There was drama aplenty in the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup semi-finals. Who played a starring role and who fluffed their lines on the big stage?
The most delicate of dinks created the solitary try of Saturday’s European Champions Cup semi-final between Clermont Auvergne and Saracens. Clermont No 10 Brock James popped the ball over the Saracens’ defensive line at the very start of the second half and centre Wesley Fofana collected it and literally bounced over the line to score a try which James converted to take his side from 6-3 down to 10-6 up.
James also kicked two penalties to more than make up for a missed drop-goal and was named Man of the Match.
Saracens made a real match of it against Clermont at St Etienne and one of their star performers was full-back Alex Goode. He turned defence into attack by taking a quick free-kick inside his own 22 after 61 minutes and his enterprise very nearly led to a try.
Goode ran a total of 125 metres with the ball in hand, more than twice as many as anyone else on the pitch.
Edinburgh scrum-half Sam Hidalgo-Clyne seems to go from strength to strength and he broke the club record for points in a European tie, bagging in their 45-16 triumph over the Newport Gwent Dragons in Friday’s European Challenge Cup semi-final.
He made 103 metres in 11 carries, one of which took him from the back of a scrum on the Dragons 10-metre line to score a try, but he also put Tim Visser over in the left-hand corner with the deftest little pass out of the back of his hand and had a terrific all-round game.
Ben Toolis was magnificent for Edinburgh as well and was named Man of the Match, while Sam Beard made a great break for the final try as Edinburgh became the first Scottish team to reach a European final.
Jonny May produced a moment of magic to ensure the great endeavours of his Gloucester team-mates – including Man of the Match and birthday boy Tom Savage – did not go to waste, as his 78th minute try took the Cherry and Whites to victory over Exeter Chiefs in the other Challenge Cup semi-final.
Gloucester were 23-19 up at the time and looking wobbly. Exeter were trying to run out of defence but May intercepted a pass meant for Sam Hill and sprinted in to score on the right, throwing in something akin to an Ash Splash for good measure.
Earlier in the game May had grappled with Dean Mumm to stop the Chiefs lock from crashing over for a try and he made six tackles in all, missing none. He may be unwanted by England for now, but May is still in fine club form.
Plaudits also go to the Gloucester season-ticket holders who queued outside Kingsholm from 7.30am on the morning after the game to ensure they would get one or two of the 3,500 final tickets allocated to their club when the ticket office opened at 11am. Every ticket was sold by 3pm but tournament organisers EPCR managed to find some extras for Gloucester, which were going on sale to members today.
The European Champions Cup semi-final between Toulon and Leinster was a disappointingly scrappy affair with little entertainment value for the neutral until a local cat decided to add something extra to the action. The brave Marseille moggy raced out onto the pitch at the Stade Velodrome during extra time and darted around for a while, showing a keen turn of pace and some smart footwork before taking his or her leave and handing the responsibility for getting the crowd cheering back to the players.
Lewis Moody, Josh Lewsey and Danny Grewcock join the Saints this week after completing a 100km fund-raising trek in temperatures of -35C to the Geographic North Pole. The trio of former England stars were part of the Headnorth team which was raising money for the Royal Marines Charitable Trust and the Lewis Moody Foundation, which offers one-off, dream-fulfilling experiences to children with serious illnesses and funds scientific research through The Brain Tumour Charity.
The trek took six-and-a-half days and the nine participants had to deal with a constantly moving ice flow and pull 60kg sledges. Well done to all concerned.
It’s always a shame when a massive game is decided by a mistake rather than a moment of brilliance and unfortunately for poor Ian Madigan, he was the man who made the critical error in Leinster’s 25-20 Champions Cup semi-final loss to Toulon.
The score had been tied at 12-12 at full-time and in the first period of extra time it edged up to 18-15 to Toulon. Leinster were attacking up the right and Madigan decided a long, looping miss-pass was the best option to open up the Toulon defence. However, Bryan Habana read it beautifully, swooped, grabbed and then sprinted half the length of the pitch to score the crucial try. Leigh Halfpenny’s conversion put Toulon 25-15 up and that mountain proved too high for Leinster to climb in the second period of extra time.
To be fair to Madigan, he was not helped by the runners outside him, who were all heading towards the touchline on a diagonal path, but he still should not have thrown such a risky pass. The inside centre did plenty of good stuff during the match, not least kicking a penalty from just inside halfway to level the scores at 12-12 in the 70th minute, keeping cool and focused while the largely French crowd booed loudly.
However, he also put a couple of kick-offs dead and missed a highly kickable penalty with the scores tied at 9-9 in the 65th minute, so it was not a day to remember for the Leinster man.
Toulon may have won Europe’s premier cup competition for the last two seasons, but they did not look a bit like champions as they stumbled to an unconvincing win over Leinster on Sunday. Their game was error-strewn and they looked strangely disinterested, considering it was such a massive occasion.
Their wing Bryan Habana admitted they needed to up their game against Clermont Auvergne in the final. “Our discipline needs to be better and we can’t afford to make as many errors,” said the South African star. “Mentally, I think we turned up and thought it was going to be a walk-over, but the game ended up being on a knife-edge.”
Joining the Toulon players in our sin-bin are their fans who think it is okay to boo, whistle and jeer the opposition’s place-kickers. It may be the acceptable thing to do in France, but very few other rugby-playing nations allow such a cacophony of noise while penalties and conversions are being taken.
When Taulupe Faletau decided to pull down an Edinburgh maul which was rumbling towards the line in the 10th minute of the Dragons’ Challenge Cup semi-final, he was trying to stop his team conceding seven points. What he in fact did was earn himself a trip to the sin-bin, from where he had to watch Edinburgh kick the resulting penalty and then score a try by Stuart McInally, which was converted while the Dragons were down to 14 men. So, ten points were conceded instead of seven and Faletau would have been better off not breaking the rules.
Another Dragon was lucky to go unpunished at the same time. Blindside Nick Crosswell aimed four swipes at the head and neck of Ross Ford with his fists as the Edinburgh hooker held onto him in the maul. The unnecessary attack brought Ford to his knees for a few moments and could easily have been punished with a card or a reversed penalty.
The president of the Italian Rugby Federation Alfredo Gavazzi has incurred the wrath of his own players by criticising their Test record and dubbing them “pensioners”. The Azzurri have dropped to 15th in the world rankings and Gavazzi said he was “fed up with the pensioners” in the team.
Italy skipper Sergio Parisse, much admired by the rest of the rugby world but apparently not by his own president, has responded by leading a Twitter campaign demanding the players are shown more respect.
Gavazzi may be disappointed with his team’s lack of progress, but publicly lambasting them from his lofty position was never going to be a good move.