Premiership Rugby

Investec Champions Cup Round 2 Recap: Champions Stumble To End 2023

Investec Champions Cup Round 2 Recap: Champions Stumble To End 2023

Discover the highs and lows of the Investec Champions Cup 2023-2024. From unbeaten streaks to emerging talents, get ready for the blockbuster final rounds.

Dec 18, 2023 by Philip Bendon
Investec Champions Cup Round 2 Recap: Champions Stumble To End 2023

Round 2 of the 2023-2024 Investec Champions Cup closed out the year with a bang, as the tournament once again delivered nail-biting action from start to finish. 

Of the 12 fixtures played, six were decided by seven or fewer points in a nod to the clear competitive platform on which the competition operates. 

Of the other six fixtures, each one was, at the very least, brimming with exciting scores and interesting subplots. 

Speaking of those subplots, here are five of the biggest takeaways from the final round of Investec Champions Cup action for 2023. 

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Premiership Form Continues 

Despite the array of off-the-field issues facing English domestic Rugby at the moment, the eight Gallagher Premiership teams competing in the competition have been in sublime form. 

Currently boasting the best win rate of any league at 75%, the Premiership sides were the talk of the opening two rounds. 

Topping, or sharing the top spot of three of the four pools, the English clubs have set themselves up perfectly for the knockout stages with two rounds remaining. 

Undefeated Northampton, Exeter, Leicester and Bath very much are in the running for home last-16 rounds, should they close out two, or possibly even just one, more victory, while Saracens, Sale, Bristol and Harlequins all have the ability to win their final two rounds and push for home knockouts. 

At this stage, it would be a surprise if at least six of the last 16 spots didn’t belong to English clubs. 

Powerhouses Remain Winless 

On the flip side of the English success, two of the competition's pre-season favorites - defending champion La Rochelle and URC champion Munster - will leave 2023 frustrated. 

Both sides lost in Round 2 in heartbreaking fashion.

The French side saw Manie Libbok land a touchline conversion in a gloriously sunny Cape Town to lock in an unlikely DHL Stormers victory. 

On the magnificent Sandy Park turf, Munster let a commanding nine-point lead slip, as Jack Dunner and Henry Slade scored two late tries to get Exeter over the line. 

While there is no doubt both sides have the capability to rebound and win their final two rounds, any ambitions for an easier playoff route are firmly in the rearview. 

Munster will get back to action with two brutally tough URC derby fixtures over the festive period, before a trip to Toulon. 

La Rochelle will host an unbeaten Leicester side that will be brimming with confidence when the competition returns. 

New Talents Emerge 

Due to the demands placed on clubs with so many matches, it is understandable that teams have opted to rotate throughout the opening two rounds. 

One such rotation that was met with some disapproval was the Sale Sharks' decision to leave their key starters at home for their trip to Leinster. 

Written off by just about everyone in the Irish media, the young Sharks side put on a display that was in line with any their first team has shown all season. Matching their more fancied opponents in every department, the Sharks came up 10 points short in a game that in reality could have been a 50-point drubbing. 

While it is understandable that Leinster likely struggled to reach the emotional pitch of its victory over La Rochelle a week earlier, Alex Sanderson and his Sharks deserve immense credit for their performance. 

Elsewhere, Rob Baxter’s young Exeter Chiefs side showed their true colors, reeling in Munster, having fallen two scores behind to end the year unbeaten. 

In a near mirror image of 10 years ago, Baxter is building a new generation of Chiefs stars, having seen several veterans depart in the offseason. Once again rocking, Sandy Park remains a fortress that no side wants to travel to. 

Finally, the Leicester Tigers and their young squad added another upset to the results sheet, as they overturned Stade Francais’s first team in Paris. The win backs up Harlequins' win a week prior against Racing 92 in Paris and likely has seen Stade’s campaign end after just two rounds. 

Antoine Dupont Defection Will Be Felt 

Arguably the best player in professional rugby, Antoine Dupont will bid adieu to Toulouse in the new year, as he gets set to link up with the French 7s team. 

Having seen his dream of lifting the Webb Ellis trophy come to a shuddering halt against the Springboks in October, Dupont now will look to win a medal at next summer’s Olympics in Paris. 

For this to happen, he has made the sacrifice of leaving his club and country’s XV to focus solely on the condensed version of the game. 

While there is no doubt the reigning Top 14 champions still will have enough quality to be contenders, they would have been favorites with Dupont. 

This writer was fortunate enough to watch the scrumhalf up close and personal at the Twickenham Stoop on the weekend. To say his aura lifts Toulouse is an understatement, as he seemingly is everywhere at once. 

Having watched the great Dan Carter live, Dupont has perhaps passed the All Blacks great as the most impactful player in Rugby history at just 27-years-old. 

Stage Set For Blockbuster 2024 Action 

With a three-week break from Champions Cup action due to the festive period, the stage is set for a blockbuster final two rounds of pool action. 

As touched on above, some of the big hitters have yet to truly hit their straps and will use the next two rounds of domestic action to rekindle some form. 

It certainly is well within the realm of possibility that the pools will look vastly different come the end of January, thus keeping the captivating nature of the competition at an all-time high.