We look at the heroes and villains from a truly memorable weekend of rugby
There are some people who still don’t like to see playoffs decide league titles, but without them we wouldn’t have dramatic occasions like Saturday’s Aviva Premiership rugby final to enjoy.
The players from Northampton and Saracens ran, tackled and passed themselves to an absolute standstill over the course of 100 minutes-plus, in an effort to become champions of England.
It was an epic, nail-biting, brutal encounter. Big hits, gliding runs, deft passes, superb kicks, and so, so much tension – this game had everything. The balance of power swung from one team to another, and back, and the drama lasted to the very last nano-second.
Standout performers included George North, Ken Pisi, Courtney Lawes, Stephen Myler, Schalk Britz and his buddies in the tremendous Saracens tight five.
It was breath-taking stuff and while it left the players needing a good holiday, it left the supporters wishing next season started tomorrow.
Hape’s horror story
Former England centre Shontayne Hape set out to right one of rugby’s biggest wrongs this weekend, by giving a shocking and brutally frank interview to the New Zealand Herald about the brain injury he has suffered by playing the game.
Forced to retire because of the repeated concussions he suffered in a career that took him from rugby league in New Zealand to union with London Irish, Montpellier and England, Hape describes the symptoms that he still endures every day and his uncertain future.
Hape is telling his story to try to warn other players, especially young ones, that concussions have to be taken more seriously. He also wants rugby’s authorities to sit up and take notice once and for all, and to stop turning a blind eye as players are pressured into playing on when they absolutely should not be.
He takes some of the blame upon himself, admitting he hid the severity of his problems from the coaches at Montpellier for a long time. “In the back of your mind you are aware of the dangers, but you are paid to get out there and play and you want to play. You never think anything bad is going to happen to you. So you just do it,” Hape says.
However, he is also highly critical of the club officials who put their own short-term interests before a player’s welfare. “There was constant pressure from the coaches. Most coaches don’t care about what happens later on in your life. It is about the here and now. Everyone wants success.
“Players are just pieces of meat. When the meat gets too old and past its use-by date, the club just buys some more. You get meat that’s bruised or damaged, the club goes and buys some more.”
When a specialist told Hape he had to retire immediately, Montpellier said they would rest him for a couple of months and see how he was. It is time rugby put a stop to such insensitive and short-sighted behaviour. Hopefully Hape’s brave stance will help that to happen. Read his article here.
Leo the leader
He has played 219 games for Leinster and led them to a trio of Heinken Cups, so it was entirely fitting that Leo Cullen helped the province win their second successive RaboDirect Pro 12 title in his final match before retirement.
He didn’t attract the same amount of wider attention as his fellow-retiree and team-mate Brian O’Driscoll, but among the Leinster players and fans Cullen is as well-loved as the super centre and will be missed just as much, if not more.
Having battled away at the heart of the Leinster engine room for 14 seasons, Cullen will go down in history as one of the province’s great servants.
A couple of young British players grabbed the headlines on the opening day of the Junior World Championship. Wales wing Dafydd Howells took just seven seconds to score the opening try of the tournament in New Zealand, and his team went on to beat Fiji 48-19.
England U20s also enjoyed a big win, as they trounced Italy 63-3 and wing Nathan Earle topped the try-scorers’ list for the men in white, with a hat-trick.
You don’t have to wait long for another chance to see these talented youngsters in action. England play their second game on Friday, 6 June against Australia, while Wales face Ireland on the same day, with Ireland looking to bounce back from a 19-13 defeat by France. Scotland, who were hammered 61-5 by South Africa in their first game, take on Samoa on 6 June.
Jonny Wilkinson glided into retirement on Saturday night with a Top 14 champion’s medal to balance the Heineken Cup winner’s one he pocketed last week. He kicked 15 of Toulon’s 18 points in their win over Castres and had the gloriously noisy and joyful send-off he deserved.
Unfortunately, Brian O’Driscoll wasn’t able to relish his own swansong quite so much as he was let down by his own injured calf, or by his script-writer, if you prefer.
His Leinster team-mates ensured this outstanding Irish hero finished his glittering career as a RaboDirect Pro 12 champion, as they played on without him and beat Glasgow Warriors 34-12 in the final in O’Driscoll’s native Dublin, but the man himself lasted just nine minutes of the match before he was forced to limp off.
O’Driscoll still lifted the trophy, alongside Leo Cullen, and enjoyed the moment of victory with his closest rugby friends, but he deserved to play a bigger part in the game. It has been a pleasure, an honour, to watch you Brian, and it’s a great shame your final scene turned out to be a cameo role. Your battered body finally let you down.
Referee JP Doyle and his team of match officials did plenty right during the Aviva Premiership final, but the events surrounding Owen Farrell’s disallowed try were so confused and controversial that they undid a lot of their good work in those few, extraordinary minutes.
Farrell touched down after 61 minutes, seemingly bringing Saracens right back into the game as they had been trailing 14-9. The first howler from the officials was the fact that neither Doyle, nor assistant referee Paul Dix spotted Alex Goode’s forward pass in the build-up. They didn’t even think there was enough doubt to ask the television match official to take a look. Doyle awarded the try and if Farrell had not then needed treatment for a leg injury he inflicted upon himself in his celebration, he would have kicked the conversion and the game would have continued.
Instead, there was time for several replays to be shown on the big screen at Twickenham and after seeing the forward pass, TMO Graham Hughes told Doyle he should have a rethink.
I don’t ever recall a TMO taking such action when a try had already been given and it is questionable whether it is within his remit. Nevertheless, Doyle and Hughes then reviewed the try, disallowed it and Saracens took another 12 minutes to score the try which ultimately took the game to extra time.
Saracens officials and fans were incensed by Doyle’s about turn, and about the fact that Luther Burrell threw what looked like a forward pass during the build-up to a Northampton try but that was not reviewed.
The protocols surrounding the use of the TMO have become increasingly confused this season, with their wider remit leading to a feeling there is nothing they can’t do. I am all in favour of using technology to ensure the right decision is taken, but there is now too much inconsistency in the way the replays are used from match to match. Before the start of next season, the powers that be and the match officials need to sort out what is and isn’t allowed and then make that clear to everyone involved in the game, so we don’t have a repeat of Saturday’s chaos.
With extra time all but over, Saracens led Northampton 20-17 and looked set to be crowned Aviva Premiership champions. However, the Saints were attacking and because they had scored two tries to Saracens’ one during the game, they only needed a penalty or a drop-goal to tie the scores, and they would have won the trophy.
Amazingly, it seemed like Northampton skipper Tom Wood and the half-backs, Lee Dickson and Stephen Myler, didn’t know this, as they went through phase after phase in their efforts to cross the Saracens’ try-line. Yes, they manufactured a try for Alex Waller in the end, and so won the game 24-20, but the TMO had to take a long, hard look before giving the try as he barely reached the line under a pile of bodies. What turned out to be the Premiership-winning score could easily have been disallowed.
Going through the phases under extreme pressure is terribly risky, as there is always the danger of a fumble or an accidental offside. Once Saints were inside the 22 there is no doubt in my mind they should have taken the drop-goal chance.
If Wood and co deliberately chose to eschew the kick and go for the try for the hell of it, it was an enormous gamble. If they didn’t know they only needed a kick, they should make sure that next time they are in a competition final they know the rules inside out, because they might not be so fortunate as to see their gamble pay off again.
The final sinner is Jamie Heaslip’s new haircut. I can say no more!