Champions Cup Pool Two results masked in 'Shoulder Tackle controversy'
CASTRES, FRANCE - OCTOBER 20: Mathieu Babillot of Castres Olympique (c) celebrates winning a penalty at the death to secure victory during the Heineken Champions Cup match between Castres Olympique and Exeter Chiefs at the Stade Pierre-Fabre on October 20, 2018 in Castres, France. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

It is disappointing that this weekend’s reaction and analysis from the Champions Cup Pool Two discussion will not be focusing on great tries or moments of magic. Instead, commentators have to look at the controversy that accompanied the round two fixtures.

David Challis looks at the outcomes, with analysis on the pair of shoulder tackles controversy, impending disciplinary actions waiting for those players involved, and – critically for fans of Exter – what the past-Aviva Premiership winners must do, to correct their poor start to the 2018/19 season.

Red Card motivates Castres to a famous win

Exeter was defeated away by a spirited Castres side 29-25, who fought back from being a man down to hold the Chiefs down the standings of the Champions Cup pool two.

The turning point of the game involved Castres player Ma’ama Vaipulu, was dismissed before halftime after the Exeter side had started very brightly. The player would have no complaints for his dismissal, as replays showed a clear shoulder to the head of Luke Cowan-Dickie.

Incredibly, Castres rallied after the break and managed to pull ahead through the sensational Steve Mafi. Exeter put pressure on at the death and might have looked to win the game. However, Castres managed to hold on to keep their qualification hopes alive.

The Chiefs fast start

Leading up to this fixture, the word from the Exeter camp was that they were disappointed with their opening 20 minutes against Munster. They appeared to rectify this with a really fast start scoring through Santiago Cordero and Matt Kvesic. Hooker Jack Yeandle also expressed his team’s desire to run the large French pack around the park. They once again executed this game plan brilliantly in the opening quarter.

Another point brought up by Director of Rugby Rob Baxter was the importance of momentum swings in the modern game. He noted that ‘if his side could control these swings’ they would be successful. When Castres fought back in the first half, his concerns appeared to be vindicated. However, when Vaipulu was shown a red card and Steenson slid over following a charge down Exeter looked as if they would pull away in the second half.

What happened to Exeter in the castres Champions Cup clash?

No one could have expected what was to come next. Castres returned from the changing rooms a different side. In a perverse way, the red card almost seemed to work to their advantage. They looked determined and they played admirably. Being down to 14 men meant they had to draw Exeter into an arm wrestle that actually suited their heavy pack of forwards.

They did this brilliantly and this second half strategy told on the scoreboard by the final whistle.

Exeter, conversely, came out for the second half almost subdued and flat. Complacency is maybe too strong a description. And much credit needs to be given to the French side for their second-half performance. However, a side of Exeter’s quality should have had enough to turn over a 14-man Castres side even taking into account Castres home Champions Cup record.

The Chiefs could not get any momentum going. They seemed to abandon what had worked so well for them in the first half. Instead of going from touchline to touchline they were forced to attack up the middle which just played into the French champions’ hands.

This result leaves the Exeter Chiefs fighting hard to control the momentum swing, in this season’s Champions Cup pool two fixtures.

Munster hold off Gloucester at home

In the other Champions Cup pool two results, Gloucester lost their key play-maker Danny Cipriani early in the first half. The decision of referee Alexandre Ruiz had divided fans and players alike and it undoubtedly had a significant impact on the game (see below).

Munster would take advantage racking up their fourth try and key bonus point just after halftime. The game seemed all sewn-up, although Gloucester did respond well. They showed great character in the final quarter and managed to find the line through Ben Morgan – who impressed on the day. Tries to Gerbrandt Grobler and Jason Woodward also gave fans a glimpse of hope.

Yet, it was not enough as Munster prevailed 36-22, in front of 23,000 fans on home soil.

Cipriani’s Champions Cup controversy

Danny Cipriani has been an ever-present in this year’s headlines and this weekend was no different. Alexandre Ruiz’s decision to red card the Gloucester fly-half has caused outrage in some quarters. However, as far as following the laws is concerned he is entirely justified.

Head coach Johan Ackerman has claimed that Danny Cipriani had no intention or expectation to make the tackle. He argues this should have been taken into account as a mitigating factor. However, it must be argued that it is ‘hard to see how when a player is charging about a yard from you are not expecting that contact might take place’.

Other quarters have argued that because Cipriani didn’t use much force and, was trying to move backwards, he should not have been treated as harshly. Once again this reporter has no sympathy for this argument. If Cipriani, or any player for that matter, wants to avoid a red card, the solution is simple – tackle lower!

Cipriani had ample time to drop lower and avoid the head but he chose not to and thus ran the risk of being penalized. To player’s credit though, he was resigned to his fate very quickly and did not argue. He also apologized to Scannell as he left the field.

As far as any probable ban is concerned, he is likely to get away with something relatively short. If Gloucester pleads guilty, their first-five could be out of the Champions Cup pool two upcoming matches for (as little as) three-to-five weeks.

Hope still for Gloucester but, Munster are in Drivers Seat

Despite the controversy that dominated this game there is more to take from this game. Morgan looks back to this pre-2015 Rugby World Cup best. Gloucester also largely they coped well with Munster for the majority of the game despite being down to 14 men.

Munster on the other hand also need to be given credit for the way they handled the disruption. As we have seen with Exeter, it can sometimes be difficult playing against 14. Star signing Joey Carbery was – for the second week running – a class above. If he continues to play like this, he could give Joe Schmidt a real selection headache.

Furthermore, with Leinster showing they are beatable we could be looking at genuine Champions Cup contenders in the Kingdom of Munster.

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Looking ahead to Rounds Three and Four

December throws up some mouth-watering clashes in Champions Cup Pool Two.

Gloucester and Exeter play each other home and away, as do Munster and Castres. Munster are in pole position but, are only one win [5 competition points] off Exeter in fourth place. This demonstrates how this pool is far from decided just yet.

Realistically, Exeter cannot afford another loss before they go to Thomond Park after Christmas. Gloucester has a slight advantage, in that they have already played away at Munster. This has removed probably the trickiest away game out of the way for them and will allow ‘Glaws fans to look ahead to some positive results.

Castres go to Thomond Park in round three which will be a tough test for them yet, a losing bonus will keep them in the hunt. Not focusing on losing though is the mentality that all Champions Cup pool two teams need to bring if they travel away.

Heineken Champions Cup Pool Two standings

This pool has got to be one of the most difficult to call. No side has come through the first two rounds unbeaten. On top of this, many people’s pre-tournament favourites Exeter are dawdling at the bottom of the standings. But, they are by no means out of the 2018/19 competition just yet.

(Note: the attached BT Sport video tweets may not play in all regions.)

 

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