Every point counts as the battle for playoff places in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 hots up. Which players stepped up to the plate this weekend and who fell short?
Chiefs in charge
A strong – in every sense – performance from the Exeter Chiefs pack earned the Devon side a 21-10 win over reigning Aviva Premiership champions and current leaders Northampton Saints and moved them up into the top four with just three rounds of matches to go before the playoffs.
Leading the way was 22-year-old tighthead Tomas Francis who, in his first Premiership season, had the better of England and Lions prop Alex Corbisiero at scrum time, helping to force a succession of penalties. Blindside Dave Ewers also had a magnificent game and was named Man of the Match thanks to his 20 tackles and 12 carries.
Priestland comes up trumps
Rhys Priestland hit the target with a late, late penalty from the left touchline to snatch a 28-26 victory for the Scarlets at Zebre in the Guinness Pro12.
For the Scarlets, who are chasing European Champions Cup qualification, to have lost to the league’s bottom club would have been a major blow, but Priestland put earlier potentially crucial misses behind him to slot the kick at the death.
While the Scarlets are out of the Pro12 title race, very much in the hunt are the Ospreys who are looking secure in fourth spot after winning 33-13 at Benetton Treviso. Rhys Webb, always a threat with the ball in hand, played a major role in their victory and scored the bonus-point try at the death.
Bright move by Summers
Hats off to Jeremy Summers and his RFU appeals panel who had the courage to overturn the ridiculous three-week ban handed to Nathan Hughes for knocking-out George North.
No rugby fan could understand how the original RFU disciplinary committee had seen fit to ban the Wasps back row for what was clearly an accidental and unavoidable collision.
It is very unusual for decisions to be reversed like this, but Friday’s appeal panel said they had new evidence at their disposal and concluded “no act of foul play took place”.
The new evidence reportedly included testimony from a biometrics expert who proved Hughes could not have stopped before he clattered into North on the floor. The original panel, led by RFU head of independent rugby judiciary Sir James Dingemans, may not have had his or her expertise at their disposal, but they could still have used common sense and agreed with the thousands of rugby watchers and players who had no doubt Hughes should not have been sent off or banned.
Sadly for Hughes and Wasps, he had already missed their European Champions Cup quarter-final due to the ban.
Horne on song
Glasgow Warriors centre Peter Horne grabbed the Guinness Pro12 headlines with a hat-trick in 12 minutes that helped his table-topping side to a 36-17 victory over Cardiff Blues.
With Dougie Hall already having crossed for the first try, Horne capitalised on great breaks from Tommy Seymour for his first two tries and then darted over from close range for the third, which gave the Warriors a valuable bonus point in the extremely tight battle for the playoff places.
Horne was in the right place at the right time on every occasion and was named Man of the Match.
Brace for Benjamin
Newport Gwent Dragons achieved a league double over reigning Pro12 champions Leinster, coming back from 22-8 down in the second half to win 25-22, thanks largely to a try double from replacement back row James Benjamin.
The 21-year-old pounced on a loose ball in the in-goal area after Eoin Reddan’s kick had been charged down, and a couple of minutes later he popped up on the left wing to take a scoring pass from Hallam Amos.
Coach Kingsley Jones was ecstatic about the way his young side battled back to take the spoils, telling BBC Wales: “A bonus point against the champions is beyond our wildest dreams.”
Newcastle Falcons’ Samoan wing Sinoti Sinoti scored arguably the try of the weekend. Receiving the ball closer to the Bath 10m line than the 22, he thundered off on an arcing run to the left, battered his way past and through three tacklers and used his pace and power to score.
The try gave his team a 13-12 lead and hopes of an upset against the top-four side, but Bath accelerated away in the second half to win 29-19.
What a Dude
Monbeg Dude is the final Saint this week. For those not in the know, he is a racehorse owned by three former Gloucester players, Mike Tindall, James Simpson-Daniel and Nicky Robinson, plus trainer Michael Scudamore, and he finished third in the Grand National on Saturday.
The Dude, ridden by Liam Tredwell, certainly netted his owners some big money, but a few hundred Gloucester fans would also have had an each-way flutter on the 40-1 shot and so have a bit of beer money in their pockets ready for next Saturday’s big European Challenge Cup game day.
Leicester lost 22-6 at Saracens and slipped out of the top four and they will be counting the cost of their own indiscipline. With the Tigers leading 6-0, Tom Youngs was sin-binned for a silly piece of off-the-ball contact with Chris Ashton as he tried to ensure the wing would not impede Matt Smith’s clearance kick out of defence. While Youngs was in the bin Saracens scored two tries to take a 14-6 lead and the home side never looked back.
Niki Goneva was sin-binned late in the game when the score was already 22-6, this time for leading with his forearm as he crashed down on top of Kelly Brown after the Saracens flanker had driven through a ruck. It had no impact on the result but Leicester will need to cut out such silly indiscipline if they want to climb back into the playoff places.
Sale Sharks boss Steve Diamond was unhappy with the refereeing of Greg MacDonald during his side’s 25-23 loss to London Irish at the Madejski Stadium but he could not have been thrilled with his own full-back Mike Haley either, as he handed the hosts a gift-wrapped seven-pointer just before half time.
The Exiles missed a penalty and Danny Cipriani decided to run the ball out of defence rather than kicking for touch to go in at half-time 10-6 up. The fly-half passed to Haley, who managed to drop the ball right at the feet of his opposite number Andrew Fenby and he coasted in for a try which Chris Noakes converted for a 13-10 lead at the interval.
Is it a yellow?
Should a yellow card always be the punishment for a deliberate knock-on? Both Gloucester’s Charlie Sharples and Northampton’s Stephen Myler were sin-binned for that offence this weekend when they were instinctively reaching out to try to intercept a pass, but only made the slightest of contact and failed to catch the ball.
When players are sin-binned for minor violence like leading with an elbow, punching and even some tip tackles, is the same sanction really deserved for even the most marginal deliberate knock-on? I think not. It should be a penalty every time, but only a yellow card when it’s blatant. Neither Myler nor Sharples should have been sin-binned.
While we are on the subject, no less than 17 yellow cards were shown in this weekend’s six Premiership matches and ten more were produced in the Pro12. Are players transgressing more as the stakes grow higher at the sharp end of the season, or are referees becoming a bit too quick to wave their cards?
Certainly, in addition to the Sharples and Myler cards, the yellows shown to Harlequins back row Jack Clifford and Ospreys scrum-half Rhys Webb seemed very soft and there were a few others I didn’t see. The sin bin has done a lot of good in the game, but I don’t want to see it being over-used when a penalty would be sufficient punishment.