Jones returns as Cooney continues impressive form

There was no shortage of drama on Saturday as Guinness Six Nations stars returned to European action for their clubs in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.

There was no shortage of drama on Saturday as Guinness Six Nations stars returned to European action for their clubs in the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup.

With both competitions reaching the business end of the pool stages, there were high stakes everywhere you looked with quarter-final places up for grabs.

And the tension brought out the best in some of England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France and Italy’s international heavyweights as they looked to lay down a marker ahead of the 2020 Championship.

Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones made his first appearance of the season for Ospreys as they were narrowly beaten by Premiership side Saracens in the Champions Cup.

The sight of Jones back on the field will have certainly delighted Wales head coach Wayne Pivac, who was watching on from the stands as the hosts went down 22-15 at the Liberty Stadium.

But last year’s Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship was not the only player who would have interested Pivac as Dan Evans put his case forward with a try in either half.

His efforts proved to be in vain though as, despite Welsh prop Rhys Carre seeing red after just five minutes, the reigning champions came from behind to keep their qualification hopes alive.

A second-half try from Alex Lewington, plus 17 points from the boot of Manu Vunipola, was enough for the visitors against Ospreys, who interestingly deployed Wales winger George North at centre.

Meanwhile, Pivac will also take encouragement from the return of Wales lock Cory Hill for Dragons as the region were defeated 42-14 by Castres in the Challenge Cup.

Ireland scrum-half John Cooney scored a try and kicked a further eight points for Ulster but could not prevent the province from slipping to a 29-13 defeat against Clermont Auvergne.

Cooney raced over early in the first half and converted his effort to put Ulster 10-9 ahead at the break but the French side roared back after the interval with 20 points.

Alivereti Raka and George Moala both crossed the whitewash for the hosts while Damian Penaud was ever-present just days after being selected in Fabien Galthié’s 42-man France squad.

If there was one bright spark for Ulster though it was the performance of Cooney, who appears to be going from strength to strength ahead of this year’s Championship.

He has certainly given new Ireland head coach Andy Farrell plenty to ponder when it comes to who should wear the No.9 shirt in their Round 1 game against Scotland.

Clermont were not the only French side to taste success as four-time European champions Toulouse ensured their safe passage into the quarter-finals with victory over Connacht.

With nine men in the France squad, Toulouse players will have a pivotal role in fuelling Galthié’s side during their challenge for the 2020 Guinness Six Nations title.

Two of those men selected by the France boss were at the heart of things as Toulouse eased to a 21-7 victory over Connacht in their Pool 5 clash.

Julien Marchand perhaps made the biggest impact as he went over the whitewash to score Toulouse’s second try of the afternoon.

It was an equally positive afternoon for full-back Thomas Ramos as he notched a 100 per cent kicking record to send all three of his conversion attempts through the posts.

The pairs’ efforts helped their side to a fifth straight win in the Champions Cup and France’s Toulouse contingent look to be in fine fettle heading into the international winter.

George Horne made his status as a creative try-scoring scrum-half clear at last summer’s World Cup and he will look to replicate those showings in the Guinness Six Nations.

A hat-trick in the 61-0 defeat of Russia was his standout moment in Japan and Horne already has six tries in just 10 outings for Scotland.

The 24-year-old will be all too aware of the pressure of stepping into the void left by Greig Laidlaw but showed his quality once more as Glasgow Warriors took on Exeter Chiefs.

He joined Tommy Seymour among the try scorers in the entertaining 31-31 draw and looks well placed to show he can be Scotland’s long-term answer at nine.

The game was also notable for Stuart Hogg taking on his former side and Scotland’s star man was at the centre of attention at the last as his long-range penalty cannoned back off the bar.