Toulon retain the Heineken Cup, Jonny cements legacy
It won’t go down as one of the all-time classic Heineken Cup finals, but Toulon’s 23-6 victory over Saracens was compelling from beginning to end for a number of reasons. Captain Jonny Wilkinson accounted for 13 points in the penultimate game of his illustrious career and the images of him lifting the cup with a smile on his face will reverberate around the rugby world for years to come. Matt Giteau and Juan Smith both crossed the try line for Toulon and the latter was only denied the man of the match award thanks to a virtuoso performance from Steffon Armitage. The English forward further pressed his case to be involved with the international team, as he has done all season long on the Côte d’Azur, and Stuart Lancaster’s ability to ignore the former-London Irish man must be reaching breaking point.
It was a contrasting story for Steve Borthwick however, who couldn’t quite match Jonny’s fairytale ending, but will now have to motivate his heartbroken side and prepare them for the Aviva Premiership final against Northampton. Saracens started brightly, but the quality and depth of Toulon really showed in the second half and it was simply a case of the better team winning on the day. The North Londoners season now hinges on how they respond to this game and whether or not they can use it as fuel when they take on Saints this weekend. Honourable mentions must go out to Jacques Burger, Brad Barritt and Matt Stevens however, all of whom were exceptional on Saturday and certainly didn’t deserve to be on the losing side.
Historic double in Northampton’s sights after convincing Challenge Cup win
Northampton saw off the challenge of Bath with a 30-16 victory in the Amlin Challenge Cup, thanks in large part to a resurgent second half performance, and picked up their first piece of silverware since 2008 in the process. Bath took a 13-6 lead into the interval thanks to an Anthony Watson try and classy first forty from fly-half George Ford, but it would not prove to be enough, as Northampton went on to outscore Bath 24-3 in the second half.
Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood were sensational for Northampton, paving the way for tries for Phil Dowson and Ben Foden, whilst Ford wilted significantly in the limelight in the second forty. Where Ford was missing relatively straight-forward kicks and knocking on balls under pressure, Stephen Myler was calmly slotting kick after kick and taking the game beyond the reach of Bath. Northampton would have had eyes on a bigger prize at the beginning of the season, but if they can now go and cement a famous double by winning the Aviva Premiership title, it is a season which will go down as one of the greatest in the club’s history.
Comprehensive win in Paris seals London Wasps’ Champions Cup place
The odds were stacked against London Wasps, who took a meagre one-point advantage to Paris on Saturday, but the men from High Wycombe shone, beating Stade Francais 20-6 at the Stade Jean-Bouin, securing a 50-35 aggregate victory. A combination of ambitious attacking rugby from Wasps and a lack of cohesion from Stade meant the home side were lucky to not concede more than 20 points, and Wasps did in fact have two tries disallowed, both of which could have been given on other days. The back row duo of James Haskell and Ashley Johnson were both superb, as were live wire backs Joe Simpson and Tom Varndell, whilst Joe Launchbury did not put a foot wrong for the entire 80 minutes. The win secures Wasps’ place in next season’s inaugural European Rugby Champions Cup, and with their impressive raft of recruits set to join this summer, they could well make some waves in next year’s competition.
Hurricanes dismantle Chiefs in Wellington, Sharks stay the course in Auckland
No team laid down a marker like the Hurricanes this weekend, beating the reigning champions, the Chiefs, 45-8 at WestPac Stadium. The supremely talented back line of Beauden Barrett, Alapati Leiua, Conrad Smith and Julian Savea cut open the Chiefs’ defence time after time, with Savea crossing the try line twice for his side. It wasn’t just the ‘Canes superstar backs who shone though, with try-scoring forwards Ben Franks and Jack Lam both putting in outstanding shifts, whilst scrum-half TJ Perenara marshalled his pack superbly and gave Barrett the quick ball he needed. The bonus point win moves the ‘Canes into a Wild Card spot as Super Rugby moves toward the business end of the season.
Elsewhere, the Crusaders managed to edge a 32-30 win against the Highlanders at Forsyth Barr Stadium, a result which keeps both teams in playoff spots, whilst Western Force picked up their eighth win of the season, beating the Lions 29-19 in Perth. The Sharks cemented their grip on top spot with an impressive 29-23 win against the Blues at North Harbour Stadium, whilst the Stormers continued to find their form, dismantling the Cheetahs 33-0 in Cape Town, albeit too late in the season to make any real impression at the top of the table.
Try of the Week is a very subjective one this week and goes to Brad Shields of the Hurricanes. The ‘Canes executed a perfect back row move off the back of the scrum, with Victor Vito taking the ball off the base of the scrum, drawing a defender, before passing inside to Shields who was able to cruise over unopposed. There were arguably more aesthetically pleasing tries this week, such as those from Julian Savea and Matt Giteau, but it’s rare to see back row moves used these days at scrum time and I can only hope this is the beginning of reversing that trend.
Wrestled with this decision, but Villain of the Week goes to George Ford. The young fly-half was superb for 35 minutes, but then crumbled. He did not individually cost his side the game, but his missed penalties and errors with ball in hand certainly didn’t help. Ford is an immense talent, but there’s a danger in over-hyping him that you forget he is still a work-in-progress. He will have learned a number of lessons in the Amlin final and will certainly come out of it as a better player in the long run.
There can be only one Hero of the Week and his name is Jonny Wilkinson. Although outshone on the day by Juan Smith and Steffon Armitage, there is no doubt that Wilkinson has been the most pivotal part in Toulon’s ascendancy to the elite tier of European rugby. No player has taken to mantle of ‘superstar’ so humbly and professionally as Wilkinson, and just like Brian O’Driscoll, the world of rugby will be a lesser place when he finally hangs up his boots following the Top 14 final.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images