A quick scan of the European tables after they had reached their conclusion on Sunday night may suggest a relatively uneventful weekend of rugby. Few positions changed hands, only relatively minor shocks, so in short, a rather disappointing end. Right? No, perhaps not.
Northampton recover to leave courageous Leeds on the brink
At Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday Leeds travelled to Northampton fully aware that a minimum of two points were required if they were to have any hopes of playing Premiership rugby next year. But expelling any doubts about claiming a win at the home of Northampton, the Yorkshire team’s blistering start indicated that they were intent on securing the maximum available. Flankers Hendre Fourie and Rhys Oakley both crossed early on before wing Peter Wackett scored in the corner to send Leeds fans delirious and bring the team a single try away from a bonus point before the twenty minute mark.
The stunning score-line potentially had consequences for both sides: Leeds’ status as a Premiership team would be retained and Northampton would be robbed of a playoff berth. And as they seemingly began to realise this, the Saints hit back. A Phil Dowson score and a penalty try, garnered from Northampton’s ominous looking scrum, gave Northampton hope at the break, and a quick second half try from Chris Ashton after great work from fly half Shane Geraghty confirmed Northampton’s comeback.
Penalties from replacement fly half Stephen Myler pushed Northampton further ahead and as Leeds desperately pushed for a late try that would draw them level, a crucial Chris Ashton turnover consigned Leeds to defeat, and assured Northampton’s play-off spot in the end of season hoopla.
Compared to a soulless Newcastle display at Bath, Leeds played with a hunger and commitment far more fitting of a team battling relegation. But Neil Back’s distraught players would take no consolation from that, and will instead be relying on a Cornish Pirates victory over Worcester to prolong their stay in the top flight.
Leicester win to take top spot
While all eyes were on the unravelling tension at Franklin’s Gardens, there was the threat of another shock on the cards at Welford Road, where for a time London Irish looked the more likely victors.
Two Topsy Ojo interception tries, something of a speciality for the English winger, gave London Irish a 20-8 lead with half an hour to play, risking Leicester’s position at the top of the table with Saracens leading Harlequins. But Leicester bounced back resoundingly, and tries from Horacio Agulla, Tom Croft, Anthony Allen and Allesana Tuilagi salvaged their spot as the number one team. As a result they will host their East Midlands neighbours Northampton, while Gloucester will travel to Vicarage Road to face Saracens.
Unconvincing Ospreys edge over finish line
With Munster’s spot already confirmed, smooth victories for Leinster and Ulster assured both sides’ progression into the Magners League play offs on Friday night, though the race for fourth spot was rather more entertaining.
The Cardiff Blues began in prime position to claim the final play-off spot, but an impressive Scarlets performance brought a resounding victory over Dai Young’s team and in doing so enhanced their own play-off credentials. But the Llanelli team knew that their fate lay in the hands of the Ospreys, who needed only a win over bottom club Aironi. A formality, if you will.
Obviously Aironi were not singing from the same hymn sheet, and for a long while it looked as though the Scarlets may pinch it at the last. The Ospreys were abject and Aironi duly took the initiative. A first half-score from Danwel Demas and five points from the boot of Tito Tebaldi gave Aironi a 10-3 with less than an hour remaining. Two Dan Biggar penalties bridged the gap to a single point, but a miss in the 56th minute compounded what was a poor night of kicking for Biggar, as the Ospreys looked set for a disastrous defeat. But with five minutes left on the clock, James Hook stepped up to bisect the posts to enormous sighs of relief from the Ospreys team.
Hook and coach Sean Hollie were quick to condemn the Ospreys performance after the match. And with a trip to Thomond Park to face Munster – an uphill task at the best of times – the Ospreys must increase their performance by several notches if they are to avoid humiliation. Leinster will host Ulster in the other play-off.
Elsewhere in Europe, Jonny Wilkinson’s Toulon crashed out of the play-off spots after a 20-3 defeat to Montepellier. Toulon’s coach Philippe Saint-Andre would have undoubtedly been apoplectic at the manner in which his side lost this match, as they were leapfrogged by their opponents as well as Biarritz. These two will join Racing Metro, Castres, Clermont Auvergne and champions Toulouse in the Top 14 play-offs.
In a time where the nuances of professional rugby render the top spot somewhat irrelevant, it is important to applaud the teams who stand at the peak at the end of a long season, and who can so easily be forgotten in later years should their form dip in the play-offs. It has been a fantastic effort from Leicester, Munster and Toulouse this season, and all are fully deserving of first place in their respective leagues.
This week’s try of the weekend goes to Christian Lealiffano of the Brumbies. As the Sharks pressured the try-line, Nick Phipps put in a box-kick, presumably intended for touch, which was then expertly gathered by teammate Tyrone Smith. Phipps re-gathered from Smith, before a couple of passes later the ball found its way to Lealiffano, who raced over for a length of the field try. It’s about 1m26s into the video below:
Props don’t often score tries, but this weekend Wyatt Crockett helped himself to two tries to take hero of the week. The Crusaders played the Stormers in what was billed as a tough match for the New Zealanders, but Crockett’s tries helped them claim the win in what was a fantastic game of rugby.
As I just missed it last week, villain of the week goes to Danny Cipriani. I’m not convinced the Melbourne Rebels were correct to drop him from next week’s squad as well, but Cipriani, who was reprimanded after staying out late against club orders, needs to change his mentality sharpish. It may be unfair to victimise him as the same fate befell teammate Richard Kingi, but in an eventful weekend for all the right reasons, Cipriani sticks out.
As the season drew to a close in a fantastic weekend of rugby, those were my highlights – what were yours?