With so many of the first round matches in the new European Rugby Champions Cup and Challenge Cup being won and lost on the last throw of the dice, there are a dozen or more contenders for the Saints list this week. Sinners are a bit harder to come by after such an exciting weekend of rugby, but there are still a couple of people with “could do better” on their report.
Centre of attention
Glasgow Warriors made the rest of Europe sit up and take notice as they put to the sword a Bath side which has been earning rave reviews all season. Their 37-10 European Champions Cup triumph at Scotstoun was built on a number of great performances but most outstanding of all was outside centre Mark Bennett, who scored the first and last tries for the Warriors.
The uncapped – for now – 21-year-old was as outstanding in defence as he was in attack as a strangely lacklustre Bath team managed to break through the just once.
Coaches want their big stars to shine brightest at the most critical moments and Harlequins’ fly-half Nick Evans produced a magical piece of skill under pressure to help the Londoners beat Castres 25-9 in the very first European Champions Cup match.
With the home side just ahead but far from out of sight at 12-6 at the Twickenham Stoop, and 65 minutes gone, Evans chipped over the French defence, gathered the ball and then deftly kicked ahead again, just a little further this time, placing the ball perfectly for scrum-half Danny Care to swoop and score. Evans’s conversion put Quins 19-6 up and they went on to win 25-9.
No time to panic
Munster put in a classic never-say-die European performance at Sale, coming back from 23-7 down at half-time to win their first Champions Cup match 27-26 with the last kick of the game.
The wind was blowing to Sale’s advantage in the first half so they must have been braced for a Munster come-back after the break, but they must also have hoped they would prevail as they were 26-24 ahead as the match clock ticked past 80 minutes.
However, Munster had the ball and as their head coach and former captain Anthony Foley said: “The clock may be past 80 minutes but if you look after the ball you have all the time in the world.”
His team were singing from that same hymn-sheet as they patiently set up a drop-goal chance for Ian Keatley and he duly slotted it from outside the 22 to snatch a win with the last kick.
Jonny Wilkinson, who kicked an important drop-goal or two in his time, was on hand to praise Keatley in his new role as a Sky Sports pundit. “He’s had to pick a moment there. He’s chosen to hit that 30-metres out, at an angle. That takes guts.” That’s one to tell your grandchildren about, Ian.
One of the weekend’s most exciting games was Saracens’ 30-23 victory over Clermont Auvergne and one of the notable things about it was the fact that all six tries were scored by wings. David Strettle and Chris Ashton grabbed two apiece for Saracens, giving a masterclass in turning chances into points, and Zac Guildford did likewise for Clermont with his two scores.
A day later, and across the Irish Sea in Dublin, Christian Wade reminded everyone why he is one of the strongest contenders for a spot on the England wing. Receiving a pass around the 10-metre line, the Wasp left three Leinster defenders for dead, scorching down the right touchline so fast that they couldn’t even lay a hand on him.
Case for the defence
Rugby is not all about sprinting down the wing and scoring tries though, is it? Defence is just as important as attack and three players in particular need to take a bow for their European Rugby Champions Cup tackle counts this weekend.
Magnus Lund, Julian Salvi and Joe Launchbury made an incredible 22 tackles apiece in their games and Lund and Salvi didn’t miss a single hit. Outstanding.
Charlie Sharples celebrated his 150th first team appearance for Gloucester with a hat-trick in their 55-0 win over Brive in the Challenge Cup.
The first try came after a break from his fellow wing Jonny May, but Sharples still needed fast feet and strength to beat the last man. The other two were from pin-point kicks placed in his path by Greig Laidlaw and, later, Dan Robson. The delivery was perfect but the ball still needed to be caught and, as Billy Twelvetrees had shown in the first half, it’s all too easy to butcher a “certain” try.
Modestly, Sharples played down his achievement, saying: “I just got the bounce of the ball tonight.”
Topsy Ojo was the weekend’s other hat-trick hero, grabbing three first-half tries in London Irish’s 70-14 demolition of Rovigo.
Having won a qualifying match against Tbilisi to earn a place in the European Rugby Challenge Cup, Rovigo are arguably the weakest team in the competition. Therefore, London Irish boss Brian Smith picked a side featuring a number of players who don’t see a lot of first team action – including fly-half Myles Dorrian, who has played just 32 minutes of Premiership rugby this season.
Dorrian, who is more used to being a water-boy for the London Irish first XV, made the most of his opportunity, scoring a try and landing a perfect ten conversions out of ten to finish the weekend as European Rugby’s top points-scorer with 25.
The first part of the Guinness Pro12 season brought little joy for Edinburgh or Newport Gwent Dragons, as they won just two and one games respectively from their first six. So not many outsiders gave them much hope of winning away in France on the opening weekend of the European Rugby Challenge Cup, but Edinburgh set the tone with a 15-13 triumph at Bordeaux-Begles, who are flying high in the Top 14, and the Dragons followed in their footsteps a day later, defeating Stade Francais 38-22 in Paris.
A Tim Visser try, a penalty try, and a conversion and penalty from Tom Heathcote did the trick for Edinburgh, while the Dragons’ four tries were shared among four players, with Nic Cudd touching down the bonus-point one in the last five minutes.
In both cases it was a triumph for self-belief and team spirit over the form book.
Letting it slip
It is not often a player scores two tries and ends up among the Sinners, but that is Zac Guildford’s fate as his costly error close to the end of the Saracens v Clermont Auvergne clash was a game-changer.
The outstanding Charlie Hodgson sent a high, long kick from deep in his own half, towards the right corner. Guildford was never quite in the right position to catch it as he scrambled back and he failed to gather the ball. His mistake let Chris Ashton in for his second try and enabled Saracens to sneak to a 30-23 win.
George Pisi will never butcher a try-scoring chance quite as thoroughly as he did on Saturday, after he intercepted a Racing Metro pass and headed for the try-line. Northampton were trailing 10-6 with 55 minutes gone, so a try under the posts was just what the doctor ordered, but as Pisi looked around to see if he was in the clear, the ball squirted out from under his left arm.
The centre then stumbled and fell, and went off with an injured hamstring immediately afterwards, but it didn’t look like a sudden stab of pain caused him to spill the ball.
Pisi’s Northampton team-mates also carry some of the blame for what turned out to be a 20-11 defeat at Racing. Firstly, Stephen Myler missed the conversion of Phil Dowson’s 76th minute try, leaving the Saints 13-11 down rather than all square at 13-13.
The sensible thing to do after that would have been to settle for the losing bonus point from a tough away-day, but for some reason Northampton decided to go for the jugular and ran the ball from their own 22 in the last play of the game. Ben Foden of all people tried to kick past the on-rushing Racing players, rather than booting the ball into touch, the ball was parried back at him and Marc Andreu scored a last-ditch try to send the Saints home empty-handed.
Northampton fans probably won’t want to follow this link for another look at the odd goings-on.