The stakes get higher as the teams in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 run out of time in their regular seasons. Who made the difference in the right way this week, and who made things difficult for their clubs?
Fine finish gives Chiefs a good start
The stakes were high when Exeter entertained Wasps at Sandy Park on Sunday afternoon as the Chiefs needed to win to keep alive their hopes of playing at home in the Aviva Premiership semi-finals. And wing Ollie Woodburn set them on the road to what turned out to be a 24-3 victory with a superbly-taken try in the first half.
Will Chudley made a break from a scrum and passed to Woodburn who managed to bounce off a tackle from the powerful Frank Halai, then kept his stumbling feet from brushing the left touchline as he tumbled the last few strides and dived over in the corner, despite a last-ditch challenge from Joe Simpson.
Woodburn was by no means the only Chief who played a major part in this comfortable win. Henry Slade put in some class touches and the whole team’s defensive work was simply outstanding, as they did not allow Wasps into their 22 until the 75th minute.
As for Woodburn, it was his fifth try in as many Premiership matches and a really crucial one. On the subject of wings on scoring runs, Niki Goneva crossed the whitewash in Leicester‘s 31-17 win over Worcester and has now scored in his last six Premiership matches. Only Mark Cueto, with eight, has managed a longer scoring run in the competition than that.
Paddy par excellence
Ulster retained their place in the Guinness Pro12 top four with just one round of matches to go, thanks in no small part to some great play from Paddy Jackson.
The fly-half kicked three penalties and two conversions and, in the 79th minute, snatched the ball from the grasping hands of Luke Fitzgerald as he tried to gather a pass from Eoin Reddan and raced from his own 22 to score a try which put the game beyond doubt.
But Jackson’s most outstanding contribution to the game had come in the 57th minute when Ulster attacked from a lineout on the right and Jackson sold the most beautiful dummy to Andrew Trimble which took three Leinster defenders out of the game and opened up the space which Jared Payne sprinted through to score a try, putting Ulster 20-6 up. It was such a deft and clever play from Jackson and all done at high speed as the Ulster backs were bearing down on Leinster’s try-line.
Sky Sports commentator Stuart Barnes made Ruan Pienaar Man of the Match, but when Jackson put the icing on the cake of his own performance with his 79th minute try, Barnes said: “Did we go early with that Man of the Match?”
Davies’ dart secures the bonus
Replacement scrum-half Gareth Davies darted over the line five minutes from the end of the Scarlets’ clash with the Dragons at the Millennium Stadium to score a bonus-point try which might prove very valuable when the Guinness Pro12 regular season ends next week.
Scarlets were 27-20 up and so looked like getting the win they needed to stay in contention for a playoff spot, but a super break from Steffan Evans put them in the red zone again and Davies finished off the move to leave the Scarlets just one point behind fourth-placed Ulster.
Wales centre Scott Williams made his long awaited comeback from injury for the Scarlets and celebrated with a try which helped to earn him the Man of the Match award.
The Dragons v Scarlets match was the second part of the Judgement Day double-header and the organisers should be congratulated on attracting a crowd of 68,262 to the Millennium Stadium.
Harrison leads the Saints’ march
No 8 Teimana Harrison was the star of the show as Northampton confirmed their place in next season’s European Champions Cup by coming back from 14-0 down at home to Bath to snatch a 15-14 win.
It was looking like the Saints might need to win at Gloucester next weekend to hold onto a top six spot in the Aviva Premiership, but Harrison put them on the right track with a try in the second half and Mike Haywood followed suit later in the game, with Stephen Myler kicking a penalty and a conversion to wrap up the win.
Harrison made 125m in attack, far and away the most in the game, and beat eight defenders in the process. The calls for the 23-year-old, New Zealand born back row to tour with England this summer are growing louder. Will Eddie Jones heed them?
Bye, bye Burger
Rugby players who come up against Saracens can breathe a little easier now after Jacques Burger played his final game of rugby before retirement on Sunday. If there is a tougher player, a more ruthless and physical defender, I haven’t seen him play in 26 years of watching rugby. Burger never shied away from putting his body on the line in his 80 Premiership games for Saracens. He scored just one try, but topped the tackle count many times.
Burger was at it again in his final match, when he sprang forward off his own line to stop Taione Vea in his tracks as he tried to dive over from a close-range ruck. Vea spilled the ball, so Burger’s effort saved a try and the Newcastle Falcons tighthead went off for a head injury assessment while the Saracens flanker dusted himself down and got ready to go again.
Burger has played tough – very tough – but he has also been a great ambassador for the game, giving his time happily to fans, as well as media folk like myself, posting some self-deprecating clips on social media and always seeming to have a twinkle in his eye. Jacques, you will be sorely missed.
Try treble for lock Leone
Defending Guinness Pro12 champions Glasgow Warriors moved up to the top of the table with just a week of the regular season to go, thanks to a 70-10 walloping of Zebre at Scotstoun. Three of their ten tries were scored by Leone Nakarawa, with the lock breaking tackles on his way to the line each time.
At the end of the week in which his impending departure from Glasgow was confirmed, this Man of the Match performance reminded everyone why he is such a hot property, but underlined the fact that the skilful and powerful Nakarawa will continue to give his all for the Warriors until the last game of this campaign.
Patched-up and passionate
It was 16 years since Gloucester had won away at Sale Sharks but they did so in the unlikeliest of circumstances on Friday evening, thanks to the direction and goal-kicking of Greig Laidlaw and another excellent game from Matt Kvesic.
Injuries and illness meant Gloucester started the match with Laidlaw playing fly-half for the first time in three years, the teenage Ollie Thorley on one wing, a centre at full-back and a full-back on the other wing. By the end they had three scrum-halves on the pitch and another teenager, Elliott Creed, making his Premiership debut in the backs. But somehow they put together a winning performance, which involved bucket-loads of the pride, passion and “dog” which has been absent from Gloucester’s game too often this spring.
With his makeshift back division unable to breach the Sale defence, Laidlaw made the most of all his goal-kicking opportunities and put Gloucester 12-11 up on 77 minutes, then helped them hang on for a win.
Down and out
London Irish are facing the prospect of at least one season in the Greene King IPA Championship after Sunday’s 32-25 defeat by Harlequins condemned them to relegation from the Aviva Premiership. The match was a microcosm of Irish’s season, as they did a lot right, but made too many mistakes to turn their good rugby into a win.
They found themselves 14-3 down in the first half and the second Quins try came when Sean Maitland failed to properly gather a chip from Ross Chisholm and Charlie Walker stripped the ball from him and crashed over the line.
On the plus side, Irish fought back to lead 25-22 in the second half and Asaeli Tikoirotuma reached brilliantly over the line for one of their tries. However, replacement prop Kyle Sinckler scored the winning try for Harlequins, racing in from 35 metres out, brushing off a tackle from Scott Steele and catching the home defence off guard. Irish have plenty of class players in their squad, but too many of them have underperformed too often this season.
Rob Miller was caught on the hop by James Short 65 minutes into the Exeter v Wasps clash and while the TMO saved his immediate blushes, his mistake ultimately helped to cost his side a try.
Gareth Steenson put a long kick from halfway to the Wasps try-line, where Miller was tracking back to touch it down, but the Wasps full-back was a little too lethargic and Short came sprinting up and dived over to touch the ball down. Fortunately for Miller he just managed to get a fingertip to the ball at the same time as the Chief and, after much deliberation, the officials ruled out the try for a simultaneous touchdown.
However, Exeter kept the pressure on and six minutes later Jack Nowell broke through the defence on the left to score the third try of the game.
Phil Dollman joins Miller on the sinners’ bench from that game, which seems harsh as he scored a try midway through the second half. However, the dive he made to ground the ball was so atrociously bad that he deserves a slap on the wrist! Chris Ashton should offer him some lessons.
Leinster count the cost of cards
Leinster slipped out of the top two in the Guinness Pro12 after losing 30-6 at Ulster and two pieces of indiscipline cost them dear.
With just 18 minutes gone and Ulster 3-0 up, Ruan Pienaar put a chip through from just outside the 22 and began to chase it, when Rob Kearney turned to pursue the ball and barged Pienaar to the floor with his shoulder. Kearney was sin-binned and, to rub salt into the wound, the referee also awarded a penalty try as he felt Pienaar would have beaten Leinster scrum-half Luke McGrath to the touchdown.
That was arguably a harsh call from referee George Clancy but Leinster could have had no complaints about Kearney’s yellow card or the one shown to Luke Fitzgerald after 53 minutes when he grabbed the arm of Rory Scholes as the wing tried to gather an offload from Stuart McCloskey. Scholes spilled the ball but Clancy had spotted Fitzgerald’s foul and, after looking at the replays, sin-binned him. Paddy Jackson kicked the resulting penalty and Leinster were still a man down when Jared Payne scored the try which put Ulster out of sight at 20-6 up.
A prop-er mistake
Sale Sharks went into Friday’s Aviva Premiership match against Gloucester with a fair chance of still claiming a playoff spot. They hadn’t lost a league match at the AJ Bell Stadium for more than a year and when Johnny Leota’s try put them 11-6 up going into the final quarter it looked like they would secure another win.
However, Greig Laidlaw put Gloucester within range with a penalty with 11 minutes to go and from there Sale had to be squeaky clean to avoid handing the Scotland captain any more scoring chances. Somehow that message didn’t register strongly enough with replacement Sale prop Eifion Lewis-Roberts and in the 77th minute he charged through a ruck and took Gloucester scrum-half Willi Heinz away from the back of the breakdown when he didn’t have his hands on the ball. It was a silly, soft penalty and Laidlaw punished Lewis-Roberts by kicking the three points, spoiling Sale’s home record and effectively ending their playoff hopes.