Saints and Sinners: The weekend’s talking points
It was do or die in the European competitions as the final round of Champions Cup and Challenge Cup pool matches took place. Who were the match-winning heroes and who let themselves down?
How do you pick a star player from a team which inflicted a record European defeat on Leicester Tigers and became the first side to score more than five tries against them in Europe?
My answer to that is, you don’t, because the entire Glasgow Warriors team excelled themselves in their 43-0 Champions Cup win at Welford Road. Six different players scored their tries and everyone looked comfortable on the ball, hit the line at pace, ran great support lines, offloaded skilfully and simply ran Leicester ragged.
There were so many notable individual contributions. Ali Price held off three tacklers to get away the offload which ultimately led to Mark Bennett’s try and Ryan Wilson made a scorching break from a lineout to set up the pressure position which led to his own try.
The fact that four forwards – Fraser Brown, Tim Swinson, Jonny Gray and Wilson – all made 14 carries, with prop Zander Fagerson close behind with ten, illustrates the Warriors’ dominance. Only one Leicester player got into double figures for carries, as their opponents starved them of possession.
It was a textbook performance from the Warriors and enabled them to qualify for the Champions Cup quarter-finals for the first time, finishing second in the extremely tough Pool One behind Munster.
Michael Rhodes and Will Skelton
Chris Ashton scored Saracens’ only try in the 10-3 win over Toulon which secured top spot in Champions Cup Pool Three, but the real heroics in this win happened as Saracens defended their line in the closing minutes.
Toulon launched assault after assault in search of a try but couldn’t get through. Matt Giteau looked set to score in the 75th minute, despite the fact Owen Farrell had grabbed him, but Michael Rhodes joined the hit in the nick of time and made sure Giteau couldn’t ground the ball.
Three minutes later Samu Manoa charged up to the line at great pace, looking unstoppable, but Will Skelton made an astonishing try-saving tackle on the big man.
Leinster secured a 24-24 draw at Castres, which was enough to qualify for a home quarter-final in the Champions Cup, and Robbie Henshaw was one of their star performers.
The Ireland centre made a long diagonal run from half-way to score the first of his two tries and put Leinster 10-0 up.
Henshaw made 93 metres in attack from 17 carries and contributed to the all-important defensive effort too, with 14 tackles.
Wing Adam Byrne also deserves great praise as his breaks set up tries for Henshaw Leinster’s final try by Dan Leavy. Byrne made a total of 85 metres in attack, including four clean breaks.
CJ Stander and Andrew Conway
When a player makes the most metres in attack and the most tackles in defence, there is no doubt he has made a big contribution to a game and that is what CJ Stander did in Munster’s 22-10 Champions Cup win over Racing 92.
He put in 13 tackles and made 66 metres of ground from 18 carries and was deservedly (again!) named Man of the Match.
Andrew Conway didn’t see as much ball as Stander but the wing made one particularly telling contribution. He set up Munster’s third try after taking a long pass on the bounce at around the Racing 22 and holding off Brice Dulin as the full-back tried to tackle him. His strength in the challenge brought Marc Andreu and Henry Chavency across to try to help Dulin and then Conway managed to get the offload away to Ian Keatley, who strode over for the try.
Challenge Cup Heroes
The Ospreys became the first side to finish the pool stages of a European competition with the maximum 30 points after securing their fifth bonus-point win in Pool Two of the Challenge Cup.
They came from 21-7 down at Newcastle Falcons to win 26-21. Sam Underhill was named Man of the Match but Olly Cracknell also made a telling contribution with 18 carries and full-back Dan Evans made 109 metres in attack.
Willi Heinz scored a hat-trick for Gloucester and picked up the Man of the Match award after their 64-19 win over Bayonne, which ensured they go into the Challenge Cup quarter-finals as second seeds.
Gloucester scored ten tries in all and had others ruled out in a dominant performance.
Matthew Morgan was named Man of the Match as Cardiff Blues beat Bristol 37-21 to qualify for the Challenge Cup quarter-finals as the runners-up in Pool Four.
The full-back scored two tries – one of them a superb solo effort after he collected a clearance kick – and set up the final score for Sam Warburton. Morgan made an astonishing 177 metres with the ball in hand during the game.
Toulon qualified for the Champions Cup quarter-finals as the eighth seeds by taking a losing bonus point from their 10-3 defeat at Saracens, but if they had won that game they would have had an easier quarter-final tie than the one they are faced with – Clermont Auvergne away.
Wing Josua Tuisova had a gilt-edged chance to give Toulon an early lead when he collected a pass on the right flank and strode towards the line. He tried to stoop and touch the ball down one-handed in the corner, but in fact he dropped it just before grounding it, and so the try he thought he had scored was disallowed.
Connacht were trailing 19-10 in Toulouse with six minutes to play and just needed three points to secure a losing bonus point which would have put them into the Champions Cup quarter-finals at the expense of Toulouse.
They earned a lineout around the Toulouse 22, secured the ball and looked ideally placed to go through some phases and set up a drop-goal chance in the centre of the pitch. Instead, openside Jake Heenan broke blind, presumably in the hope of finding a gap which might allow Connacht to score a try.
His enterprise did not pay off, Toulouse cleared the danger thanks to two penalties and Connacht were condemned to a nine-point defeat and an exit from the Champions Cup before knockout phase.
There was, without a doubt, more than one Sinner in the Leicester Tigers team which was walloped 43-0 at home by Glasgow Warriors, but Mathew Tait stood out for conceding a silly yellow card during the first half when the Tigers were already 10-0 down. He stepped across to block Lee Jones as the wing attempted to chase his own kick up the left wing.
Adam Thompstone was chasing back to cover the move so Tait needn’t have panicked, however his foul play resulted in ten minutes in the sin-bin and while he was off the pitch Glasgow scored two more tries.
Brilliant as Glasgow Warriors were, the Tigers were also under-par. They made no clean breaks in the match, they missed 15 tackles and Tait actually made the highest number of metres for them with the ball in hand – 36. Just two other Tigers reached double figures in that category.