The arrival of the Christmas period means that parties, presents and decorations become the focus of everyone’s attention. However, for rugby fans, it also signals the start of the European season, with the first pool stage fixtures of this year’s competition taking place last weekend.

This tactical analysis will look at all of the action in closer detail, as every team tried to stake their claim for a place in next year’s final, which will take place at Dublin’s Aviva Stadium. The roundup will pick out three good performances from the weekend’s games and three bad, looking at why some sides were able to live up to expectations and others struggled.

3 good

Juan Martin Gonzalez

The honour of opening this year’s European Rugby Champions Cup campaign went to London Irish, who welcomed Montpellier to the Gtech Community Stadium on Friday night. It was the French side who claimed the win in the end, but the Exiles didn’t disgrace themselves and showed that they can compete on this level, which will give them a lot of hope going into the coming weekend and their other two pool games.

One player who really stood out for the English side was Argentina flanker Juan Martin Gonzalez, who has impressed since joining the club over a year ago from the Jaguares XV. He was simply everywhere for his team against Montpellier, with him supporting teammates’ attacks, making strong tackles, spotting and taking advantage of defensive gaps and carrying well. As mentioned, he has been a key part of the London Irish team in the last 12 months, but this was definitely a night when he really showed what he can do.

Leinster’s handling skills

Another team who were in the mood at the weekend were Irish giants Leinster, who started their campaign in Paris, with Racing 92 their hosts. It was expected to be a tricky match for both sides, given the quality that they have in their squads, but it turned out to be easier for Leinster than they might have imagined.

The reason for this was the speed at which they moved the ball around the pitch, with them making plenty of dummy runs, showing a range of long and short passing and adding in some good changes of direction too, and it was evident that they had been working on this in the build-up to this game in order to make themselves as difficult to beat as possible. Racing at times didn’t know how to deal with them, and the French side were opened up time and time again as a result.

A lot of teams will need to keep an eye on Leinster as the competition progresses, because they do look like being ones to watch.

Saracens’ kicking tactics

Saracens were hoping to have a gentle start to life back in Europe’s top competition, but a match against Edinburgh is never easy, given the calibre of players that the Scottish side have in their squad. However, one thing that Saracens did well to create opportunities against their opponents was to use their tactics against them, with Edinburgh’s defensive play focused on pushing up the field when out of possession in order to take time away from their hosts, but leaving vast spaces open behind them in the process.

This was all the invitation that Saracens needed, with there being plenty of occasions when Owen Farrell and Elliott Daly opted to kick the ball through the defensive line and give their teammates chances to put points on the board. Saracens had clearly done their homework ahead of this game, and their good execution when they got into dangerous areas was why they took the win.

3 bad

Lyon’s mixed display

When it comes to those who didn’t have such a positive weekend and who will have things to work on during the week, there are a number of sides that could be looked at in this analysis.

Lyon didn’t put on a bad display, with there being lots of things that they did well, and when they were in control of their game against the Bulls, they were a good team to watch. However, there were areas of their play that lacked quality, including their passing and some of their defensive work, both of which are critical to get right if a team wants to win a rugby match. The simple fact is that their poor quality and hesitancy at key moments invited pressure from their South African opponents, and they will need to be tidier next weekend in order to avoid another defeat.

Northampton Saints’ poor performance

One team who will have a lot to work on in training is Northampton Saints, who were up against defending champions La Rochelle on Saturday. However, the gulf between the two sides was clear to see, with Ronan O’Gara’s side better in almost every aspect of the match. Phil Dowson’s Saints will know that they made a lot of errors and will need to improve on these if they want to pick up a win during the coming weekend.

The main problem was that Northampton weren’t allowed to play their usual fast-flowing game, meaning that they often got stuck in areas of the pitch and needed to focus on defending. However, this is not where they are at their most comfortable, and the fact that they did well to repel initial drives but then didn’t think ahead to the second or third phases of La Rochelle’s attacks showed that, and it was one major reason that the defending champions were able to secure the bonus point before the break.

It is worth mentioned that the Saints weren’t able to get on the scoreboard until the last ten minutes of the encounter, which highlights just how tough they found it to compete with their French opponents – and how hard it will be for anyone to prise La Rochelle’s hands off the trophy.

Stormers’ narrow defensive setup

Much like Lyon, the Stormers didn’t have a bad day against Clermont and did show that they will be able to compete at this level, even without some of their star players in the side. However, what stood out from their performance was their compact defensive line, which saw them focus on getting players around the ball but leaving the wings open. Against Clermont, this is always dangerous, and both Alex Newsome and Alivereti Raka took advantage of that decision to get their names on the scoresheet, with them getting on the end of intelligent passes from the likes of fly-half Jules Plisson, who impressed on the day, and make the most of the space that they were afforded time and time again.

Clermont only scored 24 points in this match, and 10 of those came through tries being almost gifted to them by the Stormers, so this is what the South African side will need to be wary of as the competition goes on.