Last-ditch heroics from the kicking kings, giggle-inducing contributions from the match officials, superb tries and some shameful foul play all featured in an action-packed weekend of European Champions Cup, Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 matches.
The ultimate long shot
When you are trailing 23-0 at half-time, away from home in France, no one gives you much hope of turning a game around. Ulster skipper Rory Best called his team’s first-half performance in Oyonnax “bordering on pathetic” but, after harsh words in the changing room at the break, Ulster fought back to win 24-23 and keep their hopes of qualifying for the European Champions Cup quarter-finals alive.
The ultimate hero was Paddy Jackson, who showed maturity and courage to kick a penalty from his own half to put Ulster ahead for the first time with 77 minutes gone. He might look like he should be in the U18s, but Jackson is a fearless, confident operator and he sent the kick through the posts with plenty to spare.
Plaudits also go to wing Rory Scholes for his terrific try which began the Ulster fightback, and to Craig Gilroy and Kyle McCall for adding to the try count before Jackson added the finishing touches with three good conversions and that last, miraculous penalty.
Not since 1998 has no Irish province reached the quarter-finals of Europe’s top competition. With Munster and Leinster out of the running now, Ulster carry the hopes of a nation on their shoulders for the next two weeks as the pool stages come to a close.
Harlequins did what no other team has done so far this season on Saturday, and beat Saracens. Ben Botica kicked the penalty which put Quins ahead in the closing minutes of the Aviva Premiership clash and a galloping break out of defence from Jack Clifford helped set up a last-ditch try for James Horwill, which made the final score 29-23, but the outstanding moment of brilliance was provided by Nick Evans.
A bullocking run inside the 22 had the Saracens’ defence at sixes and sevens, Danny Care passed to Evans from the base of the ensuing ruck and the Kiwi fly-half took the ball in mid-air and flipped it straight back inside to Clifford, who crashed over the line for a try which took Quins from 8-14 down to 15-14 it. It was a magical moment of deft handling from Evans in a game which was characterised more by brute strength and ferocious passion.
Leicester and Northampton served up a brilliantly entertaining Aviva Premiership derby match on Saturday, with the Saints fighting back from 21-0 down to level the scores at 27-27 at Welford Road.
In increasingly atrocious, rainy conditions, fly-half Freddie Burns held his nerve at the death when Courtney Lawes handed him a penalty chance just outside the 22 but in front of the posts, by infringing at a ruck. Burns had missed a drop-goal not long before, but this time he found the target to win the match for the Tigers 30-27.
Burns had landed a couple of more difficult penalties in the driving rain midway through the half and his opposite number Stephen Myler had also hit the target to keep the Saints in the hunt with five minutes to go.
Wayne Barnes earned himself a few hours of social media fame with his sharp-witted exchange with Ben Youngs during Leicester’s 30-27 win over Northampton, which featured the usual dose of East Midlands derby niggle from both sides.
At one point, when Leicester were awarded a penalty, the scrum-half asked the referee “Can I go quick Sir?” Barnes replied: “No Ben, your brother’s having a fight.”
Another referee raised a few giggles on Sunday, but is a slightly more embarrassing fashion. When JP Doyle decided to sin-bin London Irish hooker David Paice for persistent infringements from his team, he wielded the red card instead of the yellow. Realising his mistake as the London Irish players looked on in horror, Doyle waved the correct card and gabbled repeated apologies.
What an impact Shane Geraghty made when he came on as a half-time replacement for Chris Noakes’ in London Irish’s important Aviva Premiership basement battle with Newcastle Falcons.
Irish were 6-0 up but that soon became 13-0, then 20-0 as Geraghty’s boot made an impact.
His kick-off to start the second half went long and high down the right, where Alex Lewington caught it among a flock of Falcons and dived over the line for a try with less than ten seconds of the half gone.
Geraghty converted and five minutes later put up another wonderful hanging kick which created a try for Topsy Ojo and put Irish well out in front. The Falcons fought back to 20-15 and so claimed an important bonus point, but Geraghty was the match-winner.
Playing a blinder
The try of the weekend was scored by Stade Francais blindside Sekou Macalou in their 27-7 trouncing of Munster in the European Champions Cup.
He received the ball on around halfway, handed off three opponents in his first few strides, then got up to full speed before stepping around Keith Earls – wrong-footing the Ireland and Lions star with a change of direction any back would have been proud of – and scoring close to the posts. The try put the French side 20-0 up and gave the Parisian crowd even more to cheer than they already had.
What a try it would have been, if only a high tackle by Luther Burrell in the build-up hadn’t prompted referee Wayne Barnes to rule it out. But Northampton prop Paul Hill still takes his place among my Saints for sprinting from halfway to the try-line, dragging the considerable bulk of Graham Kitchener with him for a few paces, and crashing over for what could have been a critical score.
Northampton were 21-17 down at the time and Hill showed great athleticism and strength to create what looked like a try, out of nothing. The officials looked long and hard at the replays of Burrell’s tackle before ruling out the try, which was a great shame for the young prop.
Leicester coach Richard Cockerill was impressed though. “Great pace from the tighthead,” he laughed, in the post-match interview. “He’ll grow out of that eventually!”
Scarlets remain top of the Guinness Pro12 thanks to a late penalty kicked by Steve Shingler to give them a 21-19 win over Connacht.
The Irish side had led 10-3 at half-time and after the Scarlets fought back and went ahead, a Jack Carty penalty inside the last ten minutes put Connacht in front once more. But when Ronan Loughney was sin-binned for a tip tackle, replacement Shingler was on target with his kick to give the Welsh side their ninth win of the Pro12 season and put them back in front of Leinster at the top of the table, after the Dublin side had won at the Ospreys on Friday.
Stade Francais wing Josaia Raisuqe was sent off by Nigel Owens for an idiotic and totally unnecessary gouging incident on CJ Stander.
The whistle had blown for a Munster penalty just before half time, but Raisuqe decided to try to stop Stander taking the ball from him. He put his hand clearly into the No 8’s face, around the eye area, and pushed it there for several seconds. Owens had no hesitation in sending him off, and he was fortunate that Stade still went on to win the game.
Saracens replacement Rhys Gill was also sent off on Saturday, for a horrible tip tackle on George Lowe. Petrus Du Plessis also joined in the challenge, but Gill provided the greatest downward momentum as Lowe crashed to the ground head first. Referee Craig Maxwell-Keys initially sin-binned him, but upgraded the yellow card to a red after looking at the replays.
Harlequins lock James Horwill was also guilty of foul play in the same match, when his swinging arm led to George Kruis being stretchered off and concussed. Horwill was sin-binned but escaped a red card.
A pair of cringe-worthy mistakes by centre Chris Harris proved costly for Newcastle Falcons in their defeat at London Irish. He looked odds-on to score the game’s first try when he chased a kick through from Craig Willis, which Topsy Ojo made a hash of tidying it up. All Harris needed to do was dive on the ball, as it was already in the in-goal area, but for some reason he tried to scoop it up as he dived, and he didn’t ground it.
At the very start of the second half, the kick-off headed for a pod of players including Harris and instead of jumping to challenge the fast-approaching Alex Lewington for possession, he stood on the ground, hoping to take the catch there. Lewington leapt above him, gathered the ball and scored a try which took London Irish from 6-0 up to 13-0 up.
Bath gave Toulon a real test during Sunday’s re-arranged Champions Cup match and were leading 6-3 as half-time approached. A knock-on from a lineout gave Bath a scrum in their own half, but then their skipper Stuart Hooper decided to pile into the back of Juan Smith long after the whistle had gone, leaving referee George Clancy – who had already warned both teams about argy-bargy – with no option but to award Toulon a penalty.
Eric Esande slotted the kick through the posts and tied the scores 6-6 at the break. Toulon went on to win 12-9. It was a silly act by the Bath captain in a game where every point was crucial.
Salon of shame
Come in James O’Connor, have a seat, and let’s see what we can do to help you. Yes, the super-talented Australian back is a Sinner this week for his new haircut, which features shaved sides, a tightly braided top, and some ridiculous pony tails sticking out at the crown of his head. As Ugo Monye said during the Toulon v Bath coverage on BT Sport: “I’ll talk about his skills all day but his Barnet needs sorting out.”
A loss, at last
What a let-down Saracens are for their fans. I mean, fancy losing a match after winning 12 on the bounce in the Aviva Premiership and European Champions Cup this season. I assume they are hanging their heads in shame….!