There were some fantastic, high-stakes games played this weekend. Which players rose to the occasion and which were found wanting?
Some people are calling it the best Aviva Premiership game ever and the Northampton v Leicester semi-final certainly had drama, skill, physicality and passion by the bucketload.
Northampton snatched the win at the death, 21-20, with a try from Tom Wood but the plaudits deserve to be shared by a host of players from both teams, who served up such a fantastic sporting contest, and by referee JP Doyle who managed this hum-dinger of a battle brilliantly. It wasn’t only the Saints who were saints on this occasion.
Social media was alive with praise for Doyle on Friday night, because of his level-headed and empathetic management of a full-blooded and at times brutal battle.
It was the kind of match people will talk about for years – a real classic.
Forgive and forget
Leicester hooker Tom Youngs found himself on the wrong end of a left-handed upper-cut from Northampton prop Salesi Ma’afu during their semi-final. Youngs was sin-binned for starting the altercation but Ma’afu was sent off for punching.
A few hours later Youngs produced a brilliant, sporting reaction on Twitter, when he tweeted to Ma’afu: “Good shot mate, go well in the final”. Ma’afu replied: “Cheers mate. The jersey can overcome us in the heat of battle. I owe you a pint.”
It was an exchange which perfectly encapsulated the camaraderie between opponents which rugby holds so dear and it helped to sweeten a potentially sour situation.
Leinster were looking to reach their fifth consecutive league play-off final when they took on Ulster in the RaboDirect Pro 12 semi-final on Saturday night, but were trailing 9-0 after an hour, with the Ulster defence keeping them at bay.
However, Leinster gradually upped the pressure and capitalised with a couple of Jimmy Gopperth penalties to make it 9-6 as the final ten minutes began.
Ian Madigan, on as a replacement for Brian O’Driscoll, was the man who finally breached the Ulster line, dotting down for a precious try which Gopperth converted.
Leinster hung on for the last eight minutes and Madigan was rewarded with the Man of the Match award.
Glasgow are through to their first RaboDirect Pro 12 final, after losing at the semi-final stage for the last two years, and much of the thanks must go to young fly-half Finn Russell, who held his nerve in the biggest match of his life to kick his team back into the game after Munster took a 7-0 lead.
Russell is only 21 and before this season he has not made a league start for Glasgow, but he has developed into an excellent player in the last few months. He coolly struck three first-half penalties to enable the Warriors to go into half-time 9-7 up and then converted Gordon Reid’s try early in the second half and the Scots held on for a 16-15 win.
The power of Ponty
Pontypridd completed a unique achievement in Welsh rugby on Sunday evening as they won the double double! For the second year in succession they are Principality Premiership champions and SWALEC Cup winners, after sealing their second double on the trot with a win over Cross Keys in the Premiership final.
Ponty had to endure a very tough autumn, as they lost coach Dale McIntosh and skipper Chris Dicomidis to Cardiff Blues and had to endure the untimely death of prop Stuart Williams in October. The players, coaches, supporters and everyone else involved with the club pulled together in the face of this extreme adversity and ended up winning the league and cup and going all the way to the British and Irish Cup semi-finals.
A bad shout
Chris Ashton is at the centre of a row about good sportsmanship after he shouted “push it” at Nick Evans when the Harlequins’ fly-half was lining up a conversion during the Aviva Premiership semi-final clash on Saturday.
The Saracens wing’s crude attempt to put Evans off sparked a bout of fisticuffs between the two teams and the RFU responded today with a statement saying: “Respect is one of the core values of rugby union and the RFU head of discipline, Gerard McEvilly has this morning [Monday] spoken to Chris about the incident, his responsibilities towards the game and his future conduct. The RFU will follow up the matter in writing.”
When the stakes are high, players push the boundaries of sportsmanship by doing things like calling to opponents who are carrying the ball in the hope they might pass to them by mistake. However, yelling at a goal-kicker just as they are taking a penalty or conversion is just that bit more cynical, obvious and unpleasant. You might think it, but don’t shout it.
Ashton has escaped any official punishment but it might be nice if he issued an apology.
Generous as Tom Youngs’ reaction was to Salesi Ma’afu’s punch during the Aviva Premiership semi-final, (see above), the Northampton tighthead still needs to take his seat on the Sinners bench this week. He punched the Tigers hooker twice – a right-hand to the body and a left-hand to the face – and was quite rightly red-carded.
Ma’afu is lucky his rush of blood did not cost Northampton the game as his 14 team-mates bravely battled to their 21-20 win over Leicester, but if he is banned at Tuesday’s disciplinary hearing the Saints will have to face two finals without him in the next two weeks, which will be a high price for his team-mates to pay.
Harlequins came from nowhere to qualify for a place in this season’s Aviva Premiership semi-finals and, against the odds, were leading Saracens 17-11 early in the second half at Allianz Park.
Just when it looked like an upset might be on the cards, the hosts began to increase the pressure and when Brad Barritt powered towards the line, Harlequins centre Tim Molenaar made the mistake of not hanging on to complete the tackle. Barritt got up and charged over the whitewash for a try which was converted for an 18-17 lead and from there Saracens went on to win 31-17.
The defeat was by no means all Molenaar’s fault, but small individual errors can prove costly in the biggest games and Saracens certainly took heart from his lapse.