By Katie Field
Only one man could head up the Saints list this week – the irrepressible Brian O’Driscoll, who became the world’s most-capped Test player on Saturday when he made his 140th international appearance. His deft touches, breaks and vision lit up the Aviva Stadium in his last match there for Ireland before his retirement. He might have thought it was “a bit of a joke” to get the Man of the Match award for his 60 minutes on the pitch, but no one else did. O’Driscoll once again left everyone with nothing but good memories. He is a player who will be talked about for decades to come.
The Stuart dynasty
England won their first Triple Crown for 11 years when they beat Wales 29-18 at Twickenham on Sunday and much of the credit for their good form this spring must go to head coach Stuart Lancaster. The England boss has rebuilt the squad from the doldrums of January 2012 and his leadership skills, the loyalty he shows to his players and his thoughtful attention to detail have empowered the team to go out and play with confidence and without fear. England have only an outside chance of winning this year’s Six Nations as we head for the last weekend, but Lancaster is creating a team that can challenge for trophies in the coming years.
While Wales struggled to cling onto England’s coat tails at Twickenham, one player kept them in touch. Leigh Halfpenny put on as perfect a display of goal-kicking as you will ever see. It’s not just that he landed all six penalty chances England gave him, but four of those were from close to half-way, mostly towards the outer edges of the pitch, so they were devilishly difficult kicks even in great conditions. No other kicker could have turned all of those chances into points.
Away from the Six Nations, it was LV= Cup semi-finals weekend and two players grabbed the headlines. George Pisi of Northampton helped the Saints come from 7-6 down at half-time against Saracens to win 26-7 by scoring a second-half hat-trick.
Bath’s Leroy Houston also deserves a mention for scoring the fastest try in the competition’s history, charging in after just 30 seconds against Exeter Chiefs. Bath led at the break but lost 22-19.
A trio of individuals stood out as England enjoyed a clean sweep of victories over Wales at the weekend , with the U20s, Women and Sevens teams winning as well as the senior side. The U20s set the tone with an astonishing 67-7 triumph over the Welsh. Head coach Nick Walshe described the performance as “not far off perfect” and flanker Gus Jones put his hand up for the biggest plaudits by scoring four of England’s ten tries.
England Women were also celebrating after their 35-3 victory. Emily Scarratt led the way with 20 points and wing Natasha Brennan scored a try with her first touch in international rugby.
A Saint just a couple of weeks ago, Scotland stand-off Duncan Weir is a Sinner this time after a moment of madness cost his side what would have been a valuable try. Leading France 14-9 in the 47th minute, Scotland were attacking deep in their opponents’ 22 and just needed to keep their composure and patience in order to score. However, Weir opted to throw a risky, long miss-pass to Alex Dunbar, rather than going for Matt Scott inside him. France’s Yoann Huget read the pass, intercepted and raced the length of the pitch to score.
Instead of leading 19-9 or, probably, 21-9, against a fragile French side, Scotland found themselves 16-14 down.
Weir redeemed himself a little by kicking a tough penalty to restore Scotland’s lead with 61 minutes gone, but he missed another chance later, leaving France within touching distance in the closing minutes. Replacement lock Tim Swinson was penalised for not releasing the tackled player and Jean-Marc Doussain kicked the penalty which allowed France to steal a 19-17 victory.
Flawed and floored
Warren Gatland and the Wales coaches deserve some criticism this week, after their team – packed with such potent attacking forces as George North and Alex Cuthbert – failed to score a try in a match for the second time during this Six Nations Championship. Their tactics against England were flawed, as they kicked repeatedly to a back three who are full of counter-attacking confidence, allowing them to get on the front foot in the game. If it was the execution that was poor rather than the plan, the coaches should have hauled the half-backs off sooner, instead of letting the 53rd minute injury suffered by scrum-half Rhys Webb prompt one change and waiting until the 62nd minute to bring Dan Biggar on for Rhys Priestland. Gatland’s decision to select Jonathan Davies so soon after his return from long-term injury also backfired, as the centre looked rusty and out of touch.
It seems silly every year that the structure of the LV= Cup means the semi-finals are played the weekend before the final. There is no time for any momentum and excitement to build up, never mind for fans to make their travel arrangements.
However, travel plans are not something that will need to trouble Exeter Chiefs fans following their side’s semi-final win over Bath. The organisers of the competition had already committed to play the final at Exeter’s Sandy Park home, which means the Chiefs will have home advantage over Northampton Saints. No club should get such a big helping hand when silverware is at stake.