Bath batter Toulouse, Wasps Stun Harlequins
In a weekend almost stuffed with as many surprises as it was with tries, you didn’t have to look too far to find entertainment in the penultimate round of the Champions Cup. Saturday saw both Saracens and Clermont Auvergne, in particular, take decisive steps towards qualification from the ‘Group of Death’, Pool 1, where Munster also saw their fate sealed – marking one of those rare years where Munster don’t make an appearance in the knockout stages. They were battered physically at Allianz Park as Saracens swept their way to a 33 – 10 win – although they may regret not grabbing a try bonus point – thanks to scores from Chris Wyles and a brace from Chris Ashton, compared to just the one touchdown from the men in red via Denis Hurley. But it was the form of Billy Vunipola, the man penned to start for England in the absence of Ben Morgan, that really caught the eye – the number eight was at his barn-storming best, barrelling through Munstermen at will and leaving a trail of red-shirted debris in his wake. Against one of Europe’s most physical packs, this was an incredible display. Saracens, though, still have work to do if they are to get out of the pool. That work involves getting some sort of result away at Clermont Auvergne next weekend, with the French club needing to win themselves to confirm their own progression after scrapping their way to a 22 – 13 win over Sale in Salford. A nice, easy task next Saturday for the men in black, then.
Pool 2 saw two emphatic victories, one which was expected and the other which was not. Leinster were imperious against Castres – a side who have fallen away dramatically this year – and, for the first time this season, seemed to look fluid and penetrative in attack. Sean Cronin in particular impressed and once again forces me to ask how on earth is he not Ireland’s first choice hooker? Across the Irish sea at Adams Park, Wasps stunned Harlequins to leave the Londoners’ hopes hanging by a thread and the Coventry-based club facing the delicious prospect of a winner-takes-all encounter up over the mighty Leinster. Wasps got off to a stormer at the Stoop, picking up early tries from Christian Wade and Joe Simpson, and defended superbly throughout, with James Haskell magnificent. Quins seemed a long way from their slick, fluid best that we saw against the Tigers last week, and the heavy 3 – 23 loss was a fair reflection on their ineptitude in attack.
Leicester got the weekend underway on Friday night with an entertaining win over the Scarlets in Pool 3 which saw the raw power of the Leicester set piece and pack – admittedly complimented by some uncharacteristically slick back play – come to the fore. With the gargantuan Logovi’i Mulipola returning to the side, the Tigers looked a different beast and they were rewarded for their attacking intent by going over for six tries in a 40 – 23 win, with Tom Youngs scoring a brace. Leicester still need to win away in Ulster, with a bonus point, next week if they are to qualify – a seemingly impossible task, but they will have taken heart from the way the men in white were destroyed by Toulon in France on Saturday, the reigning champions coming out with a 60 – 22 victory. Ulster, in fairness, were fielding a pack decimated by injury and their cause wasn’t helped when Paddy Jackson had to leave the field with a dislocated elbow, but it was still surprising how easily the ‘Galacticos’ were able to carve through them, with Steffon Armitage helping himself to a hat-trick (much to the annoyance of everyone at the RFU, I’m sure, who must just be praying for him to have a cr*p game so that the debate over his non-selection can go away).
Pool 4 saw arguably the surprise result of the weekend take place in the south of France, as Bath won away with a bonus point over Toulouse, in what is probably one of the best ever displays by an English club in France. The West Country outfit were simply sublime, with that combination of Eastmond and Joseph electric throughout the game, carving their opponents to pieces on almost every occasion that they got front foot ball and helping pave the way for tries for Banahan, Cook, Joseph and Louw in a 35 – 18 win. Toulouse, in stark contrast to Bath, seem to have snatched the prospect of elimination from the jaws of qualification and must now win away against a Montpellier side rejuvenated under Jake White. Admittedly there wasn’t much rejuvenation on show against Glasgow, where they went down 21 – 10, but you got the impression that they were saving themselves for next weekend. Glasgow, worryingly, seem to have stalled slightly after their superb start to the season and must now win away at the Rec to have any chance of qualifying.
Pool 5 has probably been the easiest pool to call, sadly because of the presence of an Italian side, Treviso – and they were predictably spanked 53 – 7 away to Racing Metro. Northampton remain in pole position for qualification, winning 20 – 9 away against the Ospreys in a scrappy encounter in which it looked, in the first half, like the Midlanders would run away with it after tries from Calum Clarke and George North, but a gritty second half display from the Ospreys kept the English champions largely quiet. Realistically, both Racing and Saints are already qualified as a best runner up at least, but the winner of the group will be whoever comes out on top in their clash at Franklins Gardens next weekend.
Champions Cup Star Man: Billy Vunipola
Impressive wins on the Road for the Chiefs and Dragons
There’s been plenty of chat lately, and rightly so, about the positive brand of rugby that Dean Richards has the Falcons playing, and not too many would have given the Dragons much of a shot going into this weekend, but the men from Wales emerged with an emphatic and well deserved victory from Kingston Park, running in six tries in comparison to the Falcons’ (still pretty impressive) four. The result puts them pretty much into the quarter finals already, and it looks like they’ll be joined by Exeter, who claimed a great 24 – 33 win in the notoriously tricky patch at Galway, despite the fact that Connacht claimed a try-scoring bonus point.
Elsewhere, it will be between Cardiff Blues and London Irish for the winning spot in Pool 1 after both sides picked up wins – the Blues running in 16 tries at home against the hapless with Rovigo. And with Irish playing the minnows next week, whilst Cardiff face a challenging trip to Grenoble, you would have to say that the advantage is with the English side. Edinburgh remain top of their pool 4 despite a narrow loss away to Lyon, with London Welsh predictably losing their 20th straight game in all competitions, whilst Gloucester continue to coast through Pool 5 having claimed a comfortable 33 – 3 win over Oyannax to seal their qualification.
Challenge Cup Star Man: Henry Slade.
Try of the Week: Bath scored some absolute stunners, but Mamuke Gorgodze’s effort for Toulon was right out of the top drawer. It contained some wonderful fly half play from Martin Castrogiovanni, and it just goes to show what brilliant rugby can be played with simple hands, straight running lines, and a millionaire’s backline of the world’s best players. Easy.
Hero of the Week: With hat-tricks galore it could have gone to one of many, but I’m copping out of the difficult decision and picking Nigel Owens for another brilliant put-down. After watching George Robson and Bradley Davies grappling with each other, Owens commented “This is embarrassing…if you want a cwtch, do it after the match.”
Villain of the Week: Yoann Huget. After scoring a fine try and beating his chest like a testosterone-fuelled gorilla, Huget reminded us what a big pansy he is by rolling around on the floor holding his face after Horacio Agulla brushed his chest. What an embarrassing, pathetic display. He should be shamed publically for it and given a ban.
By Mike Cooper
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @RuckedOver