Premiership Semi-Finals serve up plenty of drama
Let’s start by putting the drama of the weekend to one side and focus on the rugby. Because unfortunately, the officiating of certain incidents and a flurry of punches have overshadowed what were two very intense, draining semi-finals for the four teams concerned.
Leicester reached their seventh successive Premiership final after beating local rivals Northampton 11-3 at Welford Road. The sole try of the game fell to the top try scorer of the season Alesana Tuilagi, whose trademark strength saw him trample over Bruce Reihana for the score that sealed the game. Northampton targeted Toby Flood earlier on based on the previous success that both Ireland and Leinster had at shutting down the England fly-half, with a few late hits to rough him up a bit. And for a while it worked. Northampton were so clinical against Perpignan but whilst the French side misfired, Leicester were on the money.
The famed trio of Soane Tonga’huia, Dylan Hartley and Brian Mujati came unstuck against the Leicester front-row. When you think scrums, you think of the Tigers, and they kept their reputation intact by dismantling the strong Northampton pack. You don’t often see Tonga’huia slumping away from the scrum shaking his head about being outplayed. In the midfield, Clarke and Downey were not afforded the dominance that they have become used to throughout the season against weaker opposition, with Anthony Allen and Manu Tuilagi’s defence holding strong. It was an excruciatingly frustrating afternoon in attack for the visiting side.
As for the now infamous flurry of punches, there’s no doubting that it was a red card. Well, apart from in the mind of Robin Goodliffe, the touch judge who made the call for both players to be sent to the sin-bin. Assessing it is a tricky one given that Goodliffe confirmed that he definitely saw what happened. So either he lied to Wayne Barnes, and didn’t see it, or he judges a punch that David Haye would be proud of to be fair game. Whichever it is, he shouldn’t expect to referee the final in two weeks time.
As for Saracens, their win over Gloucester sees them head to Twickenham for a repeat of last year’s final. The standard of this game was considerably lower than the one the previous day, with seemingly countless errors committed in the first half as Saracens kept the game a contest by persistently missing their shots at goal. Kicks out on the full, dropped catches, sloppy passing – you name it, Saracens and Gloucester did it. Gloucester’s indiscipline cost them and Owen Farrell eventually punished them, with the young fly half slotting four out of his eight attempts on goal. Still just 19, he showed a lot of guts to keep plugging away, and ultimately win Saracens the match.
Gloucester will be disappointed that after gaining the lead with under ten minutes on the clock following an excellent try from Nicky Robinson from a move that started well within the Cherry & Whites half, they were unable to hang on to their fine margin. The fact that they finished third in the table is impressive enough in itself, after a terrible start to the season. Losing Paul Doran-Jones and Dave Attwood is a blow to their progression as a side, but I expect big things from them next season.
Incredibly, a second incorrect decision from a touch judge left a mark on the Sunday semi-final as well, with Steve Borthwick sin-binned for the alleged crime of pulling a man down in the lineout, when the television footage quite clearly showed it was an accidental collision. The fact that moments later Jacques Burger escaped being penalized for a very late hit on one of the Gloucester backs was an example of irony in its purest form. Austin Healey’s post-match point on ESPN that perhaps there needs to be an injection of youth into the refereeing setup seemed rash at the time, but on reflection might not be such a bad idea after all.
Cheetahs stun the Crusaders as the Reds move clear at the top
The result of the weekend came in Bloemfontein where in the last match of Round 13 of this year’s Super Rugby competition, the Cheetahs overcame the Crusaders by 33 points to 20. Andries Strauss, the Cheetahs inside centre, tweeted after the game how “It just shows that a team with heart can beat any team of superstars”, and he was spot on. The Crusaders may have had the likes of Dan Carter, sporting a rather dodgy moustache, Richie McCaw, Keiran Read and Sonny Bill Williams, and yet the Cheetahs comprehensively outplayed them.
This was mainly down to two brilliant performances from young fly-half Sias Ebersohn and openside Ashley Johnson. Ebersohn, whose twin brother Robert also plays for the province, was deadly accurate with the boot and also sprinted away for a very impressive score down the left hand touchline to put the Cheetahs into a significant lead, stepping Israel Dagg on the way to dotting down. His development over the rest of this year’s competition will be interesting, and the Cheetahs looked to have unearthed a gem in a crucial position. As for Johnson, he’s a sizeable unit but with plenty of pace and soft hands, as his breakaway score and assist for Ebersohn’s try displayed.
Meanwhile over at Suncorp the Reds cemented their position at the top of the Super Rugby log with a very entertaining win over the Blues, with the final score being 37-31. After blitzing into a 24-0 lead thanks to tries from Quade Cooper, Radike Samo and Scott Higginbotham with thirty minutes gone, the Blues hit back and then brought the match to just 27-25 at the start of the second half. But the Reds are maturing into a big game winning side, and they were well steered by Will Genia in particular towards victory. Their clash with the Crusaders at Suncorp in two weeks time will be enormous.
Munster and Leinster set to meet in the Magners League Final
The old enemies will fight it out once again as the two Irish provinces contest the Magners League final at Thomond Park in two weeks time. Munster beat the Ospreys 18-11 thanks to two tries from young centre Danny Barnes, whilst Leinster conquered Ulster at the RDS by 18 points to three.
As an outsider to the Magners League, this final seems predictable and is a bit disappointing. The lack of a serious competitor from Wales or Scotland, forgetting Italy for one moment, is lamentable. The Ospreys may have won the title three times since the Celtic league’s creation, but this year they have seemed remarkably off the pace, and with James Hook, Lee Byrne, Marty Holah and Craig Mitchell all set to leave in the summer, their rebuilding process will be intriguing to watch over the summer.
Regarding the final itself, Munster have the advantage of two weeks off following their failure to reach the final of the Amlin Challenge Cup, whilst Leinster face a brutally physical encounter against a wounded Northampton team in Cardiff. The failure in the Amlin may have been cursed by the Munster supporters, but it could well prove to be a big advantage in the hunt for domestic glory.
Try of the weekend goes to Gio Aplon of the Stormers. The winger’s searing pace is no secret, but that doesn’t mean you can stop him. Aplon broke the defensive cover running on a sharp line off Jean de Villiers, before scorching up the pitch stepping three Chiefs defenders as he headed towards the right hand corner. The fastest man in World rugby? Probably.
Hero of the weekend goes to Elton Jantjies of the Lions. All of the headlines this week may have been about Butch James’ return to South African rugby, but after this performance, he may struggle to get the 10 shirt. Jantjies showed brilliant hands to set up two high quality scores for Alwyn Hollenback and Jaco Taute, and landed his kicks at goal to seal the big win for the Lions against the Brumbies, who are yet to win at home this season.
Villain of the weekend? Doesn’t take many guesses really does it. Manu Tuilagi is an outstanding, raw talent still in his first full season of Premiership rugby, and he’s still learning. And he will learn that what he did on Saturday was inexcusable. His season is no doubt over, with his flying fists a black mark on what has been a brilliant breakthrough season.
Click the player below to see the highlights from the weekend, including that Manu Tuilagi punch:
by Ben Coles