It is not just try-scorers who get the plaudits this week - a few pieces of brilliant defending also proved crucial in the fourth round of European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup matches.
Ten out of ten for the ten
Jimmy Gopperth produced a masterclass of fly-half play in Wasps’ 36-10 away win at Bath in Pool Five of the European Champions Cup, earning the Man of the Match award. The New Zealander used his close-quarter strength in the face of a treble tackle to score a try, kicked four penalties and three conversions without missing a chance from the tee, stepped past Guy Mercer to break the line and set up his team’s final try for Alapati Leiua and flung glorious passes to his backs all afternoon.
His team-mate Elliot Daly also had a magnificent game and scored the first try, then added a late drop-goal. Someone who wore the No 13 jersey to great effect in his time, BT Sport pundit Brian O’Driscoll, said Daly had been “fantastic in everything he’s done”. With new England coach Eddie Jones in the crowd at the Recreation Ground, Daly picked a good day to play a blinder.
Ulster achieved a rare feat by beating Toulouse in Europe for the second time in as many weeks, defeating them 25-22 at the Stade Ernest Wallon, to stay in contention in Champions Cup Pool One. Ruan Pienaar was named Man of the Match, but the centre partnership of Luke Marshall and Stuart McCloskey also shone for the Irish province, with Marshall’s 75th minute try proving decisive and McCloskey making a superb break to put Andrew Trimble over in the corner in the first half.
Ulster have made a great recovery from their 27-9 home loss to Saracens in November.
Saracens wing Chris Ashton will be feeling extra festive this week after scoring a hat-trick of tries in his club’s 55-13 trouncing of Oyonnax in Champions Cup Pool One. He nipped over in a tight space for the first, latched onto a lovely grubber kick from Owen Farrell for the second and strode over from a few yards out on the right for the third.
Saracens scored eight tries in all. Alex Goode wove his way through the defence from just inside halfway for his try, Jamie George cut a fine line for his, and Mike Ellery picked up a loose ball in his own half for another.
The English club have 19 from a possible 20 after their four wins and second-placed Ulster are trailing a full ten points behind them in the Pool One table, with two games to play. Saracens are in impressive form.
My chief Saint from Leicester’s 17-6 win over Munster in Pool Four is not a try-scorer, but a try-saver. With 61 minutes on the clock the Tigers led 10-6 and were attacking the Munster line, when Francis Saili picked up a loose ball and set off to sprint the length of the pitch for what looked like being a crucial try. However, the Tigers full-back Telusa Veainu had other ideas and chased a seemingly lost cause, catching the centre a few metres short and after Saili passed to a team-mate, Leicester won a penalty. Four minutes later Niki Goneva was scoring the Tigers’ second try for a 17-6 lead and Leicester secured the win which sees them topping their pool with four victories out of four.
Casey Laulala and Marc Andreu enabled Racing 92 to maintain their unbeaten record in Champions Cup Pool Three when they held up Northampton’s Jamie Elliott on the line as the centre attempted to score a potentially match-winning try in the 68th minute.
The duo spared Dan Carter’s blushes as George Pisi had charged down an attempted clearance from Racing’s star man and Elliott – playing his 100th game for the Saints – had grabbed the loose ball, with the try-line at his mercy. Laulala and Andreu wrapped him up and stopped him hitting the ground and from the resulting scrum, Racing earned a penalty and cleared their lines.
The match ended in a 9-9 draw, which was a better outcome for the French visitors than it was for the Saints.
Clermont Auvergne were taught a lesson by Exeter Chiefs in the European Champions Cup last weekend and they paid the English club back in kind on Sunday, beating them 42-10 at the Stade Marcel Michelin to keep their Pool One hopes well and truly alive.
Exeter scored an early penalty as Clermont had a player sin-binned, but far from conceding points when they were down a man, they scored 13 of their own. David Strettle and Jonathan Davies both scored excellent tries as Clermont turned their power, pace and precision settings up to 100%, but the Man of the Match was lock Sebastien Vahaamahina, part of a Clermont pack which marmalised the Chiefs at the breakdown. And if there was an award for having the most a’s in your name…
Points make prizes
The Ospreys staged a great fightback against Bordeaux-Begles in Champions Cup Pool Two and although they fell short of snatching a win, they gleaned two bonus points which mean they are top of the pool table.
Trailing 25-10 at half-time, the Welsh side scored tries through Eli Walker, Alun Wyn Jones and Man of the Match Dan Biggar, who intercepted a pass from Baptiste Serin and raced 60 metres for the touchdown which clinched the bonus points with six minutes to go.
As well as Biggar, who scored 12 points and continued his great form, Hanno Dirksen deserves to be among the Saints for the tackle-busting break he made to set up Jones’s try.
Up to the Challenge
The Dragons, Harlequins and Newcastle Falcons all picked up valuable wins in the Challenge Cup. Quins scored a magnificent nine tries to beat Calvisano 59-7. They had only led 14-7 at the break, but raced to victory in the second half with Ben Botica scoring one of the tries and converting seven, to be named Man of the Match. Harlequins now have a perfect 20 points from four wins and are top of Pool Three.
The Dragons top Pool Two after winning 34-17 at Pau. Jason Tovey picked up the Man of the Match award after scoring 19 points. Pau deserve to be among the Sinners, as they are winless after four matches.
Newcastle upset the odds in Pool One to beat leaders Connacht 29-5. Marcus Watson scored two of the Falcons’ tries and lock Sean Robinson was Man of the Match. Despite this big defeat, Connacht remain top of the pool by two points from Newcastle.
Demetri Catrakilis of Montpellier also deserves a mention for landing the stoppage-time conversion which gave his team a 23-22 home win over Cardiff Blues in Pool Three of the Challenge Cup.
It wasn’t the prettiest of games, but Gloucester’s 27-13 win over Worcester in round four of the Challenge Cup was significant in that it was the Cherry and Whites’ 13th consecutive win in the competition, which sets a new record for the second tier European competition. Can Gloucester keep rolling all the way to the final again this season?
And the winner is…
Racing 92 fly-half Dan Carter kicked three points in his club’s 9-9 Champions Cup draw with Northampton Saints, but still had a win to celebrate this weekend as he won the BBC Overseas Sports Personality of the Year award. The World Cup winner is only the second rugby player to lift the trophy in 55 years, following in the footsteps of the late, great Jonah Lomu, who won it 20 years ago.
Knock it off
Dear Father Christmas, instead of bringing me a present this year, would you please ask rugby referees to stop sin-binning players for everything they judge to be a deliberate knock-on?
This was one of my major bugbears last season and on Saturday Romain Poite yellow-carded Semisa Rokoduguni for this offence, when it looked to me like the Bath wing was simply getting ready to wrap his arms around Joe Launchbury in a tackle, just as the lock was taking a pass from James Haskell. In my book it was a simple knock-on, end of.
Luckily the sin-binning didn’t affect the result as Wasps were already 29-10 up in their Champions Cup clash at the Recreation Ground, with only nine minutes left to play.
Hunting for a try-scoring chance inside the Bordeaux-Begles 22, Ospreys centre Sam Davies threw a long pass to Dan Evans, but it was a tad too high for him to gather and Sofiane Guitoune needed no second invitation to pluck the ball out of the air and race 80 metres to score. Pierre Bernard’s conversion gave Bordeaux Begles a 25-7 lead – a far cry from the 18-14 scoreline the Ospreys had been chasing when they attacked.
Bath No 8 Dave Denton made a costly error 15 minutes into the clash with Wasps, losing the ball as he tried to pass out of contact to set Anthony Watson free. Instead, Wasps scrum-half Joe Simpson grabbed the ball and put Elliot Daly away for a try which took Wasps from 7-3 down to 10-7 up. They did not go behind again in this game.
Three-times European top dogs Leinster are in anything but champion form at the moment and they suffered their fifth straight Champions Cup defeat when Toulon beat them 20-16 at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday. It is the Irish province’s worst run in their 140-game European competition history. They had led the French visitors 16-5 at half-time but could not build on that advantage.
Too late Luke
Referee Luke Pearce was at the centre of a controversial moment during the Ospreys’ 33-27 loss at Bordeaux-Begles. The Welsh side were trailing 25-10 when Eli Walker scored a try ten minutes into the second half, but just as Dan Biggar swung his boot to kick the conversion, Pearce shouted at him to wait because he had decided to check the try with the TMO. It was too late for Biggar to pull out of the kick and the ball sailed through the posts, but the two points were chalked off while Pearce checked the legitimacy of the try.
He then ruled that the score was good, asked an incensed Biggar to take the conversion again and this time the outside-half missed.
Fortunately those two points did not prove crucial, but it was a bad piece of officiating from Pearce. Once a kicker has started his run-up to take a conversion, play has re-started, so surely that should be the point at which a referee’s chance to use the TMO to check a try is gone, rather than a nano-second before boot connects with ball.
As an aside, it was good to see Romain Poite trust his own judgement a couple of times during the Bath v Wasps match, when the TV pundits were calling for him to use the TMO. He was right in both instances.
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Delon Armitage gave away the stupidest of penalties, charging shoulder first into the back of Eoin Reddan well after the Leinster scrum-half had passed the ball, and even longer after referee Wayne Barnes had blown the whistle for what would have been a knock-on against Leinster. As it was, the decision was changed to a penalty against Toulon and Johnny Sexton kicked it to put the Irish side 16-5 up at half-time.