Saints and Sinners: The weekend’s talking points
The European Champions Cup pool stages are coming to the boil and with every point precious, who starred and who slumped this weekend?
Munster replacement Francis Saili took his team into the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup as Pool One winners as he scored the match-winning try against Glasgow Warriors.
The Irish side trailed 12-9 with ten minutes to go but they were a man up as Warriors full-back Stuart Hogg was in the sin-bin. Simon Zebo attacked, Keith Earls continued the move and found Saili cutting a line on the opposite diagonal. Saili had to dive for the corner to beat Tommy Seymour’s tackle but he managed it and Munster held on to win 14-12.
The Leinster blindside was a deserving Man of the Match in the Irish team’s 57-3 walloping of Montpellier in Pool Four.
Jack Conan scored a hat-trick of tries and set up others with his powerful, dynamic running and deft offloading. His first try was a run-in from outside the 22, for his second he drove over under the posts from close range and his third involved a dummy inside the 22. It was a terrific individual performance and helped Leinster secure top spot in their pool and become the first team to qualify for this year’s Champions Cup quarter-finals.
Wasps were trailing 14-10 with under a minute to go in their Champions Cup Pool Two clash with Toulouse. They needed to win to keep alive their hopes of reaching the quarter-finals and they were down to 14 men, with Danny Cipriani in the sin-bin.
Wasps battered away at the French defence inside the 22 and finally forced a penalty five metres out. Replacement scrum-half Dan Robson tapped the ball and ran for the line and from such close range Toulouse’s two tallest defenders, Richie Gray and Yoann Maestri, couldn’t get low enough fast enough to stop him from squeezing over for the winning try. Jimmy Gopperth converted to seal the 17-14 win and Wasps go into next Sunday’s match v Zebre with a chance of overtaking Connacht at the top of the pool.
Charles Piutau and Jack Nowell
This duo were on opposing sides as Exeter Chiefs took on Ulster in Champions Cup Pool Five on Saturday and both lit up the occasion with their outstanding play.
Jack Nowell was on fire for the Chiefs. He made a great run, wrong-footing Piutau as he went, to set up a try for Michele Campagnaro which put the Chiefs 24-12 up. He had Ulster’s defence backpedalling again on 70 minutes, forcing a deliberate knock-on from Paddy Jackson which resulted in the penalty try that sealed the 31-19 win.
Charles Piutau ended up on the losing side but still scored a peach of a try in the first half. He received a pass from Jackson, pressed the accelerator pedal but then threw in an outrageous step off his left foot to leave Nowell on his backside as he tried to cover across and from there Piutau had a clear run to the line.
He scored a second try just on the hour mark, collecting a chip from Jackson, but it wasn’t enough for Ulster to stop Exeter’s charge to victory. The defeat ended Ulster’s hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages of this year’s Champions Cup.
Part of a winger’s job is to be in the right place at the right time to score the crucial tries and Chris Ashton did that after the clock had gone red to help Saracens earn a 22-22 draw at the Scarlets.
He was on Owen Farrell’s shoulder to benefit from his break and managed to ground the ball under pressure after sliding over the line by the posts. Farrell kicked the simple conversion.
Ashton had scored his first try half an hour earlier in the Pool Three clash, capitalising on great work from Alex Lozowski and Farrell. The draw was enough to keep Saracens top of Pool Three and take them into the knockout phase.
Challenge Cup heroes
Ospreys are guaranteed top spot in Pool Two of the Challenge Cup after a 47-7 thrashing of Lyon. Their seven tries were all by different scorers but wing Hanno Dirksen was named Man of the Match.
Steve Shingler kicked a penalty at the death to steal a 22-21 win for Cardiff Blues at Pau in Pool Four of the Challenge Cup. He slotted five penalties and a conversion to keep the Blues snapping at Bath’s heels in this pool.
George Ford was the Man of the Match in Bath’s 57-22 win at Bristol. The England fly-half put his team on the front foot time and time again in the first half and scored a total of 20 points before being substituted early in the second half.
Edinburgh prop Allan Dell motored in from well outside the 22 to score an important try for the Scottish side in their 23-18 win at Harlequins in Pool Five. That victory puts Edinburgh on top of the pool and in the driving seat with one round of matches to go.
Montpellier fly-half Frans Steyn made his team’s task against Leinster all the harder when he was sent off for a high tackle on Johnny Sexton with just 14 minutes of their Champions Cup Pool Four match gone.
Steyn flew up and hit Sexton around the jaw with his right arm just after the Leinster playmaker had got his pass away. It was a clear-cut red card, even before this month’s new, tougher stance on contact with the head.
Steyn made matters worse by complaining to referee JP Doyle that Sexton had ducked into the contact, instead of just walking off the pitch. This was the third Champions Cup match in a row that Montpellier have had a player sent off.
Leicester Tigers helped their opponents Racing 92 to a 34-3 victory with a succession of mistakes, the worst of which was made by Mathew Tait just before half-time. Dan Carter sent a penalty shot wide but Tait somehow managed to knock-on what should have been a comfortable catch behind the posts.
From the resulting scrum, Gerbrandt Grobler powered over for a try which gave Racing a 22-3 half-time lead.
Earlier in the game Marc Andreu had scored a try thanks to mistakes by a trio of Tigers. Sam Harrison’s pass to Tait didn’t find its man and Will Evans failed to scoop up the loose ball, but Andreu pounced and raced in to score.
James Davies and Will Skelton
Saracens forward Will Skelton was sin-binned late in their game against the Scarlets for hitting James Davies in the head at the back of a breakdown. However, Davies deserves to join his opponent on the Sinners bench for what seemed to be a theatrical over-reaction to the hit. Skelton did no more than slap him on the face, but Davies took three steps back and went down clutching his head, then stayed down to make sure he was noticed.
As Lawrence Dallaglio said on BT Sport: “Skelton gets a yellow card and Cubby Boi gets an Oscar.” Come on James, we thought you were tougher than that.
Stuart Hogg and Finn Russell
Glasgow Warriors were beaten by a late try from Munster’s Francis Saili and their defence was a man short at the time because Stuart Hogg was in the sin-bin. The Warrior was yellow-carded after flinging an arm across the neck of Andrew Conway as he attempted to score. It was a soft yellow to concede as Hogg’s action had no impact on Conway and it was Lee Jones who actually held up the Munsterman over the line.
Finn Russell is among the Sinners for failing to take charge and call for a drop-goal when Glasgow had set up a great attacking position with a few minutes to go. His team were going through the phases inside the Munster 22, he was in space on the other side of the line and so would have had time to take a shot, but instead of calling for the ball he let the hunt for a try continue. Glasgow were only 14-12 down so a drop-goal could have been a match-winner and these chances have to be taken.