The Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup took centre stage this weekend and there were star turns and spectacular flops aplenty.
There were so many outstanding performers in the Saracens ranks on Saturday, when they shocked the rugby world with an extraordinary 46-6 win over Clermont Auvergne, this entire list of Saints could be a Saracens-only zone this week.
So, to give other clubs and players a look-in (which Saracens don’t seem particularly keen to do!), the star performers from the north of London are being lumped together here in one section.
Big plaudits go to the whole team for setting a new record for a score in a Heineken Cup semi-final and for producing such an outstanding, all-round display that they made Clermont – giants of European rugby – look nothing but ordinary.
The coaches need to take a bow, for getting the game plan spot on and Paul Gustard deserves extra praise for drilling his side so well in defence that they made 156 tackles and didn’t let the French fliers breach their lines.
Chris Ashton grabbed his own headlines with two tries which took his tally in this season’s Heineken Cup to 11 – an individual record for one year.
Among all the outstanding individual performers and the wonderful team ethic, there had to be a Man of the Match and that was Jacques Burger, the Saracens openside, who made an astonishing 27 tackles in the 69 minutes before he hauled his battered body to the replacements bench. Some of his tackles are right on the edge of legality, but he terrifies opponents with the power and frequency of his hits. Burger admitted afterwards that he had probably only touched the ball twice, but said his role was to “throw my body about and be really physical. It’s borderline stupid really.”
His career was almost ended by a knee injury last year and he has to ice the joint about eight times a day to keep himself fit for action. Burger will continue to give it everything as Saracens go in search of a Heineken Cup and Aviva Premiership double and who would bet against them after this weekend’s demolition of Clermont?
Yes he Kahn
There may have been a tiny fragment of doubt about his second-half try for Northampton, as the match officials looked long and hard at the TV replays for a knock-on before allowing the score, but there was no doubt at all that Kahn Fotuali’i produced a top class performance for Northampton in their 18-10 win over Harlequins in Friday’s Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final.
The Samoan was superb in attack and defence and was deservedly named Man of the Match on a day his performance out-shone that of England’s sparky No 9, Danny Care.
Fotuali’i set up the Saints first try for Tom Collins with the most delicate and accurate of chips through the defence, off his “wrong” foot. His decision to kick caught Harlequins by surprise as Northampton had been battering away with pick-and-go moves close to the line and the referee was playing a penalty advantage, so they might have been expecting a drop-goal attempt.
The scrum-half’s own try, scored in the first five minutes of the second half, required pace and strength as he grasped a loose pass from Harlequins, charged half the length of the pitch and saw off the attention of three defenders to muscle over the line and give his team an 18-3 lead.
Fotuali’i gave much of the credit for his own brilliance to the Northampton pack, saying: “They gave me so much clean ball and we got on the front foot a few times.”
Defending Heineken Cup champions Toulon reached this year’s final with a 24-16 win over Munster, thanks in no small part to their two English place-kickers, who scored all their points.
Jonny Wilkinson set himself up for a great swansong at the Millennium Stadium on 24 May as he landed six penalties and a drop-goal, and Delon Armitage sent a howitzer of a penalty between the uprights from his own half on the stroke of half-time to give the French side an 18-9 lead at the break.
Wilkinson’s drop-goal illustrated not only his skill but his understanding of the psychology of the game as Munster had just narrowed the gap to 9-6 and he hit back with three points at the first opportunity – simultaneously steadying the Toulon ship and denting Munster’s confidence.
The Irish side didn’t give up and boldly tried to score tries instead of kicking for goal as the clock ticked into the final quarter, but with Wilkinson there to punish their every mistake, Munster could not bridge the gap.
I am a big fan of the use of video technology to help officials make decisions during matches. If the referee and touch judges are unsure of something, I think it is always correct for them to “go upstairs” to the television match official for help.
But I also like to see officials back their own judgement and believe their own eyes, which is why I was pleased to see referee Wayne Barnes allow Simon Zebo’s try for Munster against Toulon, even though at first sight there was a possibility he had been held up. Barnes had a quick conversation with assistant referee Luke Pearce and once he was happy Zebo had not gone into touch, he was confident enough of the grounding to award the try. And why should’t he have been? Barnes and Pearce were both right on the spot, with as good a view as any TV camera.
Plenty of players and experts took to social media to say they should have consulted the TMO, but at least one replay of the incident seemed to show Zebo had eventually rolled over to ground the ball, so to my mind Barnes and Pearce were spot on.
Bath were forced to fight hard for their 24-18 Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final win at London Wasps and no one put in more effort than the West Country side’s hooker Rob Webber, who ironically played for Wasps from 2006-12.
The Yorkshireman caused plenty of trouble for his former team-mates on his old stamping ground. He matched his shirt number with two tries in this victory, carried the ball eight times – which was bettered only by three other players from either team – and contributed to a 94% lineout success rate for Bath. It all added up to a Man of the Match award for Webber and a European final to look forward to.
They had 68% of possession and 64% of territory, carried the ball 168 times (99 more than Saracens!) and won 130 rucks and mauls to their opponents’ 44, but Clermont Auvergne somehow ended up on the wrong end of a humiliating 46-6 scoreline in their Heineken Cup semi-final.
Last year’s runners-up and semi-finalists the year before, Clermont failed to make a match of it this time. Yes, Saracens were utterly, utterly superb, but the French giants will be hugely disappointed with the way they failed to front up at Twickenham.
Their defence was all at sea without the influence of the injured Aurelien Rougerie and they leaked six tries, missing 19% of their tackles. Saracens really didn’t need that much help.
Clermont have never managed to do themselves justice on the European stage and they fell short spectacularly this time. Sky Sports commentator Miles Harrison summed it up beautifully, saying: “Once more Clermont Auvergne are destined to be the bridesmaid and they have not looked particularly good in the dress today either.”
Harlequins hooker Dave Ward did a magnificent job to strip the ball from Calum Clark after a tackle and gain a turnover for his team early in the second half of their Amlin Challenge Cup semi-final against Northampton. Quins were trailing 11-3 and Ben Botica had just missed a penalty, but with Ward’s terrific turnover, they were poised to attack.
However, instead of laying the ball back safely, Ward had a rush of blood to the head and flung it high into the air. The hands which grabbed it were those of the Northampton scrum-half Kahn Fotuali’i, not one of Ward’s Harlequins team-mates. There was a suspicion of a knock-on as the Saints No 9 gathered the ball, but after he had hared in for a try the match officials could not see any clear reason to disallow it, so Northampton were 18-3 up and the gap was too large for Quins to bridge.
Trying to avoid a fourth consecutive Heineken Cup semi-final loss, and trailing 21-16 to Toulon with three minutes to go, Munster couldn’t afford any mistakes as they went in search of a winning try.
As they attacked frantically, JJ Hanrahan sent a fast pass towards Keith Earls and he dropped it. From that turnover, Toulon won a penalty which Jonny Wilkinson kicked to take the game out of Munster’s reach.
Yes, the pass from Hanrahan was pacey and came straight at Earls, who was facing him, but the 39-cap Ireland back would have expected to hold it. Big games can be won and lost by individual errors and while Earls was by no means the only Munster man at fault on Sunday, he was unfortunate enough to slip up at a critical time.