The Rugby Championship returned this weekend to join a typically saturated programme of domestic action around Britain and France. Here are the highlights.
Wallabies wounded, All Blacks exceptional
It was a painful evening of punishment for Australia in Pretoria as they were brutalised by a clinical Springbok side. There was a staggering catalogue of injuries including Adam Ashley-Cooper’s concussion and a punctured lung for Berrick Barnes, but the Wallabies were also outclassed considerably. Perversely, South Africa’s attacking instinct seemed invigorated by the absence of Morné Steyn, with young Johan Goosen breathing life into Heyneke Meyer’s men.
Zane Kirchner was a perennial nuisance in wide channels, while 21 year-old debutant Jaco Taute took to the Test arena with poise at outside centre. However, the undoubted star for the hosts was Brian Habana, whose sublime hat-trick capped a 31-8 win that could have been even more emphatic. Extending a career tally to 46 tries, the winger was effervescent, exercising incredible speed of thought throughout the contest. Robbie Deans must instil some sort of belief in the troops still standing – they must travel to Rosario next.
As the clocks of these shores wound up to midnight, Argentina and New Zealand rounded off the penultimate round of this year’s tournament in Buenos Aires. The Pumas exploded out of the blocks with a sensational score from scrum half Martin Landajo after Lucas Amorosino’s slicing break, but such success proved an extremely false dawn.
In fact, from that point the All Blacks not so much avoided the banana skin as decimated it. Auditioning convincingly for the talisman role that Richie McCaw will vacate next month for a well-deserved sabbatical, Keiran Read was exceptional, linking his powerful pack with marauding backs at will. There was a treble for Cory Jane and an excellent brace for Julian Savea as the hosts tired in the second half. It is a mark of Argentina’s progress that a thrashing to the tune of 54-15 was something of a surprise, but they will learn as much from this as their recent near-misses. Keep the faith.
Saints hit the summit as Saracens defeat champions
Friday night at Franklin’s Gardens was the scene for the latest leaders of the Aviva Premiership to take top spot, as Northampton made it five from five with a 24-6 win over Wasps. Luther Burrell and Courtney Lawes again impressed with robust, muscular showings, but the headlines were stolen by Kiwi James Wilson, whose brace proved that life during Ben Foden’s recovery period need not be so bleak.
The same optimism cannot be attached to Sale, however. Quite simply, there are not many reasons to be cheerful for the Stockport side and Bryan Redpath’s angst will have intensified following defeat to Bath in Olly Barkley’s swansong at The Rec. Joining them at the foot of the table, London Irish are also in trouble and were handed a 35-11 hiding by resurgent Worcester.
At Welford Road, Leicester banished all memories of last season’s double defeat to Exeter, breezing past the Chiefs on the back of a polished display. On his maiden appearance in a Tigers shirt, winger Adam Thompstone endeared himself to the East Midlands faithful with a well-taken hat-trick, forging a very useful union with Matt Smith at the first time of asking. Richard Cockerill’s charges are now prowling in fourth place, six points off the pace but one ahead of Gloucester, who managed to halt a stubborn London Welsh effort at the Kassam Stadium. Once more, Freddie Burns enhanced his reputation and is building a compelling case for autumn involvement with England.
Sunday’s other fixture was the weekend’s juiciest on paper, Saracens heading south for a showdown against Harlequins. Despite hordes of class in each side, though, an atmosphere thick with niggle descended. There were swinging arms, petulant trips and brainless offences at every turn, but one man kept his (bandaged) head while nerves all around him frayed. Fresh from a fortnight of criticism, Owen Farrell’s unflappable personality prevailed. A sixth penalty just six minutes from time was crucial in clinching a fraught encounter – maybe Stuart Lancaster’s faith is justified after all.
Points aplenty but Lydiate faces lengthy lay-off
A number of high-scoring clashes characterised the latest round of the RaboDirect Pro 12, with Connacht’s surprise thumping of their more illustrious rivals Leinster the most eye-catching result. Elsewhere, Ulster returned to action in a glorious manner, making a fitting tribute to their fallen brother Nevin Spence by battering Cardiff 48-19 at the Arms Park. Ospreys maintained their much-needed momentum too, while Glasgow Warriors held off a determined Zebre outfit to triumph 22-19.
Unfortunately, though, the most significant news from the Celtic corner was not of a happy nature. Three minutes into the Dragons’ 32-12 win over Edinburgh at Rodney Parade, Dan Lydiate suffered a break to his left ankle. Though he left the field on his feet and subsequent X-rays halted fears of a supplementary dislocation, the flanker is now in a race against time. Next spring’s Six Nations is a very useful shop window for the Lions trip Down Under. Lydiate could still tour as Warren Gatland’s wildcard, but he will be desperate to play a part.
Across The Channel, Toulouse unceremoniously halted Toulon’s successful run in a replay of this summer’s Top 14 final, a 27-point haul from Luke McAllister swiping the plaudits. A humdinger at the Stade Marcel Michelin on Friday night will occupy the rest of the highlight reel from France, as a last-gasp drop-goal from Brock James stole a 28-25 win for Clermont over Stade Francais.
Brian Habana made it extremely difficult to pick anyone else as Hero of the Weekend, rediscovering the form that brought him a World Cup winner’s medal back in 2007. He simply tore Australia to shreds on the way to a brilliant treble. Though Julian Savea and Cory Jane managed five tries between them against Argentina, they will have their work cut out next week.
He could well be celebrated as the mastermind behind a Lions series win next summer, but Shaun Edwards grabs Villain of the Weekend this time around. In the five games since his introduction as a defence coach, London Irish have shipped 180 points. Ouch.
On a personal level, Matt Smith’s weekend took some beating. On Friday, he got engaged to long-term girlfriend Alicia. 24 hours later, the former Saxons centre took the field for his beloved Leicester. A man-of-the-match performance followed, including a big hand in the Try of the Weekend that rounded off a debut treble for Adam Thompstone. After sweeping backline move found its way to Smith on the right flank, a delicious grubber was aimed past a pair of hapless defenders. Thompstone’s pace did the rest.