By Jack Vavasour
When the European Champions Cup rolls around every year we must wonder, is there really any difference than regular fixtures? Admittedly, a lot of the games are repeats of domestic Pro 14, Premiership and Top 14 matches, however, when teams enter Europe the standard of competition seems to intensify and the stakes appear risen ten-fold.
Never has this been more evident than over these previous two weekends of rugby. The standard of rugby has been outstanding and if this is anything to go off then this year will be a seriously good year of rugby, one of the most exciting in recent times.
Cardiff Blues kicked off their return to Europe’s top competition, for the first time since 2014, with a victory over Lyon. Lyon are certainly not the strongest side that the Blues will face in this competition, however, the Blues certainly made a good showing of themselves with an impressive performance. They were caught off guard early on from a scrum as France Number 8, Loann Goujon, fumbled the ball at the base, then attacked a criminally undefended blindside. Cardiff cannot afford mistakes like this, it is mistakes like this that define a season and often come back to punish teams in the long term.
Cardiff responded after a brilliant Tomos Williams break from the line out set up Olly Robinson for a well taken try. Ellis Jenkins then read the play fantastically and intercepted a crucial ball to set up Williams, who had his work cut out for him and only went over due to some wonderful footwork which sent Rudi Wulf the wrong way, leaving Williams with a simple dive over comfortably in the corner. This gave Cardiff the lead and control over the game.
The impressive boot of Lionel Beauxis gave Lyon the lead before half-time, with the Blues going into the break 16-14 down. Up step Gareth Anscombe. Anscombe kicked Cardiff back into the lead with two well taken penalties.
Anscombe then produced a true moment of genius as he glided through the Lyon defence, surprisingly untouched. Finishing his wonderful solo effort with a dummy pass that bamboozled the final 2 defenders in order for him to calmly dot down and extend Cardiff’s lead.
Lyon struck back with a well worked try, before Anscombe ended the game with a straightforward penalty, in order to snatch the losing bonus point away from Lyon. On the day, Gareth Anscombe took the Man of the Match performance for streaks of brilliance, and his solo try will go down as one of the best.
After such an impressive victory, many were excited to finally see Champions Cup rugby return to Cardiff Arms Park, within the first four minutes this excitement was lost. Glasgow came to Cardiff and began the game with a bang, scoring two wonderful tries in under four minutes. The key to this attack was young Scotland fly-half, Adam Hastings. Hastings made quick work of the Cardiff defence and played as if he had all the time in the world.
Huw Jones also gave us, and Gregor Townsend, a timely reminder of why he is one of the most feared centres in the world with streaks of subtle brilliance throughout this contest. Glasgow had to wait twenty-one minutes for their next points as Cardiff re-gathered themselves.
After the halfway break, Glasgow, again, didn’t take their time to get on the scoreboard with D.T.H van der Merwe reminding us why he is Glasgow’s all-time try scorer with a dangerous turn of pace in order to send Ali Price across the line. An incredibly fast thinking kick from Jarrod Evans was picked up by Aled Summerhill for Cardiff’s first points of the game.
Hastings, again, started a brave move from deep inside his own 22 which van der Merwe took up field to put Cardiff on the back foot. Hastings’ quickly put boot to ball whilst under pressure in order for Matt Fagerson to offload to Jonny Gray, who galloped over the line to earn the bonus point for the Warriors and effectively end any chance of a comeback for the Blues.
Summerhill then crossed again to get the Blues a second, and consolatory try to end the game 12-29. If Anscombe had been the villain in the eyes of home fans in Lyon, then Hastings was certainly the villain in the Welsh capital. Hastings’ performance tore the Blues to shreds and showed them the level that they will have to reach if they want to compete in this competition.
Glasgow were outstanding, but Cardiff face Saracens away next. The two-time European Champions are always a difficult away day. Saracens are also in fine form this season, unbeaten in eight games across all competitions, they once again look like an unstoppable force.
After forcing a 13-3 victory away to Glasgow, they responded by cruising to a 29-10 defeat of Lyon. Saracens didn’t even look at their best against Lyon and still make short work of them, they are the team to beat, potentially in the competition, and definitely in this group. Glasgow slowed them, but ultimately failed. Judging from their first two outings in this year’s competition, Cardiff look light years away from even challenging Saracens.
The current Premiership Champions possess an in form Maro Itoje, who at the weekend, stole the ball from Lyon as easily as taking sweets from a baby. They also have a plethora of deadly wingers who are currently scoring tries as if it’s going out of fashion. Every player appears to be in form and their clinical approach is as effective as ever.
Saracens will be waiting for the Blues to visit, the Blues need to take a realistic approach in this game, however, if Anscombe and his colleagues can produce something slightly better than they did against Lyon then they could cause Saracens some problems. Moments of brilliance like Anscombe, Williams and Evans have produced over the last two weekends are unstoppable, regardless of the opposition.