1. Battle at the basement heating up
Not long ago it looked like a foregone conclusion that the battle to avoid relegation from the Premiership was going to be a two horse race but now it looks likely to become just as interesting as the battle for the play off places.
The momentum is changing every week between the bottom three teams and with last year’s Premiership runners-up Bath being slowly dragged into the battlefield the jury is still out on who will face the drop.
Andy Goode is seemingly hell bent on gaining legendary status at yet another club as he inspires Newcastle week in, week out to victories over play-off pretenders, and after a Chris Pennell driven Worcester shocked in-form Sale, it is London Irish’s turn to prop up the rest at the foot of the table.
The Exiles themselves almost caused an upset at home to Exeter and showed flashes of genuine quality. Although they are five points adrift, they cannot yet be written off.
Momentum is key but all three of these teams have incredibly difficult away games to encounter this weekend. If any of them gain a victory then it will go a long way to aiding their survival.
2. Scarlets and Ulster put on a show
With the lack of running rugby in the Six Nations this year it was refreshing to watch some free flowing stuff in the PRO12 at the weekend as Ulster hosted the Scarlets in a match that will have had respective defensive coaches losing many a night’s sleep.
The men from Llanelli scored first after a silky break from Hadleigh Parkes sent full back Michael Collins over but the reply from Ulster was quite brilliant. If Joe Schmidt was watching he may just be considering his options on how to be more attacking this weekend at Twickenham.
Craig Gilroy lifted the roof off the Kingspan Stadium with his solo finish for Ulster’s first try but the build-up play was equally as effective. Paddy Jackson, Darren Cave and Luke Marshall were all heavily involved in the sort of attacking play that Ireland have been so lacking.
Scarlets then added another great try showing smooth hands and great execution but back came the men in white again. Paul Marshall made valuable ground with the show and go and then gave the pass to Luke Marshall who demonstrated his dazzling step and awareness to finish with two men hanging off him at the corner flag.
The Scarlets stole the spoils by a point in the end but in a season where the quality in the Pro12 has been questioned, this was a great advert for the league.
3. A bad weekend for Cockerill
On Friday, in a local Leicester newspaper, Richard Cockerill wrote an article on the over usage of the TMO in rugby and how the man with the whistle is being affected by a ‘bloke outside the stadium’.
He has a valid point but after 20 minutes of the game at the Stoop he was passed the microphone from BT Sport and started to moan about how his team have been punished yet again by poor refereeing decisions. His mood certainly won’t have been helped by his side losing to Quins in an extremely tight encounter that could have gone either way.
And to add to Cockerill’s misery he has been filmed breaching league rules by publishing misleading team information to conceal Manu Tuilagi’s return to the side in January.
To what Cockerill described as ‘the circus’ surrounding the England centre’s return he states that ‘we’re going to announce him out of the squad to start with and then in the squad an hour before kick-off.’ Leicester have made such changes in four of their last five Premiership games and the Premiership will likely be having a close look at it..
4. Always do your research
Born in Samoa, brought up as a rugby player in New Zealand so surely it must be fine to play for France? Well in the French Rugby Union’s case this is exactly what they thought after selecting David Smith to join their Six Nations squad for the upcoming fixture with Wales.
The problem is that the Castres winger, who would normally qualify through residency rules, had actually represented New Zealand in the sevens format in 2008. The embarrassing part for the French Union though is that Smith actually turned up at the training camp before telling them this face to face. Surely this should have been checked before selection?
5. Healy and Strauss perplexed
Irishman Matt Healy and Scotsman Josh Strauss must be wondering why they have not been given the chance to make any sort of impact on this year’s Six Nations considering the form that they are in and also the problems that their respective countries are having in their positions.
Connacht winger Healy is not likely to be an Ireland regular when others are fully fit but at the moment he is in great form and Ireland have a growing injury list on their wings. At the weekend he scored a hattrick, taking his tally for the season to ten. He is a man in form and with Connacht flying high at the top of the Pro12 there is growing call for the former Ireland U20 international to be included in the senior squad.
Strauss, on the other hand, is in the Scotland squad but as of yet he hasn’t made the match day 23 for a chance to add to his five caps. He made 104 metres with ball in hand and topped the tackle charts at the weekend in his Man of the Match performance for Glasgow and with David Denton’s indifferent form for club and country, the time may be right for Vern Cotter to bring Strauss into the fray.
6. Carter and Rokocoko roll back the years
The game of the weekend was played out in the Stade des Alpes as Grenoble hosted top of the table Racing 92. The game swung one way and then the other as both teams gave up generous leading positions. Racing gave up a 12 point advantage in the first half only for Grenoble to then squander an 11 point lead themselves.
Then came the pivotal moment. As Racing were awarded a penalty in front of the posts with eight minutes to go, Grenoble switched off and Dan Carter caught former All Black team mate Joe Rokocoko out of the corner. He looked up and hung the ball with his trusty left boot into the in-goal area where Rokocoko trotted in to score the winning try under the posts.
Carter converted and Parisian outfit maintained their lead at the summit of the Top14.
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Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images