Peter Jackson's Monday review: European giants survive Saturday banana skins

Since its rebranding as the Champions Cup, the big beasts have thundered down an all too predictable road, relentless in their crushing of lighter opposition, writes Peter Jackson.

Peter Jackson's Monday review: European giants survive Saturday banana skins

It has left the tournament crying out for something which every knock-out event needs — a Buster Douglas moment.

Believe it or not, two such moments very nearly came to pass within four hours of each other on Saturday evening, long overdue reminders that giant-killing hasn’t quite gone the way of the straight put-in and the Shane Williams school of flyweight wings.

Romantics grateful for small mercies will have taken some solace from the fact that the jolting impact of each heroic near-miss landed squarely on the collective chin of the clubs whose monopoly of Europe is now into its sixth season — Toulon and Saracens.

Each may have bounced off the ropes holding grimly on to a split-decision, but not before a one-eyed Irish marksman had gone heroically close to doing to Toulon what Douglas, the 42-1 world heavyweight title no-hoper, had done to the supposedly indestructible Mike Tyson in Tokyo more than 25 years ago.

Having taken Treviso to within 60 seconds of the final bell in conditions wet enough to make his goggles seem in need of windscreen wipers, Ian McKinley and his band of Benetton brothers wound up being robbed by a scrum-penalty in the second minute of stoppage time.

And then, as if taking their cue from events in Treviso, a Welsh team hit by a double dislocation before their crack at Saracens and recurring body blows thereafter took gallantry to another level. Ospreys, their wings clipped to the bone by a run of six straight defeats, lost one Lions flanker (Dan Lydiate) an hour before kick-off and another (Justin Tipuric) during the warm-up.

Already stripped of a third Lion, Rhys Webb, they had no option but to hurl their last man standing, Olympic sevens’ silver medallist Simon Cross, into the ultimate baptism of fire. Their back row resources exhausted, reserve prop Gareth Thomas sat on the bench and ended up at blindside.

Ospreys ran into so many emergencies that they went through three right wings as well as seven backrow forwards and still gave the double champions the fright of their European reign.

It amounted to the bravest defiance of overwhelming odds seen in north London since Shaun Edwards went the distance with Wigan in the 1990 Rugby League Cup final at Wembley despite a fractured eye socket and broken cheekbone.

Every time the holders threatened to put them away, the wounded Welsh birds of prey stopped them in their tracks.

As if they hadn’t suffered enough, Italian referee Marius Mitrea piled on the agony with a penalty try after rightly binning Dan Evans for a deliberate knock-on.

The lawbook decrees that ‘a penalty try must be awarded if the offence prevents a try that would probably otherwise have scored.’ Ospreys had good reason to question the probability. In the final analysis, the decision made all the difference.

They had gone to within two points of slaying a giant, Treviso to one. In doing so they earned the gratitude of neutrals all over Europe.

Welsh woe in Europe set to continue

Ian Whitten’s Ireland career began in Vancouver one Saturday more than eight years ago and ended seven days later in Santa Clara.

While he has never lost a Test match, his compatriot in exile, Gareth Steenson, can claim likewise for the perfectly good reason that he has never played in one.

Between them the forgotten centre and the uncapped fly-half played critical roles for Exeter in outwitting Montpellier’s monsters yesterday, surely the win of the weekend.

It ensures the English champions take their place as one of seven teams to win both opening rounds, including Leinster, next up in Devon on December 10.

The return, at the Aviva six days later, has every chance of being a 50,000 sell-out.

Elsewhere the tournament is already following a depressingly familiar shape.

For all the high expectation of Scarlets as PRO14 champions, both Welsh contenders are in danger of being knocked out even sooner than in previous years.

Ten out of ten: Leinster, La Rochelle, Saracens. 9: Clermont. 8: Exeter, Bath, Toulon. Down and almost out: Scarlets, Northampton, Glasgow Warriors, Harlequins, Montpellier, Castres, Treviso.

Putting the boot in in the most colourful way

Richard Webster, a gloriously old-school wing forward for Swansea, Wales and the Lions, once struggled to cobble together a team at Maesteg, a famous old club fallen on hard times in the rusting rugby belt of South Wales.

Finding himself one prop short of a pack, Webster phoned a friend and asked him if he fancied a game.

When the player said he would on condition that Webster bought him a new pair of boots for his size 12 feet, the old Lion set about to buy them out of his own pocket. “The first shop had the right size but they were only available in green,” Webster said. “Any prop in any team of mine would wear only one colour, black. I had to go to four more shops to find one. What’s the game coming to…?’”

The story sprang to mind at the sight of studded footwear made up of all the colours of the rainbow — orange, fluorescent yellow, turquoise, pink, white. And the piece de resistance? Black with red polka dots as worn by a Welsh prop, Scott Andrews of Bath.

Reaching for the big book of rugby cliches

Round Two in Europe brought its usual quotas of clichés and statements of the obvious from the assortment of players and coaches.

A few, to their credit, offer something rather more enlightening, not that they have much to beat judging by the gems of the weekend including this pearl:

‘The set-piece is going to be really important.’ Was there ever a time when it wasn’t important?

Other blinding insights were readily available at the drop of a question:

‘It’s about getting the performance right.’

‘A quick score is just what they need.’

‘Keep it simple and stay disciplined.’

‘Play the right areas.’

‘Cut down on the errors.’

Amid so much guff, David Flatman can be relied upon to come up with something different. Not even Storm Brian, whistling around his vantage point at the Scarlets-Bath match, could put him off his stroke:

“If you’re not getting caught,” BT Sport’s former England prop said in admiration of one scrum a split-second after it collapsed, “you’re not cheating.”

Better late than never, as they say

Vincent Clerc, Europe’s leading try scorer before being overtaken last season by the shy and retiring Chris Ashton, could, if he felt so inclined, lay claim to another record. Of all the late substitutes down the years, none can have entered the fray quite as late as the veteran French wing. There were 11 seconds left when Clerc appeared for Toulon in Treviso, long enough for the former triple champions to make the luckiest of escapes, not that he had anything to do with it. A serial winner when Toulouse ruled the roost, Clerc is hanging on, at 36 old enough to make Ulster’s Tommy Bowe and Andrew Trimble feel wet behind the ears.

Team of the weekend

15. Telusa Veainu (Leicester)

14. Liam Williams (Saracens)

13. Henry Slade (Exeter)

12. Owen Watkin (Ospreys)

11. Nemani Nadolo (Montpellier)

10. Rhys Priestland (Bath)

9. Conor Murray (Munster)

1. Dave Kilcoyne (Munster)

2. Benjamin Kayser (Clermont)

3. Harry Williams (Exeter)

4. Leone Nakawara (Racing)

5. Alun-Wyn Jones (Ospreys)

6. Rhys Ruddock (Leinster)

7. Sam Cross (Ospreys)

8. Victor Vito (La Rochelle).

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