Saints and sinners: The weekend’s talking points
The Wellington Sevens and Anglo-Welsh Cup come under scrutiny this week as Rugby World hands out some winners' medals and booby prizes…
It’s only two years ago that the SRU were considering disbanding the Scotland Sevens team – how ludicrous an idea that seems now.
The Scots followed fourth place in Cape Town with a podium finish at the weekend’s Wellington Sevens, yet the bronze they took for beating Canada 28-22 in an epic third-place match could so easily have been a different colour.
Having dispatched England in the quarter-finals, they led Fiji deep into the semi-final before succumbing 19-12 in extra time.
James Fleming, whose hat-trick against Canada helped secure him a place in the Wellington Dream Team, said: “We’ve been building for the last two years with a new coach, consistent squad, and (last year’s tournament win at) Twickenham gave us belief.
“We are hitting quarters and semis consistently now and it’s awesome to have the squad we do.”
South Africa, HSBC Sevens World Series runners-up for the past four years, are clearly the team to beat. They won their second tournament (out of three) to open a 12-point lead over Fiji (51), with England (49) and Scotland (44) leading the European challenge.
Seabelo Senatla scored eight tries to surpass Fabian Juries’s all-time Blitzbok record of 179, and he’ll be missed by all when he heads off to Super Rugby with the Stormers after this weekend’s tournament in Sydney. Kwagga Smith (Lions) is also leaving the programme.
But one of the sights of the weekend was seeing Joeli Lutumailagi – the wrong side of 30 – take on the South African speedster on the outside and scorch past him. A magic moment.
Harry in a hurry
History suggests that someone unexpected will make this year’s Lions squad, and Will Greenwood has followed that line of thinking by picking the uncapped Leinster wing Adam Byrne in his Lions Test team.
So here’s another name to conjure with as a Lions bolter – Harry Mallinder. The man who led England U20 to the world title last summer is always at the heart of the action.
He’s playing 12 but can play 15 or 10 without difficulty, he has a huge boot and he’s not fazed by making errors, such as when he overcooked a penalty touch-finder on Saturday at Leicester.
Northampton’s Champions Cup exit denies him a bigger platform on which to impress in the spring, but the 20-year-old is on an upward curve.
Easing back in
People rightly talk about the Anglo-Welsh Cup as an opportunity to blood young players, but it’s similarly valuable as a tool to bring back older heads.
It was great to see Tom Croft back to full fitness on Saturday after his back problems while Italy prop Michele Rizzo made his seasonal bow following knee and calf injuries.
Saracens openside Will Fraser (hip), in his first start of the campaign, got through 40 minutes at Scarlets, while Rhys Webb (ankle) managed the same period of time against Bristol to put himself in the frame for Wales selection this weekend.
Fair play to the recently retired Nick Wood, Gloucester’s record appearance maker, who took the whistle for a charity match between Gloucester Rugby Heroes and South African Legends.
The former prop was on the receiving end of some good-natured banter as the Legends won 12-10 in a match that raised funds for Rugby for Heroes and the Gloucester Rugby Community Charity.
TV presenter Nick Knowles, who was in the Gloucester team, said: “I had a word with Woodsy and said it’s a Gloucester game, you’re a Gloucester boy, with the net result that he listened very carefully and penalised us for everything. So I think I’m going to have to find him and have a word with him.”
A ‘bravery award’ to Bath centre Ben Tapuai, for hurling himself at a Rhys Priestland grubber kick as Gloucester’s Tom Marshall bore down on it.
We liked the unfussy refereeing of Dan Jones at Welford Road, the Welsh official only ‘going upstairs’ when necessary, and making good use of the TMO when asking him to look at a potential late hit on Sam Olver while continuing the game.
Exeter forward Sam Simmonds scored an astounding try against Wasps. Standing at first receiver off a lineout, he showed terrific pace and then sidestepped full-back Piers O’Conor with the panache of a winger. More Danie Gerber than Dean Richards by the 22-year-old No 8.
That match saw the long-awaited return from injury of Matt Jess, which means Jack Nowell – following a pact not to shave until he and Jess were fit again – has finally been able to lose his Castaway-style look.
“That beard was mangy and we’re glad to see the back of it,” said TV pundit David Flatman.
Once again, the Newport Gwent Dragons’ pitch is making the news when it’s the players who should take centre stage.
Yesterday’s Anglo-Welsh Cup tie with Newcastle was abandoned after 69 minutes because the pitch had become unplayable, with vast puddles leaving referee John Meredith no option but to blow up early for safety reasons.
With the 60-minute mark passed, the Falcons’ 18-6 lead was allowed to stand as a result.
Inevitably, the incident prompts questions over whether the Rodney Parade pitch can cope with having three teams – Dragons, Newport County and Newport RFC – playing on it and what can be done to resolve the problems with the surface.
Heavy rain is part and parcel of life in Wales (and Britain generally) and it’s the fans who are being short-changed. The Dragons can’t find new investors quick enough.
Sticking with the spectator theme, the attendance at the Wellington Sevens really was shocking. The venue once had a reputation for being one of the best party scenes around, with the stadium selling out within three minutes in 2011, but as Sir Gordon Tietjens said: “There was just no atmosphere and no people there.”
Tietjens, now coaching Samoa, has suggested taking the event to Samoa or Fiji, a proposal enthusiastically endorsed by Fijian great Waisale Serevi.
NZ Rugby has promised to review the situation but the writing appears to be on the wall after just 20,000 people attended over the two days at Westpac Stadium – well below the number needed to make it profitable.
Strong wind on the second day, plus the quarter-final exit of New Zealand, did nothing to lift the mood in the stands.
Just put it down!
Kenyan players just love passing to Collins Injera – even when they shouldn’t.
Last year Oscar Ouma cost Kenya victory against Scotland in Singapore when attempting to pass to record try-scorer Injera when already over the try-line.
At the weekend Billy ‘the kid’ Odhiambo did exactly the same thing, his lofted pass to Injera being intercepted by Australia’s James Stannard. The ultimate coach-killer!
Fortunately for Odhiambo, it didn’t prove expensive. Kenya, leading 7-0 at the time, saw it out 19-17 to win the Trophy final and the player finished the tournament on top of the DHL Performance Tracker – beating the likes of Dan Norton, Senatla, Werner Kok and Perry Baker. All is forgiven. But still…
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