Saracens cement position at the top, Exeter make move for European playoff spot
The top of the table clash between Saracens and Northampton was the blockbuster fixture of the weekend, and despite Saracens’ control for much of the game, a late resurgence from Northampton gave the game an enthralling ending, but it was not quite enough to upset the league leaders, as Saracens recorded a 28-24 victory. Tries from David Strettle, Kelly Brown and Marcelo Bosch gave Saracens a commanding lead and it looked as if the Londoners might cruise to a win against their title rivals, but late scores from Luther Burrell and George North brought the Saints a glimmer of hope. Unfortunately for Northampton however, it was too little too late. Saracens’ lead at the top of table is all now but unassailable, and should help them focus on their upcoming Heineken Cup semi-final against Clermont.
Exeter put themselves in pole position for seventh spot in the Aviva Premiership, and thus the chance to compete in the European Champions Cup playoff, with a 38-33 victory over Worcester at Sixways. The win was even more beneficial with Wasps losing 27-15 to a Manu Tuilagi-inspired Leicester side at Welford Road, and Gloucester losing out at home to Bath, 18-17, in a volcanic West Country derby (see Villain of the Week). Sale’s hopes of a late playoff push were seemingly curtailed on Friday night, as Nick Evans led Harlequins to a fairly comfortable 27-12 win, although that result does now effectively lock up the top six in the Premiership. Sixth-placed Sale lead seventh-placed Exeter by 11 points, all but guaranteeing top tier European rugby for both Sale and fifth-placed Quins, both of whom had faced slight possibilities of falling out of these highly coveted places.
Ulster cut loose, Ospreys and Glasgow primed for late push
It was a night to remember in Belfast on Friday as Ulster blew Connacht away, scoring eight tries and recording a highly impressive 58-12 victory over their rivals from Galway. Mark Anscombe’s side put the demons of their Heineken Cup quarter-final loss to Saracens behind them, playing some of the best rugby of their season, as they comfortably dispatched an outclassed Connacht side. Andrew Trimble collected a hat-trick, Paul Marshall bagged himself a brace, whilst Tommy Bowe, Luke Marshall and Craig Gilroy also crossed the line, in what was an exhibition of the incision of Ulster’s back line. The win boosts the province’s chances of a home playoff game, and if they can welcome back some of their injured stars over the next couple of weeks, a run on the RaboDirect Pro12 title is very conceivable.
Other than that it was a weekend to forget if you’re Irish, but one to cherish if you’re Welsh, not least so due to the Ospreys’ impressive 25-19 win over Leinster at the Liberty Stadium. Dan Biggar accounted for 20 points and was pivotal to his side’s efforts against a very strong Leinster team. Munster also lost, further opening up the playoff spots at the top of the Pro12, as they succumbed to a 22-5 loss at home to Glasgow. Tries from Jonny Gray, Sean Maitland and Josh Strauss were enough for Glasgow, who completely outplayed Munster on the day, and the win brings Glasgow to within three points of Munster in the table, with a game in hand still to be played. The Scarlets did their chances of European Champions Cup rugby a world of good by beating Zebre, 27-20, whilst they were aided by their national compatriots, the Cardiff Blues, who beat Edinburgh 29-22 on the road, and helped distance the Scottish side from the Scarlets in the table.
Honey Badger-inspired Force impress
It was far from a vintage weekend of Super Rugby, but the Western Force’s 28-16 victory over the Waratahs certainly caught the eye. The infamous Nick Cummins, a.k.a ‘The Honey Badger’, crossed the whitewash three times to help his side to a win over a Waratahs side shorn of Israel Folau by the ARU, and the Force winger is making himself one of the most talked about players in world rugby, not only for his exceptional post-match interviews, but also for his scintillating performances on the pitch. A committed and determined performance ensured the Force recorded their fifth-straight victory, surpassing their record of four that they created a week earlier. The Force now hold a wildcard spot in the Super Rugby table and are within three points of the leading Brumbies in the Australian conference. Not even their most ardent of fans could have predicted this a couple of months ago.
Speaking of teams surpassing the expectations of their fans, the Highlanders recorded another important victory, beating the Bulls 27-20 in Dunedin. Scores for Lima Sopoaga, Gareth Evans and Malakai Fekitoa were enough for the home side, and they now also hold one of the coveted wildcard spots. The Brumbies, Chiefs and Sharks recorded important, albeit it not overly impressive, victories, beating the Reds, Rebels and Lions respectively, as they cemented their statuses as conference leaders after nine rounds of Super Rugby.
Try of the Week goes to Luke Marshall, for his wonderful score against Connacht. Majestic hands from Tommy Bowe in the build-up are enough to see off competition from Gareth Evans, who scored a superb team try for the Highlanders against the Bulls.
Hero of the Week – and it’s with a heavy heart that I don’t give this to Nick Cummins – goes to Andrew Trimble. Both Trimble and Cummins scored hat-tricks this weekend as well as being formidable and tenacious in defence, but it’s the two extra tries that Trimble created against Connacht that swing it in his favour. The Honey Badger’s time will come.
The Villain of the Week is the West Country derby. No one likes fire in their games more than I, but two red cards and five yellow is pushing even my threshold. Some will suggest referee Tim Wigglesworth is a more fitting candidate for this award, and although I did find a couple of his decisions harsh, I don’t think he had as bad a day at the office as some will have you believe. The game is also currently under investigation from the RFU, as a fan apparently threw a bottle at Wigglesworth at the end of the game. If this is found to be true, there’s absolutely no question over who/what is the Villain of the Week.
And a new weekly award to doll out here – ‘Honey Badgerism’ of the Week. Another beauty this week, as reported by Australian commentator Greg Clarke via Twitter – “I crossed the line more than Osama Bin Laden.”
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images