Following the very first weekend of Rugby’s European Champions Cup, the jury is still out, not only with regard to which team will become the first to lift the brand new trophy, but also which country they will come from.
Of the seven English teams in the competition, three won and four lost. The winners were Leicester, who produced a 25-18 home victory over Irish team Ulster, Harlequins, who won 25-9 at home against Castres, and last year’s runners up Saracens, who were able to overcome the French side Clermont Auvergne 30-23 at home. The losers; Wasps, Northampton, Bath and Sale, lost 25-20, 20-11, 37-10 and 27-26 respectively, with Wasps Northampton and Bath each losing away from home.
Of the other countries competing, two of three Irish teams won, three of six French teams won, one of the two Welsh teams won, the only Scottish team, Glasgow, were victorious but the only Italian team, Treviso, were unable to win.
The Welsh team Ospreys emerged with the largest point’s difference after the first weekend, outscoring Treviso by a margin of 42 points to 7, and Munster, an Irish team, were the only team to come away with that elusive away victory.
Now that the results and statistics are out of the way, let’s look forward to what this means for the competition. With two thirds of the Irish provinces emerging victorious, it looks as if there will be no drop off from one year to the next, as Irish teams have a history of success in Europe. Two of the top four most successful teams in the Heineken Cup (the predecessor to the Champions Cup) coming from Ireland, in the form of Leinster, with three wins, and Munster, with two wins.
The French, as always, looked solid starting the competition, with the reigning European Champions, though they won the Heineken Cup and not the Champions Cup, and the team that won the last two competitions, Toulon, winning at home against the Scarlets. Perhaps the only surprise of the weekend involving a French team was that Racing Metro were able to beat English Champions and the winners of last season’s second tier European tournament, the Amlin Challenge Cup Northampton, though whether that was an upset is a matter of opinion.
Speaking of Northampton, the inaugural weekend of the new European competition did not bode well for the English clubs, as more of them lost than won. Last year’s runners up both on Europe and at home, Saracens were able to come out on top against French giants Clermont Auvergne, but it was not an easy victory, though it was not expected to be. It is starting to become a pattern of English clubs falling just short in Europe, as the best performer in recent years has been Saracens. However, they fell to eventual champions Toulon in two consecutive years, in the semi-finals and then the final.
As for the Scottish, Welsh and Italian teams, they seldom make it out of the pool stage, though it would be nice to see some new faces reach the knockout rounds.
Based on the first weekend of matches, it is very difficult to say if any one team or country looks to be able to pull ahead of the rest, but that is not always a bad sign, as competition in Europe makes for a much more entertaining tournament.