Heineken Champions Cup: Five things we learned from opening weekend

Heineken Champions Cup: Five things we learned from opening weekend

There were wins for Leinster, Cell C Sharks and Sale Sharks on the opening weekend of this season’s Heineken Champions Cup

Twelve games played, 599 points scored and three new teams all made for a compelling start to the 2022-23 Heineken Champions Cup.

Eight sides from England, eight from France, three from Ireland and one each from Scotland and Wales were joined by three newcomers from South Africa in a new-look premier club competition – so what are the key talking points from the opening weekend?

BBC Sport takes a look at five things we learned.

Tigers dig in amid Borthwick speculation

There was a lot of noise around Leicester Tigers boss Steve Borthwick this weekend as he is among the favourites to replace Eddie Jones as the England head coach.

But the former lock was quick to shut down any suggestion of such a move in his pre-match news conference on Friday, and that message was conveyed to his players against Ospreys.

Anthony Watson’s stunning solo try saw Leicester come from behind to earn a 23-17 win against Ospreys in Swansea.

Nicky Smith’s try had given the hosts the lead before Harry Potter and Watson handed Tigers victory, despite Morgan Morris’ late consolation try. The result means the two-year wait for a Welsh win in Europe’s top tier competition goes on.

Speaking after the game, Borthwick said he was “fully focused” on facing Clermont next week – it remains to be seen whether he will still be in charge by then?

History-making South Africans enter the fray

Arguably the headline of this year’s tournament is the introduction of South African teams the Sharks, Stormers and Bulls.

The Cell C Sharks were the first to make their bow in the formerly all-European competition with a 39-31 bonus-point win over Premiership side Harlequins in Durban.

Josh Bassett’s second try got Quins to within one point of victory with five minutes remaining but Boeta Chamberlain scored to seal the win and take a losing bonus point away from the visitors, after earlier tries for the hosts from Bongi Mbonambi, Werner Kok and two from Makazole Mapimpi.

Andre Esterhuizen – a former Sharks player – scored two tries for Quins but that was only enough to secure a four-try bonus point.

The Stormers lost 24-14 at French side and three-time runners-up Clermont Auvergne, while the Bulls beat Lyon 42-36 in Pretoria.

England’s top two impress

Three-time winners Saracens, who made their return to the competition after a two-season hiatus, had to come from behind to earn a 30-26 bonus point win over Edinburgh on Sunday.

The Premiership leaders, who have won their opening nine league games of the season, went behind early on as their Scottish visitors played with intent.

Edinburgh scored the opening try through Luan de Bruin, before Elliot Daly crossed for the hosts. Ben Earl, Alex Lewington and Tom Woolstencroft all crossed to secure the bonus point for the hosts at the StoneX Stadium, while Wes Goosen’s late try earned a losing bonus for Edinburgh.

Sale Sharks continued their momentum after three league wins with a comfortable win over Ulster in the early game on Sunday, scoring six tries to claim a 39-0 bonus-point win at the AJ Bell Stadium.

Ulster’s preparation for the game was disrupted by the cold weather in the north west of England, which meant they had to travel on the morning of the game after their flight on Saturday was cancelled.

Perhaps the visitors were sluggish from their disrupted schedule, but tries from Tom Curry, Dan du Preez, Rob du Preez, Tom Curtis, Byron McGuigan and Arron Reed led to a comfortable home win.

Holders begin defence in style

Holders La Rochelle began the defence of their crown with a thumping 46-12 bonus-point win over Northampton Saints.

The French side have been in indifferent form with three defeats in their past five matches but they took control against Saints as first-half tries by Brice Dulin, Pierre Bourgarit, Pierre Boudehent and Dillyn Leyds wrapped up the bonus.

Gregory Alldritt charged down a clearance to score a fifth try before Ulupano Seuteni added a sixth.

There was some positivity for Saints, who welcomed back England forward Courtney Lawes for the first time in two months off the bench, before James Ramm and Matt Proctor scored consolation tries.

Next up for the holders is a trip to Ulster.

Leinster contain Russell and Racing 92

Injury to Leinster‘s Johnny Sexton prevented the latest instalment in the battle of the 10s between the Irishman and Scotland’s Finn Russell.

Ross Byrne stepped in to replace Sexton at fly-half for the four-time winners as they dominated three-time runners-up Racing 92 to secure a 42-10 bonus-point away win.

Josh van der Flier was named men’s player of the year at the World Rugby Awards last month, and his year just keeps getting better as he scored two tries in France, while Andrew Porter, Dan Sheehan, Garry Ringrose and Ed Byrne also crossed for the visitors.

Russell was limited to just five points from the boot, including a conversion for Christian Wade’s try, as the disciplined Leinster defence prevented him from pulling the strings in midfield.

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