Newcastle, Edinburgh & Toulouse: The surprise packages lighting up the Champions Cup
At the half way point of the 2018/2019 Champions Cup, we pause to reflect on all of the intriguing stories beginning to unfold, the biggest surprise packages and the individuals behind their meteoric rise.
The most sensible place to begin, is in fact where the story of this Champions Cup campaign will conclude: Newcastle.
The Falcons have been the talk of the competition so far. Drawn as one of the lowest seeds, the tastiest of encounters were set in a group with European heavyweights Montpellier and Toulon. Not bad for your first excursion into elite European competition in fourteen years. Newcastle sailed into the picturesque Port of Toulon, with its rugged limestone mountains and pristine sandy beaches looking to make a splash. They delivered a tsunami. A historic 25-26 victory over the second most decorated side in the competitions history was a feat only Saracens have matched when they did battle at the Stade Felix Mayol two years earlier. Only their second home defeat in twenty-four compounded what a momentous victory this was for Newcastle. Joel Hodgson, cruelly ruled out indefinitely with a broken leg, kicked perfectly, as he has done so consistently since his return to Tyneside, to tee up a mouth watering round two clash.
Montpellier came to town (or toon!), opening their campaign with a six point victory over the other side in pool five Edinburgh. Not satisfied with one historic victory, Newcastle continued to write the European rugby headlines with an immense 23-20 victory over the French giants. Dean Richards has been keen to remind everybody that this squad never know when they are beaten. It certainly reflected on the day, entering 88 minutes of play, Callum Chick was on the end of a storming 39 phase onslaught to seal victory and turn Kingston Park into a cauldron of euphoria as the home side jumped to top spot in the group. Some emphatic individual performances, most notably, Johnny Williams and Gary Graham, the formers superb line break to set up Grahams opener. Chris Harris, knocking on the door of the Scotland squad, continues to be a brick wall in defence, and offer solid gains in attack. Rather predictably, a pristine showing from Mark Wilson under the watchful eye of Eddie Jones, was probably enough to give the latter the platform to do what he did in the white of England in November, and why the former Graham is very much on the Australian's radar, if Scotland don't nab him first, that is.
A trip to Edinburgh followed, with a raft of changes and inexperienced side losing a typically abrasive affair, however, it might have been so different, had EPCR allowed Newcastle to name more than one tighthead prop in their squad after a 24 hour injury crises. That decision, however, should not dampen the mood in camp, with Edinburgh and Toulon to face at home, this Newcastle side have the world, or at least Europe, at their feet, despite that blip at Murrayfield. Two wins and a bar drank dry in Toulon, the Falcons have had a magnificent return to life in Champions Cup rugby, or should that read magnifique, Falcons Media boss Mark Smith and 44 time capped England prop Dave Wilson would say so;
This Euro fever is definitely catching, I just heard Davey Wilson refer to custard as ‘creme Anglaise’.— mark smith (@markismith50) October 14, 2018
120 miles North of the border and the side that lead that pool after domiant victories, both at home to Newcastle and Toulon, are unfancied Edinburgh. A team littered with Scottish internationals have, with Newcastle, turned the table upside down despite also lingering in the bottom half of their Top 14 conference. Defeat in Montpellier could have been different, a stellar second half defensive performance where the home side did not score a point, Edinburgh just couldn't find the attacking edge to squeak past last years Top 14 runners up as Louis Picamoles ran riot with 23 tackles on the day.
Next up was Toulon at home, reeling after that defeat to Newcastle, the French expected a reaction, what they received was a lesson. The attacking edge missing in Montpellier was found swiftly at Murrayfield as the home side stacked up 40 points on one of French rugbys most decorated clubs. Followed up by another win at home to the Falcons, Edinburgh are suddenly the in-form team and find themselves top of a previously recognised impossible mountain.
Every man has performed in the run, however a quartet has been the most recognisable. Firstly in the pack, WP Nel has been simply unrelenting at scrum time. There aren't many better scrummagers in Europe, never mind Scotland, and heading into what will most certainly be his last World Cup, and quite possibly his last 6 Nations, Willem Nel is the exact player Scotland can rely on to deliver the goods, not just at the set piece, but all over the park. His forward companion and international team mate Hamish Watson has finished all three of his sides Champions Cup outings number one in tackle count, and also added a try to his collection against Newcastle. Stuart McInally is another with a couple of tries, and another piece of quality in an ever improving Scotland set up.
If forwards do win games and backs truly decide by how many, fans can thank two men knocking on the door of Scotland selection for the emphasis in which Edinburgh dispatched of Toulon and Newcastle. Firstly, Henry Prygos, uncapped in 2018, has used his ability to make crucial, defining decisions in split second moments crushingly effectively across all three games. Over 100 passes and 40 metres made in the Montpellier defeat show his versatility, and he must be wondering what more he can do to not only get in the Scotland set up, but dislodge stalwart Laidlaw. Finally, young Blair Kinghorn has announced himself on the competition with 215m made in the cup so far with his maiden try. Gregor Townsend has to find a way to give this man minutes, or at least allow him time to develop alongside the magical Hogg. It's been a while since Scottish rugby has had such headaches.
Whilst there are home comforts aplenty, the worry for Edinburgh is two of their final three home games are on the road, Richard Cockerill's men haven't won outside of EH12 since March, and if they want to maintain top spot, that has to change.
To France and to the most decorated side in this competitions history, who haven't laid claim to the title since 2010, however, with the start they've made, it's hard to dispute that Toulouse are, somewhat surprisingly, right in the picture. In what was arguably the most competitive draw, the capital rugby side of France's Occitanie region has found itself at the summit of it's group. Travelling to Bath and Wasps, who admittedly aren't having stellar domestic campaigns, (but then, neither are Newcastle or Edinburgh), and coming away with two victories is impressive as it is crucial. Compounding that is the victory over holders Leinster. A one-point win at home could prove vital in the battle for top spot, and a home quarterfinal that comes with it.
This team almost feel like the perfect mix of French rugby throwback with a topping of exciting youth. The two Maxime's, Médard and Mermoz have been rolling back the years, the former with a try at Bath and a brace in the Leinster victory, whilst Mermoz, missing from the Wasps win, anchoring the midfield with solid defensive displays. Another man who isn't as gripped as tightly by the clutches of rugby father time is Cheslin Kolbe. Built in the image of Shane Williams, what the South African lacks in height he more than makes up for in power, speed and frightening unpredictability. Those dazzling runs add to the threat Toulouse offer on the counter, especially with Thomas Ramos, the leading points scorer in the tournament is another name French rugby can unleash on it’s Northern hemisphere rivals, and with the levels of production he’s currently yielding, team mate Médard may have a battle from within to retain the 15 jersey with his national team.
Honourable mentions for Gloucester, another team 2-1 in a tough looking group, the most astounding aspect the domination of Exeter at Sandy Park, which all but rules Exeter out of the knock out rounds, should Ben Morgan and friends do what they did at home in round four. After his latest outing, it’s hard to imagine Eddie Jones not giving Morgan a call; then again, he seems to have had great difficulty finding Danny Cipriani’s number. Sarries and Racing complete the 100% triplet at the half way point, their threat is still as ominous as ever, and individual performances of Farrell, Maitland, Zebo and Baptise Chouzenoux continuing to remind us that they are alive and well, but how refreshing is it to see some new faces, as well as former greats, come to the fore front of a tournament that is benefitting from the fresh changeableness? Newcastle, Edinburgh and Toulouse certainly see it that way.