It’s time for our Monday wrap of who has their name in lights and who is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons over the past week.
THEY’RE ON FIRE!
Exeter and Leinster: Rob Baxter’s men will no doubt be regretting their inability to win one of their pool games against Leinster in December, but that shouldn’t detract from what was a wonderful performance on Saturday. Against a team whose budget dwarfs that of the Devonians, the Chiefs displayed what spirit, top quality coaching and astute recruitment can achieve. An impressive Exeter still have to go to Glasgow Warriors and win if they want a quarter-final place, but they should enjoy what was a fine victory, after completing a double over the French side. Leinster meanwhile go from strength to strength, with Glasgow their latest victims in a 55-19 hammering in Dublin.
Theo Brophy Clews: With the prospect of a shock defeat to Krasny Yar looking on the cards after a sluggish start at the Madejski Stadium, London Irish needed to rally after going into the break 10-7 down. Step forward inside centre Theo Brophy Clews, who scored four tries in total in the Challenge Cup game to keep their slim hopes of qualification alive. They must thump the same opponent next week and hope that Edinburgh do them a favour against Stade Français in Paris, which could be their undoing seeing as the Scots have already secured top spot.
Scarlets: One of the performances of the round came on Friday when the Scarlets thumped Bath in a showing that attracted praise from all quarters. Tadhg Beirne’s opening try was a thing of beauty, while Rhys Patchell and James Davies also impressed at the Rec, setting up a winner takes all clash with Toulon at Parc y Scarlets that will decide who claims top spot in Pool 5. In this form it has to be the Welsh.
Northampton: Alan Gaffney made this section last week and it is Northampton this. Their recent revival continued against Clermont as they won 34-21 at Franklin’s Gardens, seeing off a side that was pushing to secure a home quarter-final. This was Clermont’s first loss of the pool campaign and Saints can take great pride in that, with their five-try performance a real confidence booster to take moving forwards.
Ulster: The perfect farewell to Christian Lealiifano as Ulster shocked La Rochelle at Kingspan Stadium. On form few expected the hosts to see off such a strong French side, with the visitors’ start adding further weight to that. However, Ulster managed to ride the punches and impressively fought their way to a 20-13 victory. Despite all the doom and gloom about their form, Ulster incredibly sit top of their pool.
Marcus Smith: It’s been a good week for the youngster after he inked his first professional contract at Harlequins. The long-term deal is reported to be a bumper package and Quins will be delighted to have kept such a bright prospect at the Stoop. Smith finished a memorable week off by coming off the bench in their superb fightback against Wasps and will hope to get back into the side at La Rochelle on Sunday.
COLD AS ICE!
Wasps: Leading 21-0 and 28-12 at different points in their clash with Harlequins, Wasps will be livid with how they fell apart at the Stoop on Saturday. A bonus-point win would have put them right in the mix for top spot in Pool 1 going into a home game against Ulster, but tries from Danny Care, Elia Elia and James Chisholm – James Haskell’s red card also not helping the cause – saw Harlequins come out on top. Wasps are now needing favours from elsewhere this coming weekend if they are to progress as a best runner-up but it does not look good for them.
Billy Vunipola: Talk about your rotten luck. Vunipola, recently back from a knee injury, was confirmed to have fractured his forearm in the game against Ospreys on Saturday, putting his participation in the upcoming Six Nations in serious doubt. Another cruel blow for the eight.
Saracens: Vunipola’s double European champions are very much teetering on the brink. Mark McCall’s men need to beat Northampton Saints with a bonus-point and hope that the Ospreys don’t overcome Clermont Auvergne at the Marcel Michelin to give themselves a chance of reaching the quarter-finals. Should that happen then 18 points may well be enough and the Welsh region will regret not going for the victory on Saturday night, but it will be a tense final round for the Londoners, whose dismal run of form in November and December came at just the wrong time.
Leicester: A second-string line-up was named due to their European knockout hopes being long gone, but this was still an awful day at the office for Leicester. To be nilled and concede 39 points made for a dismal outing as Castres ran riot, condemning Tigers to a fourth loss.
Montpellier: As much as we’ve rightly eulogised over the qualities of Exeter, Montpellier’s shambolic second-half display should also not be forgotten. While Vern Cotter’s men are currently at the summit of the Top 14, this was not a performance befitting of a team that leads their domestic league, as they simply failed to counteract the Chiefs’ ability to go through the phases. The French outfit will now look to overcome Leinster, which in itself is far from guaranteed, and hope for a favour from Glasgow if they are to stand a chance of progressing.