Heineken Cup Matchday 3: 6 Things We Learned

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistDecember 8, 2013

Heineken Cup Matchday 3: 6 Things We Learned

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    Now halfway through the 2013/14 Heineken Cup group stage, all six pools in the European competition have begun to take shape, showing us who we are and aren't likely to see in the next phase of the tournament.

    Matchday 3 was an informative one in that it helped give us further understanding of the current power distribution in the continental ranks, although there's plenty left to play for.

    This weekend saw reigning champions Toulon take a firmer grip on matters, while past giants in Europe Leinster, Munster and Clermont also gained a stride.

    As ever, these results give us a sample of talking points to bounce off of, the biggest of which are detailed ahead.

1. Tigers Continue on Their European Prowl

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    Richard Cockerill's Leicester Tigers have had a tough time of things in domestic matters but have bounced back well from an opening defeat against Ulster in the Heineken Cup to take a firmer hold in Europe.

    On Sunday afternoon, the English giants ran rampant against Montpellier and, although they allowed their French visitors four tries of their own, a score of 41-32 was enough to see Tigers through to maximum points.

    A brace of tries from Miles Benjamin set the tone for a triumphant first half from the Welford Road hosts. And, while things weren't quite as fluid in the second period, Leicester showed some of their finer moments against Montpellier.

    The Aviva Premiership may not present the Tigers with further cause for comfort anytime soon, but at least continental action is giving the club something to smile about.

2. Munster Regaining a Dominant Stride in Europe

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    Long gone are the days when Munster' progress through Europe was as good as a given, the Irish province continuing to adapt to their loss of the Old Guard under Rob Penney.

    For some, this weekend will have served as a throwback to the old days, Munster triumphing 36-8 over Perpignan in confident fashion with a squad that contained many a reserve member.

    Top of the Pro12 and now with sight distancing them at the top of Pool 6, Penney's outfit looked impressive on Sunday in a tournament that's always treated them well, save for a few spare years away from the summit.

    Instead, it was the likes of Keith Earls, James Coughlan, David Kilcoyne and Sean Dougall that stood out for the club, helping Munster on their march to the latter stages of the Heineken Cup.

3. Leinster Won't Let the Saints March in

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    This weekend was the fourth Heineken Cup meeting between Leinster and Northampton in a fixture that's so far been dominated by the Irish representatives.

    It was much the same case on Saturday, and Matt O'Connor's men kept up their unbeaten record against Jim Mallinder's side, thumping their hosts 40-7 at Franklin's Gardens.

    With that win, Leinster now extend their lead at the top of Pool 1 to five points and have succeeded in making a huge statement for this year's competition in the process.

    However, it's a damning defeat for the Saints to take, putting a lot of their graft both on European shores and domestic to waste in what was really a must-win encounter if they're to top the group.

4. Luck of the Irish

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    This week was a kind one for the Irish participants, who were unanimously victorious in their endeavours.

    All provinces were successful in their most recent outings and, what's more, Leinster Ulster and Munster now all find themselves at the top of their respective pools thanks to those efforts.

    Connacht are the only team therefore letting the green team down in that regard, but more than make up for that with their shock away win at Toulouse, dragging themselves to within a point of the French giants in Pool 3.

    Leinster, Ulster and Munster managed to put 40, 48 and 36 points on Northampton Saints, Treviso and Perpignan, respectively, in what was an extremely profitable week if one's from the Emerald Isle.

    The provinces were all in some of their most efficient attacking form and they left future opponents with some thinking to do before coming up against this fearsome quartet.

5. French Finalists Fanfare

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    The cream truly rose to the top for French clubs this weekend as last year's Heineken Cup finalists Clermont and Toulon were left as the only Top 14 clubs who managed to come out of their battles unscathed.

    Castres also managed to send Ospreys packing on Friday evening but Matchday 3 of the tournament was otherwise a bleak one for the French, Perpignan, Toulouse, Montpellier and Racing Metro, all losing.

    Regardless of how their domestic struggles are going, Toulon and Clermont continue to boast consistency at the top level and will undoubtedly be some of those names whispered when discussing possible contenders for the 2013/14 title. They showed exactly why this past weekend.

6. Italian Clubs Painfully Far off the Pace

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    In the interest of the best competition possible, one would most likely agree that an even balance of talent across competition is preferred, as few creaks or weaknesses evident among those competing as possible being the aim.

    However, in the current regime there exists many a weak point, with Italian representatives Zebre and Treviso being two of them.

    With the new format of European rugby competition that the ERC are proposing, it's plausible that changes in the structure could come to eliminate such glaring sunspots in the future. But for now this would appear to be the way of things.

    Again this weekend, both of Italy's bastions failed to take points from their respective encounters, carrying on the fruitless trends that have thus been the case in their Heineken Cup campaigns.

    With that being the case, we can almost certainly rule out the possibility of either team advancing in the continent's top competition, acknowledging that the feat may have seemed unlikely from the start.