tighter down on the French south coast where Cup holders Leinster left it equally late before that other Irish kicking genius Jonny Sexton slotted a penalty to rescue a 16-16 draw against a stubborn Montpellier outfit. The way in which one of the home side’s players was seen kicking out at his own post protectors in abject frustration as he watched Sexton’s kick sail high and handsome through the posts showed exactly how much passion Fabien Galthié’s outfit had for the fight, but it was probably just about right that the honours were shared. A word in dispatches, though, for Montpellier flanker Mamuka Gorgodze – or Godzilla as he’s known. The Georgian man-mountain flanker was nothing short of imperious, smashing his way through line after line of Leinster defence with obvious relish and setting up numerous opportunities for the home side. It’s players like Gorgodze who make the game of rugby worth watching and I suspect his contribution to this season’s Heineken Cup will be immense.
The overall biggest surprise of the weekend would have to be the poor showing from the powerhouse French outfits. Yes, we all know that the French are traditionally slow starters and that they don’t exactly travel well. But even so, of the six participating French clubs only Toulouse managed to record a win, a streaky 21-17 affair against a resurgent Gloucester who could have some justified cause for a gripe when the home side’s winning score had more than a hint of a forward pass about it. But it’s on such decisions that games are won and lost and Biarritz will also be cursing their refereeing luck that a potential hat-trick-making try from their English flyer Iain Balshaw was ruled out, thereby robbing them of the chance to notch a win away at the Ospreys. It was cruel on Balshaw, who looked to be in electrifying personal form. Though I’m surprised he can concentrate on his game at all when he performs alongside giant lock Erik Lund and that tremendous beard of his! It truly is a thing of wonder and the temptation for opponents to give it a right good yank when they’re at the bottom of a ruck must be overwhelming. It must be said, though, that it’s a brave man indeed who would risk incurring the wrath of friend Lund, who looks more than capable of landing a hammer blow every bit as powerful as Thor’s.
Overall, then, this was a great start to a great tournament and the perfect riposte to those giving credence to the rumours that popped up over the weekend that some of Europe’s big guns are interested in forming a breakaway tournament with some of the top sides from South Africa. While I’m not for a minute suggesting that the possibility of Toulouse playing the Sharks isn’t a mouth-watering proposition, this weekend’s action only confirms for me that we really should still think long and hard before we start ripping the heart out of Europe’s premier rugby competition.
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