Following another thrilling weekend of club action across the Aviva Premiership, PRO14 and Top 14 our experts round up the best — and worst — of the action. Who caught the eye, who had a game to forget, and what will we all be talking about ahead of next weekend’s matches?
Player of the weekend
Matt Banahan set the tone for Bath’s enthralling win over Saracens. Dan Mullan/Getty Images
Prem (Martyn Thomas): Matt Banahan. The Rec was not short on standout performers on Saturday, with Taulupe Faletau, Francois Louw and Rhys Preistland all impressive. Semesa Rokoduguni stole the headlines, but it was Banahan who set the tone for Bath’s win over Saracens. Imperious under the high ball, committed in the tackle and destructive with ball in hand, the one-time England wing also provided the assist for Louw’s try.
PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): Alex Wootton was on fire for Munster against the Cheetahs. His pace and ability were clearly evident; making breaks, beating defenders and scoring four tries before being replaced by Simon Zebo on the hour. To complete his hat trick, Wootton latched onto a Duncan Williams kick through, beating Clayton Blommetjies to the ball and Robbie Petzer for pace to score in the corner.
Top 14 (James Harrington): Gabriel Lacroix. La Rochelle’s diminutive winger continues to prove what Shane Williams continually proved before him — that size isn’t everything. He scored a hat trick in 41 remarkable minutes at Stade Marcel Deflandre as the hosts destroyed the defending champions.
Flop of the weekend
Cheetahs conceded eight tries at Thomond Park — four of them to Alex Wootton. Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile via Getty Images
Prem: Leicester’s star-studded back line. Missing Manu Tuilagi, following his latest injury setback, the Tigers were again off the pace from an attacking point of view. Jonny May did score his third try in a Leicester shirt, but all three have come once the game has been lost. The George Ford-Ben Youngs axis is yet to click while the Nick Malouf experiment is not working. Gloucester will hope Ford and co. don’t find their rhythm next Saturday.
PRO14: It was a toss up between my prediction of a Cheetahs upset and Sam Davies’ performance for the Ospreys. While the Cheetahs were abysmal at Thomond Park, it wasn’t the best of weekends for Davies either. Five missed tackles were the least of his problems as two of three turnovers he threw were interceptions, resulting in 14 of Glasgow’s 31 points.
Top 14: While Lacroix was exceptional for La Rochelle, opponents Clermont were non-existent in the opening 40 minutes. They allowed Lacroix in for his first in just 42 seconds, and conceded another five before Romain Poite called a halt to the first half, with the score at 43-6. The second period an improvement for the visitors, who made the final score a less embarrassing 51-20 — but the damage had already been done.
Best coaching call
Montpellier were able to right their problems at scrum time against Castres with a couple of second-half additions. REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images
Prem: Mark McCall’s decision to unleash Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell early in the second half at Bath almost paid dividends for Saracens, but it seems the weekend’s tactical masterstroke had been pulled before a ball was kicked. Following an insipid opening display, Northampton were inspired in their 24-11 defeat of Leicester. The reason for their turnaround? Boss Jim Mallinder had accused his Saints stars of being soft.
PRO14: Leinster’s bench were superb in their victory over Cardiff Blues. Second-half replacements Sean Cronin, Nick McCarthy and Barry Daly scored tries in the final 13 minutes to give the scoreline a more comfortable feel. With more established players still to return, the strength of the Leinster squad could be crucial this year as they look for a first trophy since their 2014 league success.
Top 14: For the first 40 minutes of Montpellier’s trip to Castres, it looked like the hosts were going to brute their way to victory. Five minutes into the second period, Vern Cotter changed two-thirds of his front row and replaced young fly-half Thomas Darmon with Francois Steyn. Montpellier’s pack found a way out of reverse gear, while Steyn and scrum-half Ruan Pienaar wrestled the tactical battle out of Castres’ grasp.
Best refereeing call
Worcester fly-half Tom Heathcote thought he had scored a try against Wasps, but after consultation with his TMO, referee Tom Foley rightly disallowed it. David Rogers/Getty Images
Prem: Rowan Kitt (Worcester vs. Wasps). Dai Young admitted his Wasps side were flattered by the margin of their victory over Worcester at Sixways on Sunday, but the Warriors could have little complaint with the decision that ultimately cost them at least a bonus point. Referee Tom Foley looked set to award Tom Heathcote’s try late in the first half, but was steered in the opposite direction by TMO Kitt, who had spotted Sam Lewis’ check on Ashley Johnson.
PRO14: Andrew Brace (Leinster vs. Cardiff). It was good to see some common sense used after Isa Nacewa’s high tackle on Alex Cuthbert. While it often appears red cards and high tackles go hand-in-hand, Brace and TMO Peter Fitzgibbon opted for yellow in Friday night’s clash in Dublin. Undoubtedly their decision was helped by Cuthbert, who jumped straight up after the tackle.
Top 14: Alexandre Ruiz (Toulon vs. Toulouse). The home faithful were convinced Chris Ashton had scored his second try as the clock ticked past the hour on Sunday, but referee Ruiz thought he spotted the tiniest of knock-ons. He was right. In the confusion of an aerial battle, Ashton’s fingertips brushed the ball as it dropped to the ground a fraction of a second after defender Yoann Huget had knocked on. Result — and correct call — a five-metre scrum to Toulon — which they messed up.
Storyline to keep an eye on…
Harlequins fullback Mike Brown made his 282nd appearance for the club against Gloucester. Steve Bardens/Getty Images for Harlequins
Prem: Player welfare. On the weekend that Mike Brown set a new Harlequins appearance record for the professional era, the England fullback voiced concerns about whether such longevity would be possible in the future amid plans for an 11-month season. Referring to 18-year-old teammate Marcus Smith, he said: “I am not sure if they will make it as long as I have. Especially when people are talking about extending the season.”
PRO14: South Africa struggles. PRO14 CEO Martin Anayi stated the inclusion of the Cheetahs and Southern Kings marked “a bold and exciting new chapter,” but two games in and they have conceded a combined 182 points. The hope is that they will become good. However, aside from the additional television income they have provided, the jury is very much out on whether they can improve the competition.
Top 14: The ‘sore knee’ that forced Sergio Parisse to pull out of Stade Francais’ squad for the match against Bordeaux at the 11th hour on Saturday. He had sat out training all week, but Stade’s coaching staff were united in their confidence that he would be involved in proceedings at Bordeaux. The fear now is that he may be a doubt for next weekend’s trip to Toulouse.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY