The European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup finals produced a few heroes and villains, while there was silverware and glory up for grabs on the Sevens circuit and in Wales too.
Saracens’ dynamic duo
Saracens are the king of European rugby, after beating Racing 92 in the Champions Cup final. They managed the wet conditions in Lyon superbly, were never behind in the match and executed their tactics almost perfectly to triumph 21-9.
Maro Itoje was named Man of the Match, but it was the Saracens half-backs who piloted them to victory. Richard Wigglesworth had an immaculate game at scrum-half, pinning Racing back in their own half with superb tactical kicking during a critical period in the second half when Saracens were 12-6 ahead and the French side were looking for a way back into the game.
Owen Farrell was also in top form, taking the right options, executing them well and, above all, landing every one of the seven penalty chances Racing handed to him.
A tip of the hat also goes to Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall, who took over that role when the previous King of the Sarries, Brendan Venter, moved on at the start of 2011. McCall had already led them to the 2009-10 Aviva Premiership title as their head coach, and he has taken them from strength to strength ever since. Saracens have their critics and, even with the Champions Cup tucked away in their trophy cabinet, are accused of being boring to watch, but the truth is that they have assembled a superb squad, can successfully adapt their game plan to suit different conditions, and have a great team ethic born out of excellent man management.
Saracens lock Maro Itoje was named European Player of the Season after Saturday’s Champions Cup final. The 21-year-old already has a Grand Slam winners medal to his name this season after playing a leading role for England during the Six Nations, and, considering he only played his first Champions Cup game in January 2015 and wasn’t a regular Premiership starter for Saracens until a month after that, his rise from young hopeful to superstar has been astonishing.
However, Itoje proved that his feet are still totally on the ground (when he is not soaring to claim yet another lineout) when he said after Saturday’s final: “I am nowhere near where I think I can be. There is still a lot I have to work on.”
Scotland’s Sevens team are the toast of the nation today after beating the auld enemy, England, 28-10 in the Bowl final at the Paris Sevens. It was Scotland’s second successive Bowl win in the HSBC Series and shows how much they are improving in this abbreviated form of the game – especially as they were only beaten in the last play of their pool match against Samoa, who went on to win the Paris tournament.
James Johnstone, Scott Wight, Damien Hoyland and Jamie Farndale were the try-scoring heroes for Scotland in the final. Scotland fans are now hoping for a hat-trick of trophies to be completed at the London Sevens next weekend.
Samoa came from 21-0 down to beat favourites Fiji in the Paris Cup final. Two tries from Tila Mealoi helped them claw their way back to 26-17 with just over four minutes to play, then Siaosi Asofolau narrowed the gap to just two points and Samoa skipper Faalemiga Selesele finished the job with the final try.
Ebbw Vale are the new club rugby champions in Wales after they beat Pontypridd 38-12 in the Principality Premiership final.
Ponty were looking to beat Neath’s record of four titles in a row and had home advantage, but the Steelmen – with Nigel Davies at the coaching helm – took the wind out of their sails by going 14-0 up in the first half and never looked back.
Ronny Kynes scored two tries for Ebbw Vale from lineout drives and full-back Dan Haymond had the crowd roaring in the second half with an 80-metre breakaway try.
This is Vale’s first Welsh title since they were crowned the Unofficial Welsh Club Champions for the fourth time in 1959/60. In 2010 they were relegated from the top flight, but they fought their way back up the ladder by winning the Division One East title twice, then the Championship twice and were runners-up in the Premiership last season.
Ben Botica. I could weep for him. The Harlequins’ replacement fly-half had the ultimate “Why did he do THAT!!?” moment at the end of Friday’s European Challenge Cup final and will forever be haunted by his mistake which extinguished Quins’ slim hopes of winning.
Montpellier were leading 26-19 as the clock went into red time. Quins had been 26-9 down with ten minutes to play, but Marland Yarde’s try and Botica’s excellent conversion, followed by a penalty from under the sticks in the 78th minute, had left the Londoners with a flimsy straw still to clutch at.
They needed a converted try to take the game into extra time. Danny Care took a quick throw-in close to halfway and Quins had the chance to mount one last attack. There was a sense of urgency, a feeling that they might just do it. Then the ball was passed to Botica and he kicked long, to Monpellier. Yes – he kicked long to Montpellier. The French side couldn’t believe their luck and they booted the ball into touch to end the match and secure the Challenge Cup.
As Montpellier celebrated, Botica crumbled at the realisation of what he had done and he was comforted by his team-mates. Of course, Botica’s mistake wasn’t the only one made during the final and so the blame for Quins’ defeat absolutely cannot be laid entirely at his door.
But my sympathy for him is diluted by the fact that he has form for not knowing the score and/or the time at the death of a tight game. On 6 February Harlequins were leading Northampton 23-20 when the clock ticked past 80 minutes, Botica received the ball in his own in-goal area and just needed to dink it into touch. Instead he launched a long touch-finder, Ben Foden caught it and raced in for the winning try. Director of rugby Conor O’Shea was furious and you would hope Botica learned his lesson, but clearly he hasn’t. The fact he will be playing for Montpellier next season led to some comment on social media that his new team-mates must have been thrilled he gave them such a gift. However, they might be worried that, for all his undoubted talent, Botica has big holes in his game management.
Tim Visser missed a gilt-edged chance to score a crucial try for Harlequins in their Challenge Cup final. Midway through the second half, with Quins trailing 23-9, Mike Brown put a cross-kick over the the left corner for Visser to catch and, hopefully, crash over the line with. However, the big wing was beaten to the ball and the chance went begging.
Four minutes later Visser made another mistake, catching a Montpellier kick a few metres from his own line when there was a chance the ball might have gone out on the full. Even if it hadn’t, it would have been a Quins lineout, but he caught the ball and took it into touch and from the subsequent Montpellier lineout the French side earned a penalty and kicked it to extend their lead to 26-9.