In a rip-roaring weeekend of European Rugby several stars justified their sky-high reputations, while others had a weekend to forget
English clubs had the most to celebrate after a terrific weekend of European Champions Cup rugby, as four of the five Aviva Premiership sides who were playing non-English opponents won. For once the French managed just three wins out of six. Welsh hopes in the Champions Cup have been dashed, Glasgow’s campaign is hanging by a thread and only Leinster are carrying Irish chances with one round of pool matches to go. Who were the stars and the villains as this weekend’s drama unfolded?
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Talent
If Jonathan Joseph does not feature in Stuart Lancaster’s England squad for the Six Nations, which is named on Wednesday, the gentlefolk of Bath might just march on Twickenham in disgust after his utterly brilliant performance in Bath’s astonishing 35-18 European Champions Cup win at Toulouse.
He scored one of their four tries, finishing off some great work from George Ford, Kyle Eastmond and Matt Banahan, but there was so much more to his game than that, as his Man of the Match award goes to show.
The centre made 90 metres in attack and was Bath’s joint top-tackler with seven. And, with the game in the balance at 25-18 to Bath in the final ten minutes, Joseph made a fantastic break from his own half, beating the defence with a mixture of fancy footwork and pace, and after cutting across to wrong-foot the cover, he passed to Ross Batty, who put Francois Louw over for the decisive and bonus-point-clinching try.
Case for the defence
George Ford often earns praise for his attacking prowess, but it was his try-saving – even match-saving – tackle which really caught the eye in Sunday’s win for Bath in Toulouse.
Trailing 25-18 with 53 minutes gone, blindside Yannick Nyanga was charging for the line and if he had scored at that point, the tide might just have turned in Toulouse’s favour. However, Ford hauled the bigger man to the floor and then cleverly rolled him over to prevent him touching the ball down, as players from both teams piled in. Strength, courage and intelligence all combined in an excellent piece of play.
Leading from the front
James Haskell put in a real captain’s performance in Wasps’ 23-3 Champions Cup win over Harlequins at The Stoop. He made 25 of their 182 tackles, won four turnovers and made ground with six carries. His team-mate Ashley Johnson took to Twitter to call Haskell’s contribution “immense” and even their opponents were full of praise, with Joe Marler saying Man of the Match Haskell was “outstanding”.
Another England back row also put in a cracking performance at the right time, with the Six Nations on the horizon. Billy Vunipola galloped 67 metres in 17 carries and made 14 tackles as Saracens beat Munster 33-10, prompting coach Mark McCall to describe him as “a force of nature in attack and defence”.
Record for Rhys
The Scarlets may have had the final nail driven into their Champions Cup coffin with a 40-23 defeat at Leicester Tigers, but there was still something to celebrate for Rhys Priestland as his two penalties meant he became the highest points scorer for the Scarlets since the region was set up in 2003, overtaking Stephen Jones on the all-time list.
Wales are guaranteed at least one quarter-finalist in the European Rugby Challenge Cup after Newport-Gwent Dragons won 40-29 at Newcastle, thanks partly to a virtuoso performance from wing Hallam Amos.
He scored two tries, capitalising on a great break from Tyler Morgan for his first and crossing again in the second half when the Falcons were threatening a comeback. He made 161 metres in 15 carries and put Rynard Landman for his try with a fabulous break from his own half and a deft offload.
Nice one, Nigel
Referee Nigel Owens gave us all a giggle – not for the first time – when he found a humourous and typically Welsh way to stop George Robson and Bradley Davies coming to blows during the Harlequins v Wasps match.
The two were grappling with each other, standing up, and after Owens’s repeated requests to “leave it” had fallen on deaf ears, he quipped: “If you two want a cwtch (cuddle), do it off the field not on it!”
See the clip for yourself here.
Mention also goes to Helen O’Reilly, who became the first female to referee an Ulster Bank league match when she took charge of the Division 2B game between Sundays Well and Kanturk on Friday evening.
O’Reilly, a former Ashbourne and St Mary’s player, was appointed to the IRFU’s national panel last December.
Wing Richard Smith grabbed a hat-trick of tries for Cardiff Blues as they beat Rovigo 104-12 in the Challenge Cup. The Blues ran in eight tries in each half to become the eighth team in European cup rugby history to score a century of points.
DTH van der Merwe was another hat-trick hero, helping Glasgow beat Montpellier 21-10 at home, while Steffon Armitage crossed the line three times for Toulon in their 60-22 thrashing of Ulster.
Setting the Toner
There was any number of great individual performances for Leinster in their 50-8 victory over Castres, but Devin Toner got the nod as Man of the Match for his excellent lineout work and his contribution around the field in attack and defence.
Eight lineout takes, seven carries and six tackles represents a good day at the office for Toner, but there are plaudits too for Rob Kearney, who made 143m in attack, Ian Madigan, who kicked six conversions and a penalty, plus each of the seven different try-scorers. Leinster looked confident, ambitious and slick, albeit against a Castres side who lost interest in the European competition a long time ago.
Bowing out in style
England Women’s star Maggie Alphonsi helped Saracens Women win the English Premiership title on Sunday in her last match before retiring. Having won the World Cup and the Premiership in one season, Alphonsi is now off to make a bid to represent Great Britain at the Rio Olympics as a shot-putter. Who is going to bet against her succeeding?
A Huget mistake
Toulouse wing Yoann Huget was all over social media on Sunday evening after trying to get Horacio Agulla into trouble during their Champions Cup clash with Bath.
Huget fell to the floor clutching his face after Agulla had given him no more than a gentle shove on the shoulder. Unsurprisingly, the match officials could find no evidence of foul play on video and it would be great to see Huget cited for simulation.
Toby Flood joins the hall of shame this week after clattering into Anthony Watson’s head when the Bath full-back was already on the ground after a tackle. Flood piled in in a totally unnecessary and reckless manner and Watson had to go off injured. Flood is lucky he didn’t cause serious damage.
In the same game Matt Banahan incurred the wrath of the French crowd with an ugly high tackle on scrum-half Jean-Marc Doussain, but at least the No 9 was standing up at the time.
Munster went to Saracens needing a win to keep alive their hopes of a place in the Champions Cup quarter-final but put in an awful performance and lost 33-10.
“It was disappointing that we didn’t fire a shot in such an important game with the tournament on the line,” said their own head coach, Anthony Foley.
It is only the second time in 17 seasons that Munster have not reached the quarter‑finals. They were tactically naïve, came off second best at the breakdown, made one real comedy error at a lineout and even the usually super-solid Paul O’Connell was among the players throwing loose passes and dropping the ball.
Femi-CZ Rugby Rovigo have been outclassed throughout the pool stages of the Challenge Cup, but they slumped to a new low this weekend, losing 104-12 to Cardiff Blues.
Far from leading from the front, their captain Jean-Francois Montauriol missed seven of the 47 tackles Rovigo let slip as a team.