Rugby union: talking points from the European Champions Cup

Munster set the early pace after a standout performance from JJ Hanrahan while Saracens look in ominous form

Jaco van der Walt of Edinburgh Rugby is tackled by Tom Arscott of Newcastle Falcons; Mark McCall of Saracens; JJ Hanrahan of Munster. Composite: Sportsfile/Getty Images

Pool 1: Leinster facing competition from resurgent Toulouse

The two most successful sides in the tournament’s history are in charge of the pool. Much is made of the regular rest given to Ireland’s leading players but it seemed to contribute to Leinster’s slow start at a pumped-up Bath. Outmanoeuvred at the breakdown and with Johnny Sexton having no time, the holders still found a way to win. Bath need to repeat Northampton’s 2013 feat against Leinster when they followed a home defeat with an away victory to remain alive but Wasps are on their way out after defeat by Toulouse. Like Bath, they have one win since September and the looming Premiership match between the sides holds more significance than Europe.

 Pool results: Bath 10-17 Leinster, Wasps 16-24 Toulouse

Pool 2: Hanrahan helps Munster take control

Munster have control of the pool, three points clear of Gloucester and are yet to lose. Despite the home win over Castres yesterday, they will anticipate a tougher test in France on Saturday. Gloucester will hope to regain ground on Munster on Friday in the return against Exeter, having upset them at Sandy Park on Saturday. For Munster and Gloucester there were huge positives beyond the wins. Munster had two late withdrawals, including Joey Carbery. JJ Hanrahan came in for Carbery and was man of the match. Gloucester showed their coach, Johan Ackermann, what he wanted after being convincingly beaten at Exeter two weeks ago – patience and persistence.

 Pool results: Exeter 19-27 Gloucester, Munster 30-5 Castres

Saracens came back to defeat Cardiff Blues. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

Pool 3: Relentless Saracens heading for home quarter-final

Saracens are romping towards a home quarter-final after one of those second-half surges that are fast becoming their trademark. Mark McCall was again lamenting a sluggish first half in a match they ended up winning at a canter but the truth is they have far too much firepower when playing at home for all but a handful of European sides. They are unbeaten since the Champions Cup defeat by Leinster in April and there can be little doubt Saracens are desperate to ensure their last-eight match is at Allianz Park this time. McCall’s side look certain to all but secure qualification in Cardiff on Saturday. They may not be the holders but Saracens are still setting the pace.

 Pool results: Lyon 22-42 Glasgow, Saracens 51-25 Cardiff

Pool 4: Fighting spirit in defeat for Leicester

Another defeat for Leicester but this was a definite improvement on their Premiership disintegration at Bristol. There was far more fighting spirit and, despite two sin-binnings and a lop-sided penalty count, Geordan Murphy was encouraged. The next trick is to stop conceding tries. “We’re conceding tries but my defensive coach Brett Deacon is an unbelievable coach and he’s doing a great job,” said Murphy. “He’s giving the right messages … the players are saying it’s on them, they’re just not doing the things they’ve been asked.” The bigger picture, however, is stark: lose at home to Racing on Sunday and Leicester’s European campaign will again be over prematurely.

 Pool results: Scarlets 24-25 Ulster, Racing 36-26 Leicester

Pool 5: Edinburgh and Newcastle dominating French opponents

If someone had asked you a couple of years ago to guess the pecking order of this pool at halfway you would almost certainly have gone with the exact reverse. Toulon, thrice champions and overflowing with stars; Montpellier, pretty much their equal budget-wise; daylight; relegation-haunted Newcastle; Edinburgh. How refreshing to see otherwise. Edinburgh continue their contribution to the revival of Scottish fortunes and Newcastle have become Premiership semi-finalists. And here they dominate two French clubs. Sunday’s face-off between the two at Kingston Park will determine who goes into the final two rounds in pole position.

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