As the Bank Holiday provided an opportunity for us mere mortals to recharge well-worn batteries and chomp through chocolate, Easter was happily supplemented by some exceptional rugby from all corners of the globe. Here is the best of what went on.
Harlequins capitulate at Kingsholm, Saints suffer Franklin’s thrashing
A misty Friday evening in the West Country was a tough assignment for the Premiership champions as they sought to arrest consecutive losses, but an accomplished first-half performance from Harlequins defied the hostile atmosphere.
Tries from hooker Rob Buchanan and wing Sam Smith – who latched onto a sumptuous Nick Evans chip – opened up a 12-3 lead for the visitors heading into the break. However, Gloucester revelled in the chaotic pace as the contest broke up in the second period. Jonny May rounded off an 80-metre team move before the irrepressible Akapusi Qera snatched victory. Handed a 17-15 defeat for three on the bounce, Conor O’Shea must wrest momentum back.
Arguably the masters of injecting impetus at the business end of the season, Leicester tore Northampton apart in a dominant all-round display. Emerging from a scrappy opening half-hour, Tigers battered the hosts in every department. A Manu Tuilagi brace complemented scores from Mathew Tait and Niall Morris and although Stephen Myler grabbed a close-range consolation, the 36-8 scoreline could have been more comprehensive. In truth, Saints never got a sniff of the East Midlands bragging rights.
Meanwhile, Bath’s backs enjoyed themselves at The Rec to dishearten basement boys London Welsh further. Non-existent tackling was to blame for Matt Banahan and Semesa Rokodugni going over in the first half, and although Alex Davies kept the Exiles close, late efforts from Horacio Agulla and Michael Claasens secured a 40-25 triumph.
Up the M4 at Sixways, Worcester and Exeter played out a topsy-turvy tie that was only decided by big Dean Mumm in the final stages. Guided by excellent half-backs Haydn Thomas and Gareth Steenson, the Chiefs are now an outside bet for a play-off place. Conversely, Worcester are making their annual limp towards the finish line and have now lost seven of their last eight league games. After the imminent summer departures, next year may be a long one.
Saracens hold off Wasps, Irish and Sale in high-octane draw
There is an inevitability about Saracens’ winning edge at the minute. Even going 13-0 behind within 12 minutes in High Wycombe, the Fez-heads were always likely to claw past Wasps and, largely thanks to the attacking instincts of Alex Goode, they achieved that quite comfortably. England’s full back set up both his side’s tries, first by taking an audacious quick tap to put Chris Wyles over, and then with a nicely-weighted grubber that a hungry Chris Ashton contrived to convert. Earlier, Christian Wade had intercepted Charlie Hodgson’s pass and scorched away for a tenth dot-down of the campaign.
On Sunday at the Madejski Stadium, a free-flowing, defensively-deprived match produced a paradox. Two teams scrapping against relegation conceded 33 points, yet surfaced with their survival chances enhanced. Sale can be marginally happier after notching four tries, the most impressive finish by the energetic James Gaskell, but London Irish gave as good as they got. In fact, Halani Aulika’s 50-metre trundle was a thing of beauty, even if a grandstand sniper picked off Charlie Amesbury to ease the tighthead’s passage to the line.
Warriors conquer Munster convincingly as Judgment Day delivers
If Friday’s 9-7 win for Edinburgh away at Zebre was something of a dour affair, RaboDirect Pro 12 leaders Glasgow lit up the same night with a half-century mauling of Munster. Six tries, including a typically eye-catching effort from Stuart Hogg as well as 22 points from Ruaridh Jackson, ensured the Scotsmen stayed top of the pile after an electric last 30 half-hour that will have left the lads from Limerick rather humiliated.
Putting aside the frankly gruesome off-field situation riddled with financial farce – which we will touch on later – Saturday brought the long-awaited visit to Millennium Stadium of all four Welsh regions. In a model based on the London clubs’ annual takeover of Twickenham, Scarlets took on Dragons before Ospreys tackled the Blues. Somehow maintaining concentration despite suffocating contractual wrangling, George North picked up a sweet double to dodge the spirited Dragons, while Ospreys’ monstrous tight five laid the foundations for a 23-16 victory over Cardiff. Eslewhere, Ulster edged Leinster 22-18 in Dublin.
Over The Channel, Jonny Wilkinson celebrated a contract extension by starting Toulon on the way to a 43-11 bonus-point battering of Stade Francais. A Wesley Fofana hat-trick was another headline as Clermont geared up for their Heineken Cup quarter against Montpellier by trouncing Agen 66-21. Meanwhile, half the world away in Dunedin, Queensland Reds secured the result of the Super 15 round by beating Highlanders 34-33 to move up to second in the Australian Conference.
Try of the Weekend was not short of entries, Stuart Hogg’s pace providing a brilliant effort for Glasgow and Jonny May rounding off a stunning, sweeping move that went through just about every pair of Gloucester hands. For patience, precision and timing in the match, Manu Tuilagi’s against Northampton was pivotal. However, it is Horacio Agulla who wins out for grabbing Bath’s penultimate score against London Welsh. Naturally, he will owe Fijian flyer Semesa Rokoduguni a couple of drinks, who fielded an Exiles kick-off and glided past five defenders before releasing the Argentinean.
Some fantastic fixtures left a seriously long list of candidates for Hero of the Weekend, too. Nikola Matawalu was a handful for the wonderful Warriors, George North deserves a mention for his superbly focussed manner and Alun-Wyn Jones was monstrous for the Ospreys. However, Ed Slater gets top honours. Even more than official man of the match Tom Croft, he tormented the hosts with an incredibly powerful display, outplaying Courtney Lawes and nudging Stuart Lancaster significantly.
Finally, a sour note that must be raised. For airing their extremely dirty laundry in public over the course of the weekend, the WRU and Llanelli Scarlets are joint recipients of Villian of the Weekend. The hole they are both in is unfortunate and the summer’s player exodus will be tough to get through, but their press statements painted a painful picture. Emphasising the very worst aspect of professionalism – that one of the world’s best wingers is nothing more than a commodity and a pawn in a grim power struggle – their tit-for-tat releases were pretty deplorable.
By Charlie Morgan