Shock! Horror! Danny Cipriani is good... and other lessons from Heineken Cup Week One
The man at Sale can play after all
A little over a month ago, as Sale were being pummelled by Harlequins, we saw Danny Cipriani in bargain-basement mode: bright ideas stillborn as a result of duff execution, followed by theatrical arm-waving of the "everyone's fault but mine" variety. One match later, he was dropped – a decision that sparked the usual rumours about his future, or lack of it, in English rugby. Would he still be playing here come season's end? Would he be playing at all?
On Sunday, the Born-Awkward One came off the bench to inspire Sale to their first victory of the season – a fairly remarkable victory, given that they were trailing Cardiff Blues 27-12 as he took the field. Cipriani exasperates people in a thousand different ways, but the longer Sale use him as a pine-shiner, the more likely they are to maximise the "rust" in "frustration". They brought him home from Australia because they wanted to benefit from the things he does well, not punish him for the things he does badly. On the basis that there's no point buying a cat and asking it to bark, they should show some patience in building their game around him.
Saints depend on their guardian angel
Heaven knows, Dylan Hartley is not an angel in the traditional sense – or, indeed, in any sense – but he does one hell of a job as guardian-in-chief of Northampton's fortunes. When the New Zealand-born England hooker is on the field, performing the captaincy duties in an ever more authoritative way, the Midlanders are capable of beating just about any side in Europe. In his absence, they generally struggle to beat a carpet.
On Sunday at Franklin's Gardens, he played 78 of the 80 minutes against Glasgow in typically abrasive style, making all the right calls in guiding his side back from an early 15-point deficit. In the two minutes following his departure, his colleagues did everything in their power to present the Scots with a bonus point that might have counted for something in the final reckoning. It is increasingly clear that Northampton have a leadership issue when their leader isn't there to lead – as he won't be for nine weeks of international rugby between now and the end of March.
Quins lay another myth to rest
Take Nick Evans out of the Harlequins midfield and you take the feel-good factor out of the Stoop. Right? Wrong, actually. The super-confident performance of Ben Botica, son of the former All Black playmaker Frano, against those hardened European campaigners from Biarritz was an eye-opener for all concerned and may have significant ramifications.
Evans, an All Black No 10 of more recent vintage than his understudy's dad, will be out of contract at season's end, but unlike most players in their 30s, he has no need to chase the money. Why? Because there is God's amount of French and Japanese money chasing him. This has alarmed Quins, who have spent the opening weeks of the season frantically seeking ways of retaining their most valuable net contributor. Might they be a little less alarmed now that Botica has produced the goods on a big occasion? The Londoners shed their "city slicker" image long ago. Will they suddenly find it easier to shed Evans too?
The Irish centre of gravity shifts north
It is blindingly obvious that Munster, the first Irish side to achieve a degree of European domination, are not what they were: they may have a resourceful new coach in Rob Penney and they continue to make a case for themselves in home surroundings at Thomond Park, but hard-boiled winners like Peter Stringer, Jerry Flannery, Alan Quinlan and David Wallace do not grow on trees and are taking an awful lot of replacing. The question to be asked across the water is this: will Leinster, the reigning champions and Munster's successors as continental kingpins, make it a double-dip rugby recession?
Yes, the Dubliners tend to start slowly in Heineken Cup tournaments; yes, they went into the weekend game with Exeter without Rob Kearney and Sean O'Brien, two strong candidates for the Lions Test side in Australia next summer; yes, the Devonians are playing infinitely better than even their most fervent supporters imagined and giving punditry a bad name in the process. Even so, the holders looked vulnerable. In last season's final, they smeared Ulster all over the Twickenham grass. If the two sides played the same game this afternoon, who could say for sure that the in-form northerners would not pinch it?
If money talks, Toulon shout the loudest
How's this for the foundation of a half-decent team: the World Cup final wing Alexis Palisson and the man-mountain centre Mathieu Bastareaud in the backs; the Test scrum-half Sebastien Tillous-Borde at No 9; Gethin Jenkins, possibly the world's best loose-head prop, and the Georgian rubble-reducer Davit Kubriashvili at the sharp end; Simon Shaw, the grand old man of the second-row community, at lock; Joe van Niekerk and Juan Fernandez Lobbe, magisterial loose forwards both, in the back row. What do this little lot have in common? None of them started for Toulon against Montpellier on Sunday night.
There has always been the smell of money in the air on the Cote'd'Azur, but Bernard Laporte's squad positively reeks of it. Toulon put four tries past one of the form teams in France by way of setting their European campaign in motion and even if they decide not to play Frédéric Michalak, Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Giteau together at the Arms Park this weekend, the smart cash will be on them doing something similar to Cardiff Blues.
Opponents do not simply run up against the most ambitious side in the tournament when they take on Toulon. They also run up against a bank vault.
France reign supreme in midfield
New Zealanders idolise their open-side royalty, South Africans love their heavyweight locks, the Welsh revere their outside-halves and the Argentines treasure their pug-ugly props. In France, it is the midfield maestro who sits on God's right hand. The great Tricolore centres trip off the tongue: Maso and Codorniou, Boniface times two, Gachassin and Lux, Sella and Charvet…
In Gaël Fickou, the 18-year-old star of last summer's Under-20 World Cup and the player who did for Leicester on his Heineken Cup debut two days ago, Toulouse can offer us a new contender for the pantheon. Of course, he may come up short: he may fall to injury or go off the rails. But the seeds of greatness are there. You can see it in his timing and running angles, in the way he holds himself. Ultimately, you just know.
It's do or die for the Welsh… already
When it comes to doom and gloom, Welsh rugby folk do it better than most. Judging by events last weekend, life could soon be much doomier and much gloomier. There is no disgrace in losing to Clermont Auvergne, especially at Stade Marcel Michelin, but Scarlets' six-try defeat was their heaviest in 14 years. As for Cardiff Blues, the slip-up at Sale, when they had the game all but won, leaves them all dressed up with nowhere to go.
Only Ospreys did the necessary in round one, but their next game is at Welford Road, against a Leicester side in win-or-bust mood. Nice.
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