This was the weekend when the English and Celtic champions were crowned, while England took on Wales in the Old Mutual Wealth Cup on Sunday. Which players starred for their teams in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 finals and this pre-tour Test, and which had a day to forget?
Lam’s the man
Two seasons ago, Connacht finished tenth in the Guinness Pro12. Now they are the champions and much of the credit for that astonishing turnaround must go to their head coach Pat Lam. He has taken a team which were always the bridesmaids in Irish rugby – an outfit which the Irish Rugby Union seriously considered disbanding as a professional entity a few short years ago – and turned them into a skilful, entertaining and now successful side.
They beat Leinster 20-10 in the Guinness Pro12 final at Murrayfield on Saturday and, after absorbing some early pressure from Leo Cullen’s side, Connacht cut them to pieces with fantastic running rugby, making the most of the space on the artificial surface.
Lam has reputedly concentrated much of his time and effort on improving the basic handling skills of his squad – forwards and backs alike – and it really shows. Connacht are playing something akin to Super Rugby: offloading before contact, attacking at pace and with width and precision, with the number on a player’s back making little difference to their handling ability. It is a joy to watch.
Connacht will lose some of their best players to other teams this summer, but let’s hope this success will attract more big names so their success can continue.
Alex Goode was named Man of the Match in Saracens’ 28-20 victory over Exeter Chiefs in the Aviva Premiership final and a quick glance at the stats shows what a massive contribution he made. The full-back was far and away the best ball-carrier in the game, making 167m with the ball in hand in 19 carries – no other Saracen got near that.
Goode put the icing on the cake by scoring Saracens’ third try, three minutes from time. Exeter had fought back from 23-3 down to 23-20 after 73 minutes and any other team might have got the jitters to see their opponents turn the game around in that fashion. But Saracens knuckled down, regained control of the ball and Marcelo Bosch – fresh off the bench – attacked down the right flank, passed inside to Chris Ashton who passed back out to Goode and he scooted over the line.
It was quite a cameo from Bosch – two carries, one clean break, two defenders beaten, 12m made and a try created.
Saracens are the first team to win a domestic and European double since 2004 and have now won the Premiership twice in a row. They are undoubtedly the best club side in Europe and it will take some doing to knock them off that perch.
If it moves, tackle it
The Saracens defence was already the stuff of legend and they had another great day at the office on Saturday, making 163 tackles to stop Exeter from creating enough scoring chances with all the possession they enjoyed. Billy Vunipola was top of the list with 16 tackles, Maro Itoje and George Kruis had 14 each (and Itoje didn’t miss any) and Mako Vunipola was close behind on 13, Brad Barritt 12 and Duncan Taylor 11. The line speed of the Saracens’ defence was super-fast, cutting down Exeter’s options and sending them into retreat even when they could get the ball away from the tackle.
Green with envy
Connacht wing Niyi Adeolokun lit up Murrayfield with a quite brilliant try midway through the first half of the Guinness Pro12 final.
The men in green were already 7-0 up thanks to a try by Tiernan O’Halloran, created by a fantastic break from his own 22 to the Leinster ten-metre line by Matt Healy. He started the move for the second try too, receiving a kick and passing to O’Halloran, who executed a one-two with Robbie Henshaw then found Bundee Aki, whose pass hit the deck. Kieran Marmion scooped the loose ball up and passed outside to Adeolokun, who kicked up the right wing, punted the ball ahead again on the volley and beat Eoin Reddan to the touchdown. In a game full of fantastic rugby from Connacht, this was an extra special piece of skill.
England take their chances
England outscored Wales by five tries to one to win the Old Mutual Wealth Cup match at Twickenham 27-13. Eddie Jones‘s side had trailed 13-10 at half-time but Ben Youngs took them into the lead in the 45th minute with a try which owed plenty to his opportunism and poor defence from Wales.
Youngs received the ball from a lineout about 15 metres from the Wales line, spotted a gap between Scott Baldwin and Rob Evans at the tail, then broke a tackle from Hallam Amos to crash over the line.
Anthony Watson also deserves lots of credit for England‘s first try. The wing was tackled as he headed for the left-hand corner, he scrambled a few more metres then, when George North turned him onto his back, he still managed to reach over his own head to ground the ball on the line. Watson’s skills had former Wales and Lions wing Ieuan Evans purring in the commentary box: “That’s such a good finish – that takes some doing.”
The standout performer in the Exeter Chiefs back division during their Twickenham final was Jack Nowell. He carried no less than 19 times and seemed to be all over the pitch. While many of his team-mates were struggling to cope with the pressure of the big occasion in the first half, Nowell rose to the occasion.
His endeavours were rewarded with a try in the 73rd minute. He took the scoring pass from Phil Dollman after Henry Slade had swerved through a dog-leg in the Saracens’ defence, but Nowell still had work to do to dive through the tackle of Goode and touch down in the corner.
Gareth Steenson converted brilliantly – in fact neither he nor Owen Farrell missed a place-kick all afternoon and both had to take some on from wide positions.
Hats – or should that be head-dresses – off to the Exeter Chiefs fans who raised the roof at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon, and to the 34,550 Connacht and Leinster supporters who crossed the Irish sea to see their teams do battle in the Pro12 final in Edinburgh – the biggest crowd ever to attend the Celtic final.
Exeter’s followers filled the concourses with their colourful feathered headgear before the Aviva Premiership final, swamped the bowl of the stadium with the sound of the Tomahawk Chop during the game and continued to chant long after the final whistle, despite ending up on the losing side.
They did their best to inspire their team when they were 23-3 down, the players responded and when Nowell’s try made it 23-20 the roar might have been heard at Sandy Park. Exeter’s fans are a credit to their club and helped make the final a great occasion.
Connacht’s fans were in equally good voice at Murrayfield, and with good reason as their team treated them to a vintage performance. It was great to see so many Irish supporters making the journey to Scotland, especially as they only had two weeks’ notice that their teams were in the final.
Biggar not better
Wales fly-half Dan Biggar ends the season in my bad books for arguing with referee Marius Mitrea after the TMO awarded a try to Jack Clifford during the Old Mutual Wealth Cup match against England on Sunday.
Biggar thought Dan Cole had knocked the ball on in the build-up to the try and when the score was given he confronted the referee, arguing with him and refusing to hand the ball to George Ford to take the conversion.
Cole did get a hand to the ball, but it ended up going backwards before hitting the floor. Did it go backwards because Cole tipped it forwards onto the on-rushing Ross Moriarty? I think not, but what I, or anyone else thinks actually doesn’t matter at all. The officials gave their decision and play continues.
We are seeing more and more incidents of players waving their arms at the officials during matches and telling them what decisions they should be giving. That is bad enough, but Biggar’s dissent took things a step further. Alun Wyn Jones had a moan to the referee as well, but Biggar even went back for a second attempt to change Mitrea’s mind.
One of rugby’s cornerstone values is respect for the officials. In rugby we don’t argue – we put up, shut up and walk away. Biggar should be ashamed of his actions, ashamed of the poor example he set to junior and club players and he should apologise.
Ford flunks it
I can’t remember the last time I saw a Test kicker land just one successful place kick out of seven, but that was George Ford’s return from England’s 27-13 win over Wales in the Old Mutual Wealth Cup at Twickenham on Sunday.
The fly-half missed two conversions and a penalty in the first half and another conversion in the second before he finally slotted one from in front of the posts, after Clifford’s try. Ford’s goal-kicking used to be unreliable but he has improved it no end in the last 18 months or so. This was an unwelcome return to the bad old days and it has to be a one-off if he wants to make an impact on England’s tour this summer.
Leinster fail to get a grip
Leinster came away empty handed from their seventh Pro12 final, largely thanks to the number of tackles they missed as Connacht ran at them from all areas of the pitch.
By half-time Leinster had made 65 tackles and missed no less than 18, while Connacht had made 78 and missed just three. Little wonder the score was 15-0 to Connacht.
I know I am risking the wrath of Chris Ashton fans who think the media has it in for their boy, but I have to mention his silly behaviour in the closing minutes of Saturday’s Aviva Premiership final.
The crowd had barely stopped cheering the part he had played in Alex Goode’s 77th minute try, which put Saracens 28-20 ahead, when Ashton chased a kick to his in-goal area, alongside Jack Nowell. Both wings slid and dived to try to touch the ball down and Ashton leapt back to his feet, celebrating wildly and claiming a try. Off he went, running up the pitch in theatrical delight – but referee Wayne Barnes was not fooled. He called for a TV replay which clearly showed Ashton had not touched the ball down. It wasn’t even a close call.
Why did the Saracens wing have to try to dupe everyone? He just made himself look daft in front of 76,000 fans at Twickenham and many more on TV as soon as the first replay hit the screens. Yes, the adrenaline must have been coursing through his veins at the sharp end of such a massive game, but it is exactly this kind of rash behaviour which prevents Ashton from being as popular as he really should be.