Best of the Weekend: Semi-Finals Live up to Expectations

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The semi-final weekend of domestic rugby always promises a lot, and quite honestly, it often delivers far more than the corresponding finals do two weeks later. This year Belfast, Dublin, Leicester and London hosted the semi-finals of the RaboDirect PRO12 and Aviva Premiership, and certainly didn’t leave the fans disappointed.

All-Irish final awaits in the Rabo

Ulster started off a good weekend for Irish fans as they entertained the Scarlets at Ravenhill, and cruised their way to a 28-17 victory. Once the home side got their first try through Tommy Bowe, with the Irishman beating Lions’ rival George North with a neat step, they moved up a gear, and didn’t let off the gas until the game was well and truly won. From this point on, Ulster’s superior class showed, and further tries came from Robbie Diack and Tom Court, before Scarlets hit back late with a pair of consolation tries, through Gareth Davies and Sione Timani. Although Ulster were the better team on the day, Scarlets’ fans will be disappointed that referee Alain Rolland missed a trip on Aled Davies in the build-up to Bowe’s try, and will be left wondering what could have been, as both sides were very well matched prior to the score.

A day later and Leinster ensured there would be an all-Irish final as they limped to a 17-15 victory over Glasgow at RDS. Leinster have been in imperious form of late, but definitely looked out of sorts as they snuck victory against a determined Glasgow side. Both Jamie Heaslip, who scored Leinster’s only try, and Jonathan Sexton will have impressed Lions’ coach Warren Gatland with their displays, but there were few other performances of note for the Irish side. Glasgow came close to avoiding defeat when Mark Bennett ran in a late try, but unfortunately for the visitors, Stuart Hogg was unable to make the conversion and tie the scores.

An intriguing final now awaits at the RDS on the 25th May, when the most consistent side of the year, Ulster, go head-to-head with Leinster, who, with the exception of the semi-final, have looked nigh on unbeatable in recent weeks.

Twickenham to play host to East Midlands derby

The first Aviva Premiership semi-final saw Leicester Tigers humble the visiting Harlequins at Welford Road, recording a convincing 33-16 victory. The win sends Leicester to their ninth consecutive Premiership final, and you struggle to think of a side in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere who can match the continued success of the Tigers. Leicester’s Lions contingent were in superb form, with Tom Croft scoring a magnificent solo try, as well as putting in one of the tackles of the season on Danny Care, preventing a try for Quins early in the game. The visitors did enjoy a good first half, and were probably unlucky to head into the interval trailing 13-9, but were outclassed throughout the second, and conceded tries to Niall Morris, Croft, and Mathew Tait, in addition to a powerful first half try from Vereniki Goneva, whose effort was highly reminiscent of Alesana Tuilagi in his Welford Road pomp.

Saracens were unable to keep up the winning trend of the home sides as they were outmuscled by an invigorated Northampton side, slipping to a 27-13 defeat at Allianz Park. The home side were strong favourites coming into the game, and topped the table during the regular season, but they were unable to live with the physicality of Northampton, with Samu Manoa, Brian Mujati and Tom Wood all putting in top performances. Saracens looked shell-shocked in the first half, and went into the break 17-0 down, thanks to tries from Mujati and Jamie Elliot, and although they upped their game in the second half, it was too little too late for the home side.

Saracens and Harlequins may be the two most recent names etched on the history of the Premiership, but the East Midlands have laid down their claim to be the heartland of rugby, and Leicester and Northampton will relocate their fierce rivalry south to Twickenham on the 25th May.

Heroes of the Week are Brian Mujati, Dylan Hartley and Soane Tonga’uiha. The Northampton front row was at their very best, dominating their Saracens counterparts to an extent which no other team has done this season.

Whilst there is normally nothing too special about a player scoring an individual try with a moment of blistering pace, there is when that player is a 6”6′ blindside flanker, weighing in at not much shy of 17 stone. Try of the Week goes to Tom Croft.

Villain of the Week goes to Saracens’ lineout. Throughout the season it was one of the major strengths of the North London side, as was the set piece in general, but it collapsed against Northampton and was a significant factor in the loss.

by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)

33 thoughts on “Best of the Weekend: Semi-Finals Live up to Expectations

  1. Would loved to have been able to see the Leinster game, it sounded like a cracker!

    The premiership semi’s were excellent though. Leicester was very impressive against Quins, with Tom Croft in particular standing out.

    One for me was Tuilagi as well. He wasn’t his usual headline grabbing self; but there were some really good passes and offloads from him. In particular Niall Morris’ try, where his outside break and then inside pass to Morris was impressive. Tuilagi of old would have had a blinkers on and Leicester may not have scored.

  2. Glasgow were fantastic to watch – running it from everywhere but not in desperation, rather with controlled speed and intelligence. They came so, so close. Tiny margins for Leinster but it’s probably right that the best two Pro 12 teams are in the final.

    Ulster had too much power for the Scarlets. Nick Williams is an incredible player. Payne is the overseas NH player of the year for me.

    Slightly worrying weekend for the Lions – BOD in a bit of old man back trouble. Farrel shows yet again what a joke his mythical “iceman” persona is when he and his team are under the cosh. Tommy Bowe shows George North how to actually play like a wing (which is actually good news for the Lions, just bad news for North).

    Allain Rolland – so pathetically rubbish that it’s beyond parody. You can’t even point at bias (though it does demean the league to not be able to have neutral refs) – he was just excruciatingly poor. Every time a game of rugby threatened to break out he was there to give some nonsensical decision.

    1. PS. Try of the weekend should have gone to the Scarlets 2nd scrum half, turning 3 men inside out in a space smaller than a Fiat Panda.

        1. I’ve seen Croft and the Scarlets’ try and for skill the Scarlets’ try wins hands down.

          Croft’s try is an impressive bit of pace for a backrow player – the Scarlets scrumhalf try is a wonderful and sustained piece of skill, beating 3 men with dancing feet.

          If Croft were a wing then his try wouldn’t be so special, just decent. If Croft were a wing then he’d be ok but because he’s a 6 with gas he gets a lot of credit. Give me a great proper 6 any day over a man who loves to hang about on the wing. You wouldn’t see Lydiate scoring a try like that, but you wouldn’t see Croft play like Lydiate can.

          1. i disagree regarding your comments about croft’s try.

            i too am a fan of workhorse 6’s and have criticised croft for hanging out on the wing, but that try would still be exceptional for a winger. in fact, there are not many wingers in world rugby who could have scored that like croft.

            he had the presence of mind to keep the ball in 2 hands, which opened up the space. he then shifted the ball into the arm closer to the touchline. he outpaced Evans, Guest (known for being fast) and Wallace (who i have run 400m against, and can say he is no slouch either). Croft then had the hand-off/skip out of tackle when dickson covered. he then had the spacial awareness to stay in play and shift the ball back into the arm away from the touchline, so as to ensure it was grounded safely.

            i have not seen the scarlet’s try, so i will not claim that croft’s was better, however i can honestly say that croft’s try had all of the aspects of a world class finish, regardless of what number is on his back.

            also, this isnt the first time that croft has done this kind of thing… http://www.rugbydump.com/2007/07/166/tom-croft-60m-winning-try-vs-nz-maori-churchill-cup

            here is a nice look at croft’s try saver that he made in the tigers game too.
            http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0zTZZ9lPZ38#!

            and on a final note. your comment saying that you wouldnt see lydiate score that. i dont think lydiate is physically capable of scoring it, where as croft has shown that he is physically capable of playing the way that lydiate does.

            i guess what i am trying to say is: credit where credit is due, croft’s try was a world class finish.

          2. The view that Croft ‘hangs out on the wing’ is outdated. Since coming back from injury he’s bulked up a lot and gets involved in all the nitty gritty stuff that good 6s should – the reason no-one notices him doing it is that he is capable of scoring these 60m wonder tries. When he does that all the other hard work he does gets forgotten, and allows critics to say ‘Sure he’s quick, but he doesn’t pull his weight in other areas and loves to hang out on the wing’. You only have to look at the try-saving tackle on Care to see how committed he is. And so what if he pops up on the wing every now and then? All forwards do it these days, and if he’s capable of tries like that then you can hardly say he shouldn’t be doing it.

            Granted, he is never going to smash people in the way that Lydiate does, but to say he just hangs out on the wing is very unfair. Personally I think a backrow of Croft, Warburton and Faletau would be the Lions’ best bet as it ticks all the boxes.

            Finally, and apologies for going off on one a little bit here, but the fact that he plays for Tigers speaks volumes for the type of player he is. There is no room at that club for show-ponies, and if Croft really was the player who loved to score tries and not do any of the dirty work he would not have lasted this long there, let alone be their first choice ahead of a long list of quality players.

          3. Simo, you make a great case for this being a class try. So much so that really we’re just down to subjective opinions now e.g. I’m not that impressed with ball-in-2-hands as that’s a really basic skill that any player should have but this is just my opinion.

            Similarly I think “shift the ball back into the arm away from the touchline, so as to ensure it was grounded safely” is just a basic skill but having hounded Monye about failing to do that in the last Lions series (and in my mind thus proving he is not an international class winger). I will concede that not everyone does it. I still think it’s basic rugby though for a winger, but again, imo.

            My original point was that gas and good execution of core basic (my choice of word) skills does not make it a better try than the special one scored by the Scarlets scrum half. That one went beyond basic skills – twinkling toes that you just can’t teach.

            We’re just going to have to disagree about Croft being able to play 6 as physically as Lydiate does.

            Jamie – yes, he’s a good player. Plays in a top team. But we’re talking about the differences between good players here so little margins of improvement are all that make the difference. However, I’ll never defer to the coach of any team as having a better idea of who to pick/play than me. That would take all the fun out of debating it.

          4. I’m with Brighty here. Croft is good in the open spaces but has nothing on Lydiate in the tight. I prefer my 6s to do the hard work and before people start claiming that Croft does the hard work, as an example, he apparently made just 4 tackles vs Quins and missed one – and that includes a first half in which Quins were mostly dominant.

            Luckily players like Salvi Crane and Parling make up for that but just one look at the england v wales game shows you how Croft can unbalance a back row. Croft made just 9 tackles in that game – half the number that Robshaw and Parling made and 15 less than Wood.

            He’s a great asset as an impact player if the game breaks up, but give me an abrasive blind-side who never stops tackling or hitting rucks over Croft any day

          5. Brighty, I agree that those are relatively basic skills, and yet the number of international backs (and especially wings) who do not do them is staggering.

            just an example, but the shifting of the ball back into the “safe hand” was a skill that was absent is BOTH of cuthbert’s tries against england this year.

            again, i have not see the scarlets’ try, so am not trying to say one is better. i just think that croft is due some credit for an outstanding piece of rugby finishing.

            Pablito. I am not sure where you got your numbers from, because as seen in the clips of croft’s try (http://www.rugbydump.com/) you will see at the end that some stats pop up. Croft had 8 tackles to his name, in the 65th minute. also, click the link to see his try saver against care, because that is the type of tackle that is worth a minimum of 5 points.

            i agree, croft is not a workhorse 6, but he is physically capable of playing like it. Lydiate is 6ft4 and 112kgs, croft is 6ft6 and since his injury has bulked up to about 110kgs.

            i agree that croft’s inclusion unbalanced the england backrow in the welsh game, but not because of simply picking him, but more the fact that there was no designated hard carrier like morgan.

            as i have said before, i am a fan of workhorse 6’s and concede that croft does not fall into that category. but regardless of these facts, he is an outstanding rugby player, and this was an outstanding try regardless of what number was on his back.

          6. Simo

            Stats from espnscrum. Worth noting that the same source has Salvi on 14 tackles and he’s the open-side!

            His tackle on Care I think has been over-played. He was coming across to cover so had the momentum and the height to stop him

            Not denying Croft is an excellent player but he is a luxury for most teams.

          7. pablito, i have just rewatched the tackle again (about 5 times) croft was stood still until Care had the ball up in his hands. Croft then reacted and moved across.

            where did you find the stats on ESPNScrum, as its a sight i use, but don’t know where to find them. (would love to find them, as i love great stats!)

            part of the reason that Salvi makes a high number of tackles is due to the fact that teams pick him out. I have seen analysis a few times, where the point is made that you should run at Salvi, because it is the best way to effectively take him out of the competition for the ball on the floor.

            the mismatch of stats between ESPN and Sky brings up an interesting point… what is the point in stats if the broadcasters are just going to make them up? clearly one of these two sources is wrong (or who knows, maybe both are!) but it just seems pointless, they shouldnt bother if they arent actually going to do the leg work.

    2. Agree with you on Farrell. He needs to learn, and fast. I am really hoping that Wilkinson flies out before the first test. I am pretty sure that any injury (no matter what position), after the Top 14 final will lead to Jonny being called out.

      Do we know how BOD’s injury is? Hopefully not too bad. It does show how much he will struggle to play three test matches in three weeks – they guys body is in pieces.

      1. According the BBC BOD’s injury is “not serious” and Gatland isn’t worried. SOBs omission was only a minor calf strain so he is also expected to be ok.

        Not Lions related but also good to hear that Ken Owens is fine – it took an age to get him off the pitch, always scary.

        I should have also added that Jonathan Davies was worrying for the Lions in that he was rubbish on Friday night, throwing out passes that would have had my 11 year old off to bed without supper.

        1. Oh really? I didn’t get to see any of the Pro12 games as I don’t get them. I am hoping Davies comes good, I really liked the look of him a year ago, but I honestly can’t say I have seen him play well in the last six months or so. My worry is that if he can’t find form, and BOD isn’t fit, will we see the most boring centre partnership in the history of the Lions in Roberts and Tuilagi?

          1. Tuilagi is, by his try scoring, the best centre in world rugby at the moment. For a 22 year old he is an unbelievable talent, and any southern hemisphere side would like the look of him (and, all blacks aside, would likely start him). He has played better than any other NH centre over the last year.

          2. Davies has got to be going on this lions tour as the 4th choice centre. the other 3 have been playing well recently. personally, the only decent game i have seen him have recently was the england one.

            I feel that his lack of form, and the similarity of all the centres (excluding BOD) meant we may have seen a more creative centre travel in JD2’s place.
            if a back gets injured, and wilko is called up, then i would look at Farrell to start playing centre on the tour. its one place further out than 10, so he isnt targeted as much. plus it is another kicking and passing option, which takes pressure off the 10. unfortunately, with only 2 10s, this wont happen. (it is also for these reasons that i though 36 had a chance of touring).

    3. i hear what u are saying about refs brighty but is getting better i hope. i CURSED owens for calling a forward pass when it looked like munster were going to run out and score a try on the left against clermont that could have stolen the game. i was sure it was bias but it was indeed a forward pass. better to put the paranoia to bed. ulster had already beaten scarlets by 30 points in january at ravenhill when hodges refereed and he a welsh ref. rolands decision making was just a bit off for both sides. he also penalised ulster in the same manner. scarlets try was probably the try of the week though i agree.

  3. Heroes of the Week are Brian Mujati, Dylan Hartley and Soane Tonga’uiha. Are you serious???? Were you at the game? The only reason they dominated the scrum was because JP Doyle didn’t want to listen to his assistant telling him that Tonga’huia kept failing to find his bind, putting his elbow or knee on the floor before correcting himself. Countless times Stevens beat him to the bind and he couldn’t get his arm up quick enough, but Doyle was not interested. Once Doyle thought Saints had the upper hand in the scrums Sarries had no chance in that area.
    Sarries were outplayed by a better team on the day, especially in the back row where Sarries were depleted by injuries. But Saints were continually wasting time, and Doyle continuously let them get away with it.

    1. Dazza, I didn’t see the game so couldn’t comment, but the thought of a prop being or not being penalised because he was “beaten to the bind” is worrying.

      Scrums should not be about who is quicker to bind. It seems to me (and I accept that I only have your comments to forge a view) that JP was correct to allow Tongauiha to adjust as you say he did.

      I do know that Tight Heads can prevent the Loose Heads from binding if they get their right arm in the “right” position, but of course preventing a bind is cynical play (although common practice) and if a ref feels that the game is better served by penalising neither, then that is OK by me.

      I recall reading an article by David Flatman who described how Tight Heads would deliberately attempt to stop him binding, just to try and win a penalty.

      1. Thankfully this may be the last season of these issues if the new “Crouch, Bind, Scrum” sequences are adopted. Failing to get a bind and arm/sleeve binds (Adam Jones will need to learn some new tricks!) should become a thing of the past.

        Apparently it’s a 25% reduction in the forces on the impact and I can’t see how it can result in anything other than fewer resets …. fingers crossed!

        1. there could be issues with the timing of how and when the backrow binds onto the front row.

          1. Not seen a scrum form with this sequence, but my understanding is:
            – Both packs forms as an 8 and go into their crouch position as they do today but with less of a gap.
            – On the bind command the opposing props get a secure bind on their opponents jersey, but my understanding is there is still a gap between the front rows at this point.
            – On the set command the front rows can ‘hit’ when they feel ready.
            – The ball has to be fed in straight (this will be policed) but the scrum has to be stable when the ball goes in.

            In principle I think it sounds quite good, just hope it does work in practice!

          2. Simo, that looks rather better to me. Far less chance of props binding on the arm and more obvious if one side collapses.

            Takes some of the power out of the hit which should help stop collapses and hopefully some injuries.

            If the straight feed is policed, we could even see hookers living up to their name once more!

            Not however, a boon for sides with a weak scrummage. This will see them found out

          3. completely agree Pablito. It should also sort out the question of when a prop’s hand hits the floor. If you drop the bind, then you will get pinged.

            Dewi Morris read out a statement from the IRB on the rugby club, and the straight feed is something that they have highlighted as an area that needs policing, so fingers crossed!

            side will have to ensure that they have a good scrum. we may begin to see actual props returning to the game, instead of these flanker-like players masquerading as props.

            i personally think that this change can only be good for the game. (and now the IRB do something to prove me wrong…)

          4. Simo – you can find the tackle stats and much else besides by going to a match report – eg http://www.espnscrum.com/premiership-2012-13/rugby/story/182640.html

            Then to ‘Match Details’ and then, on the right hand side, you have various tabs for stats – both for the match and per team

            As for Croft, his tackle stats are rarely high which is a sign of a blind-side not doing the work in the tight that he should be. I’d take Lydiate or Wood’s hard and generally unseen work over Croft’s occasional fancy tries any day

  4. Well that has to be Croft for the 6 shirt then. The pinnacle of a fantastic run of games for several weeks. Unbelievable try!!

    Hartley proved to everyone why he’s on the plane – strong in the scrum, brings the best out of the props, abrasive, gets over the line and throwing well.

    Very worrying if BOD were to be out.

  5. Dazza, that’s a myopic view I’m afraid. Granted we got one penalty where Tiny didn’t bind, but equally we did what Wales did to England in the 6 nations. Stevens isn’t exactly a new player- he should have worked out what was going on. Sheer power always wins, unless the opposition can feint.

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