Northampton and Saracens prepare for Twickenham
The Northampton Saints and Leicester Tigers got the Aviva Premiership semi-finals off to the perfect start on Friday night, as they played out a spectacular and feisty encounter at Franklin’s Gardens. A late Tom Wood try broke Leicester hearts, giving the home side a narrow 21-20 win, and was a fitting culmination to a spirited second half resurgence from Northampton. The visitors had been in control at half-time, thanks to tries from Manu Tuilagi and Ben Youngs, but their 17-6 advantage would ultimately prove not to be enough in the face of determined Saints’ revival. Despite being further hamstrung by a red card to Salesi Ma’afu in the second half, a try from George North brought Northampton to within touching distance of Leicester’s lead and set up the dramatic finale which resulted in Wood’s game-winning try. Leicester will look back and curse the indiscipline that saw them play 30 minutes of the game with 14 men (yellow cards to Vereniki Goneva, Dan Bowden and Tom Youngs), whilst Northampton will have to prepare themselves for a busy couple of weeks, as they compete in both the Amlin Challenge Cup and Aviva Premiership finals.
Northampton will be joined in the Premiership final by Saracens, who, after battling through adversity early on in their semi-final, saw off the challenge of Harlequins with a 31-17 victory at Allianz Park. In similar fashion to the game at Franklin’s Gardens, Harlequins came out of the blocks much the quicker and took clinical advantage of Saracens being reduced to 13 men at one point, as tries from Ugo Monye and Mike Brown helped them to a 17-11 lead at the interval. Saracens responded perfectly in the second half however, and tries for Brad Barritt and Chris Ashton helped the home side to an unassailable 31-17 lead, as the vaunted Saracens’ defence kept Quins scoreless in the second 40. Like Northampton, Saracens now face the tantalising prospect of the double, as they embark on a quest for both the Heineken Cup and Premiership trophies, and enter undoubtedly the biggest two weeks in the club’s history.
Glasgow edge Munster, O’Driscoll goes for one more
Glasgow’s exceptional end of season form continued on Friday night as they beat Munster 16-15 in the opening RaboDirect PRO12 semi-final at Scotstoun, advancing to their first ever final in the process. Munster took an early lead thanks to a Damien Varley try, but the boot of Finn Russell erased the deficit and guided the Warriors to a narrow 9-7 advantage at half-time. Both sides exchanged tries in the second half, with Gordon Reid going over for the home side and Sean Dougall crossing for Munster, setting up an extremely tense end to the match. An Ian Keatley penalty pulled Munster to within a solitary point of Glasgow’s lead, but the Scottish side’s defence held strong in the final minutes and they were able to record a historic victory.
Unlike Glasgow, Leinster’s experience in the PRO12’s showpiece event is unmatched, and they booked their place in the final with a hard-fought 13-9 victory over Ulster at the RDS. In one of the more surprising 40 minutes of rugby this season, Leinster were actually held scoreless in the first half and headed into half-time trailing 6-0 thanks to the unerring boot of Paddy Jackson. Jackson extended that lead to nine points early in the second half, before Jimmy Gopperth hit back with two penalties of his own. The enigmatic Ian Madigan then blew the game open with its only try, giving the home side a 13-9 lead with just eight minutes left to play. Leinster’s defence was tested late on, but ultimately proved impregnable, giving Brian O’Driscoll one last opportunity to add to his already bulging trophy cabinet against Glasgow in two weeks’ time.
Wasps take slim advantage to Paris
London Wasps rounded off the weekend’s rugby with a narrow 30-29 victory over Stade Francais, giving themselves the slightest advantage heading into the return leg in Paris next weekend. Although the home side picked up the win, the game will feel like a missed opportunity for Dai Young’s men, who were at fault for a couple of sloppy tries and as a consequence, a much less flattering score line. Stade Francais, who have lost just once in their 13 home games in the Top 14 this season, will now be heavy favourites going into the second leg, and Wasps will have to find an extra gear or two if they are to earn a spot in next year’s European Rugby Champions Cup.
Sharks pull off one of the wins of the Super Rugby season
There were plenty of intriguing Super Rugby games this week, but none that lived up to the drama of the Sharks’ 30-25 win over the Crusaders in Christchurch. The game exploded into life with a superb try from Sibusiso Sithole (see Try of the Week) and a deserved red card for Jean Deysel (see Villain of the Week), and the action-packed first half came to an end with the Sharks trailing by just three points despite their one man disadvantage. Further indiscipline brought the Sharks down to 13 men for 10 minutes as Willem Alberts was yellow carded, but tries from Cobus Reinach and Kyle Cooper were enough to secure a potentially season-defining victory for the South African franchise. Elsewhere, the Reds dropped to bottom spot with a 30-27 loss at home to the Melbourne Rebels and the Highlanders improved their chances of playoff rugby considerably with an 18-16 victory over the Hurricanes in Wellington.
Try of the Week goes to Sibusiso Sithole for his effort against the Crusaders. The try was made by Frans Steyn, who, after making a super break, delivered one of the most delicious offloads you’ll see all season and Sithole was able to cruise over for a vital score. Joe Simpson’s superb solo effort against Stade certainly ran it close and deserves at least a mention.
A plethora of guys to pick from for Villain of the Week, but after significant deliberation it goes to Ed O’Donoghue of the Reds. The lock was red carded for making contact with the eye area of a player on the ground and has since been cited for the incident. Jean Deysel deserves a dishonourable mention for his stamp to the face of Jordan Taufua, as does Salesi Ma’afu for his punch on Tom Youngs. The reconciliation between Youngs and Ma’afu on social media was heartening to see and as such Ma’afu was moved out of the running for this award. My decision to opt for O’Donoghue over Deysel is based purely on my distaste for gouging over stamping, although both would be fitting candidates for the dishonour.
Plenty of northern hemisphere candidates for Hero of the Week, including Tom Wood, Glasgow and Ian Madigan, but the Sharks complete a Super Rugby clean sweep this week. The South African side had to play with 14 men for over 60 minutes after Deysel’s red card and yet they still managed leave Christchurch with a 30-25 victory over the in-form Crusaders. For those of you who regularly follow Super Rugby, that just doesn’t happen.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images