What a weekend. Aviva Premiership, Super and Heineken Cup rugby all took place over the last three days, with plenty of huge results and great action. Here, once again, are the best bits:
The Jinx remains at the Aviva Stadium as Leicester crash out
It may have only been three weeks since England blew their Grand Slam chance against Ireland in Dublin, but towards the end the Heineken Cup quarter-final between Leinster and Leicester, it really felt as if no time had passed at all. Leicester, one could argue, have a better squad than the England side, but it was a horrible case of déjà vu for Ben Youngs and Toby Flood as they struggled to control the pace of the game. The scoreline flattered the visiting side – in reality their sole try from Rob Hawkins was nothing more than a consolation, and for once Leicester were second best when it came to physicality at the breakdown.
That is a testament to Sean O’Brien and Jamie Heaslip. The latter is Irish rugby’s most essential player, and the former, if he continues to put in performances like these, will become a mainstay of the Irish side.
It wasn’t all about the back row though: Leinster’s front three more than contained a Leicester scrum that missed Marco Ayerza. The fact that Leicester’s two second rows were Ed Slater and Steve Mafi, both inexperienced and playing in seriously unchartered territory, proved crucial as their lack of experience worked against them. As for the result, the excellent try of Isa Nacewa deserved to be capped with a win, such was its brilliance. Some special footwork and a clever reach of the arm gave Leinster the gap, 17-3, that made them believe it was their day.
Saints bully Ulster into submission to march into the semis
If you had assumed the heat would have been in San Sebastian on Sunday, not many would have disagreed with you. But the weather swung a surprise as Northampton and Ulster battled out their quarter-final in the searing, tropical Milton Keynes heat. Saints started as fast as any of their supporters could have wanted, with Soane Tonga’huia slinking his delicate frame out of a ruck and placing the ball on the line brilliantly. It was a bang that shook Ulster into life, and their responding try following a couple of penalties from Ian Humphries was a beauty. Two inside balls, the first to Simon Danielli for the break, the second to Andrew Trimble for the try, were of the highest quality.
Northampton may have trailed at half-time, but their loss in the quarter-finals last year against Munster steeled them for occasions such as these. As the heat rose and the bodies tired, they were ferocious. Their pack is full of ugly, intimidating personalities, and Hartley, Lawes and Wood were at their nastiest.
Ulster’s disintegrating set piece meant a win would be impossible; the scrums were splintered and ripped apart, and they just couldn’t handle Northampton. Would Stephen Ferris have made a difference? Possibly, but games aren’t won by one man alone. They will follow Northampton’s lead; reflect, learn and progress. As for Saints, the stadium:MK will become their home again in three weeks’ time against Perpignan.
Proof that when it comes to drama, the French do it best
Oh Biarritz. How Toulouse have tormented them. Last year’s agony of losing the final by two points in Paris may have been excruciating, but this one may well hurt more. In the Basque rain they could not have lost it any later, seconds remaining at the end of extra time when Yannick Nyanga, the forgotten man of French rugby, charged down a kick from the Biarritz talisman Dimitri Yachvili and leaped over the line to clinch the game.
Knock-out rugby is cruel, and this was the epitome of it. From 17-0 down at half-time, Biarritz clawed their way back, penalty after penalty from Yachvili’s left peg. And then the try, so ironically from a charge-down itself, that saw Llikena Bolakoro dive over in the corner level the game. This was a fight back that surely deserved a win, to avenge last year’s ghosts. Rugby doesn’t work like that though. Yachvili leveled the scores again deep into extra-time with yet another penalty, and the shootout beckoned before Nyanga struck.
The weather may have not read the script in San Sebastian, but in Barcelona the event went exactly according to plan. There were tries, three for Toulon, two for Perpignan, as Jerome Porical and Jonny Wilkinson kept the scoreboard ticking. The atmosphere, from reading the thoughts of those who were lucky enough to be at the game, would never be forgotten. But few will remember the occasion with as much joy as Perry Freshwater. The Kiwi born, ex-England loosehead looked incredulously joyful after his score effectively won the game, with the final score 29-25. A loyal servant, no one deserved it more.
What now for Toulon? Signings will inevitably be made, but much like Ulster, the experience of playing in this sort of occasion is priceless. With Mourad Boudjellal’s pocket limitless and the fire of ambition not yet extinguished, they will be back and boy will they be stronger.
Just to add to the point made in the title of this section, the Challenge Cup clash between Brive and Munster was incredible. Munster’s ambition to play with width saw them score two early tries within 7 minutes, but it was a testament to the home side’s character that they fought their way back, and even into the lead. The openness and pace of the match for the neutral was perfect, with nine tries being touched down as both sides frequently took the lead. Brilliant rugby, and a final score of 37-42.
Leeds will not go down quietly
Adrian Jarvis, hero. The Leeds pivot’s last-minute drop goal saw Leeds pick up their first away win of the season and move off the bottom for the first time since September. The job is far from done – Newcastle still have a game in hand against Bath over their relegation rivals following the cold snap – but what a morale boost this will be for everyone involved with the club. Can they pull off another great escape? You’d have to say the momentum is with them now.
Meanwhile at Sale, Gloucester’s LV Cup hangover continued as they lost 36-31 to Sale and the imperious boot of Charlie Hodgson. The Edgeley Park faithful are seriously going to miss their talisman when he departs for Saracens next season, and replacing a man of his class has not yet been done. His 21 points represented one of the performances of the weekend.
What has happened to the Bulls?
The Crusaders followed up their recent, mind-blowing performance at Twickenham by nilling the 2010 Champions and pre-tournament favourites, the Blue Bulls, at their temporary home in Timaru. Even without Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, the home side were streets ahead of their opposition. A word of note for defences: I know Sonny Bill Williams is an intimidating runner with the ball, a mixture of Jonah Lomu and say, a buffalo, but you have to at least try and bring him down. His try against the Bulls was just embarrassing. This isn’t ballet, Wynand Olivier.
The game left little doubt that a) the Bulls’ time has finally passed and b) the Crusaders will win this year’s Super Rugby competition. No doubt.
Try of the weekend… give me a break, will you? There’s loads of them. Contenders include Drew Mitchell (Waratahs), twice, Louis Ludik (Sharks), JP Pietersen (also Sharks), Henry Speight (Brumbies), Adrien Plante (Perpignan) and Maxime Medard (Toulouse). But for me, Isa Nacewa’s effort clinches it. Tight games like that need a moment of inspiration, and Nacewa created it. Sublime footwork.
The week’s hero is Perry Freshwater for the match-winning score against Toulon. It was unspectacular, but it didn’t matter. The visible emotion all over his body as he clung on to the ball after crashing over spoke a thousand words.
And the villain? The whole of the Stormers. What an ugly brand of rugby they are playing this season. They never really looked to be in with a chance in their game with the Reds at Newlands, and after playing so well last season, their blunted attack comes as a bit of a surprise. The talent is there, so why isn’t it clicking?
Thank you very much for reading, what were your highlights?
by Ben Coles