There may have been no Six Nations matches this weekend, but there was still plenty of action across the globe. Here’s our round-up of the highlights:
Starting with arguably the weekend’s biggest shock, the Highlanders edged out the Blue Bulls in Pretoria, grabbing a 28-35 win and continuing their impressive start to the season. They rightly sit at the top of the table after playing some really great footy over the last few weeks, but beating the Bulls at Loftus is an exceptional achievement. It was in fact the Bulls’ first loss at home in Super Rugby in 18 matches.
The main men behind the Highlanders’ resurgence as a rugby force, besides the influence of new coach Jamie Joseph, has been down to some huge performances from All Black flanker Adam Thomson, captain and loosehead Jamie Mackintosh, and flyer Kade Poki, who has looked absolutely lethal so far and scored two tries against the Bulls. Thomson got the first try on Friday with a cute finish in the corner, and his good form could and should lead to a return to the All Blacks camp. As for the Bulls, they have looked out of sorts so far in the opening rounds, stuttering to close wins against the Cheetahs and the Lions, and now the defeat against the men from Otago will have provided them with a real wake up call.
Back up north, and Leeds kept their survival hopes alive in the Aviva Premiership with a good comeback against London Irish at Headingley. Down 16-3, it seemed as though the game had slipped away from them, but partly due to the timely introduction of their front row forwards and also Irish’s mental implosion, Leeds were able to notch their second win of the season, with the game finishing 27-19. They still remain seven points away from their closest relegation rivals Newcastle, who it has to be said seemed to dispatch them with consummate ease the week before, but this win will have given them a huge boost.
Up the other end of the table, Leicester much like the Bulls lost at home for the first time this season. It was without a doubt as tight a finish as they come, with substitute Billy Twelvetrees missing a penalty kick in injury time as Saracens clung on to win 14-15. In pretty horrible conditions, Alex Goode looked very sharp with the boot for the visiting side. It was definitely one for the purists; the scrums were big, defence was massive, and in a way after hammering away at Leicester’s line through many phases before they were awarded what proved to be the match-winning penalty, Saracens deserved it. Does it count as revenge for last season’s final loss? Possibly.
Back down south and to Johannesburg, where the Lions despite being excellent in attack lost to the visiting Blues 32-41. Let’s be frank, the defence was horrendous. But, the tries were so good to watch that you almost forgot about it. There are a lot of new faces in the Jo’burg outfit, now run by former New Zealand coach John Mitchell, and the most impressive ones on Friday were Josh Strauss and Warren Whiteley in the back row, ana Michael Killian and Waylon Murray out wide.
Murray first made his name at the Sharks, but so far this season he has looked excellent at outside centre. He’s got a big frame and good pace to go with it, and he has started to show signs that he could become a really devastating force in midfield. The other impressive new face, and beard, has been Josh Strauss at seven. A huge runner, Strauss used his power to rumble over for a score against the Blues on Friday evening, and his beard is simply awesome. Now if only the Lions could learn how to tackle…
Up at Sandy Park, Exeter put in their best performance so far in their debut Premiership season as they smashed Northampton 30-9. All the superlatives have been used when speaking about the side from the south west, and rightly so, but the reality is that with this win the Chiefs are now only four points off a playoff place. The Chiefs excellent English and Irish contingent has been boosted throughout the season with the additions of some great Islander players, such as Sireli Naqelevuki, Nemani Nadolo and Junior Poluleuligaga. The first two of those combined for a great second half score, which may feature later on. Everything about Exeter is wonderful to watch. The set-up they have, the unity in their squad to the way they have recruited and kept their feet on the ground has been wonderful to see. The grin on Tom Johnson’s face as he impressively raced away for the final try, summed up the whole club.
Try of the weekend has a whole ton of contenders this week:
The nominees included Jarred Payne for the Blues after he finished off Joe Rokocoko’s excellent break, the aforementioned Naqelevuki after Nadolo’s brilliant catch and offload set the ex-Stormer racing up the wing, Rene Ranger’s second score against the Lions following a great break from Luke McAlister, and Manu Tuilagi for his huge bosh and finish for Leicester against Saracens.
But the winner is Leila “Flash” Masaga of the Chiefs for his second try against the Melbourne Rebels in Waikato. From their own five metre line, the Chiefs snatched up some turnover ball and through the hands of the old boy Tana Umaga to set Masaga away on the right hand side just past the 22. What he did next was brilliant. Racing away from the Rebels defence, he motioned to cut inside, but instead burned his way down the right hand touchline, leaving the full back on the ground. He handed off the next chaser who managed to tap tackle him but he had so much momentum and gas that he slid in from about 7 metres. The 90 metre breakaway score brought up the try bonus point, and was aptly described in one word: genius.
Hero of the week goes to the whole of the Canterbury Crusaders side for their win over the Waratahs. The destruction and heartbreak that has been seen in Christchurch on the news has affected the whole world, and as a rugby supporter, seeing such a great rugby city hurt so greatly has been devastating.
This was the Crusaders’ first performance since the earthquake, and despite an early wobble they performed absolutely brilliantly to beat a Waratahs side who had looked impressive over the first two rounds. The huge emotion around the event, and a brilliant first try for Sonny Bill Williams for the home side, will have given an indescribable lift to the people of Christchurch.
Villain of the week is Rory Sidey of the Western Force. His spear tackle, in combination with Gene Fairbanks on Odwa Ndungane of the Sharks left the victim being stretchered off and the Force substitute with a red card after coming on only minutes earlier as a replacement, and with only 17 minutes played on the clock. It was a very, very nasty challenge, and the Sharks went on to thrash the home side 39-12. Justice was served.
That’s all for this week, what were your highlights of the weekend?
by Ben Coles