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RugbyU: Breakaway talks shelved as European Cup starts

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

The protracted debate over the potential breakaway of English and French clubs from the European Cup next season took a welcome back seat as the opening weekend of 2013/14 offered up some scintillating fare.

Leading clubs in England and France have served notice of their intention to quit the existing set-up when the agreement governing the running of the European Cup expires at the end of the season and set up their own separate competition, to which other teams from the continent have been invited.

There was no question, however, that the clubs involved might field weakened squads in what remains a lucrative competition, albeit likely to be the last such tournament in the current format.

The sole Anglo-French clubs to lose against teams from the Celtic League were out-of-form Harlequins, who went down 33-26 to perennial under-achievers Scarlets, and Leicester, defeated 22-16 by Ulster.

Connacht, long regarded as the poor cousins of Irish rugby, pushed Saracens close, drawing 17 points apiece at half-time before two Owen Farrell penalties drew the English champions away.

Undoubtedly the biggest shock of the weekend was the 29-23 victory by Edinburgh -- bottom of the Celtic League -- over two-time champions Munster, while last season's beaten finalists Clermont suffered a 13-9 loss at Racing-Metro.

Reigning champions Toulon, however, kicked off the defence of their title in a thrilling game of two halves against Glasgow.

Australian playmaker Matt Giteau was the key man for Toulon, who raced out to a 34-0 lead against Glasgow after 40 minutes, only to threaten capitulation in the second period as the Scottish team crossed for four tries of their own.

Giteau, perhaps causing many an Australian fan to again wonder why he is no longer turning out for the Wallabies, was on hand for two well-taken tries to keep his side with their noses out front, eventually winning 51-28.

"We achieved our goal by winning the match with an attacking bonus point," said Toulon coach Bernard Laporte.

"We played a first-half which was extremely pleasing and consistent. We had possession of the ball and found some rhythm and enthusiasm.

"However, our second-half was disappointing. We lost our half-back pairing (Jonny Wilkinson and Michael Claassens) and had to reorganise our team but we gave too much ball away to a Glasgow team that is very mobile and likes to play."

Aside from the Scarlets' result, it was a dismal weekend for the two other Welsh clubs in the competition.

Cardiff were hammered 44-29 by unheralded Exeter while Ospreys, long regarded as the real sleeping giant of the Principality, weren't even able to claim a bonus point in a disappointing 19-9 home defeat to three-time champions Leinster.

Having not only racked up three Cup titles but also last season's Challenge Cup last season under Joe Schmidt -- now the Ireland coach, new Leinster coach Matt O'Connor has no small weight of expectation on him.

"It was a really gutsy performance, the try we scored in the first-half after they had early dominance turned the game and we held on," O'Connor said of the victory over Ospreys, who boasted a number of British and Irish Lions in their line-up.

In what is one of the toughest pools, the Irish province host French champions Castres next weekend before facing Northampton in the December double headers.

"Potentially, denying Ospreys a bonus-point could be important because this is cup rugby and it's important you get as much out of it as you can and give the opposition as little as possible," O'Connor said.

That was not lost on Leicester, who came away with a bonus-point from their 22-16 defeat at Ulster.

"Any point at Ravenhill we're really pleased with -- it is a difficult place to play," acknowledged Leicester assistant coach Paul Burke.

"Previous years have proven if you don't win your away games you need to pick up a bonus and we did that. It is probably what we deserved out of the game after going nine points down.

"The resolve and the character we showed to get ourselves back - and for Owen (Williams) to kick that penalty to get us that bonus point -- was an outstanding effort from everyone."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/131013/rugbyu-breakaway-talks-shelved-european-cup-starts