We look at the saintly stars and the lowly sinners from the weekend's rugby
By Katie Field
Five years since their Grand Slam, Ireland have their hands on the Six Nations trophy once again, thanks in no small part to their brilliant new coach Joe Schmidt.
Already the king of the club game – winning the French championship in 2010, the Heineken Cup in 2011 and 2012, the Amlin Challenge Cup in 2013 – Schmidt has now claimed European rugby’s biggest international prize.
A superb tactician, and amiable with it, Schmidt earned a lot of fans in his time in charge at Leinster and is now making an even bigger impression on the wider stage. Can he keep up his record and win another trophy in 2015?
There is so much at stake when two nations clash on the rugby field, but every now and then something happens to remind you that players can keep a sense of perspective even in the heat of battle.
In the France v Ireland game, Johnny Sexton attempted to tackle Mathieu Bastareaud and was knocked out cold by his elbow. Bastareaud immediately realized Sexton was in need of help and the France centre tended to him until the Ireland medics arrived.
Then, as Sexton was stretchered off, France hooker Dimitri Szarzewski came over to check his Racing Metro club mate was OK, despite the fact they were wearing different coloured jerseys on Saturday. Long may such great sportsmanship last.
King of the chiefs
Exeter Chiefs won their first major piece of silverware in their 143-year history when they defeated Northampton in the LV= Cup final, giving head coach Rob Baxter tangible reward for decades of hard work.
Baxter himself was the captain when Exeter won their last trophy, the Devon Cup 18 years ago. In recent years he has stepped into the management role as if to the manner born, quietly and carefully building a team to be proud of.
Some of the Chiefs players are now getting recognition beyond Devon – Jack Nowell for one – and with the clever Baxter at the helm of this talented but grounded group, this should be the first in a series of trophies for Exeter.
It’s not easy to fill the shoes of a star like Leigh Halfpenny, but Liam Williams did so with aplomb when he wore Wales’s No 15 jersey for their match against Scotland.
A great bomb-diffuser under the high ball, he also set up George North’s first try with a take, break and offload, and got over the whitewash for his first Test try.
No player likes to be injured, so the idea of enduring 16 months of rehabilitation would send most running for the hills (or popping out to buy a pipe and slippers ready for retirement). But Ulster, Ireland and Lions star Stephen Ferris has managed just that, battling his way through a long, tortuous recovery from an ankle injury he suffered in November 2012, to make his return for his province on Friday.
Ulster beat the Scarlets 26-13 but the biggest cheer of the night was definitely the one that greeted Ferris as he came off the bench after 63 minutes. The big back row even had time to help set up Tom Court for the bonus point try with the last play of the game. Welcome back Stephen.
Going into the final round of RBS Six Nations matches, no one gave England a prayer of getting anywhere near to closing the points-difference gap between themselves and Ireland in the table. Ireland were +81 before this weekend and England were +32, and were not expected to win by many in Rome.
However, Stuart Lancaster’s team gave it all they had, beating Italy 52-11 to get close to bridging that gap.
Luther Burrell did not get among the try-scorers this week but he had another magnificent game in the England midfield, helping set up tries for the outstanding Mike Brown and the other backs as England went hell for leather to score as many as they could.
The fact that England coach Stuart Lancaster came in for some criticism for taking Burrell off after 53 minutes to introduce Many Tuilagi to the fray, shows how far the Saint has come in this tournament.
Red cards are few and far between in Test rugby and Stuart Hogg became only the third Scotland player in history to be sent off after a brutal and idiotic late shoulder charge on Dan Biggar 22 minutes into the match at the Millennium Stadium.
Thankfully Biggar was OK, while Hogg was first shown a yellow card by referee Jerome Garces and then a red after the official had seen the incident on the big screen.
The Scotland full-back had the grace to issue a full and contrite apology on the same day and will surely learn from this out-of-character incident.
Referees often get criticised for using the Television Match Official too often in games, instead of trusting their own instincts and judgement. This time, referee Steve Walsh is in the firing line for failing to go the TMO for a ruling on Dimitri Szarzewski’s late try against Ireland.
Szarzewski fumbled the ball as he touched it down against the post, so the try should have been disallowed. As it was, Ireland hung on to win the game 22-20, but if France had scored again to snatch a win, thus handing the Six Nations title to England, imagine the fall-out from that.
The technology is there – use it.
Rugby coaches can plan and prepare as much as they like, but it’s often those who react best to an unexpected turn of events who are the most successful. When Scotland full-back Stuart Hogg was sent off against Wales, Scotland boss Scott Johnson opted to leave his back division one short for the rest of the game, instead of taking the more conventional route of bringing off a flanker to leave his pack a man down.
This tactic invited the Welsh runners to attack from deep in their own half and ensured Scotland had less space around the fringes. It left Wales with a host of two-on-ones to convert thanks to Scotland’s lack of numbers in the backs, and they made the most of them. It was bold from Johnson, but ultimately silly.