The opening round of European Champions Cup action left me slightly confused; there were some cracking matches but also some really disappointing results.
The SA Sharks’ win over Harlequins down in South Africa was proper entertainment, as was Lyon’s loss to the Bulls on the African continent.
But Leinster’s demolition of Racing 92 was disappointing to see – albeit the Parisian side did not field their strongest squad – and the rout of Northampton by La Rochelle was a stunning example of where Phil Dowson and Ronan O’Gara’s sides are right now.
But looking forward to this weekend there are some absolute storming fixtures to look forward to.
I cannot take my eyes off Exeter’s clash against the Bulls, Leicester’s tie against Clermont, Ulster’s redemption game against La Rochelle and Toulouse’s Sunday battle with Sale.
Working my way backwards, I think Sale’s trip to Toulouse has the chance of being the upset of the round. While Toulouse should win this one at home, Sale performed so well against Ulster that you cannot write them off.
The Manchester outfit have been solid thus far this season and have been a real obstacle for some good teams but Toulouse are a different beast and winning out in the south of France would be a real statement for Alex Sanderson’s side.
Ulster with backs to wall
La Rochelle really proved they’re in the mix to defend the European title they won last year and they travel to an Ulster side who were humiliated by Sale last week.
Ulster are a solid side but the arrival of La Rochelle on the island or Ireland should strike fear into the province – O’Gara’s outfit are a relentless one and their coach has a special bond with Europe.
The English champions‘ first home gig will see them take on Clermont – who beat the Stormers last week.
If the Tigers want to see themselves as contenders this year they will need to put up a good showing at home against a Clermont side who love Europe.
Steve Borthwick’s men should win this one but it won’t be easy, lose the battle up front and everything else will feel pointless.
I expected Exeter to struggle this year in the European competition so when they beat Castres across the Channel it piqued my interest.
At home they face the Bulls in a match they will be eyeing a win in; hopefully secure the five points and the side will be all but through to the next round.
The Devonshire side are facing an exodus of players at the moment but a run in Europe could be just what they need to keep their stars as well as attract new players.
I have to say I raised an eyebrow when I saw that George McGuigan – the Newcastle hooker who made my shortlist for player of the season last year – had left his club to join Gloucester, effective immediately.
It’s not too often you see big names move on in December-January and it feels like as much a car crash for Newcastle as it is brilliant business for Gloucester.
Combined with the signing of Zach Mercer and the rumoured acquisition of Will Stuart, Gloucester are continuing to build a solid squad of forwards on top of a pack which has been dominant for a whole.
Am I surprised to see Bernard Laporte face punishment for his alleged corruption allegations? I cannot say I am. The World Rugby vice-chair has thrown his organisation into chaos and it undermines the institution he represents.
I would like to see former vice-chair Agustin Pichot back in a senior role, his ideas looked revolutionary and that’s what the game needs.
China Sevens head coach Ollie Phillips is the founder of Optimist Performance, experts in leadership development and behavioural change. Follow Ollie on Twitter and on LinkedIn.