We are now past the half way mark in Europe and the likely qualifiers have made themselves known. There were huge wins for Connacht, Edinburgh and Gloucester, whilst holders Stade Français hauled themselves back into contention in Challenge Cup Round Four.
But it is the PRO14 sides who have most to cheer. With three Celtic League representatives topping their pools, breaking the traditional English dominance and fling high before the New Years break.
Pool One: History Made by Female Referee
It was a noteworthy match in southwest France as Bordeaux-Bègles kept their quarter final hopes alive, by beating Enesei-STM 36-27. The Russian side have lost all four games but scored three tries here and were ‘by no means’ disgraced.
However this game will be remembered in the history books for Joy Neville becoming the first female referee in European Rugby. This is a highly significant moment which will surely pave the way for female officials in the Champions Cup and beyond in the future.
Thank you @ERChallengeCup @ChampionsCup for giving me the opportunity to referee @UBBrugby V's @Enisei_STM. A wonderful display of rugby by both sides. Honoured to be given such an opportunity. A memory I will cherish 👐 pic.twitter.com/xFxTlWlFoF
— Joy Neville (@JoyNevilleRef) December 16, 2017
In the other match Newcastle Falcons held on to beat the Dragons in Newport. First half tries from Adam Radwan, Zach Kibirige and Gary Graham put the visitors in control but they couldn’t add a fourth for the bonus point.
After an Elliott Dee double, Ashton Hewitt gave the Dragons fans hope, with Gavin Henson putting them ahead on the scoreboard. In saying that, the Falcons’ only second half points proved to be the winning blow; a Joel Hodgson penalty handing them a narrow 27-25 win.
Pool Two: All to Play For
In the tightest pool it was the Cardiff Blues who struck a vital blow with a 14-6 revenge victory over Sale Sharks. A Matthew Morgan try after 47 minutes was the deciding moment, coupled with three Gareth Anscombe penalties.
The Welsh side now top the pool thanks to Lyon and Toulouse trading wins over rounds three and four. Lyon moved to second with a 21-11 win, but they are the lowest ranked second-placed team and won’t qualify as it stands.
Given Pool Two results so far, it’s hard to see a second qualifier emerging from this group.
Pool Three: Pau and Gloucester Fight for Top Spot
This pool is heading for a round six showdown at Kingsholm, where Gloucester Rugby and Pau will fight for top spot. Both recorded bonus point wins, but in very different manners this round.
While Pau had to wait until the last play of the game to finish-off Agen 26-12, Gloucester had a four try bonus point in the bag ‘within the first quarter’ against Zebre. In total they scored 11 tries, with winger Ollie Thorley scoring four.
The 69-12 scoreline frankly flattered the visitors and Gloucester should probably have reached 100. They inevitably eased off in the second half, and Zebre were just able to restore some pride – two late tries – but they were still blushing after the belting handed out by Glaws.
Six in two games for the flyer! pic.twitter.com/qbPVKVV77j
— Gloucester Rugby (@gloucesterrugby) December 16, 2017
Both Gloucester and Pau are likely to qualify, so their round six clash will decide who will get the home quarter final.
Pool Four: Edinburgh Maintain Perfect Record
Edinburgh set the bar on Friday evening, with 12 tries against Krasny Yar. Recording a 78-0 victory at Murrayfield, it was impressive.
The tries were shared around, with the entire Scottish backline except James Johnstone notching a try and only Duhan Van Der Merwe getting more than one. This result serves to magnify the achievement of Krasny Yar in Round One.
One point raised by Last Word on Rugby is the issue of huge mismatches,. Yet, Edinburgh won’t mind with 20 points out of 20 on the board.
After two shocking defeats Stade Français now sit in second thanks to a 26-12 bonus point win at London Irish. The hosts lead 10-5 at half time but succumbed to yet another defeat, even after then going ahead 17-5 with a penalty try. Stade fullback Tony Ensor won the game with the final play and secured the bonus point at the same time.
Pool Five: Worcester Lose Chance to Push for Top Spot
Finally in Pool Five, Connacht notched a second win over Brive, this time 55-10 at the Sportsground. Winger Matt Healy matched Ollie Thorley’s four tries to keep his side’s 100% record in tact.
Matt Healy today. pic.twitter.com/XlilJf0sO9
— Connacht Rugby (@connachtrugby) December 16, 2017
The scoreline was only 17-10 at half time, so coach Kieran Keane will be delighted his team were able to clinically pull away in the second half. Pull away…..more so, smashing through the defences of the French opposition.
Meanwhile Worcester Warriors lost the chance to keep pace with Connacht by succumbing 27-20 to previously winnless Oyonnax. The Midlanders have been in good form recently but many will presume they were perhaps more distracted by the massive Aviva Premiership relegation clash against London Irish, next week.
But overall, the weekend favoured PRO14 sides in the results column of Challenge Cup Round Four.
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