Brilliant passes, hat-trick mania and Germany upset the odds – there's lots to welcome
Who needs the international stars? The two televised Aviva Premiership games at the weekend were belters.
“A sensational game. The last 20, I could watch that every week,” said Austin Healey after Bath’s 32-30 seesaw win over Northampton that included a cracking solo try by Chris Cook and a brilliant flick pass by Ben Tapuai, one of the signings of the season.
The BT cameras then shifted further west to capture the 35-35 draw between Exeter and Wasps, a ten-try humdinger of punch and counter-punch.
The Guinness Pro12 also provided a cracker, with Connacht’s rally from 13-0 down to overcome Cardiff Blues.
Some people think pro club rugby should stop during the Six Nations. Not me.
The Wales-England match took top billing, of course, and it provided the pass of the season.
Elliot Daly was only able to score his late winner because of Owen Farrell’s brilliant delivery, the flat, fizzing pass inviting the Wasps player onto the ball at full pelt so that he could elude Alex Cuthbert.
It’s something South Africa’s sevens players do particularly well and Farrell’s stock is rising by the week.
Phil Vickery says Farrell and Ross Moriarty are the two players he’d put in a Lions XV right now. He’s almost right – Moriarty may have to settle for the bench.
Qualifying for the 2019 World Cup got underway in Europe at the weekend. Georgia’s performance at RWC 2015 means they’ve already booked a place in Japan, throwing the door open for a less celebrated European rugby nation.
Could Germany walk through that door? They began the new-look Rugby Europe Championship with a stunning 41-38 victory in Offenbach over Romania, eight places above them in the World Rankings.
It was the Germans’ first win over the Oaks since 1938 and was achieved with five tries, the last of them by winger Marcel Coetzee just before full-time.
“This win over Romania is crazy, historic,” said Germany’s Aussie-born scrum-half Sean Armstrong.
Results in the Rugby Europe Championship over the next two years – other than those against Georgia – will count towards RWC qualification. Germany, who beat Uruguay in November and travel to Georgia next, are right in the mix.
It was difficult to keep up with the hat-tricks.
CJ Stander became only the third forward to score a Championship hat-trick and the first Irish forward to do so since Keith Wood at the 1999 World Cup.
Then team-mate Craig Gilroy scored the first Tier One hat-trick by a replacement since Springbok Deon Kayser the same year.
If Gilroy was quick, it was nothing compared to Ospreys’ Dan Evans, who grabbed a hat-trick in seven minutes at Zebre – only Tim Visser has notched a faster treble in the Pro12.
Vereniki Goneva, who once scored a Premiership hat-trick against Newcastle, this time scored one for the Falcons at Sale in a 26-24 nail-biter.
And Worcester Valkyries wing Lydia Thompson crossed the line three times during England’s 63-0 rout of Wales, a match that can only hasten professionalism of the women’s game in the Principality and elsewhere.
On a weekend of such outstanding rugby, it was such a shame to see Italy subsiding as they did.
The Azzurri missed 37 tackles against Ireland in Rome and the match was over as a serious contest even before Stander crossed for the bonus-point try after 34 minutes.
Italy have conceded 12 tries in two home matches and next go to Twickenham, where we should expect more of the same.
Conor O’Shea is a fantastic coach and motivator, and just the man for Italy. But when he responds to calls for Six Nations promotion and relegation by saying we should be “careful what we wish for” he is wide of the mark.
It’s not about relegating Italy, it’s about giving the best team from the next tier down, currently Georgia, access. The opportunity to prove they might do better.
Even the Italian press is seeing the wisdom in that. ‘Sbriciolata d’Italia, Cambiamo subito‘ screamed one newspaper headline – Italy crumble, change is needed now. “We don’t deserve our place in the Six Nations,” they said.
If Italy and Georgia met in a play-off, my money would still be on Italy. Let’s allow the Rugby Europe Championship winners to take on the Six Nations wooden spoonists – whoever they may be each year – and then we’ll find out.