Round five of the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup took place this weekend and as the battle for places in the quarter-finals reaches its climax, the moments of outstanding play and corresponding moments of madness become all the more important.
Sam’s the man
Step up and take a bow Sam Davies! The Ospreys’ replacement fly-half kicked 15 points in the second half of the European Champions Cup match against Clermont Auvergne to turn a 13-6 deficit into a 21-13 win and leave the Welsh region sitting on top of Pool Two with one round of matches to go.
Clermont were top of the pile going into this game, but the Ospreys have fought tenaciously throughout this year’s pool stages and continued to do so on Friday evening. When Dan Biggar limped off with 37 minutes gone, Davies stepped into the breach and, as well as running the game well, kicked four penalties and a drop-goal.
It is six years since the Ospreys last reached the knockout stages of Europe’s top tier competition, but they have a good chance of doing so now. “A lot of people wrote us off when we came into this group at the start of the season but from day one we have believed in ourselves and we have put ourselves in a good position going into next week,” says Davies.
Go, go Joe!
If there is one player who ended up on the losing side this weekend and really didn’t deserve to be there, it has to be Wasps scrum-half Joe Simpson. He was absolutely outstanding in defence as his team went down 15-11 to Toulon in the Champions Cup in the cruellest fashion, with the final play of the game. Simpson made a try-saving tackle on Bryan Habana in the first half, turned over Dwayne Vermeulen at the base of an attacking scrum when Wasps were 11-8 up with 76 minutes on the clock, then chased back to tackle the same, much bigger opponent as he charged towards the line a minute later.
Sadly, Toulon’s winning try came from a period of pressure set up at the death, after Simpson had put what should have been a clearing kick straight into touch, but that is not enough to turn this Saint into a Sinner in my eyes as he saved so many points earlier in the match.
Toulon’s winning try in red time at the end of their tight tussle with Wasps was scored by Australian Drew Mitchell. After Ma’a Nonu drew the stretched and desperate Wasps defence with a lateral run inside the 22, Mitchell cut the classiest of lines to slice through for a try which turned what looked like being an 11-8 defeat into a 15-11 win. Toulon have never lost at home in Europe and you could see this weekend’s team wanting to ensure they weren’t the team to wreck that proud record.
Myler and Mallinder combine
Harry Mallinder received the major plaudits and the Man of the Match award after scoring the late try which gave Northampton Saints a 19-15 win over Glasgow Warriors in Champions Cup Pool Three, but for me Stephen Myler should be taking just as big a bow as the young European debutant for the pin-point kick he sent across to the left wing to set up the try. It was intended for George North and came tumbling out of the air in exactly the right spot. North didn’t manage to gather it but Mallinder had cleverly put himself in the perfect place to gather his parry and scoot over the line.
Carry on winning
Saracens maintained their 100% record in Champions Cup Pool One and Harlequins did the same in Challenge Cup Pool Three – and they have even managed to glean a maximum 25 points from their five wins, while Saracens have 24.
The star of the show for Sarries was Owen Farrell, who not only scored 13 points in their 33-17 win against Ulster but made a glorious arcing run from outside the 22 to set up a try for Duncan Taylor – just one of the elements of the game which earned Farrell the Man of the Match award.
The star man in Harlequins’ 34-26 win over Cardiff Blues was Chris Robshaw, who made 15 tackles and eight carries. His back row colleague Jack Clifford also had a massive game.
Munster were already out of the running for the Champions Cup quarter-final spots before this weekend’s matches but they still found the gumption to beat Stade Francais 26-13 at Thomond Park and make the French side’s possible path to the knockout stages much trickier. Keith Earls produced a moment of magic just before half-time when Munster were trailing 6-5. He received the ball on halfway, cut back inside, spotted a gap and raced through the French defence to score a wonderful individual try and sent his team into the break ahead. It was a moment of class to gladden the hearts of Irish fans who have not had much to enjoy in this season’s European pool stages.
On yer bike
A group of 22 Exeter Chiefs fans join the Saints this week after they cycled 485 miles from Sandy Park to Stade Chaban Dalmas to watch the Chiefs’ Champions Cup clash with Bordeaux-Begles.
No, they didn’t miss the supporters’ coach – they took on the challenge to raise money for the Exeter Foundation and managed to exceed their original target of £20,000.
The cyclists had to endure some dreadful weather en route but were at least rewarded with a cracking match, as Bordeaux edged out Exeter 34-27.
To donate to the Exeter European Cycle Challenge, visit the donations page here.
Congratulations go to Richmond who beat reigning champions Saracens 28-17 in the Women’s English Premiership final on Sunday. Emma Croker was the Player of the Match.
We must also tip our hats to referee Nigel Owens, who took charge of his 100th European game this weekend.
Clermont Auvergne’s flanker Viktor Kolelishvili was at the centre of one of the weekend’s biggest talking points as, when his side were defending close to their 22, waiting for the Ospreys to bring the ball out of a ruck, he stepped up out of the line and gave referee Wayne Barnes a hearty shove to move him out of his way.
Barnes immediately blew his whistle and gave Kolelishvili a good talking-to, asking him to “please just ask me to move” in future. The referee gave a penalty to the Ospreys, but didn’t card the Georgian, who looked mightily relieved.
It was an extraordinarily stupid thing for the flanker to do and it was also extraordinary that Barnes didn’t punish him properly. This incident has divided opinion on social media, with some people saying Barnes was empathetic and dealt with the situation well, while others are crying out for action to be taken against Kolelishvili. I fall into the second camp as I believe we simply cannot have players shoving referees unless they unavoidably collide with them.
Former Leicester and England flanker Neil Back received a six month ban for pushing over referee Steve Lander during a Pilkington Cup final in the 1990s. While Kolelishvili’s push wasn’t as serious, as Barnes stayed on his feet, such a headless act should have resulted in more than a penalty.
Kolelishvili was sin-binned later in the game after an altercation with Alun Wyn Jones. Clermont’s coaches need to sort out his discipline, and fast.
Glasgow Warriors replacement Tim Swinson did his team a disservice when he got himself yellow-carded for throwing a couple of punches into the face of Mike Haywood right under the assistant referee’s nose. The Scots were leading 15-12 at Northampton Saints at the time, with six minutes to go of a game they really needed to win to qualify for the Champions Cup quarter-finals. The penalty Swinson gave away with his needless act of foul play was kicked to touch by Northampton deep into the Glasgow half and from there the Warriors had to defend a man short for the remainder of the game and ultimately conceded the try which cost them the win.
It’s hard enough to beat Toulon at the Stade Felix Mayol, without gifting them an interception try. Elliot Daly threw a hesitant pass early in the game, intending to miss out Charles Piutau and find another team-mate outside him, but instead the ball was gratefully snaffled by Bryan Habana and he started the move which ended a few seconds later with Quade Cooper touching down over the Wasps’ try-line.
Daly did make a superb break in the second half to set up the try for Guy Thompson and so effectively pay his team back for his slip-up, but as Wasps lost 15-11 at the death, that opening try was crucial in the end.
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You might say Freddie Michalak was a sinner in the same game as his truly woeful goal-kicking almost cost Toulon victory. He missed a couple of absolute sitters, but it is possible the blame doesn’t all lie at his door as he has been suffering with a leg injury and really didn’t look fit to kick, in which case the Toulon coaches must carry the can.