The Breakdown | Champions Cup emerges from rugby’s recent darkness to offer shafts of light
In terms of its reputation, rugby union has experienced a year of ups and downs. There have been financial challenges and legal battles, as well as well-known off-field problems. However, the exciting World Cup has helped to balance these issues. Fans would be delighted to re-experience the thrilling France v South Africa and Ireland v New Zealand quarter-finals and hope for similar matches in the future.
The main goal of the game is to gain more viewers, particularly those who only watch the Six Nations and not other competitions like the Champions Cup or domestic leagues. If these individuals were to watch some clips, they would see that the game has evolved from the outdated stereotype of “kick and clap” that some still hold onto.
If you have a moment to spare between preparing the turkey and wrapping presents, take a look at the standout moments from this weekend’s Champions Cup games and form your own opinion. In our view, the action was among the most entertaining in club rugby in recent years.
To start off, take a look at the match between Toulouse and Harlequins. The French team performed so well that even the local commentators were amazed by their skillful passing, strategic running, and teamwork. As the always-impressive Nick Mullins stated on TNT Sport: “They have a knack for finding openings in seemingly nonexistent spaces.” This perfectly sums up how top teams excel in rugby.
Next, watch the recording of the Cardiff versus Bath match. While it may not have been a flawless display of defense, the overall offensive strategy was impressive. If you weren’t immediately uplifted by the sight of Finn Russell making a powerful move through open space, you either lived in Cardiff or were being a real Grinch. Despite the 39-32 loss for the home team, the crowd at Arms Park seemed to thoroughly enjoy the game, which hasn’t always been the case recently.
The Exeter fans at Sandy Park have seen some incredible comebacks, and Sunday’s final quarter was no exception. Despite being down 24-13 against Munster, who had already earned a try bonus point in just 50 minutes, the Chiefs were able to recover and secure a victory. This is not a common occurrence, even after their impressive comeback from being 18-5 down in Toulon the week before.
Did you witness Léo Barré’s attempt for Stade Français against Leicester in Paris? It included a moment that could be considered the equivalent of a missed “open goal” in rugby, where a player dramatically clutches their head in despair. The Tigers were already at a disadvantage with only 14 players and were desperately holding on when Stade’s fly-half executed a perfectly placed crossfield kick. The substitute winger, Lester Etien, only needed to catch the ball and touch it down over the line. However, the ball bounced off his chest and the opportunity was lost.
What’s next? Take pleasure in watching Glasgow score in Bayonne: an impressive run from the man-of-the-match, Ally Miller, and a graceful jump into the corner by Josh McKay. Be amazed by the final play of the Stormers’ thrilling win over La Rochelle, secured by a fantastic conversion from the supposedly inconsistent Manie Libbok. And appreciate the talent of Damian Penaud, the top player in Europe besides Antoine Dupont, in Bordeaux’s dominant performance against Bristol.
In Europe, there is a growing number of talented young players making a name for themselves. These include 19-year-old back-rower Marvin Okuya from Lyon, 21-year-old scrum-half Nolann Le Garrec from Racing, and 21-year-old inside centre Olly Hartley from Saracens, who was previously with Wasps and has shown impressive speed and skill. Additionally, 19-year-old prop Asher Opoku-Fordjour from Sale also has a promising future ahead of him.
There are several promising young players in England’s Premiership who have yet to be capped, including Josh Hodge from Exeter, Chandler Cunningham-South from Harlequins, and Guy Pepper from Newcastle. It would be wise to pay attention to their progress.
Rugby’s popularity is on the rise, with several on-field factors pointing towards a positive future. Exeter is anticipating a large turnout for their upcoming match against Leicester, while Quins will be hosting the Big Game event at Twickenham on December 30th, featuring both men’s and women’s teams. Additionally, Bristol has announced they will be playing against the Crusaders, a top provincial team from New Zealand, at Ashton Gate on February 9th.
In the upcoming weeks, the latter half of the Champions Cup pool matches in January will bring about more exciting and intense games. Matches such as Bath versus Racing 92, Ulster versus Toulouse, Toulon versus Munster, and Bordeaux versus Saracens are expected to be highly competitive. Due to the modified format of the tournament, teams will face challenges in advancing to the last 16 if they lose more than two of their four group games, making a home knockout draw extremely valuable. Teams who do not give their all will face more difficulties in the competition.
Although there are still flaws in rugby, such as clubs using weaker teams in the beginning of a major tournament, it remains a confusing sport for non-fans in some ways and physical strength is still crucial. However, there are some positive developments that have come out of the sport’s recent struggles.
During this time of year, it may not be ideal for new growth or budding plants. However, some are still noticeable. If more teams continue to practice Toulouse-style offloads and more young minds get involved, the potential for improvement is great. For those looking for a physical activity that gets them off the couch, high-level club rugby is becoming a more attractive option.