The action is hotting up as we reach the mid-point of the pool stages in the European Champions Cup and Challenge Cup. Who excelled themselves and who had a weekend to forget?
Leinster’s Kiwi scrum-half is a hero for his province after he conjured their bonus-point try out of nothing six minutes from the end of their Champions Cup clash at Northampton. The Irish side were 25-10 up and had been striving to find a way to claim all five points since scoring their third try nine minutes earlier. They were showing signs of impatience, especially as they were only facing 14 men, with Dylan Hartley having been sent off.
Then Jamison Gibson-Park took matters into his own hands. The replacement scrum-half got the ball on halfway and sprinted up the left wing, evaded Luther Burrell’s tap tackle and left Ben Foden clutching at thin air with a great step and raced round to score under the posts.
The Leinster pack set the foundations for the win, with props Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong shining particularly brightly.
Finn Russell and Ali Price
Glasgow Warriors achieved only their eighth win in 54 European matches, beating Racing 92 23-14 in Paris.
This famous victory owed a lot to some huge defensive hits but in attack Glasgow’s half-backs had a hand in all the scores. Finn Russell kicked three penalties and two conversions and created both tries. For the first he popped a great pass to Alex Dunbar who was steaming up on his shoulder and the centre touched down to take the Warriors from 7-6 down to 13-7 up.
Then, in the second minute of the second half Russell charged for the line himself, was stopped just short but Ali Price picked up the ball at the back of the ruck and was cute enough to touch it down at the base of the post, meaning the defenders on the line were powerless to stop him.
That put Glasgow 20-7 up and Racing could not find a way back.
Munster march on in Pool One of the Champions Cup having secured their second bonus point win from the two matches they have played so far. This time Leicester Tigers were put to the sword 38-0 at Thomond Park and no one did more to take Munster to victory than No 8 CJ Stander.
In attack he carried the ball 18 times – more than anyone else in the match – eating up 59 metres of ground and beating three defenders. In defence he made seven tackles and he was deservedly named Man of the Match.
Saracens walloped Sale Sharks 50-3 in Champions Cup Pool Three and Maro Itoje was the star of their show. He didn’t score any of Saracens’ six tries but he played a huge role in supplying his backs with the ball, and all after five weeks out with a broken hand.
Itoje won four of his own lineouts and stole four of Sales, won a couple of turnovers, made seven tackles and carried the ball seven times, beating four defenders. Not a bad day’s work.
It wasn’t a bad debut for Wasps’ Wallaby centre Kurtley Beale. He scored one try and created another and won the Man of the Match award in his team’s 37-17 win over Connacht.
Beale reached over the line to score his try after just six minutes, spinning out of a tackle by Stacey Illi. He was harshly sin-binned for a high tackle on Niyi Adeolokun not long afterwards, but in the final ten minutes of the match his deft pass put Josh Bassett over in the corner for the bonus-point try.
Beale has been out for seven months with a serious knee injury so has waited a long time for his first match for his new club. The win means Wasps stay top of Champions Cup Pool Two, three points ahead of Connacht, after gleaning two wins and a draw from their three matches.
He has not been in the best form on the international stage but Alex Cuthbert reminded everyone of his class when he scored a superb individual try for Cardiff Blues in their 28-3 battering of Bath in Pool Four of the Challenge Cup.
Steve Shingler had already set up a cracking score for Matthew Morgan nine minutes after half-time, but Cuthbert grabbed his own share of the limelight five minutes later, battering his way through four tacklers to give the Blues a 21-3 lead.
Charles Piutau and Paddy Jackson
This duo played a big part in Ulster’s 39-32 in over Clermont Auvergne. Paddy Jackson showed great ball skills with both feet and he kicked and chased to score Ulster’s third try, but Charles Piutau conjured up the try of the match. He received a pass from Jackson just to the left of the posts inside the 22 and sprinted to the right, dummied with Tommy Bowe to fool one defender, then stopped in his tracks to wrong-foot another before crossing the line and dotting down.
The game had been a ding-dong battle throughout the first half with the lead changing hands frequently, but Piutau’s 54th minute try put Ulster 36-18 up and gave Clermont too much of a mountain to climb.
The Bordeaux-Begles No 8 is not the most popular person in Exeter this week, but Marco Tauleigne earned his team a welcome 13-7 away win to keep their hopes alive in Pool Five of the Champions Cup. He set up a try for Baptiste Serin which gave Bordeaux a 10-7 lead over Exeter Chiefs with 56 minutes played and then made a terrific try-saving tackle on James Short in the 70th minute.
Short had sprinted up the left wing from halfway and was hit by Tauleigne as he dived for the line. Referee Nigel Owens consulted the TMO and the officials decided Short had just lost control of the ball as he reached for the line and so disallowed the try. Tauleigne was named Man of the Match.
The Ospreys deserve lots of praise after a magnificent 59-7 away win at Grenoble, all the more so because they had to cope with the kick-off being delayed by a day due to a frozen pitch.
They scored nine tries, the pick of them coming from Keelan Giles, who received the ball just outside his own 22 and cut a terrific line and great pace to cross for the try without an opposition hand being laid on him.
In an era where match preparation is scientifically planned, the Ospreys showed you can still come up with a winning formula when all your usual routines have been turned upside down.
The young Gloucester fly-half produced an absolute masterclass to guide his team to a 35-14 bonus-point win over La Rochelle in the Challenge Cup.
Billy Burns, 22, mixed his game up intelligently and his kicking out of hand was right out of the top of the top drawer. He earned the Man of the Match award, but another star of Gloucester’s game – for comedy value if nothing else – was hooker Richard Hibbard. He was having treatment for a wound inside his mouth and, if my ears weren’t deceiving me, told the referee he was all right, because “I haven’t got any teeth anyway.” Classic.
Incredibly, Gloucester have won all their Challenge Cup pool matches since losing 24-18 to La Rochelle on 19 December 2010. Will the same team end that 23-match winning run next weekend?
Hats off to Edinburgh for fighting back from 20-3 down to Stade Francais to win 28-23 in their Challenge Cup pool match.
Tries by Damien Hoyland, Ben Toolis and Sam Hidalgo-Clyne did the trick, plus ten second-half points from Duncan Weir. They even managed to overcome the difficulty of being down to 14 men from 55 minutes onwards as Phil Burleigh was sent off.
James Rodwell and England Sevens
England won their first HSBC World Rugby Sevens tournament since April 2015, taking the gold medal at the Cape Town leg by beating the hosts 19-17 in the final.
And it was an extra special weekend for James Rodwell, who played in his 71st World Series tournament and so beat the appearances record for an England Sevens player which was held by Ben Gollings, who retired after his 70th event.
Dan Norton also broke a national record previously held by Gollings. His try against Canada and two against Argentina took his all-time total to 222, past Gollings’ mark of 220.
England didn’t have an easy route to the final, as they had to face Fiji in the quarters and beat them 31-26. They then defeated in-form Scotland 33-14 in the semis.
England’s captain has to be top of the list of shame this week, after being sent off just six minutes after coming off the bench during Northampton Saints’ Champions Cup clash with Leinster. Dylan Hartley launched a totally unnecessary and reckless swinging arm at Sean O’Brien in the 57th minute, when Northampton were already trailing 20-10. The Leinster back row was being tackled by Tom Wood when Hartley joined the fray and he was quite rightly sent off by referee Jerome Garces.
O’Brien went off for a head injury assessment and stayed off, and Leinster went on to punish Hartley in the best possible way by winning the game 37-10.
Former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio was highly critical of Hartley’s actions, saying he had let his club down in what was only his fifth appearance of the season for them. “He needs to go away and have a think about what’s important to him because he has kind of checked out of playing for his club,” Dallaglio said on BT Sport. “He needs to look at his game and himself and come back as a Northampton Saints player.”
Northampton DoR Jim Mallinder joins Hartley on the Sinners bench for his decision to take off his captain Tom Wood in order to bring hooker Mike Haywood back on to fill Hartley’s slot in the front row. Wood had been arguably Northampton’s best player up to that point and looked incredulous when he was hauled off. The Saints might have put up a better fight if he had stayed on.
The referee of the Munster v Leicester Tigers match handed the hosts a bonus point which they probably shouldn’t have had when he awarded them a penalty try nine minutes from time.
Munster were 31-0 up and Jaco Taute, who already had two tries to his name, attacked up the right. He hacked the ball into the in-goal area and was brought down after the kick by George Worth. Referee Romain Poite consulted his assistant and then sin-binned Worth and awarded a penalty try, which took Munster to the four tries they needed for the bonus point.
However, TV replays showed Taute’s kick was already heading for the dead-ball line as he was tackled on the try-line, so the penalty try was probably an over-generous response by Poite as Taute would never have made the touchdown.
Munster won the match 38-0 and are top of Pool One with ten points from two matches. How crucial that bonus point might prove to be as the competition progresses remains to be seen.
A forecast of thick fog meant the kick-off of the Zebre v Toulouse match was brought forward from 8.45pm to 3pm, but the weather still spoiled the day for the supporters as the match had to be abandoned after 63 minutes, when Toulouse were 36-6 up. Fortunately for Toulouse’s travelling fans and players the result stands because the game was past the 60-minute mark and so the French team can keep the five points they earned.
Edinburgh centre Phil Burleigh was sent off for striking the face of Stade Francais lock Pascal Pape during their Challenge Cup Pool Five clash. Edinburgh were battling their way back from a 20-3 half-time deficit at BT Murrayfield and were trailing 20-15 when Burleigh was given his marching orders in the 55th minute. Fortunately for Burleigh, his team went on to win in his absence.