2023 Stade Rochelais vs Leinster Rugby

Investec Champions Cup Round 1 Recap: Tournament Parity At All-Time High

Investec Champions Cup Round 1 Recap: Tournament Parity At All-Time High

Round 1 of the 2023-2024 Investec Champions Cup: Leinster defeated La Rochelle, and Premiership teams dominated, while URC teams were inconsistent.

Dec 12, 2023 by Philip Bendon
Investec Champions Cup Round 1 Recap: Tournament Parity At All-Time High

Upsets aplenty, other-worldly performances and edge-of-your-seat rugby defined Round 1 of the 2023-2024 Investec Champions Cup, which started over the weekend like an unhinged freight train. 

Twelve matches played across three days meant every afternoon was filled to the brim with unrivalled action in a stark reminder that this competition really does have it all for rugby fans. 

Getting proceedings underway were two mightily impressive road showings from sides that entered the competition somewhat under the radar. 

Given their midtable status in domestic action, the Bordeaux-Begle's thumping of an in-form Connacht in Galway put the competition on notice that the Top 14 side and its abundance of internationals is a true contenders this season. 

Across the Irish Sea, the team that won the first Heineken Cup of the millennium, the Northampton Saints, sent a potent Glasgow Warriors side packing at Scotstoun. 

Setting the stage for a weekend of upsets and away victories, the two fixtures were a reminder that if a team is even a percentage point off its game, it will be exposed. 

So, without further ado, here are the five takeaways from Round 1 of the 2023-2024 Investec Champions Cup:

Home Advantage Negated 

Historically regarded as an advantage in European competition, and other competitions for that matter, Round 1 of the 2023-2024 Investec Champions Cup saw home teams achieve a meager 50% win rate. 

This follows on from last season’s opening round, which saw a win rate of 58% for the home sides. 

Thus, begging the question, does home-field advantage carry that much importance in the modern game? 

Of course, the reputation of stadiums such as Munster’s Thomond Park, Leinster’s RDS and Toulouse’s Stade Ernest-Wallen have garnered reputations as challenging venues for traveling teams. 

However, these three sides more often than not have been the most consistent of traveling teams, too. Therefore, one can conclude that, in reality, they simply are better sides than their opponents, and while playing at home is a bonus, it likely has little effect outside of opponents potentially fielding weaker teams. 

Of this weekend’s action, back-to-back champion La Rochelle finally succumbed to Leinster in an almighty struggle at home, while Munster let slip a 14-point advantage to escape with a draw against tournament newcomer Bayonne. 

These two results, combined with Harlequin's stunning victory over Racing 92 in Paris, the two opening evening away wins, and Exeter’s last-minute thrilling win in Toulon, serve as a reminder that playing at home guarantees nothing. 

Irish Blushes Saved 

Round 1 of the Investec Champions Cup was the worst weekend in the competition for Irish Rugby in a decade, as the four provinces slipped to just a single victory. 

Connacht and Ulster’s utter capitulations were followed by an inexperienced Munster team letting slip a significant advantage. 

Closing out the weekend on a positive note, Leinster shook the 500-pound gorilla of having never beaten La Rochelle in emphatic fashion. 

In a biblical-level downpour, the Dubliners managed the side that had physically beaten them in the past three seasons. To the fore, was the second-row pairing of James Ryan and Joe McCarthy, who steamrolled their French counterparts in what truly felt like a shift in power between the two sides. 

Routinely praised for its ultra-slick attacking game, Leinster got down and dirty with La Rochelle and simply refused to take a backward step. 

Such was their impetus on the weekend that the normally unflinching Wallabies captain, Will Skelton, was visibly rattled. 

Paving the pathway for what likely will be an unbeaten pool run, Leinster has dented La Rochelle’s hope for a successful title defense, as Ronan O’Gara’s side gets set to travel south to face a DHL Stormers side that rested its big guns in Round 1 in anticipation of the Champions arrival. 

Looking back toward the other Irish sides, the weekend’s action felt like an anomaly, for Munster in particular, which is down to the bones of its injury-plagued squad. 

There were several noticeable performances from youngsters, such as Shay McCarthy, Thomas Ahern and Ben O’Connor, to name three. 

As their senior players return from injury, the URC champions will become a force to be reckoned with. 

Premiership Teams On Fire 

Seven wins from eight is a monumental return for a league that has had a rough go of it in recent years. 

The sole loss of the weekend came in a gallant effort from Saracens, which came up short against a Springbok-laden Vodacom Bulls side in Pretoria. 

Characterizing each of the English team’s wins was a never-say-die attitude, with none of the fixtures coming easily, save for perhaps Northampton’s. 

Taking until the final kick of their respective fixtures to seal victories, Exeter and Bristol both were gutsy in the face of adversity, as they held off two quality Top 14 opponents in Toulon and Lyon, respectively. 

Northampton’s dismantling of Glasgow away set up the Saints nicely to remain top of Pool 3, with a wounded Toulon coming to town next weekend. 

Further north, the Sale Sharks ferocity was too much for Stade Francais to contain, as they marched on to a comprehensive victory. 

Completing the set, Leicester and Bath both joined Bristol in taking the full five points from their matches against URC opponents. 

While there is no doubt the challenges will only get tougher, this was a mighty impressive start for the English clubs.

Fly-Halves Make The Difference 

Marcus Smith, Handre Pollard, Ciaran Frawley, Callum Sheedy and Finn Russell all proved to be the heartbeats for their teams in crucial victories in Round 1, starting with Pollard, who dragged his Leicester teammates over the line against a plucky DHL Stormers side. 

The two-time Rugby World Cup winner proved once again why the English midlands club was so desperate to secure his signature. 

Not always pretty, Pollard’s physical and tactically astute style of play fits like a glove for a side that is desperate to once again dine in the upper echelons of European clubs. 

Sealing victory for their respective sides with marvelous attacking displays capped off by well taken drop goals, Smith and Sheedy were sublime, as they conducted the two most entertaining fixtures of the weekend. 

With the No. 10 shirts for their respective countries now vacant, performances like this will go a long way toward these two squaring off in the 2024 Six Nations. 

One man certain of starting for his nation in the Six Nations, if fit, is Bath and Scotland’s Finn Russell, who displayed wizardry at a soaking wet Recreation ground in Bath. 

Never short of a game-breaking moment, Russell looks to be at his absolute peak, reaffirming why he is a million-pound-a-season player. 

Closing out the immense showings of fly-halves was Leinster’s Ciaran Frawley, who guided his team to a maiden victory over rival La Rochelle. 

Sealing the deal with a 60-meter penalty in outrageously challenging conditions, Frawley stepped out of the shadows (namely Johnny Sexton’s) to prove once again he is the man to take the four-time champions forward. 

Competition Depth At An All-Time High 

"Any given Sunday" long has been the mantra for the NFL, given the parity across the league. 

While Champions Cup Rugby does not operate in a world of drafts and salary caps, the competitiveness of Round 1 highlighted just how close all of the teams are this season. 

Outside of Toulouse’s powerful display against Cardiff, and Bordeaux’s romp in Galway, every fixture at one point or another felt in the balance. 

Peeping ahead to Round 2, the action looks set to be equally as intriguing. Every fixture has a pre-written narrative that will be settled on the day. 

One clash, in particular, that gets the juices flowing is the prospect of defending champion La Rochelle traveling to Cape Town in search of redemption. In front of what one would guess will be a sold-out DHL Stadium in sun-soaked Cape Town, this fixture has all the ingredients for an epic outing. 

Feasibly, when scanning this weekend’s matches, there is an argument to be made for every fixture being in the balance. Which, in reality, rarely has been the case for a tournament of this magnitude.