Saracens sublime, Munster valiant
Pre-match focus may have been on the fact only around 27,000 tickets were sold for Saracens’ Heineken Cup semi-final with Clermont at Twickenham, but these gripes were soon forgotten as the Londoners turned in one of the most impressive performances in the tournament’s history. Tries from Chris Ashton (two), Owen Farrell, Chris Wyles and Tim Streather, as well as a penalty try, helped Saracens to an impeccable 46-6 victory over last year’s runners-up. Phenomenal defensive performances from Jacques Burger, Mako Vunipola and Steve Borthwick helped prevent a prolific Clermont back line from crossing the try line for the entire 80 minutes, and also laid the perfect foundations for Saracens to launch their clinical forays into Clermont’s half. The French side were comprehensively outplayed on the day, and although much of that can possibly be attributed to the travails of Top 14 sides away from home, huge credit must be given to Saracens for arguably their most complete performance of the season thus far.
Toulon booked their place in Europe’s showpiece event thanks to a 24-16 victory over a resilient Munster side in Marseille. The Irish province were within striking distance of Toulon throughout the match, but a yellow card for Keith Earls late on allowed Toulon to stretch their lead ever so slightly, and the reigning champions were then able keep Munster at bay for the final 10 minutes and secure safe passage to the final. Jonny Wilkinson, who accounted for 21 of Toulon’s 24 points, was at his usual consistent best, playing with a calmness and composure that was staggering given the importance of the match. Wilkinson will now have the perfect opportunity to sign off in fairytale fashion, but he’ll have to contend with the venerable Steve Borthwick first, who will also be desperate to add one more medal to his trophy cabinet before he too embarks on his post-playing career.
Saints and Bath too powerful in the Amlin
The Northampton Saints got the European weekend off to an entertaining start, beating a full-strength Harlequins side 18-10 at Franklin’s Gardens on Friday night. Northampton took the opportunity to give stars such as Tom Wood, Courtney Lawes and Luther Burrell a partial rest, with all three starting on the bench, but even with a number of youngsters and rotation players on the field, Northampton were just too physical for the visiting Quins. Kahn Fotuali’i was one Saint who particularly shone, and although he was playing at nine, you’d have been forgiven for thinking he was the home side’s fly-half, such was the control he exhibited on the game. Youngster Tom Stephenson also impressed in Saints’ midfield, showing a combination of good running lines and a neat step, and will benefit from these first XV appearances when he heads off to the Junior World Championships with England Under 20s this summer.
Northampton will be joined in the Amlin Challenge Cup final by Bath, who overturned a first half deficit to beat London Wasps 24-18 at Adams Park. A Will Helu try, set up superbly by Elliot Daly, sent Wasps into the interval with a 13-10 lead, but Bath’s power and front row depth showed in the second half, and two Rob Webber tries were enough to consign his former team to a frustrating defeat. It was an off-day for Wasps’ half-backs who struggled for consistency, but credit should go to Bath for overpowering a Wasps’ pack that has improved significantly this season. A bulldozing performance from Matt Garvey should not go unnoticed, and along with Webber, put himself squarely into contention for England’s tour to New Zealand this summer.
‘Canes thrill and Force fight on
The Hurricanes maintained momentum in their march to the top of the New Zealand conference, with an exciting 35-21 victory over the Reds in Wellington. The confidence and flair the ‘Canes showed in attack was worthy of high praise, and the home side were rewarded with tries for T. J. Perenara and Ardie Savea, whilst All Blacks’ winger Cory Jane collected a hat-trick in a highly memorable performance. The Reds had moments of dominance, and indeed led the game at the half time interval, but they just couldn’t keep pace with the ‘Canes in the second half, who seemed to find two or three extra gears for the last 40 minutes.
Western Force kept alive their hopes of making the playoffs with a hard-fought 15-9 victory over the Bulls in Perth, whilst the Brumbies helped cement themselves at the top of Australian conference with a potentially season-defining 41-23 win at home to the reigning champions, the Chiefs. The most impressive win of the weekend surely goes to the Highlanders however, who thoroughly outplayed the top of the table Sharks in Durban, and emerged with an outstanding 34-18 victory, inflicting on the Sharks just their second loss of the season.
Malakai Fekitoa is the clear winner of Try of the Week for his sensational solo score against the Sharks. Picking the ball up in his own half, the young centre swerved his way through six would-be tacklers on his way to the try line, before dotting down underneath the posts. The Highlander could well be an ace up the All Blacks’ sleeve this summer when they host England.
Villain of the Week, once again for consistency’s sake, goes to Jamie Elliot, for his reckless collision with Mike Brown. The England fullback was in the air, and like Jared Payne and Liam Williams before him, Elliot displayed a lack of care, albeit with no malicious intent, and caused Brown to crash to the ground in a dangerous manner.
No man shed more blood and sweat for his team than Jacques Burger this weekend, and for that reason he is the Hero of the Week. The flanker made an incredible 27 tackles during Saracens’ defensive masterclass at Twickenham, and narrowly saw off competition from teammates Mako Vunipola and Steve Borthwick.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images