Power Ranking Europe's Top 10 Clubs
The Heineken Cup returned with a bang at the weekend, with shocks, slaughters and stirring comebacks across the continent.
Ireland’s provinces took the lion’s share of the plaudits as all four claimed victories, three of them against well-heeled French sides.
The Irish internationals among their ranks largely performed brilliantly, which is exactly the reaction national coach Joe Schmidt would have been looking for following their defeat to New Zealand.
So, taking into account domestic placings and European form, here’s how the top ten stack up.
10. (Last Ranking 7) Northampton, Premiership
What a chastening night it was for Northampton when Leinster came to town, hammering them 40-7.
It’s hard to remember when we last saw a side with the quality possessed by the Saints so comprehensively walloped in the Heineken Cup.
Rather than pick apart their failings in a video analysis session, boss Jim Mallinder would be better off hiring Paul McKenna to wipe the memory of that game from their minds.
Mallinder will need, and expect, a reaction in Dublin next weekend.
9. (New Entry) Castres, Top 14
The reigning Top 14 champions have muscled their way back into the reckoning on the domestic front.
Over the international break they maneuvered themselves into the top four and now sit on 36 points along with Toulouse and Toulon.
In Europe, their early round narrow defeat to Leinster in Dublin now looks like a half decent result given what the Irishmen did to Northampton on Saturday night.
In pool round three they overcame a resolute Ospreys side 15-9 to keep hopes of qualification to the knockout stages alive and kicking.
8. (9) Ulster, Pro 12
Ulster are enjoying themselves in Europe this season. They buried Benetton 48-0 with seven tries at Ravenhill.
They sit top of Pool 5 having won their first three games and are one of three Irish sides in the top four of the RaboDirect Pro 12 table.
With a visit to Leicester still to come, their toughest challenge awaits to see if they can top their section, but they are in the form to do it.
7. (8) Leicester, Premiership
The Tigers were dragged into a feast of attacking rugby by Montpellier but emerged with the win in a 41-32 victory.
The home side had raced into a 24-3 lead in the first half, but the Frenchmen came roaring back to make it 24-18 at the break.
Montpellier only had a disallowed try deny them a grandstand finish, but at least left the East Midlands with a four-try bonus point.
Victory was all the sweeter for Leicester as it came with two tries from Miles Benjamin. The former Worcester wing has been sidelined for 18 months by injury but regained his finishing touch yesterday.
6. (5) Munster, PRO 12
Rod Penney’s men sit top of the RaboDirect and in fine fettle in Europe after thumping Perpignan 36-8 in Limerick.
Munster haven’t lost in the league since September 20 and their first pool match reversal in Edinburgh now seems like a distant memory.
With Perpignan all but out of this competition, the Irish province will be favourites to do the double over the Catalans next weekend.
5. (2) Toulon, Top 14
It took a Jonny Wilkinson drop goal to extinguish the hopes of Exeter at Sandy Park for the champions, sealing a 14-11 win.
This is the second Heineken trip on which Wilko and Co have been sucked into a scrap. They lost the first such encounter in Cardiff but at least proved they learned from it with this victory.
It was also the response Bernard Laporte would have been looking for after seeing his expensive squad go down 23-0 away to Stade Francais a week earlier.
That was Toulon’s first reverse in the Top 14 since the end of September, and leaves them fourth, just a point ahead of the Parisians.
4. (3) Saracens, Premiership
Sarries did as required in Italy, dispatching Zebre 39-10 and earning a routine four-try bonus point.
Two scores from Chris Ashton will do the England man’s dented confidence some good.
Mark McCall’s men will look to fill their boots again when they host the Italians next week, and they will need to in a pool blown open by Connacht’s heroics.
In the Premiership, the sheen was taken off their strong start during the international break. The week before England played Australia, they were battered by Northampton.
They have since recovered with gritty wins over Exeter and Sale and sit two points clear of the Saints.
3. (1) Toulouse, Top 14
The result of the weekend was recorded at the Stade Ernest Wallon when Connacht turned over the aristocrats of Europe.
Their 14-16 defeat to the Irish minnows was the first reverse in the competition at home for five years.
It makes their pool, also containing Saracens, a wide open affair with Toulouse top on 10 points, Saracens second and the men from Galway just a point behind.
It will be a rousing reception at the Sports Ground next weekend for Guy Noves’ men. Tip of the hat to scrum half Kieran Marmion for his side’s only try.
The young No. 9 has been in great form this season. On the domestic front, Toulouse remain in the mix at the top, four points behind the leaders.
2. (5) Leinster, PRO 12
The three-time champions of Europe put on a masterclass in Northampton on Saturday.
They were untouchable by the Saints in a 40-7 win. Jim Mallinder’s men will not be looking forward to the return fixture this coming weekend.
There were impressive performances all over the field, from Sean O’Brien and Sean Cronin up front to the wizardry of Brian O’Driscoll in the backs.
Indeed, Leinster’s Irish internationals looked inspired following their heartbreak against New Zealand.
Leinster have announced themselves as serious contenders to claim their fourth Heineken Cup with this performance.
They have also bubbled to the boil on the home front, occupying third spot in the PRO 12.
1. (4) Clermont Auvergne, Top 14
The star-studded Clermont put Scarlets to the sword 31-11, with two of their four tries from the ever-dangerous Napoloni Nalaga.
It looked to be a much tighter affair with a half-time score of just 6-3 to last year’s beaten finalists, but they cut loose in style in the second half to assert control of Pool 4.
The interesting sub plot to this clash was the presence of Jonathan Davies in the Scarlets side. Davies joins the Massif Central club at the end of the season, but how much game time will he enjoy?
The Lion completes a quartet of midfielders comprising another former Scarlet Regan King, French maestro Aurelien Rougerie and the world’s best No. 12 Wesley Fofana.
The home fires are burning nicely for Clermont as well. They are four points clear at the top of the Top 14 league.