The final weekend of the 2014-15 season in the UK and Ireland featured two league finals, a European Champions Cup qualifying showdown and a run-out for England against the Barbarians. Who cast the spells to magic up the silverware, and who fluffed their lines on the big stage?
He helped himself to 18 points in a 28-16 victory, controlled the tactics and tempo with a superb kicking game and won the Peter Deakin Medal for the Man of the Match in the Aviva Premiership final, so Owen Farrell deserves his place among the Saints.
Deposed from the England team by his opposite number in this final, George Ford, Farrell showed the battle for the national No 10 jersey is well and truly on as the World Cup build-up begins in earnest.
He scored Saracens’ first try, cleverly pushing the ball across to Duncan Taylor to stretch the Bath defence and then dummying his way past Matt Banahan and over the line.
Some might expect Farrell to be among the Sinners for his high tackle in the second minute which put Anthony Watson out of the game, but at the time I felt it warranted no more than a penalty and although Farrell was given a warning by the Citing Commissioner, he will not face a hearing and a ban.
Skills to pay the bills
Half an hour into the Aviva Premiership final, Saracens were already looking good for their 15-3 lead, then a superb piece of skill from Dave Strettle extended that advantage to 22-3. Duncan Taylor intercepted and offloaded superbly to send the ball towards the wing. It was too far in front of Strettle for him to catch, but he stretched out a foot, daintily chipped the ball up into his own hands and a few seconds later Chris Wyles was strolling over the line on the left for a valuable try.
It was far from being Strettle’s only important contribution to the win. He made a try-saving tackle on Kyle Eastmond ten minutes into the second half and made a total of 71 metres in attack for Saracens.
Replay leads to rethink
Bath’s medics and management looked to be heading for the Sinners bench when they allowed Anthony Watson to play on for five minutes after he was seemingly knocked out by Owen Farrell’s high tackle in the early stages of the Aviva Premiership final, but it turns out they made excellent use of the facilities for detecting head injuries and took a brave decision which deprived their team of a key player in a massive match, for the good of that player.
The medics who attended to Watson on the pitch did not see the contact with Farrell. The full-back passed their initial checks to his head and neck, so they allowed him to play on – but when they left the pitch they took a look at the video footage pitch-side.
That showed them Watson might have been knocked out, and Bath brought him off at the next available opportunity for a proper Head Injury Assessment, from which he did not return.
As a Bath club statement said: “We take all potential head and concussion related injuries very seriously, and player welfare is of paramount importance to the Club.”
Gregor the great
Glasgow Warriors turned the heartbreak of last season’s 34-12 Pro12 final loss on its head by comprehensively defeating Munster 31-13 in this year’s showpiece to become the first Scottish professional team to claim a major trophy.
The new Guinness Pro12 champions have plenty of heroes in their ranks, but chief among them is head coach Gregor Townsend, who has taken the Warriors steadily up the rankings in the last few years, stacking improvement upon improvement until they were ready to claim their reward on Saturday evening.
He used 52 players in this season’s campaign, which shows how good he is at man-management and employing his resources skilfully. He is not afraid to take the tough decision either – as he showed by starting Glasgow hero Al Kellock on the bench in his last match for the side before he retires.
Townsend had plenty of flair in his playing days and likes to see the same from the team he coaches, which is great for spectators and players like. He and his team have conquered the Pro12. Now they need to kick on and rule Europe.
Lock opens the door for Glasgow
When Gregor Townsend handed Leone Nakarawa the No 4 jersey instead of Al Kellock before Saturday’s Pro12 final, he told him: “I just want you going forward. I will be very happy if you don’t make an off-load today.” The Fijian certainly went forward, eating up metres of the Kingspan Stadium turf on several occasions, but he added some magnificent off-loads into the bargain and was instrumental in Glasgow Warriors building up a 21-3 lead from which even the mighty Munster could not recover.
In the first half alone, Nakarawa beat five defenders with seven carries and off-loaded three times, creating two tries in the process. With just eight minutes gone he broke across the 22, stepping through and around three would-be tacklers and then, when he was finally halted, he shoveled the ball out to Robert Harley who dived in for the first try. Around 17 minutes later Nakarawa took a pass from Gordon Reid and although he only made a handful of yards this time, he took four defenders out of the game and created the space for DTH van der Merwe to extend Glasgow’s lead. The Fijian lock was involved in several of the 13 phases of close-range play which led up to Finn Russell‘s second-half try too, and he won his share of lineout ball on the day.
Nakarawa has shown he can be a winner with the Warriors. Can he do the same with Fiji in the World Cup? England and Wales beware!
Cip, Cip, hooray!
When your team wins 73-12 there is bound to be a few Saints among your number and that is certainly true for the England XV which defeated the Barbarians so comprehensively at Twickenham on Sunday.
Chief among them was fly-half Danny Cipriani, although Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Marland Yarde and hat-trick scorer Christian Wade were also impressive.
It was Cipriani who earned the Man of the Match award though, thanks to his marshaling of England’s back line and his flawless goal-kicking which saw him land 11 shots out of 11, from all kinds of angles. The Sale playmaker ended up with 33 points to his name as he also scored England’s sixth and tenth tries and he enhanced the good impression he must have been making on Stuart Lancaster by switching happily to full-back for a spell of the second half – something he need to be able to do if he is to make England’s World Cup squad.
The Aviva Premiership final was a wonderful occasion at a sun-kissed Twickenham but one part of the venue let the side down – the stadium clock. As the last four minutes of the final began, the clock which the players and 80,589 supporters rely upon, stopped working. Referee Wayne Barnes had to tell the teams to ignore it and he gave them regular time up-dates for the remainder of the game. Bath had enough on their plates, trying to close a 12-point gap on the scoreboard, without being uncertain about how much time was left.
BT Sport’s TV viewers were also without a clock from the 76th minute to the 78th, but the on-screen clock was restored to working order for the last 90 seconds.
Kicked in the teeth
Sinners are thin on the ground this week and, as a Gloucester fan, the temptation to include Bordeaux-Begles fly-half Pierre Bernard for breaking west-country and English hearts is overwhelming!
Bernard kicked the 81st-minute drop-goal which enable the French side to snatch a 23-22 win over Gloucester in the European Champions Cup play-off and take the 20th and final spot in next season’s premier European tournament. The referee was playing a penalty advantage so the drop-goal opportunity was a classic “shot to nothing” but it was a still a magnificent kick from outside the 22 and (in my one-eyed opinion) it was undoubtedly the worst moment of a weekend of great rugby.
But seriously, perhaps Greig Laidlaw should be a Sinner for opting to tap-and-go with a penalty from just inside the ten-metre line and 15 metres in from the left, when Gloucester trailed 20-19 with 20 minutes to go? Yes, it was against the wind but it must have been worth a shot for the mighty boot of James Hook. There were plenty of other Gloucester villains too – John Afoa for throwing a pass behind Rob Cook with the try-line looming, Richard Hibbard for failing to pass outside to Charlie Sharples for another great try-scoring chance, and the Gloucester team in general for letting a 19-3 lead slip. Take your pick.
But while I sulk and blame Bernard, I will console myself with the fact that at least Gloucester will have a chance to defend their European Challenge Cup next season.
Manu Tuilagi will be glad to see the back of May 2015. He ended the month in trouble with the police for the second time – banned from driving for 56 days after being caught speeding at an average of 81mph on the A1 and reaching the critical level of 12 points on his driving licence. He was also fined £1,000 by the magistrates at Northallerton.
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Earlier in the month Tuilagi pleaded guilty at Leicester Magistrates Court to three counts of assault and was ordered to pay £6,205 in fines and compensation. That cost him a place in England’s World Cup squad. Speeding is a much more common crime and perceived as less serious, but the timing is still terrible for a player should be thinking deeply about his every move at the moment.