2023 Racing 92 vs Harlequin F.C.

Investec Champions Cup Round 1's Best Moments: Smith Leads The Way

Investec Champions Cup Round 1's Best Moments: Smith Leads The Way

Standout performances defined Round 1 of the 2023-2024 Investec Champions Cup, European rugby's premier contest.

Dec 13, 2023 by Briar Napier
Investec Champions Cup Round 1's Best Moments: Smith Leads The Way

Good to see you again, Champions Cup.

The latest iteration of the top club rugby competition in Europe and South Africa started with a bang this past weekend, as Premiership romps and United Rugby Championship clubs’ varied results were some of the top storylines of Round 1 of the pool stages of the 2023-2024 competition.

For some players in the Champions Cup, however, they also have international placements to be fighting for, as the 2024 Six Nations is fast approaching. The number of available slots up for grabs following a World Cup are shrinking. 

What they do in the Champions Cup against some of the same players they’ll face in a few months, in that case, is very, very important.

Though numerous players had great first games of Champions Cup play, three, in particular, stood out above the crowd for various reasons, whether that was for playing a vital role in a big win, making a statement for a national side, or both. 

The pressure to perform is only going to ramp up as continental play continues, however, and with Round 2 on the horizon this weekend, the tension will grow for those with things to lose.

Here’s a look at three of the best individual performances from Round 1 of the Champions Cup:

Smith Stellar In Harlequins Comeback

The man of the match in Harlequins’ pulsating victory over Top 14 leader Racing 92 in Paris, Marcus Smith commandeered the pitch with a cunning well beyond his 24 years of age, as the English fly-half stated his claim in emphatic fashion for a Six Nations starting slot — and, maybe if trends continue down the line, to be the locked-in successor to the ageing Owen Farrell at No. 10 for his national team. 

With Farrell recently announcing that he would be removing himself from selection for England’s upcoming Six Nations campaign to take a break from test rugby, a massive spot in coach Steve Borthwick’s XV has opened. 

For Smith, the news coincided with some of his best performances at club level. 

He outdueled likely his toughest competition for the open position, George Ford, in Premiership play, as Smith’s Quins stomped Ford’s Sale Sharks 36-3, before going abroad for the Champions Cup, where Smith continued to shine against the squad that is the best in France in Quins’ European opener. 

The attacking firebrand scored a brilliant solo try and booted a monster 45-meter drop goal in the first half against Racing, with the latter play ultimately being what separated Harlequins from Racing in the end. The Londoners prevailed in a  31-28 comeback win, following second-half tries from Alex Dombrandt and Jack Walker. 

Smith followed his opening stanza up with quarterback-like game management the rest of the way. He booted through all of his conversions, made a try-saving tackle and put in a world-class performance,  as he continued to garner England’s attention in the best of ways. 

Borthwick’s third-choice fly-half at the World Cup, as Smith’s pitch time in France was limited to him playing fullback, there may be no denying that Smith is England’s man for the job at No. 10 when the Six Nations gets going early next year.

Freeman Shines For Saints In Scotland

Between being released by the Leicester Tigers academy as a youth and being bounced around multiple positions as he tried to find his niche for the Northampton Saints, Tommy Freeman already has had a tumultuous senior rugby career for a 22-year-old. 

All that movement recently resulted in Freeman seemingly finding a cozy role, however — and he’s reaping the rewards while potentially playing his way onto the England Six Nations squad because of it. 

Freeman, who suited up at outside center for the Saints in their 28-19 victory over the Glasgow Warriors in rainy Scotland, scored twice, as the visitors used a three-try haul in the first half (the other one of which was scored by veteran and England centurion Courtney Lawes) to pick up a big victory at Scotstoun Stadium — the Warriors’ second defeat at their home venue in two years. 

A starlet who has also played for the Saints at wing and fullback, Freeman has been more than impressive at No. 13 this campaign, as he’s up to 10 tries in just 11 appearances in all competitions on the season, seeking selection by Borthwick for the first time since the former Leicester coach’s appointment. 

Freeman had missed out on selection to the England squad for the World Cup earlier this year.

His versatility on the pitch could make him a valuable asset for both club and country, and considering that he’s shown potential on a massive stage already after a strong tour of Australia with the national team in 2022, Freeman more than likely has more days as a major part of the Saints (and possibly England) plans coming. 

Where he’ll be deployed most often on the pitch as time goes along may be the bigger question.

Ryan Scolded, But Finishes Strong

In a rematch of the past two Champions Cup finals that was the marquee showdown of Round 1, continental powers Leinster and La Rochelle duked it out at the Stade Marcel-Deflandre in a fixture that started unusually and finished tensely. 

The commonality of those two phases were that Leinster lock James Ryan was right in the thick of both. 

Named co-captain of the side with Garry Ringrose on its trip to France, the two-captain setup ended less than a quarter of the way through the match when English referee Matthew Carley — annoyed and pressed by Ryan’s complaints over some of his calls early on — called Ringrose over to tell him that he would not be working with Ryan for the rest of the night.

Perhaps spurred on to focus more on his rugby and less on his argument strategies, the remainder of Ryan’s game in rainy La Rochelle was superb. 

Helping Leinster get revenge for its back-to-back Champions Cup final defeats by being a massive part of its powerful pack, Ryan’s defensive efforts were crucial in La Rochelle being held without a try and the Irish side escaping France with a 16-9 win. 

Ryan finished as the team’s leader with 18 tackles on the night, arguably none more important than the one early in the second half he put on Levani Botia to prevent the stocky Fijian from scoring. 

It’s clear that Leinster’s appointment of ex-Springboks coach and World Cup winner Jacques Nienaber to its coaching staff shortly after the tournament has helped the club’s defense make massive strides — Ryan says so himself, after all — and with standouts such as Ryan making things difficult for opposing attacks, three consecutive finals appearances (and maybe a first Champions Cup title in six years) are in the cards for Leinster during the 2023-2024 season.