It might be the panto season, but round four of the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup served up the best entertainment you would wish to see. Who were the heroes who stole the show, and who were the biggest villains?
With Johnny Sexton, George Ford and Owen Farrell all strong options for the Lions, Finn Russell must still be viewed as a ‘bolter’ in the race to nail a fly-half spot in Warren Gatland’s squad.
Yet the Scotland man was again outstanding against Racing 92 last Friday night, despite incurring a calf injury just before the match that threatened his involvement.
Russell’s chip over the top was the catalyst for a superb Josh Strauss try after four minutes, and his run and pop pass created the second try for Fraser Brown. He was a bag of tricks all night, making 12 carries for 80 metres and beating nine defenders. He showed the ability to counter pressure with pressure by attacking from tight spots, and even got involved in a spot of counter-rucking.
It brought back-to-back Man of the Match awards and Glasgow, yet to qualify for the knockout phase of the top-tier European competition, look a genuine contender for the crown.
Leicester Tigers were on the wrong end of a 38-0 kicking in Munster last weekend, so bouncing back was high on their agenda. Going into the final minute of the return fixture at Welford Road they trailed 16-15, but were then awarded a penalty just inside their own half.
They could have kicked for the corner and tried to set up a better scoring chance. But fly-half Owen Williams shouldered the responsibility for the outcome of the match and said he would have a shot at goal.
He took a moment to pick the mud off his studs, then lined up the kick and sent it sailing 52 metres to its target. His nerve and skill gave Leicester their second win in Pool One and, perhaps more importantly, restored some pride for the Tigers.
This weekend’s matches were a mixture of wallopings and nail-biters and the Scarlets’ 22-21 win over Toulon certainly fell into the latter category.
The Welsh side were hanging on to a one-point lead with three minutes to play when Toulon’s big forward Samu Manoa set off on a dangerous run from his own half. Wales centre Scott Williams took on the task of trying to stop him and somehow found the strength to rip the ball from the grasp of the much bigger man and defuse the danger.
That was a telling contribution from Man of the Match Williams at a critical point in the game, but it wasn’t the only high point for him. Williams had scored the Scarlets’ only try of the game, with 14 minutes on the clock, benefiting from a great break by Hadleigh Parkes. That gave the home side a 10-0 lead and they never trailed Toulon from that position.
We can’t give all the plaudits to the backs. So let’s hear it for Bath hooker Ross Batty, aka the Ginger Shetland. After showing a sharp turn of pace to score Bath’s opening try, the 30-year-old Batty intercepted a Blues pass just outside his own 22 with 15 minutes remaining and set off for the distant try-line.
“I wasn’t expecting that much space in front of me,” Batty said. “I just kept going and going and then I hit quicksand and just managed to slide in at the end. I’ll have to go and look for my lungs later on I think.”
It might have ruined his credibility with the front-row union but Batty, one of the Premiership’s most dogged and consistent performers of recent years, brought Christmas-size cheer to the Rec faithful.
Springbok full-back Johan Goosen announced on social media that he was quitting his French club, Racing 92 – which was news to them.
“I found out on Twitter and I’m part of the management team,” said Racing coach Ronan O’Gara ahead of the Champions Cup tie at Glasgow.
“Obviously there’s been a bit of unrest for the last few weeks but that news shocked everyone. He was part of a fantastic team that succeeded in getting to the Champions Cup final and winning the Top 14 final last year. When he’s in the right frame of mind, we need him.”
Goosen, 24, who won the most recent of his 13 caps against Wales a few weeks ago, claims to be retiring from rugby to become a commercial director. Many in France smell a rat, with suspicions that he might be trying to engineer a move to a Top 14 rival without the need for Racing to be paid compensation.
Whatever the truth of the matter, tweeting your resignation shows total disrespect for your employer.
Dithering over decisions
If only there was a fast-forward button for certain match officials. French referee Alexandre Ruiz took an age in the Bath-Cardiff Blues match at the Rec to decide whether a scoring pass to Aled Brew was forward. “How many times do you need to look at the same replay to make a decision?” said exasperated commentator Mark Robson.
Quite. If it’s not ‘clear and obvious’ from one or two viewings, it’s not going to be after five or six. And it was not the only occasion in the latest round of European matches. For example, the TMO in the Bordeaux-Exeter game took far too long to reach the obvious conclusion that Joe Edwards had beaten Henry Slade to a touchdown. Speed it up, please!
Bordeaux-Begles were trailing 17-12 at home with 73 minutes of their Champions Cup Pool Five clash with Exeter gone. The French side were down to 14 men, having had Nance Ducuing sent off for a dangerous tackle on Olly Woodburn, when in fact Woodburn had caused the problem by jumping into him.
Bordeaux were still going for the win and Baptiste Serin took a tap penalty and attacked down the right. He shipped the ball on to Jean-Marcellin Buttin, who found full-back Geoffrey Cros on his outside, but he dropped the ball over the line in the corner, under pressure from a tackle from Woodburn.
Exeter went on to win 20-12 and the home crowd were not impressed.
World Rugby’s decision to clamp down on dangerous tackles isn’t exactly a secret, but it seems to have passed Manu Tuilagi by. The Leicester centre was sin-binned for a no-arms shoulder charge on Rory Scannell half an hour into his team’s narrow win over Munster and he was lucky that the Tigers actually scored six points while he was off the pitch, rather than conceding any more.
Tuilagi barged into Scannell after the Munster man had passed the ball. It was a no-brainer for referee Pascal Gauzere and a really needless sin-binning from Leicester’s point of view, as Tuilagi’s ‘tackle’ did not have any positive effect.
Leicester skipper Tom Youngs also stepped out of line a fraction as he was too intent on arguing with Munster’s leader Peter O’Mahony to pay attention to Gauzere when the referee was calling him over to speak about Tuilagi.
Many times a match-winner, this weekend Leigh Halfpenny failed to take two opportunities to clinch a win over the Scarlets for Toulon.
His French club were trailing 22-21 and knocking on the door in search of a winning score. They earned a penalty after 74 minutes, just outside the ten-metre line and 15 metres in from touch on the left. Halfpenny sent it wide.
Five minutes later his team-mates earned him another shot at goal and Scarlets fans were sure their fellow countryman was going to snatch the win away from them. However, the Wales star’s kick from just inside the Scarlets’ half fell short, and Toulon were beaten.
Their fly-half Pierre Bernard also missed a chance to win the match for Toulon. He was wide with a drop-goal attempt from 43 metres with three minutes to go. His team-mates were at fault too, as they should have been more patient, gone through more phases and got him closer to the posts.
Referees are there to arbitrate on and uphold the laws of the game, so it’s essential they know what those laws are and get the big calls at the big moments right.
Mathieu Raynal took over the refereeing of Connacht’s Champions Cup Pool Two clash with Wasps late in the game after Jerome Garces suffered a hamstring injury. Wasps were 18-13 up as the clock hit 80 minutes and then Raynal awarded Connacht a penalty.
With time up, kicking to the corner and going for a catch-and-drive was not an option for Connacht.
But their captain, John Muldoon, told Raynal they could take the lineout under the “new laws”. In fact, the changes come into force in 2017 but Raynal acquiesced and duly allowed Connacht to kick for the touch and take the lineout. Naulia Dawai rumbled over for a try that Jack Carty converted nervelessly to steal a 20-18 win.
EPCR, the governing body of the Champions Cup, issued a statement on Sunday to say Raynal had made a mistake. “As time had elapsed, Connacht should not have been permitted to take a lineout throw-in once the ball had been kicked into touch as stipulated in Law 5.7 (e) of World Rugby’s Laws of the Game,” said the statement.
“EPCR would like to thank all parties for their understanding and would also like to confirm that the result of the Pool Two match stands.”
That means Wasps, Toulouse and Connacht all have 13 points with four rounds gone, so the fact that Wasps were incorrectly denied a win could have big consequences.
Ulster conceded a try to Clermont Auvergne in the second minute of last weekend’s Champions Cup Pool Five clash and the return match started even more badly for them as this time Clermont breached their defence in the first minute.
That try from Isaiah Toeava was followed by another from Nick Abendanon in the 18th minute and a third five minutes later, also scored by Abendanon. Ulster went into half-time 21-0 down and so very much needed a good start to the second half.
Instead, they conceded yet another try as Ruan Pienaar threw a pass in the direction of Stuart McCloskey only to see Camille Lopez intercept it and run from his own half to score. Pienaar, who to be fair has been magnificent on countless occasions for his Irish province, should never have given the pass as Lopez was already in attendance.
From 28-0 down Ulster looked dead and buried and it is to their great credit that they came back to 28-19 before Clermont found a couple more scores and won 38-19.
The Stade Francais second-row should really have been a Sinner last week as he indulged in a bit of play-acting which is totally unwelcome in our sport.
Pascal Papé was struck on the head by Edinburgh’s Phil Burleigh during their Challenge Cup round three clash and Burleigh was sent off and subsequently banned for one week.
Pape himself was given an official Citing Commissioner Warning because he “fell to the ground in an exaggerated manner”. There was a time when if a lock hit the floor like a sack of spuds, clutching his face, after being hit be a mere centre, he would have been roundly ridiculed by his team-mates. Let’s hope that is happening to Pape and that he doesn’t repeat this kind of behaviour.