Northampton complete double
The curtain was brought down on the 2013/14 Aviva Premiership season at Twickenham on Saturday, where an enthralling, 100 minute contest ended with Northampton beating Saracens 24-20 in one of the most compelling finals in the competition’s history. The game marked the first time a Premiership final needed extra time to be decided and although it will have given Stuart Lancaster a few extra grey hairs, it was a fitting way to separate two teams who were unquestioningly the best the Premiership had to offer this season. Saracens could be forgiven on looking back at the final with a sense of bitterness, as the game-winning try from Alex Waller looked anything but conclusive; however, the TMO awarded it to the delight of Northampton’s fans.
Both teams shone defensively throughout the game, but no player rose to the heights of Courtney Lawes. The dynamic lock laid down perhaps his biggest marker yet that he has become the standard by which other second rows should be judged, defending ferociously, dominating at the set piece and carrying proficiently. There will be euphoria in Northampton for some time to come after they’ve lifted both the Amlin Challenge Cup and Aviva Premiership in the last 10 days, whilst it’s back to drawing board for Saracens and Mark McCall, who will be devastated to end what had been such a superb season without any silverware.
O’Driscoll and Cullen bow out at the top for Leinster
Brian O’Driscoll’s fairytale ending may not have gone strictly to plan, as the centre limped off with a hamstring injury after just nine minutes, but he got to lift one more RaboDirect PRO12 title with his teammates, as Leinster saw off the challenge of Glasgow fairly comfortably, beating the Scottish side 34-12 at the RDS. Glasgow looked nothing like the side which shot up the PRO12 table in the second half of the season and it seems the sense of occasion that comes with finals clearly affected their usual playing style. Zane Kirchner, who has enjoyed a solid if unspectacular debut season in Dublin, was one of the players to make the difference for Leinster, as the South African grabbed a brace of tries before setting up Gordon D’Arcy for the province’s fourth and final try of the game.
The game should prove to be a valuable lesson learned for Glasgow, who were unable to become the first Scottish side to win the tournament, and the Warriors’ fans will be keen to see how their side kicks on next season after an impressive 2013/14 campaign.
Waratahs down the reigning champions, Sharks secure South African conference
It’s been a good year so far for the Waratahs, but their 33-17 victory over the Chiefs in New Plymouth on Saturday was perhaps their biggest statement yet. The result, thanks to tries from Israel Folau, Dave Dennis and Bernard Foley, moved the ‘Tahs into pole position at the top of the Australian conference. They hold just a three point-advantage over the Brumbies in the Super Rugby table, but the Canberra-based side have to visit them in the next round in what promises to be a box office showdown at the top of the Australian conference. Other results of note included the Blues putting a big dent in the Hurricanes’ playoff ambitions with a 37-24 victory at Eden Park, whilst the Sharks locked up the South African conference despite succumbing to a 21-19 loss to the Stormers in Durban, courtesy of a late Jaco Taute drop goal.
Barbarians see off England XV, Wales probables pump possibles
A cohesive and relatively well-drilled Barbarians side emerged victorious at Twickenham on Sunday, beating an England XV 39-29, and brought to an end an excellent weekend of rugby. Hosea Gear and Rene Ranger were the difference makers for the Barbarians as a youthful England side struggled to deal with their potent combination of pace and power. Despite the fact England were fielding in essence a 4th choice XV, after being shorn of the players already in New Zealand and those involved in the Aviva Premiership final, the likes of Elliot Daly, Luke Wallace, Henry Slade and Ollie Devoto all put their hands up for further international recognition with very good performances.
On Friday night, the Welsh Probables pumped the Possibles 55-7 in the first trial match in over a decade. There was an eye-catching hattrick for centre Jonathan Davies, while uncapped winger Jordan Williams also crossed for a brace as the Probables ran in eight tries in total. The only riposte for the Possibles came through an excellent solo break from scrum-half and PRO12 top try scorer this season Gareth Davies.
Try of the Week, somewhat unsurprisingly, goes to Juan Martin Hernandez of the Barbarians. A pinpoint cross-field kick form Brock James found Hosea Gear, who shrugged off a tackle from Elliot Daly, drew Semesa Rokoduguni, offloaded to Hernandez, and the Argentinean was able to cruise in unopposed.
Last week Jonny Wilkinson took Hero of the Week for the contribution he has made to the game, so for justice’s sake, it’s shared by Brian O’Driscoll, Leo Cullen and Steve Borthwick this week. The game will be a lesser place for their absences next season, but with both Borthwick and Cullen already accepting coaching positions at Japan and Leinster respectively, at least they will continue to influence the game they’ve already given so much for. Courtney Lawes, Zane Kirchner and the Pisi brothers all also deserve honourable mentions.
Tough to name a Villain of the Week on such a superb weekend of rugby, but it has to go to Mike McCarthy for his dive in the PRO12 final. Diving is wrong full stop, but McCarthy’s Rivaldo-esque slump to the turf made even Bryan Habana’s effort in the Heineken Cup final look believable.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images