French flyers, Wasps buzzing and Munster magic – 5 things about Champions Cup

Andrew Baldock, PA Rugby Union Correspondent
·3-min read

The Heineken Champions Cup has reached its halfway stage, with the final two rounds of pool fixtures taking place in January.

Here, the PA news agency looks at five things to emerge from the tournament so far.

Coronavirus cancellations hitting hard

Scarlets v Toulon – Champions Cup – Group A – Parc y Scarlets
A groundsman removes a corner flag at Parc y Scarlets after Scarlets game against Toulon was called off (David Davies/PA)

A third of round two games in the Champions Cup pool phase were cancelled because of coronavirus-related issues, with Lyon, Toulouse, La Rochelle and Scarlets all awarded 28-0 bonus point results against respective opponents Glasgow, Exeter, Bath and Toulon. The tournament does not resume until January 15, but given a current worsening climate in the United Kingdom and Europe surrounding the pandemic, there must be grave concerns surrounding scheduled fixtures in rounds three and four. The tournament’s knockout phase, meanwhile, does not start until April 2.

French teams off to a flyer

Harlequins v Racing 92 – European Champions Cup – Pool 2 – Twickenham Stoop
Francois Trinh-Duc scores a try for Racing 92 against Harlequins (Adam Davy/PA)

If the group stage ended now, then France would have five teams in the quarter-finals. They have carried the feelgood factor surrounding France’s national team under Fabien Galthie into the Champions Cup, with Racing 92 and Bordeaux-Begles winning their first two games, while Lyon, Toulouse and La Rochelle are also unbeaten, albeit with an inclusion of forfeited fixtures. Some of the rugby has been spectacular, notably Racing’s demolition of Harlequins and Toulouse’s victory over Ulster in Belfast. Toulon were the last French European champions five years ago, but odds are short on that wait ending.

Wasps buzzing in trophy bid

Wasps are no strangers to European glory days, winning the blue riband competition in 2004 and 2007. After reaching last season’s Gallagher Premiership final, they have quickly found their feet in Europe with bonus point wins against Dragons and Montpellier to stay hot on the heels of Pool A leaders Leinster. They are performing with a swagger, and accounted for Montpellier in style, helped in no measure by exciting young talents like Alfie Barbeary, Will Porter and Charlie Atkinson. There is no question that Wasps are back at Europe’s top table.

Munster make waves with Clermont victory

Of all the eye-catching performances and victories across the Champions Cup’s opening two rounds, Munster topped the bill with their memorable 39-31 victory over French heavyweights Clermont Auvergne at Stade Marcel-Michelin. The Irish challengers, European champions in 2006 and 2008, looked down and out when they trailed 28-9 after just 25 minutes, but a remarkable revival stunned Clermont, kept Munster firmly in the quarter-final shake-up from Pool B and sent warning signals to their rivals that they mean business.

Finn Russell on a different level

It would be hard to make the case for a more inventive fly-half in world rugby at present than the 28-year-old Scotsman. Admittedly, he has the considerable assistance of playing behind a dominant Racing 92 pack, but the way he mixes and matches his game to maximise the dazzling ability of team-mates such as Teddy Thomas, Simon Zebo and Virimi Vakatawa is a joy to behold. Russell is performing at a rarefied level, and he is doing it consistently. Those who doubt him are running out of reasons, and not only must he go on next summer’s British and Irish Lions’ South Africa tour, his case to be the Test fly-half is getting stronger by the game.