Rugby union: talking points from the weekend’s European action

Gerard Meagher
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Clockwise: The referee tends to Clermont’s French scrum-half Morgan Parra, Nathan Hughes was man of the match for Wasps, Scarlets sum up Welsh woe and Jonny May in full flight for Leicester.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Composite: AFP, Getty Images, PA</span>
Clockwise: The referee tends to Clermont’s French scrum-half Morgan Parra, Nathan Hughes was man of the match for Wasps, Scarlets sum up Welsh woe and Jonny May in full flight for Leicester. Composite: AFP, Getty Images, PA

1) Hughes’ swinging arm mars fine display

Nathan Hughes was voted man of the match for Wasps and rightly so for a fine showing, full of aggressive running. Eddie Jones was in attendance to see his performance and the national No8 jersey is in effect his, considering Billy Vunipola’s long-term injury. Both – along with Joe Marler whose yellow card may well have been red – may have an uncomfortable wait for the citing commissioner’s report however, following a swinging arm to the head of Marcus Smith. It was an ugly moment and one that could mean Hughes faces further repercussions. It would be disruptive considering how Hughes lit the touch paper for an emphatic victory that reignites Wasps’ European campaign, and possibly their season. Sunday evening matches do not make for the greatest of atmospheres but on the back of a five-match losing streak they will not care. Their double-header with La Rochelle is now set up nicely and how refreshing to see newcomers to a competition, that has been won just three teams for the past seven seasons, making such a statement.

Match report: Wasps 41-10 Harlequins

2) Head injuries take spotlight after Parra blow

Clermont’s victory against Northampton was chaotic and controversial in equal measure – two ingredients that add great spice to Anglo-French contests, but when head injuries are part of the mix and are not dealt with properly it is concerning to say the least. Television footage appeared to show that Clermont’s Morgan Parra had been knocked unconscious, which means an automatic permanent removal. More significantly, however, the referee, Ben Whitehouse, expressed his opinion that Parra had lost consciousness yet still he was allowed back to the field after a head injury assessment. The HIA protocols dictate that the Champions Cup organisers – European Professional Club Rugby – must operate a review process and it must be conducted rigorously. Elsewhere, it is now 20 matches unbeaten in the competition for Saracens but all credit to the Ospreys who overcame disruptive injury problems to put the European champions under the kind of pressure they are not used to. Still, for all that the Ospreys have finished both of their matches strongly, they are effectively out of contention already.

Match reports: Clermont Auvergne 24-7 Northampton; Saracens 36-34 Ospreys

3) Cotter’s work only just begun at Montpellier

The pool of death and already two sides appear done for. As demonstrated with Nemani Nadolo’s quite ridiculous finish against Exeter, Montpellier have some hugely talented individuals (and some just plain huge) but their opponents on Sunday offered a reminder of how it will take Vern Cotter time to forge a side capable of challenging for major honours. Leinster, meanwhile, have been perhaps the most impressive performers of the tournament so far. Overcoming Montpellier with a bonus point at home was a good start but to take five points from Glasgow is a statement of intent. Rewind a couple of seasons and after their first two matches Leinster were dead and buried. Their upturn in fortunes, largely brought about by a crop of excellent young players, is a testament to the work of Leo Cullen and Stuart Lancaster.

Match report: Montpellier 24-27 Exeter

<span class="element-image__caption">Jack Yeandle, the Exeter Chiefs captain, leads the celebrations after their victory against Montpellier.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images</span>
Jack Yeandle, the Exeter Chiefs captain, leads the celebrations after their victory against Montpellier. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

4) May leads Leicester to the top

There was so much more to admire about Leicester’s performance than Jonny May’s finishing but considering the wing started the weekend with seven tries in seven matches, and the Tigers had failed to score a try bonus point in each of them, his contributions are hard to overstate. May has hit the ground running at Leicester – he denied Ben Youngs’s claim last week that he has taken to calling himself Jamie Vardy, such is his hot streak – but after two more tries on Saturday he seems certain to start for England this autumn. “I want to build my game on being in defence and scoring tries and back that up with a solid all-round game,” May said. “That’s where I want to go.” Meanwhile, the thumping victory against Castres puts Leicester top of what is an open pool and it means the two matches against old rivals Munster will be pivotal.

Match report: Leicester 54-29 Castres

5) Scarlets sum up Welsh struggles

There was a naivety to the Scarlets’ defeat by Bath and ultimately it looks likely to mean there will be no Welsh sides in the knockout stages once more. It is unfair to blame the Scarlets entirely for that but two losing bonus points from their first two matches will almost certainly not be enough. Bonus point wins in both matches against Treviso would be a prerequisite but as the Italian side showed in their heart-breaking last-gasp defeat by Toulon, they are no longer the pushovers they were. As we have seen with Exeter before, and Saracens before that, defeats in Europe tend to be character building and so the Scarlets should come again but they were out-thought by a Bath side who had already picked up impressive wins at Leicester and against Saracens this season.

Match report: Scarlets 13-18 Bath

6) French turn up nose at Challenge Cup

The end prize may have been altered – the winners of this season’s Challenge Cup advance straight to the Champions Cup next term – but it appears the attitude of some French teams has not. Newcastle’s Premiership form may have hinted at a strong showing away to Bordeaux but London Irish’s did not for their trip to Stade Français. That is not to belittle the Exiles in any way and clearly stepping away from the Premiership for a couple of weeks has been liberating but for Stade to go down by 37 points at home is a quite awful result for the French side. Cardiff Blues too were excellent at Toulouse but such a defeat would suggest that the four-times European champions do not appear convinced the Challenge Cup is for them. Gerard Meagher

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