Saints and sinners: The weekend’s talking points
Nick Evans gets the Stoop rocking as the goodbyes begin, the good and bad of Exeter Chiefs and why Bath DoR Todd Blackadder can afford to look smug
Harlequins fly-half Nick Evans got the weekend off to a cracking start with an immaculate performance in his farewell to the Twickenham Stoop. Watched by his wife Sally and his globe-crossing parents, he kicked 22 points as Harlequins swatted Wasps 32-13.
Evans should be on everyone’s list of favourite players. At 36, he’s lost the pace that once made him the quickest guy in any team he cared to play for, but he remains an unflappable guiding hand at the tiller.
Lady luck was smiling on him when he threw a pass that was nearly intercepted by Kurtley Beale. Instead, it reached Chris Robshaw and the flanker skilfully put Tim Visser over for a try that changed the momentum just after half-time.
Dan Carter’s presence meant Evans never had the Test career he deserved – he started only seven games for the All Blacks, out of 16 caps – but he stands on the highest plinth in the Quins pantheon.
In his 207 senior appearances for the club since pitching up in 2008, he has scored 2,239 points – having overtaken Bob Hiller’s club record as long ago as 2013.
“The word legend is overused but Nick is a legend at Harlequins,” said Quins’ director of rugby John Kingston. “He looked like he could have played until midnight.”
Singing the praises
Across the country other luminaries were gracing their home ground for the final time. Kelly Brown and Neil de Kock brought the curtain down on magnificent Saracens careers, ex-Scotland captain Brown singing Bon Jovi to the crowd at Allianz Park after Sarries came from behind to beat Bristol 27-9.
“Kelly is one of the most selfless people you’ll ever meet, always putting the team first,” said DoR Mark McCall. “His decency and humility have always shone through in his time here.
“Neil will be remembered as one of the true greats. His contribution over 11 years is hard to put into words.”
Brown’s duties in Hendon meant he was unable to be at Twickenham for the 100th edition of the Army-Navy match. The Royal Navy team he helps coach went down 29-20 as the British Army regained the title they last won in 2014.
The Navy at least had the satisfaction of stopping Semesa Rokoduguni from crossing their try-line after the England wing had notched ten tries against them in his five previous meetings.
Rokoduguni, a tank driver with the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards, turned provider in his less familiar full-back role and how wonderful that Bath DoR Todd Blackadder happily released him for both the Army’s Inter-Service Championship matches after the less helpful approach of his predecessor at Bath.
A blizzard of bonus points
There was a spot of confusion about this stat but Exeter have now taken the maximum 40 points possible from their last seven Premiership matches – a feat no club has achieved before.
Not since drawing 13-13 at Saracens on 7 January have they failed to bag the full haul, since when they have scored 35, 48, 36, 34, 30, 38, 39 and 36 points – a remarkable sequence.
Jack Nowell scored one of the Chiefs’ six tries in the 36-12 defeat of Northampton at Sandy Park and was hailed by Dave Flatman as “the best player on the field by about 500 miles. Chris Ashton used to be the yardstick for work-rate off the wing but Jack Nowell now takes that prize. He looked like a starting Lion all day long”.
The wisdom of Todd
Taulupe Faletau was another who did no harm to his Lions Test chances, scoring a hat-trick and winning Man of the Match as Bath clobbered Gloucester 44-20.
Todd Blackadder’s sanity had been questioned after he omitted George Ford and Jonathan Joseph from the Bath line-up, but the New Zealander got it spot on. Rhys Priestland and Max Clark played their parts perfectly and Bath set up a tantalizing final weekend.
The relegation issue is decided but elsewhere there is intrigue everywhere you look. The top three are separated by only two points so third-placed Saracens could claim a home semi-final if they win at leaders Wasps.
Second-placed Exeter travel to a Gloucester team still in the hunt for seventh spot, which would qualify them for the Champions Cup qualifying play-offs should they not secure their involvement by winning the Challenge Cup.
Northampton, lying seventh, can leapfrog Harlequins above them by beating the Londoners at Franklin’s Gardens this weekend.
Bath, trailing fourth-placed Leicester by four points, retain hopes of reaching the semi-finals but will need the results of the Sale-Bath and Worcester-Leicester games to swing improbably in their favour.
What are you doing at 4pm on Saturday? It’s going to be a hell of a finish to the regular season.
Top four sorted
The Guinness Pro12 is a simpler affair. The Ospreys’ 24-10 win over Ulster, coupled with the Scarlets’ scintillating 30-8 success at Connacht, means that barring a miracle Wales will have two teams in the semi-finals for the first time.
Ulster trail the Ospreys by five points and cannot overhaul them on number of wins, so would have to rein in a points difference of 73 to squeeze into the top four. Sport is unpredictable but not that unpredictable.
Cardiff Blues and Connacht look set to enter the play-off system, the Blues playing an English club and Connacht facing a French club on 19-21 May. The victors will meet on 26-28 May to see who gets the final spot in next season’s Champions Cup.
Matu’u case under scrutiny
Some people are rather hasty in leaping on the concussion bandwagon but, as BT Sport commentator Alastair Eykyn said at the time, the actions surrounding Moto Matu’u’s involvement at Bath didn’t look right.
Gloucester’s replacement hooker collided with Taulupe Faletau and looked like he’d been knocked out as he fell to the ground. Even if we were mistaken in that, the mere suspicion of unconsciousness is enough to demand a player’s immediate withdrawal from the field.
Instead, Matu’u eventually got up and made his way to a lineout on the opposite side of the pitch – having set off in the wrong direction – before taking his leave a minute later, presumably after someone on the sidelines had seen footage of the incident.
He should never have played on but it was quickly rectified. We assumed his match was done but no, ten minutes later he was back on having passed his Head Injury Assessment. Asked to explain that decision, Gloucester DoR David Humphreys said Motu’u had a stinger and then passed the standard HIA protocol, so returned.
The oft-cited message ‘If in doubt, sit them out’ would have been worth adhering to in this instance.
Stormer hard done by
“Dead-set the most ludicrous thing I’ve seen in a game.” That’s how Kiwi commentator Scotty Stevenson described a decision by Glen Jackson in the Highlanders v Stormers Super Rugby match.
It occurred after Highlanders loose forward Gareth Evans landed heavily at a lineout. A replay showed that he fell on Stormers prop Oli Kebble, who put out an arm to protect himself. He was yellow-carded.
It wasn’t a game changer – the score was 7-7 but Highlanders ran out easy 57-14 winners – but it was a weird decision.
Interception tries are an occupational hazard – but rather more so at Exeter Chiefs.
The pass by Ollie Devoto that JJ Hanrahan plucked out of the air for Northampton’s early try on Saturday was the latest in a long line of interception scores conceded by the Chiefs.
Devoto had committed the same sin at Harlequins when Nick Evans latched on to his loose pass and the week before, Bristol’s Will Hurrell had capitalized on a gift from Henry Slade.
Denny Solomona was the beneficiary when Stuart Townsend’s pass failed to find its mark against Sale while the Matt Jess pass that Leicester’s Tom Brady intercepted proved particularly costly because Chiefs ended up losing the Anglo-Welsh Cup final by just four points.
Exeter are going great guns but this is one habit they need to break.