Team of the Week: Fast out of the blocks
CHAMPIONS CUP, ROUND ONE: The Champions Cup kicked off this weekend and reminded us all just what we have been missing over the last five months.
Making their debut in the competition, La Rochelle pulled off an impressive 34-27 victory over Harlequins in London, whilst other highlights included a clinical 24-17 victory for Leinster over French high-fliers Montpellier and a frenetic and intense affair at the Stade Mayol, where Toulon narrowly bested Scarlets, 21-20.
Reigning champions Saracens set out their stall for the campaign, too, thrashing Northampton Saints 57-13 at Franklin's Gardens, scoring eight tries and signalling their intent as they look to win the title for the third-consecutive season.
We have rounded up who we think were the best performers from round one of the competition, but do you agree?
Team of the Week - Round One:
15 - Charles Piutau (Ulster)
It may not have been a classic from Piutau, but the Kiwi was still a cut above all other fullbacks in the opening round of action. The assist to Jacob Stockdale was a fantastic example of doing the basics to perfection and allowing the other players around him to shine as a result. Joey Carbery also impressed for Leinster, but it was Piutau who takes home the No.15 jersey.
14 - Josua Tuisova (Toulon)
Liam Williams, Tommy Seymour and Johnny McNicholl all had good outings, but the Fijian was a constant threat for Toulon, as well as a defensive force. Tuisova barrelled over or through the Scarlets back three on multiple occasions, keeping Toulon on the front foot and sparking a dominant first half performance.
13 - Robbie Henshaw (Leinster)
The Irishman revelled in the move back to the position he played earlier in his career and proceeded to carve the Montpellier defence open in the extra space he was afforded. He contributed significantly in defence, too, providing plenty of defensive line speed and threat to steal the ball at the breakdown.
*A mention, too, for the defensive clinic Henry Slade put on for Exeter, a player normally more noted for his attacking ability.
12 - Geoffrey Doumayrou (La Rochelle)
Doumayrou enjoyed plenty of success with ball-in-hand at the Stoop, consistently breaking the line with his carries and then having the acceleration and speed of thought to turn those breaks into considerable gains. Defence seemed optional at times during the game with Quins, but the Frenchman wasn't simply opportunistic, he was causing defensive errors with clinical attacking play.
*Owen Watkin deserves a mention for his strong second half performance in a spirited, but ultimately unsuccessful, comeback from the Ospreys.
11- Jacob Stockdale (Ulster)
If we were looking purely at attacking play, it would be all but impossible to ignore Montpellier’s Nemani Nadolo, who caused Leinster plenty of problems on Saturday, but his performance was mitigated by defensive errors and that let Stockdale just shade this spot.
The powerful wing put in a very solid all-round performance and is surely playing his way into Joe Schmidt’s plans for the autumn. He potentially gives Ireland a physical presence on the wing that they have not had since Shane Horgan was pulling on the green jersey.
10 - Owen Farrell (Saracens)
It was another masterclass in attacking playmaking and game management from Farrell, who oversaw a rout of Northampton at the Gardens. Leinster’s Ross Byrne had a good game, as did Glasgow’s Finn Russell, but Farrell was in a league of his own in round one, orchestrating the standout team performance of the competition so far.
9 - Nic White (Exeter Chiefs)
It was a two-horse race with Richard Wigglesworth, with both scrum-halves delivering exceptional control, swift tempo and good chemistry with their fly-halves. The competitiveness of Exeter’s game with Glasgow made White’s contribution seem that bit more pivotal, swinging the pendulum in his direction, but either player would have been a valid choice.
8 - Maama Vaipulu (Castres)
This spot could have easily gone to Yannick Nyanga, Sam Simmonds, Fritz Lee or Facundo Isa, but Vaipulu was a talismanic figure for Castres and he was unlucky not to finish on a winning side, with some questionable refereeing decisions ultimately seeing Castres settle for a draw with Munster. The former Chief seemed to be constantly involved with the play and was error-free in a contest that struggled for chemistry and composure for large periods.
7 - Kevin Gourdon (La Rochelle)
A yellow card slightly blighted Gourdon’s performance, but he did more than enough in the other 70 minutes to earn his spot here. It was an all-action, physical outing from the Frenchman, who was particularly abrasive at the contact area, helping generate the fast ball that La Rochelle thrived on at the Stoop.
6 - Zach Mercer (Bath)
The versatile back row picked up from where he left off in the Premiership, playing with a dynamism that singled him out as a special talent at the age-grade levels. His work in defence and doing the unglamorous nuts and bolts around the pitch was equally impressive.
*His opposite number, Sebastian Negri, also deserves an honourable mention.
5 - Leone Nakarawa (Racing 92)
An honourable mention is due for young James Ryan, who more than adequately filled in for Scott Fardy at late notice in Dublin, but Nakarawa was his usual one-man-offloading army in Paris. He consistently drew multiple defenders to him, freed up his hands and sent runners through holes with pinpoint pops to his supporting teammates.
4 - Nick Isiekwe (Saracens)
Isiekwe and Jake Ball were neck and neck in terms of set-piece contribution and the physicality and work rate they brought to the breakdown and in defence, but it was the attacking contribution of Isiekwe in the loose that swung it his way. The young lock was constantly popping up as a first receiver and support runner, as well as keeping phases alive with offloads and short passes to put runners through holes.
3 - Simone Ferrari (Benetton Rugby)
The Italian was given a run for his money by Vincent Koch, but the 23-year-old was a cornerstone in a dominant pack effort by Benetton Rugby against Bath. He gave Nick Auterac a tough day at the office and Conor O’Shea will be encouraged by what he saw, with Ferrari named in the Azzurri squad for the November Tests last week.
2 - Guilhem Guirado (Toulon)
So often the heartbeat of Toulon and France, Guirado was the standout forward in his side on Sunday. He provided the French side with plenty of go forward and stability at the set-piece and his early substitution coincided with Scarlets growing into the game and almost stealing a win.
1 - Joe Marler (Harlequins)
Quins may have ultimately lost to La Rochelle, but they certainly fronted up at the set-piece and Marler had his fair share of joy against Uini Atonio. He was also industrious with ball-in-hand, showing his value in the loose at an opportune time, just before he begins his annual battle with Mako Vunipola for England’s one jersey.
*Apart from a late conceded penalty that almost gave Castres a win, Munster loosehead Dave Kilcoyne also enjoyed a very strong outing.