Test rugby made a welcome return to the Northern Hemisphere at the weekend, with all the drama, excitement and controversy any rugby fan could ask for.
The doubters who thought Jonny May might never handle the transition from club to Test rugby were finally shown just what the Gloucester wing brings to the top table on Saturday when he burned off two of New Zealand’s best backs to score his first international try.
He had been on the winning side for England in five of his first seven Tests but May knew he was there to use his exceptional pace to turn chances into points, something he was frustrated at failing to do.
But it took just three minutes of Saturday’s game against the All Blacks for May to right that wrong. Receiving the ball in his own half, he hared down the left wing, leaving Conrad Smith for dead and then accelerating again to scoot round the outside of a stunned Israel Dagg for a scintillating score that had the Twickenham crowd jumping.
Add to that the fact that May made five tackles out of five and won two turnovers, and it was a day to remember for the speedster.
If you want to beat the second best team in the world, the side who defeated the world champions a few short weeks ago, you have to take all your chances and Johnny Sexton ensured Ireland did exactly that as they triumphed 29-15 over South Africa in Dublin on Saturday.
The outside-half landed all six of his place kicks and played a good all round game to earn the Man of the Match award in a fine victory for Ireland.
South Africa had 57%of the possession and 62% of the territory against Ireland, but ended up on the losing side and a chunk of the credit for that goes to the Ireland forwards who snuffed out attack after attack from the Boks.
Paul O’Connell and Jack McGrath made 17 tackles each, with O’Connell not missing any, and back rowers Jamie Heaslip and Rhys Ruddock made 14 tackles apiece. Whatever the pre-match favourites threw at them, Ireland bravely repelled it and were deserving winners.
Laidlaw lays on a win
Scotland beat Argentina at Murrayfield for the first time in five attempts and although there were good performances throughout their team, star billing and the Man of the Match award went to scrum-half Greig Laidlaw.
It wasn’t just the fact he kicked four conversions and two penalties in the 41-31 win, he also created three of Scotland’s five tries, most notably when he ran a penalty from halfway after a fantastic turnover won by Jonny Gray, broke through the Argentine line and then found Sean Maitland with a superb long pass off his left hand, with the wing finishing off the move.
His conversion of that try took Scotland 21-10 up and moved Laidlaw past Dan Parks in Scotland’s list of all-time Test points-scorers. Later in the game he also overtook Andy Irvine to move up to third, with 276 points from 32 matches. Chris Paterson and Gavin Hastings are still hundreds of points ahead of him, but Laidlaw isn’t done yet.
Check out the match report and highlights here.
Level head, lethal boot
Australia’s Bernard Foley won the battle of the fly-halves at the Millennium Stadium, as he kicked 18 points in the Wallabies’ 33-28 win over Wales and showed excellent game management skills.
Wales took a 28-27 lead with 16 minutes to go, after their scrum earned a penalty try, but Foley and Australia’s other leaders knew exactly what was required and they patiently and calmly took control of the ball, knowing another scoring chance would come.
More than four minutes of continuous possession and 19 phases took Australia deep into Wales territory and set Foley up for a simple drop-goal in the 73rd minute, which he nailed for a 30-28 lead.
From there, Australia continued to make short, powerful breaks from close to the ball carrier, not attempting anything wide and risky, and they earned another penalty with two minutes to go.
When Wales tried to strike back with the clock in red time, George North made a scything run from his own half but then tried a risky offload from the tackle instead of recycling patiently. Foley and Australia were more effective when it counted.
Believe your eyes
Referee Nigel Owens has taken some stick for not referring Aaron Cruden’s try to the television match official (TMO). The five points turned out to be crucial, as New Zealand beat England 24-21 but the TV replays shown in the stadium and in the nation’s living rooms suggested Cruden initially grounded the ball short, and then may not have moved it forward all the way to the line.
While I am all in favour of technology being used to eradicate as many mistakes from the game as possible, I don’t want to see endless referrals to the TMO when the referee or his assistants had been in the right place to make the call in the first place.
Owens was in exactly the right spot and had a great view and clearly believed Cruden had slid the ball onto the edge of the line. This is one of the best referees in the world and if he wants to back himself and believe his own eyes when he is just a few metres from the action, that’s fine by me.
The bigger picture
His squad-mates were preparing for the first Test of their new era under coach Michael Cheika, but as he was not involved in the matchday squad, Australia’s Quade Cooper took time out on Saturday morning to visit Wales centre Owen Williams in hospital in Cardiff. Williams suffered a major spinal injury during the summer and it is a measure of the close bonds between rugby’s international family that Cooper called in to see him. He Tweeted a photo of the two of them, saying Williams was “an inspiration with his strength of character.” Cooper also donated some jerseys for a fundraising auction.
Nice one Mark
Sky’s commentator Mark Robson brought a smile to my face with his comedic quip during the Ireland v South Africa game.
“There’s a little bit of kissing and cuddling off the ball, involving Rhys Ruddock”, he said. I love it when a commentator can make you giggle while also keeping you informed.
Play your cards wrong
Two players cost their teams dear on Saturday when they were sin-binned. Argentine wing Juan Imhoff went for a ten minute break 20 minutes into the match against Scotland after he barged Tommy Seymour into touch following a kick through by the Scottish winger. The Pumas were leading 10-7 at the time but while they were a man down they conceded 17 points, as Jonny Gray and Sean Maitland scored a try each and Laidlaw kicked two conversions and a penalty.
South Africa’s replacement hooker Adriaan Strauss was shown a yellow card by Roman Poite 66 minutes into the match against Ireland, with Ireland 16-10 in front. He went off for challenging Rob Kearney in the air, with Poite saying it was South Africa’s second offence of the same type.
Jonny Sexton kicked a penalty and converted a lovely try scored by Tommy Bowe while Strauss was off, so by the time the Springboks had 15 players again they were 26-10 adrift with the game almost over.
England have some reasons to be cheerful after their under-strength side came within one score of beating the All Blacks, but they were also their own worst enemies at times.
They were constantly pinged for illegal play at the breakdown, especially going off their feet and tacklers not rolling away. They didn’t adapt on the hoof and learn the lessons referee Nigel Owens was trying to impart and their indiscipline handed cheap points to New Zealand and ruined some of their own good field position.
Add to that some poor kicking out of hand from Danny Care and Owen Farrell, and England know they let the chance of a famous victory slip.
Boo to you too
The Wales fans in the Millennium Stadium are always a passionate, one-eyed lot, but they overstepped the mark on Saturday by booing and whistling as Australia’s Foley lined up his second-half goal kicks. The Wallaby did not let it put him off, and shut out the sound to land crucial penalties in the 57th and 79th minute, but former Wales captain Ryan Jones was not impressed with his fellow countrymen’s behaviour.
Jones Tweeted: “There’s NO place in rugby for the booing and whistling at today’s Welsh Rugby Union game. #respectthekicker”.