Dreams came true and hearts were broken in the semi-finals in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12, and a new set of heroes were made at the London Sevens too.
Gone in 30 seconds
Dougie Fife and the Scotland Sevens squad are up among the all-time ultimate Saints this week after a truly astonishing performance at the London Sevens. In their very first HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series Cup final they trailed South Africa 26-15 with 30 seconds to go. Six seconds later Fife was dotting the ball down over the line and a quick conversion made it 26-22 with just time for the restart. Scotland immediately went on the attack again and somehow put Fife over the line for the winning try, stealing the game 27-26 from under the noses of the hot favourites.
It was THE most unbelievable finish to a Sevens final imaginable. Coach Calum Macrae and all his squad deserve huge congratulations, especially as they had to come from 17-7 down to beat reigning London champions USA in the semi-final.
Earlier in the final the Scotland side had put their own, unique print on the match by scoring a try from a driving maul after a lineout. Scott Wight touched that one down, while Jamie Farndale scored Scotland’s first try in the final and James Fleming powered over the line with Cecil Afrika and Seabelo Senatla hanging off him in the second half.
Scotland also provided a brilliant comedy moment during the final, when Farndale lifted Hugh Blake to receive a re-start kick and Blake toppled backwards over his head, completing a perfect flip to land on his feet with the ball still in his hands. Quality!
Second-class citizens now first class contenders
Connacht, the team which was almost disbanded by the Irish Rugby Football Union a handful of years ago, are in their first Guinness Pro12 final thanks to a hard-fought 16-11 win over reigning champions Glasgow Warriors in the semi-final.
For so many years the poor relation of Irish professional rugby, Connacht’s fortunes have been transformed by boss Pat Lam, they have strengthened their squad by adding talent from around the world to their local heroes and now they have a shot at the big prize.
The star turn in their semi-final win was a player who has terrified defences all season – Bundee Aki. His delicate chip out to the right wing 35 minutes into the semi-final bounced up perfectly for Niyi Adeolokun to take and the Nigerian wing raced round under the posts for a try which AJ MacGinty converted to give Connacht a 10-3 half-time lead. New Zealander Aki has scored six tries in his 22 appearances so far this season, but created many more. He is also a strong defender and was named Guinness Pro12 Players’ Player of the Season. No doubt he will be a key figure in Saturday’s final against Leinster.
Saracens put Leicester Tigers to the sword in their Aviva Premiership semi-final, beating them 44-17 with try doubles from Chris Ashton and Chris Wyles and one for Will Fraser.
Schalk Brits is a Saint for the work he did to set up the first try. The hooker received the ball on the 22, outfoxed a couple of Tigers with some lovely footwork then, with a double tackle coming in, he offloaded round the side of one tackler and found George Kruis, who put Fraser through to make the last few metres.
Wyles swooped on a poor grubber kick from Leicester No 10 Owen Williams to score the second try and the American added another just before half time when he intercepted a pass from Ben Youngs and raced down the wing from his own half to take Saracens into the break 31-0 up.
Ashton’s first try came in the 26th minute and was a fine finish under pressure from Telusa Veainu, and his second was created when Maro Itoje of all people fly-hacked the ball from halfway and Ashton chased through and took advantage when Leicester failed to tidy it up.
Billy Vunipola had a massive match for Saracens, carrying ten times to make 58 metres and beating five defenders.
Great No 8
Jamie Heaslip was the Man of the Match as Leinster defeated Ulster 30-18 in Friday’s Guinness Pro12 semi-final in Dublin. He powered over in the left-hand corner eight minutes into the second half to score a crucial try which put paid to a brave Ulster comeback. They had recovered from 13-0 down to 13-11 but once Heaslip had claimed his five points, Ulster didn’t get close again.
The Leinster No 8 had a busy game, with 13 carries and 14 tackles and capped it off by making a young fan’s night as he gave his boots to Shane Pedlow after the game.
Plaudits also go to Heaslip’s team-mate in the No 13 jersey, Garry Ringrose, who created that vital try by changing the direction of the Leinster attack inside the Ulster 22 and finding the defence on the left was too stretched to cope. It was an excellent bit of vision from a young player who has had a great season.
And there was a moment of brilliance from Dave Kearney earlier in the game when he jumped out of the way as Eoin Reddan fired a pass out to Isa Nacewa, who went over for Leinster’s first try. Kearney knew Nacewa was best placed to sprint over the line and his brisk evasive action made it possible.
All right Jack
Exeter’s pack powered their way to a 35-23 Aviva Premiership semi-final win over Wasps, forcing two penalty tries from the Wasps eight and carrying the ball strongly.
But perhaps the most eye-catching individual performance in a superb team effort came from wing Jack Nowell, who seemed to be everywhere.
He set up Exeter’s first try for Ian Whitten by racing onto a short pass from a lineout, breaking the first line of defence and then offloading superbly out of a tackle by Joe Launchbury to find Whitten, who did very well to make the last ten metres to the line under all sorts of pressure.
A strong carry by Nowell put Exeter on the front foot in the build-up to a second-half try by the excellent Dave Ewers, which put the Chiefs 27-17 ahead, and late in the game he stripped the ball from James Haskell in a tackle to set up another Exeter attack.
Nowell made 12 carries, beat three defenders and covered 81 metres with the ball in hand in the kind of busy and effective performance which has so impressed England coach Eddie Jones.
Signing off in style
Glasgow Warriors will be so, so sorry to see the back of Leone Nakarawa, their extraordinary lock who is now on his way to Racing 92 after three terrific seasons at Scotstoun. The big Fijian’s athleticism and skills have made him a key figure for the Warriors and he signed off in Saturday’s Pro12 semi-final loss to Connacht by scoring one last try. He took a short pass from Henry Pyrgos and rode a high tackle from AJ MacGinty, then reached down with his telescopic arms to touch down a try which brought Glasgow back from 10-3 down to 10-8.
Nakarawa exhibited his trademark outrageous offloads in the second half but Glasgow couldn’t overhaul Connacht and so were unable to hang on to this incredibly talented lock for one more week.
Ashley Johnson gave everyone at Sandy Park and the TV audience more to look at than they would have liked just before the end of the Aviva Premiership semi-final by pulling down the shorts of Exeter openside Julian Salvi as they drove a maul towards the Wasps line.
The bare bottom was exposed for a good few seconds and the TV director was reluctant to cut away and save his modesty as a try looked to be in the offing. Please take a bit more care when you are binding next time, Ashley!
Chances not taken
Wasps missed out on a first Premiership final appearance since 2008 when they lost 35-23 to Exeter in Saturday’s semi-final. A late penalty try made the Chiefs’ margin of victory more comfortable as Wasps only trailed 27-23 from the 67th minute onwards and perhaps it might have been even closer if Wasps had gone for goal with a kickable penalty a little earlier.
They were awarded the penalty just inside the Exeter half in the 63rd minute when they trailed 27-20 but Jimmy Gopperth kicked it to the corner, when it was within range for the mighty boot of Elliot Daly. A minute later they did exactly the same thing and neither effort led to the try they were hoping for. Whether it was Gopperth’s decision or skipper James Haskell’s I do not know, but the perceived wisdom in those situations is to take the points and Wasps didn’t do that.
Lack of care
Exeter scrum-half Will Chudley was careless with his feet just before the half-hour mark in the semi-final, accidently kicking Wasps lock Joe Launchbury in the head. The No 9 had been driven back off a ruck and tried to put his foot back through into the middle of the ruck to kick the ball, but on the way he made contact with the prone Launchbury. It was unintentional, and he was cleared of any wrong-doing after being cited, as the panel said his knee had deflected off the thigh of Matt Mullan, but Chudley should have taken more care where he was putting his boot.
Two gifts, two tries
The Leicester half-backs gave away a pair of tries during the first half of their semi-final at Saracens and helped the hosts take a 31-0 half-time lead.
First, fly-half Owen Williams put a grubber kick in the direction of Telusa Veainu but there wasn’t enough power behind it and Chris Wyles picked it up and raced in for a try.
Just before the break scrum-half Ben Youngs threw out a pass in the direction of his right wing but Wyles was on hand to intercept and win the footrace for the line.
Williams made amends to an extent early in the second half when his break created a try for Veainu, enabling Leicester to register their first points, but Saracens were already too far ahead.