Best saved till last in The Rugby Championship
Weight of expectation did nothing to diminish this weekend’s contest between South Africa and New Zealand, and the two sides played out a highly compelling 80 minutes, well worthy of its billing as the ‘game of the year’. The visiting All Blacks emerged triumphant, winning 38-27, but there were large swathes of the game where a bonus point victory for the Springboks seemed possible, and it was only in the latter stages of the match that New Zealand cut loose, and were able to take the game out of the reach of South Africa. That being said, the All Blacks were certainly the better team on the day, something which you arguably could not have said after their win over South Africa earlier in the tournament, and credit must be given to referee Nigel Owens, who officiated the game excellently, and allowed two immensely talented teams to play. Liam Messam and Bryan Habana may have stolen the show with two tries apiece, but wingers Ben Smith and Willie le Roux were certainly the stars of the tournament, both announcing themselves on the world stage with performances of the highest order throughout the competition.
Australia finally gave their fans a performance to cheer, comprehensively beating Argentina 54-17 in Rosario, but unfortunately their thunder was stolen somewhat by the earlier game between South Africa and New Zealand. Australia looked far more clinical than they had at any point previously in The Rugby Championship, and consistently punished the Pumas for any errors they made. Full back Israel Folau once again showed the promise he flashed earlier in the year against the British and Irish Lions, as he grabbed himself a hat-trick, and cemented his place in the Wallaby line-up for their upcoming tour of the Northern Hemisphere.
East Midlands derby a tense tie, London Irish upset Quins
A low scoring weekend in the Aviva Premiership certainly didn’t detract from the quality of rugby on show, and the best viewing could be found at Welford Road, as Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints tussled out a 19-19 draw in this season’s first East Midlands derby. A try for Alex Corbisiero and the unerring boot of Stephen Myler looked to have been enough to give Northampton a rare victory at Welford Road, but a late try for Ed Slater restored parity, and the home side even came close to stealing the win with a five metre scrum in the last play of the game.
A Danny Cipriani-inspired Sale Sharks side upset Bath, beating them 19-13 at home, whilst London Irish continued the theme of the victorious underdog, with a priceless 18-13 victory over Harlequins at the Madejski Stadium. London Wasps were unable to continue this trend, falling to a 19-12 loss to Saracens at Allianz Park, but were able to pick up a losing bonus point, their 4th of the season. Newcastle Falcons also did their hopes of survival a big boost, beating relegation rivals Worcester 16-11 at Sixways, and helped extend Dean Ryan’s winless start for the Warriors. Exeter Chiefs finished off the weekend’s rugby, thumping Gloucester 29-12 at Kingsholm, and continuing Gloucester’s inconsistent start to the season.
Munster have bragging rights, Glasgow move top
A big rivalry stole the headlines in the Aviva, and the same could be said of the Pro12, as Irish heavyweights Munster and Leinster did battle at Thomond Park. Keith Earls was the sole try scorer in the game, but fortunately for the home fans, his try proved enough, as Munster stuttered their way to a 19-15 victory. A win over Leinster should always be celebrated, but Munster, who were by far the more dominant side, will perhaps be concerned that they weren’t able to wrap up the game sooner. Fly half Ian Keatley did however put in a superb performance for Munster, and could be an intriguing option for Joe Schmidt if the Ireland coach wants to explore his options behind Jonathan Sexton.
Elsewhere, Treviso looked comfortable in their 23-3 victory over Connacht, and the Dragons cruised to a 30-7 win against Zebre, as the teams jockey for position in the middle of the Pro12. Glasgow were also able to regain their position at the top of the table, as they beat the Scarlets 17-12 at Parc y Scarlets, and took advantage of the Ospreys slipping to an 18-12 defeat at home to Ulster. Round 5 was concluded in style, as Alex Cuthbert bagged himself a brace on the way to a 29-12 victory for Cardiff over Edinburgh, and came close to securing a hat-trick, but was denied by the TMO.
Try of the Week goes to Alex Cuthbert, who finished off a superb, flowing move for the Cardiff Blues. From a ruck deep in their own half, Cardiff strung together nine passes (at my counting), which featured neat offloads and the quickest of hands, to present the ball to Cuthbert, who was able to run in under the posts.
With the excessive media scrutiny, passionate home crowd, and two of the most guileful captains in world rugby, officiating the South Africa vs New Zealand game was surely a daunting task. Nigel Owens stepped up admirably however, controlled the game well, and at my counting, did not make a single contentious decision, and is thusly the Hero of the Week.
When Nigel Owens questioned New Zealand about a player being on the field who was not on the team sheet, their response was that it must have been a typo. I am inclined to believe this story, as the match commentators confirmed that the offending player was on their team sheets, but years of overblown conspiracy theories surrounding the All Blacks led many to cry foul play. The media is certainly guilty of adding fuel to this fire, and for that reason, the Villain of the Week is us, the media.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images