Premiership semis leaves two heavyweights standing
The 2018 Premiership semi-finals had a weekend ideally suited to running rugby, with both matches played on a scorching May Saturday. As last week’s European final proved, sometimes knockout rugby can be a little attritional, but the semi-finalists made light of that idea.
In the first game, second placed Saracens welcomed former London rivals Wasps to Allianz Park. The Wolfpack completely dominated the opening exchanges, battering Wasps into submission and punishing some weak defence around the fringes. Owen Farrell scythed through and fed Alex Lozowski to open the scoring. Another try and three penalties from Farrell’s boot meant they were comfortable at half-time even though Willie Le Roux had responded for the visitors.
The ferocity kept coming on the resumption when Chris Wyles went over for a record-breaking try. Wasps did manage to stay in touch, though, as Jake Cooper-Woolley and Thomas Young scored. Saracens kept them at arm’s length as the restarts were never dealt with well by Dai Young’s team, just as they were building momentum. A further 5 tries were scored in the latter part of the half to make the score a jaw-dropping 57-33. In truth, Wasps never got close enough to really worry the 2016 champions and Saracens will be in confident mood ahead of their upcoming trip to Twickenham.
If that game was one-sided, punctuated by some Wasps magic, the Exeter v Newcastle game was completely one-way traffic. Newcastle, making their long-awaited debut at this stage of the competition, were unable to get any hands on the ball in the opening half and had only a tenacious defence to thank for not being completely put to the sword. Chiefs were patient and ground a 16-0 half-time lead out thanks to Joe Simmonds’ boot and a try from the excellent Nick White. Afterwards, whilst the hosts weren’t quite as dominant, the defensive effort that Falcons had had to put in started to tell as gaps started to appear and they cantered to a comfortable 36-5 victory.
With two confident and evenly matched sides to battle out the final, it should be a cracker and is looking very tight to call. What is certain is that Chiefs have come a long way since their last meeting at Twickenham with the same opponents. Saracens will be taking nothing for granted this time.
What happened elsewhere?
If the Premiership knockouts didn’t come close to providing a surprise, the rest of Europe was in entirely unpredictable form.
In the Pro14 semi-finals, Munster pushed European Champions Leinster all the way. They outscored their fierce rivals two tries to one, but that wasn’t enough as they lost out 16-15. The other game, between Glasgow and Scarlets, was destined to be a tight one, with Glasgow entering as marginal favourites. It looked anything but that, though. The Welsh side seemed unplayable as they glided to a 28-13 victory, courtesy of a blistering first half.
More upsets were caused in the preliminary finals in France. Toulon and Toulouse had home game to progress to the semis against Lyon and Castres respectively. Routine wins were expected, but Castes were comfortable 23-11 winners. Meanwhile, the maximum allocated extra-time was not enough to separate Lyon and Toulon as the game ended 19-apiece. Lyon progressed having scored one more try than their illustrious opponents.
Waratahs claimed a first Australian victory over New Zealand opposition in recent memory with a huge win over Highlanders. Sunwolves were victors for the second week in a row, with a win against Stormers. Jaguares kept the pressure on Lions by beating Bulls, the Lions also won against Brumbies. There were also wins for Sharks, Crusaders and Hurricanes. Aside from the latter two, the competition seems to have evened out in recent weeks and even those two have been run very close.
Hero of the week
A few short months ago, Saracens were in the midst of a minor crisis. It was their England contingent taking the flak (given by myself as well) for being out of sorts, yet it was they who were at the heart of a phenomenal performance full of power, guile and clinical precision at the weekend to take them through to the familiar territory of final rugby. Itoje, Vunipola, Farrell et al. were the stars in a superb team effort.
Villain of the week
I was at the game at Allianz as a neutral, but surrounded by Wasps’ fans. At half-time, I heard a lot of moaning about refereeing decisions, which I thought was wildly over the top. However, in the second half they were completely undone by many borderline and obvious calls at crucial times that stopped any momentum they were building. Saracens were full value for their win, but JP Doyle and his assistants definitely helped their cause.
Try of the week
We have witnessed many beautiful and/or confusing patterns in the UK this year. The weather patterns that have covered us in snow and burned us with heat. Some of the outfits on show at the Royal Wedding. The baffling state of world politics. None of these were prettier or more flummoxing than the move that was woven by Wasps in the process of creating Thomas Young’s try. My eyes did not know where to look in a game that they were made to work very hard.
Who will be victors next weekend?
Where will it be won?
How will the Pro14 and Top14 pan out?
What are your thoughts on the player and coach of the season awards?
by Joe Large