Smith & Tuilagi impress – Champions Cup talking points

Round one of the 2023-24 Investec Champions Cup did not disappoint.

Fly-halves Marcus Smith and Handre Pollard produced masterful displays, Leinster finally beat La Rochelle, Manu Tuilagi returned with a bang and Billy Vunipola was sent off.

The format may have changed but the drama and entertainment remains high.

BBC Sport takes a look at six talking points from the weekend.

Smith stars in Paris

When Owen Farrell announced he would be unavailable for the 2024 Six Nations to prioritise his family and mental wellbeing, it opened the door for a new starting England fly-half.

Smith, deployed at full-back for the majority of the Rugby World Cup, showed all his class as a number 10 to help Harlequins stun Racing 92 at Paris La Defense Arena.

The 24-year-old scored 16 points in a narrow 31-28 victory, which included a drop-goal from near the halfway line. It was a complete performance from the fly-half who showed his tenacity in defence, a side of his game often criticised.

The bonus-point win in Paris sets Quins up perfectly in Pool Two – with games against Toulouse, Cardiff Blues and Ulster to come – and will edge Smith forward in England head coach Steve Borthwick’s plans.

Tuilagi playing his ‘best stuff’

Manu Tuilagi carries the ball

Sale Sharks welcomed the return of England centre Tuilagi from a hand injury for his first match since the World Cup.

Injuries have been a common theme to Tuilagi’s career and, even after an impressive World Cup, some wondered if the 32-year-old might have called time at the highest level.

But a physical, robust and impactful 80-minute performance in their 28-5 victory over Stade Francais showed he is still at the very top of his game, with a “few more” years still left in the tank, according to head coach Alex Sanderson.

“It didn’t look like he wanted to come off. He looked fit which is a really good sign for the club moving forward,” he said.

“How he is talking and moving – why not a few more years? He is playing his best stuff, this is the most robust he has ever been.”

Leinster finally end La Rochelle curse

Ciaran Frawley celebrates with Jamison Gibson-Park

Leinster have had their Champions Cup hopes shattered three years on the bounce by La Rochelle. After a semi-final defeat in 2021, there were agonising losses in back-to-back finals, with last season’s 27-26 comeback in Dublin showing the French side can even beat Leinster in their own backyard.

But, with fly-half Ross Byrne injured and brother Harry going off early in the game, it was replacement Ciaran Frawley who helped them over the line at the home of the defending champions.

Frawley kicked three penalties to add to Jordan Larmour’s first-half try as Leinster came out 16-9 winners in a chaotic encounter played in challenging conditions.

It was La Rochelle’s first defeat in the Champions Cup in two and a half years and came just weeks after South Africa’s World Cup-winning coach Jacques Nienaber arrived at Leinster with the goal of turning narrow losses into victories.

Such a statement victory will give them a huge psychological boost if they meet again in the final this year.

Pollard shows class

Handre Pollard after his try

Leicester Tigers signed Pollard to deliver big moments. The South African, who has scored 24 points in two World Cup final triumphs, has struggled to stay injury-free for the Tigers.

The fly-half stepped up against South African side Stormers by scoring 20 out of Leicester’s 35 points. He scored his side’s third try before punting the ball into the corner, with the clock in the red, to go for an all-important bonus-point try.

With the score 30-26, the decision could have backfired but his confidence was justified when Josh Bassett scored in the corner in the last play of the game.

Pool 4 also contains Stade Francais, La Rochelle and Leinster, meaning every point will count and Pollard’s belief in his side to gain maximum points may be a big moment to look back on.

Saracens see red in South Africa

Billy Vunipola carries the ball

When Saracens lifted their third European title in 2019 at St James’ Park they were at their peak.

More titles was the aim but instead relegation to the Championship followed after they were punished for persistent salary cap breaches. The rebuild commenced and after a Premiership title last season, a crack at reaching the summit of Europe is high on the agenda again.

Saracens travelled to South Africa looking to put in an early statement of intent but instead poor discipline made the headlines.

They spent 48 minutes with 14 men as they fell to a 27-16 defeat. Both Alex Goode and Maro Itoje spent 10 minutes in the sin-bin before Billy Vunipola was sent off for a dangerous clear-out tackle.

They were the only English side of eight not to win in the opening round of matches.

Last-minute heroics

Exeter players celebrate

At the tournament launch day, European Professional Club Rugby chairman Dominic McKay said the new format should help produce “unbelievable spectacles”.

Exeter were on the right side of one of those spectacles in Toulon on Saturday. An impressive fightback featuring two late tries got them to within a point and a conversion of winning the game. Henry Slade duly obliged, firing over the kick to record a memorable win in France.

At Ashton Gate later on Saturday, Bristol and Lyon scored 11 tries between them in another incredible encounter. The game was settled in the 85th minute when Callum Sheedy landed a drop-goal to seal a dramatic 36-34 victory.

Lyon had trailed 33-10 with three minutes left in what looked to be enough of a European classic, before Sheedy added extra drama to proceedings.