Sunday 19 January 2020

Exeter look the most potent despite Ireland's clean sweep

VITAL: Munster’s Peter O’Mahony congratulates James Cronin following his late try against Ospreys. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile
VITAL: Munster’s Peter O’Mahony congratulates James Cronin following his late try against Ospreys. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

The drama and intrigue built into the Champions Cup comes from the interest around watching clubs impress round-by-round, forcing analysts, commentators, pundits to alter their opinions around which clubs are on the rise, which remain steady and which are falling away.

This is a subjective determination on how the land lies after the first round, ranking the clubs 1-to-8 as the race for the quarter-finals is underway.

RANK 1: Exeter Chiefs 1-0 (5 points)

Ronan O'Gara's La Rochelle will probably settle for progress in the Top-14 after suffering a brutal 31-12 lesson from Exeter at Stade Deflandre.

The Chiefs looked the part in forcing the French into mistakes through their trademark pressure game with Henry Slade, Joe and Sam Simmonds to the fore.

RANK 2: Clermont-Auvergne 1-0 (5 pts)

The term flatter-to-deceive was probably invented for Clermont's exploits in the European Cup.

They explored their lavish gifts to spank Harlequins 53-21 at Stade Marcel Michelin.

Fijian firebrands Peceli Yato and Alivereti Raka tore 'Quins apart to grab a pair apiece among the seven tries.

RANK 3: Racing 92 1-0 (5 pts)

There were more upsets expected than is usual from the ramifications of the World Cup, Saracens leaving their six World Cup final starters out of the rumble with Racing 92.

The French club had the bonus-point in the bag by the time Simon Zebo arrived from the bench in the 74th minute in the 30-10 win in Paris.

RANK 4: Leinster 1-0 (5 pts)

Leinster showed enough cohesion to eclipse tough nuts Benetton 33-19 with a hat-trick from Garry Ringrose the highlight of their performance.

It confirms Leo Cullen's men near-perfect start to the season, collecting 29 out of a possible 30 points in the PRO14 League.

For all of that, Benetton competed with collective ferocity and could well trouble Northampton in Italy next Saturday.

RANK 5: Toulouse 1-0 (4 pts)

The other four-time champions will be grateful to Connacht for getting the upper-hand on Montpellier (23-20) at the Sportsground yesterday.

Toulouse could have packed it in at half-time in Gloucester, trailing 20-9 to two Joe Simpson's long-distance specials.

Instead, they completely shut down the Cherry and Whites, Sebastien Bezy sniping for the try in a five-point (25-20) win.

RANK 6: Munster 1-0 (5 pts)

The reaction of the Munster men to James Cronin's 85th minute bonus-point try at Ospreys was proof positive, if any was needed, of what Europe means to them.

The Welsh franchise has won just one of six in the PRO14 and are a shadow of themselves.

Understandably, Johann van Graan was chuffed to take the maximum return in the 'Pool of Death' with Racing on their way to Limerick.

"That last try could be vital," said Van Graan after Munster's dramatic victory.

RANK 7: Connacht 1-0 (4 pts)

Montpellier came replete with all the power it could muster to bully Connacht in their own back yard.

What they encountered was a different type of animal to the passive one that showed up against Leinster the previous week. Caolin Blade was a menace and Robin Copeland a big play scavenger in a worthy 23-20 victory that owed so much to their resilient forwards to give a glimpse of what is possible.

RANK 8: Ulster 1-0 (4 pts)

In a clean sweep for Irish provinces, Ulster's 17-16 hit-and-run raid at Bath came down to one moment from Jacob Stockdale.

It was in defence where the Ireland wing was a match- winner, picking off a try-scoring pass to Semesa Rokoduguni to end the game.

It puts Dan McFarland's charges in the right frame for Clermont on Friday night.

2019/2020 POWER RANKINGS (Week 1)

(1) Exeter Chiefs

(2) Clermont-Auvergne

(3) Racing 92

(4) Leinster

(5) Toulouse

(6) Munster

(7) Connacht

(8) Ulster

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