Best of the Weekend: Bath, Wasps, Saracens, Leinster and Toulon impress in Europe

Billy Vunipola

Billy Vunipola

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

19 thoughts on “Best of the Weekend: Bath, Wasps, Saracens, Leinster and Toulon impress in Europe

  1. Quins vs Wasps at Adams Park? Are you sure?! I think it was at the Stoop.

    I was at the Sarries game, and Billy V was truly outstanding. Not just carrying but tracking back and tackling like a demon. One particular break where he made a lot of yards, and trampled at least three Munster men in a Lomu style was excellent to watch. I hope he can maintain that form for England.

    1. As a die hard Sarries fan, can you justify either Barrit’s or Farrel’s selection above Joseph and Ford?

      I think I will go into a decline if Farrell and Barritt are the starting centres against Wales!

      1. Burrell looked really good as well on Saturday, as did Youngs so good news for England.

        6 Nations back line of: Youngs, Ford, May, Burrell, Joseph, Wade, Brown


        1. I’d be happy with that. I just Hope Wade is at least in the 23. Wouldn’t be averse to keeping the same back 3 as the AIs and introducing Wade when the game has broken up.

          1. I could go along with that – to be fair I did have that initially but then my Wasps bias kicked in!

            On that note – Simpson to come in as well? Maybe onto the bench even?

      2. I said somewhere else that I wouldn’t pick Barritt for the 6N squad. This was his first game back from injury since the Aus game. Farrell I would have on the bench. Then he can cover 10 and centres.

  2. To be fair this kind of form has been coming from Vunipola, over the past month he seemed to have slowly been finding the form that made him a clear first choice for England anyway.

    Haskell was outstanding. I am biased but he must start for England. Must have been about 5 turnovers from him (couple of jackals and a few choke tackles leading to pens). Tackling was unbelievable too. All that and opposite that man Chris Robshaw no less.

    Clifford looked brilliant for Quins though – he is a definite England player in the making.

    1. I would like to see Haskell starting. Whether it’s at 6 or 7 I don’t care, but on current form he should be in the starting 15. Would you keep Wood, or move Robshaw to 6, and have Wood on the bench?

      1. Haskell at 6 in place of wood for me. Wood has been very disppointing in the last few Eng games,anf becoming a bit of a penalty machine. I also think Hask could make up for the loss of abrasiveness because of the Lawes injury. Parling and Attwood have their own skill set, but we will massively miss Launchbury and Lawes this 6n.

        1. Slightly undecided. I think Robshaw isn’t going anywhere so I hope Wood does drop out. Realistically, a Haskell, Croft and Vunipola back row is the best we could have I think.

          For Wasps, Haskell allows Johnson and Hughes the freedom to do what they do – much like Croft and Vunipola could then do.

          With Croft out, I’d prefer Wood but I think we will see Robshaw.

  3. Can’t understand the lack of love for Robshaw. He puts in a MOM performance pretty much every other game for England. Plays better for country than club imo. Think Haskell is on fire at the moment. Undecided by Billy. This is his only good game in a while, but not sure what other options we have. Would go Robshaw, Haskell and Billy in the back row if I was choosing.

    On a similar vein, what do the injury gods have against England. 4 of our starting 8 already down with injuries. Does any other team in the world have this sort of bad luck. Just glad that we have good depth (in the forwards!).

    1. Have to agree with you on Robshaw – raises his game every time he is questioned. Can’t be perfect every week but it seems one in two MoM awards for England go to him! And agree with your backrow choice- my only worry is that does it reduces our line-out options too much? One of our real strengths in the autumn… But gives us more ball carrying and I think better breakdown work. Aaaaargh who would be an international coach.

      Pack of Marler, T Youngs, Wilson, Atwood, Parling, Haskell, Robshaw and B Vunipola for me.

      (Corbs, Hartley, Brookes, Kitchener/Kruis and Wood on the bench)

      And yes- the second row is the only area where we have such strength in depth, to have Launchbury and Lawes (and don’t forget Slater) injured and still have a world class engine room of Parling and Atwood is a far cry from the days of Deacon and Palmer…

      1. I think Webber may be ahead of Youngs in the 2 shirt. Or possibly Batty! Would be interested to see if he gets selected. Been in great form for Bath lately.

    2. It really isn’t about a lack of love for Robshaw – I’ve defended him a lot on here. But is he a better 7 than Haskell right now? No. Pretty harsh but that’s international rugby.

      Also wondering who the 4 are that are missing from the pack? Launchbury and Lawes?

      I guess Morgan but I actually think Vunipola has more to his game when on form. Who’s the 4th?

      1. Did Haskell outplay Robshaw in one game? Yes. Is Haskell better than Robshaw internationally? No

        Haskell has rarely looked as good for country as he does for club whereas Robshaw is almost the other way round.

        Do I think its worth giving Haskell another chance given form for Wasps? Yes. Should it come at the expense of the captain? Definitely, 100% no.

        I would drop Wood to the bench and start Haskell with Robshaw and BV

        1. Not sure we can say either way whether Haskell can be better than Robshaw internationally. Haskell came back from his spell in NZ a 10 times better play. He was always a 6/8 beforehand, and they made him into a 7. He is now a genuine 7 that creates huge numbers of turnovers. Has he ever worn the 7 shirt since he has been in NZ? Nope.

          Not suggesting Robshaw should be discarded at all, I’m a fan of his. But Haskell needs to play, and ideally at 7.

          Wood has been just as good historically for England, although I’d agree probably not in 2014.

          I’d be more than happy with the back row you suggested, but with Croft fully fit and firing I wouldn’t be against Robshaw coming out of the side.

  4. Villain of the Week – that really was quite pathetic from Huget. It almost over-shadowed the penalty that Flood gave away at the same time. For me, that was at least a yellow card offence (by Flood) – very nasty from him.

    Nigel Owens – the comment that stood out for me was when the front row subs came on and the scrum starting collapsing. “perhaps you’re not as good as the guys that you replaced….”

  5. Quins/wasps – I watched most of this game and was very impressed by Jack Clifford. He certainly has some “go forward” in him.


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