Best of the Weekend: Premiership and PRO12 playoffs thrill

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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

12 thoughts on “Best of the Weekend: Premiership and PRO12 playoffs thrill

  1. As a Saints fan, under any other circumstances I’d take umbrage that Tom Wood didn’t get Hero of the Week for leading his team to their first victory, home or away, against the hated Tigers in four years and a second consecutive Premiership final…but the Sharks are worthy winners of the accolade this week. Stupid Southern Hemisphere, always stealing the thunder.

  2. Really disappointed by some of the defending by Wasps yesterday afternoon. Two of the tries were literally given away. Was a weird feeling at half time; I’ve never felt so underwhelmed by a win.

    Saracens and Saints both deserve their spot in the final – should be a great game.

    Few issues for the first test though, with mainly wing, hooker and 12 being the issue.

    Assuming those who have niggles get fit:

    1. Marler.2. Webber 3. Wilson 4. Launchbury 5. Parling 6. Haskell. 7. Robshaw. 8. Morgan 9. Care 10. Ford 11. Yarde. 12. Eastmond 13. Tuilagi 14. Roko 15. Brown

    16. Ward 17. Mullen 18. Thomas 19. Attwood 20. Johnson 21. Youngs 22. Cipriani 23. Daly

    1. That actually still looks like a very good squad. I think Lancaster may have a few different players in there though.
      11. May with Yarde at 14, and I think 23 will be Watson not Daly. May was in the 6 nations squad, and Watson has already trained with the current squad and seems to be in favour.
      Shame because I’d prefer your wing choices, but I can’t see Lancaster leaving May out.

      6. Johnson to start with Haskell on the bench to cover the whole back row. Haskell has had more time at 7 and 8 than Johnson has, and with the squad members unavailable he is the perfect option to come off the bench.

      1. Agree with you that I expect May to be in, less so Watson. To be honest I completely forgot about May. I picked Daly over Watson consciously. I just think Daly is a class act.

        Haskell has certainly played most of his rugby at 7, but that is more to accommodate Ashley Johnson and Nathan Hughes in the back row with him. He basically goes round doing all the dirty work to allow the two to carry, and England will need the same style of player. Johnson is similar in that regard, but for me in then comes down to who is in the best form. So that’s why I went Haskell.

        1. Totally agree with you on Daly, and it’s a little ridiculous he hasn’t been considered before. He’s the ideal bench back player for England with his ability to cover several spots in the back line. Can’t help but think that Lancaster will pick Watson because he was included in the training squad before though. I don’t really think the back line is where the problem lies. It’s in the forwards (particularly front row) where we seem to be lacking in real depth.

        1. I’m not disagreeing but based on SL’s preference for incumbents I suspect May will be ahead if him.

  3. Surely Ashton should be a contender for villain of the week for his childish antics. Can’t have impressed Lancaster who places so much importance on attitude and culture. I can’t remember the last time I disliked an England player this much.

    1. Genuine question here. Is there anything in the rules specifically relating to shouting at players during conversions? I guess it would fall under unsportsmanlike conduct, much like Danny Care calling for the ball from Vunipola, or the countless taps on the head that players get when they give away a penalty.

      That said, Ashton doesn’t help himself.

      As an aside, has anyone else noticed that Robshaw keeps getting told to stop asking for players to be put in the bin? It happened against Saracens and I’m pretty certain it happened against Bath too.

      1. Yep it is illegal. Tbh I’m just sick of his antics. I used to give him the benefit of the doubt as being a bit exuberant but now I just thinks he lacks class, humility and sportsmanship qualities. It all smacks of poor judgement, not a good sign for a player with international ambitions. Varndell and Cipriani have been asked to clean up their act. Why is Ashton not treated in the same way?

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