2023 DHL Stormers vs Stade Rochelais

Five Questions Heading Into Round 2 Of The Investec Champions Cup

Five Questions Heading Into Round 2 Of The Investec Champions Cup

Can the Premiership's dominance of the pool stages continue, and can La Rochelle avoid a catastrophic fall from grace when Round 2 arrives this weekend?

Dec 15, 2023 by Briar Napier
Five Questions Heading Into Round 2 Of The Investec Champions Cup

The opening round of the pool stages in the 2023-2024 Champions Cup didn’t disappoint, and the best news of all is that Round 2 is on the horizon.

FloRugby, between breaking down the major standout clubs and players from the first round and its wide-ranging coverage, will continue to follow Europe’s top club rugby competition as the festivities heat up.

Round 1 also taught us plenty about where the outlook of this year’s tournament lies, and as matches continue, there are points to prove and scores to settle across the board.

Here’s a look at five questions to ponder coming into the second round of pool stage play in the Champions Cup, which gets back up and running this weekend, before teams involved return to domestic competitions for roughly a month:

Is La Rochelle’s Run At The Top Over?

The two-time defending Champions Cup winner and a usual powerhouse on France’s western coast, cracks have shown on the surface for La Rochelle throughout its 2023-2024 campaign, while European rugby has done little to quell any lingering concerns at the club.

Following a poor start to the Top 14 campaign, in which Les Maritimes sit ninth in the table through nine matches (with losses to newly promoted Oyonnax and last-place Montpellier), there was a chance to rejuvenate spirits at the club in its Champions Cup pool stage opener against Leinster — which La Rochelle had beaten in each of the past two finals in the competition — but that was squandered, as the Irish giants finally got revenge over their French rivals in a 16-9 slugfest amid a downpour at the Stade Marcel Deflandre.

With a brutal Pool D also including Round 1 winners the Leicester Tigers and Sale Sharks, plus the Stormers and countrymen Stade Francais, there’s little wiggle room for La Rochelle, and the journey to the knockouts doesn’t get any easier. 

A trip to Cape Town to play the Stormers in Round 2 is ahead, and La Rochelle needs a convincing victory to get back on track - or risk being winless halfway through the pool stages - with ties against the English clubs still to go.

Will Premiership’s Dominance Continue?

England’s Premiership absolutely stomped through most of its competition in Round 1 of the pool stages, with the league’s eight clubs going an impressive 7-1 on the opening weekend.

Harlequins’ 31-28 stunner over Top 14 leader Racing 92 in Paris — included a masterclass at No. 10 by a man chasing a Six Nations spot for England, Marcus Smith — who arguably was the peach of the bunch, while the Exeter Chiefs and Bristol Bears won their matches with a side of drama, beating France’s Toulon and Lyon on a last-minute conversion kick and drop goal, respectively.

The Northampton Saints’ performance in the Scotland rain at the Glasgow Warriors, where Tommy Freeman continued his top form at outside center with an impressive first-half brace, handed the United Rugby Championship club just its second defeat at the Scotstoun Stadium in two years, while Leicester and Bath also took down URC foes in the Stormers and Ulster.

Across all four pools, an English team is either solely, or jointly, at the top, and a world in which all eight Premiership clubs advance to the knockout stages isn’t entirely out of the question, even as the lone English side to lose in Round 1, Saracens, has some ground to make up.

The results of Round 2 fixtures involving English teams (namely the biggest ones, such as the Bristol-Bordeaux, Harlequins-Toulouse and Sale-Leinster) likely will tell plenty about how and if the Premiership’s reign atop the rest will continue.

Can Bordeaux’s Attack Be Stopped?

The Top 14’s first weekend of continental competition was largely underwhelming, seeing its current league leader get beaten, for instance, but Bordeaux-Begles had little issue getting through its opening fixture, as it ran roughshod through a shellshocked Connacht 41-5 to see Les Girondins stand atop Pool A through Round 1.

The Irish club was admittedly poor on home soil in Galway (and it wasn’t helped by the fact that it lost Mack Hansen to injury mid-match), but that’s not meant as a discredit to the high-flying French side.

The squad looked fantastic, with superstar winger Damian Penaud looking largely like his normal, world-class self -  scoring a try in the 23rd minute - and both Romain Buros and Pablo Uberti picking up braces, as Bordeaux secured the bonus-point victory.

Round 2 opponent Bristol had to get into a shootout with fellow French club Lyon to pull away in a 36-34 thriller at Ashton Gate last weekend, and if another attack-heavy showdown is coming at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, the outcome could slide more into Bordeaux’s favor with the fervor of home support behind it.

Look for the likes of Penaud and others to try and get involved early and often, as Bordeaux looks to keep an iron grip on the top of the pool.

Can URC Get Past Rocky Round 1?

It was a mixed bag of feelings for the United Rugby Championship in Champions Cup play last weekend, as many of the Irish clubs were poor, while everyone else had varying results, many of which weren’t the best, either.

Connacht and Munster’s (more on the latter’s night in Round 1 later in this article) disappointing showings on home ground were some of the lowlights, but Leinster finally ridding itself of its recent hoodoo against La Rochelle was a pivotal moment for the four-time Champions Cup winners in the meantime, and much-needed, as the torch-bearers of Irish club rugby in Europe.

South Africa’s two-team contingent — the Bulls and the Stormers — split their matches. The former was the only side to beat an English team (Saracens, by a 27-16 margin) in Round 1, while the latter faded late against Leicester, as a SA club double in the opening round didn’t occur.

And as for the Glasgow Warriors and Cardiff, neither were able to pick up points in their opening fixtures, and they are anchored to the bottom of their pools, with Cardiff’s 52-7 demolition at the hands of French super club Toulouse particularly of concern to its knockout-round aspirations.

No current URC team has won the Champions Cup since Leinster in 2018. Is the drought bound to continue, or will one side rise above and ensure that the league can stand proudly above the rest of the Champions Cup field once again?

Will Bayonne Boost Knockout Dreams?

Usually battling against relegation when it's in the Top 14, Bayonne instead finished an impressive eighth in last season’s league table to receive France’s final spot (and the club’s first appearance at all) in the Champions Cup pool stages a year after being promoted from Pro D2.

Not expected to establish much of a fight in Limerick against reigning URC champion Munster in its European opener last weekend, Bayonne instead picked up a deserved 17-17 draw on Irish soil, following a brilliant second half that saw tries from Fijian prop Luke Tagi and veteran winger Remy Baget, the latter of which came with just five minutes remaining to help Bayonne snatch the two points.

Sure, the result could’ve been more so the result of a simply lackluster performance from Munster, especially considering that the fixture had many moments for the taking for the hosts — most crucially when fly-half Jack Crowley missed a drop goal with the game’s final kick that would’ve given Munster a win at the death.

But what if there’s more to come from Bayonne, and its strong night in Ireland wasn’t just a flash in the pan?

It has a chance to make a further statement this weekend at home against the Glasgow Warriors. 

The French club sits as a betting favorite, with a first win in club history in the Champions Cup in its sights, and a point to prove - that Bayonne is going to be a tough out as the competition continues.