It was a huge weekend in the Premiership and Pro12 as the play-off places were decided. In France, meanwhile, Clermont took their revenge for their European Champions Cup defeat to Toulon. Here’s what we learned…
Mallinder plays dangerous game against Tigers
Jim Mallinder was unrepentant before and after Saints’ defeat to Leicester, which was to be expected. He had kept the bulk of his frontline stars fit for next weekend’s play-off semi-final with Saracens, while also seeing how his reserves could react in a pressure situation.
The problem for many, though, is that his decision to leave out so many starting players – there were 12 changes from the previous week – gave the Tigers a virtual free pass into the top four.
Whatever noises were made prior to kick-off about this game being a chance for the understudies to stake their claim for a starting place in the play-offs were shown to be rubbish as Northampton tired badly in the second half.
These are players who have done very little for the last few months, when there has been no A-League or LV=Cup rugby to play.
The wane was in particular evidence at the scrum and two yellow cards in the 52nd minute, both to props, put paid to their chances of an unlikely result.
Mallinder must now hope his masterplan pays dividends or he will rightly face questions about demeaning the integrity of the competition. Certainly the smiles on the faces of his coaching staff on TV on Saturday afternoon suggested they had no regard of whether they won or lost.
He may also wish that Bath end Leicester’s hopes next weekend, as the Tigers are gaining momentum and getting key players back fit. A similar result at Twickenham in two weeks would not go down as well within Saints ranks you suspect.
That’s it at Welford Rd. Tigers 22-14 Saints. So we have Tigers in the semis, facing Bath away next Saturday. Saints host Sarries same day
— Rugby World (@Rugbyworldmag) May 16, 2015
Exeter will be a force again next season
In the end it was Exeter who paid the biggest price for the result at Welford Road. The Chiefs did everything they needed to do, but with Saracens playing London Welsh it always looked a tall order to make the play-offs.
That they saw off a Sale Sharks side that still had a chance of making the top six, in such convincing fashion is a promising sign as they club look to build on their meteoric rise.
On Saturday afternoon there were stellar performances from the likes of Henry Slade, Jack Nowell and Thomas Waldrom, while there were two tries for Matt Jess, a player who was signed while the club were still in the Championship.
Those players will be joined next year by Geoff Parling and Julian Salvi, which would suggest that the Chiefs are not going to fall away.
Recruitment has been so important in the club’s ascent and they feel they have again identified two players who will buy into the Chiefs’ ethos.
Missing out on the top four is a bitter pill for Exeter to swallow right now, but the signs are they will be back at the right end of the table next season.
Fantastic season. Fifth in the league. LV= finalists. European Challenge Cup semi-finalists. Exeter Chiefs just keep on giving.
— Exeter Chiefs (@ExeterChiefs) May 16, 2015
England can cope with the loss of Tuilagi
Stuart Lancaster acted decisively in banning Manu Tuilagi from England duty until next January. Having admitted to assaulting a police officer, it was clear that action needed to be taken, but although his hopes of making the World Cup were slim Lancaster and England can be applauded for dealing so swiftly with a player some would have indulged.
Tuilagi is sure to leave a huge hole in the England midfield as he offers something different in that he creates space for himself and others while sucking in defences.
That said, Lancaster has coped without him for a long time now and there was evidence on the weekend that he has enough talent to fill the void.
Kyle Eastmond scored one try and set up another in Bath’s 50-30 demolition of Gloucester, while Slade was integral for the Chiefs and Elliot Daly put in another impressive performance for Wasps.
How many of that trio is selected in England’s World Cup training squad on Wednesday will give a huge hint to how the Red Rose intend to play this autumn.
The word on the street is that Eastmond’s club colleague Sam Burgess will get the nod, but if that comes at the expense of any of the aforementioned players then it is a travesty.
Slade in particular offers genuine cover across 10, 12 and 13 which is something that Owen Farrell, for example, does not.
All eyes will be on Twickenham on Wednesday, it would be a shame if the England hierarchy don’t reward the likes of Slade and Daly with a shot at the World Cup.
— Herald Sport (@PlymouthSport) May 17, 2015
Ospreys pay the price for failing to register bonus point
Three years after winning the Pro12 title, the Ospreys are back in the end-of-season play-offs, however, they may well rue not securing a fourth try.
Having scored three within the first 28 minutes, it is understandable that their joy at finishing in the top four was tinged with disappointment.
In fact the Welsh region did not score a single point in the remaining 52 minutes of action against Connacht, instead succumbing to late pressure from their hosts.
A fourth try, and the bonus point it would have brought, would have seen the Ospreys finish top of the pile and book a home semi-final against Ulster, who were well beaten on the weekend by Glasgow.
Instead the Ospreys will travel away to Munster on Saturday and their disappointment was highlighted as skipper Alun Wyn Jones bristled slightly when asked about the importance of missing out on that fourth try.
The Wales lock insisted the club were happy to be in the play-offs, and they at least know that any win at Thomond Park will see them through to the final.
What will rankle is that they had a home semi-final within their grasp, and just couldn’t get a hold of it. Their profligacy at Connacht could really hurt them.
— Shane Williams (@ShaneWilliams11) May 16, 2015
Clermont take a measure of revenge against Toulon
It’s fair to say that Toulon’s trip to Clermont on Sunday was free from the fireworks of the pair’s clash at Twickenham two weeks previously.
In a game that only really came to life in the last 11 minutes, Clermont did enough to edge out their weakened rivals thanks to Morgan Parra’s late try.
In truth, Toulon’s line-up showed little resemblance to the side that had brushed off Clermont to claim the European Champions Cup.
But that does not mean that victory for Franck Azema’s side was any less meaningful. The win sees the beaten Champions Cup finalists draw level on points with Toulon at the top of the table.
Ahead of their final regular season game against Montpellier next week that means they can still finish top of the Top 14 table. However, they know they still have work to do to secure a direct route to the play-off semi-finals.
In France, the top two sides qualify for the last four, with the four teams below them playing each other for the right to make it there themselves.
With Stade Francais just a point behind Clermont and Toulon, and playing 12th-placed Brive on the final day, both know they must win to be sure of a week off.
Interestingly Stade hold the advantage in head-to-head against Toulon, but not against Clermont, while Toulon hold a slender edge over Clermont. It means that were the three to end level on points the mathematicians would have their work cut out, but ensures a thrilling finale to the Top 14 season.
Putting the feet up after training watching Toulon play Clermont hoping my dinner just magically appears..
— Quade Cooper (@QuadeCooper) May 18, 2015
Henry Seniloli showed the world why you should wait until the ball has been dotted down before extravagantly celebrating against the Scarlets this weekend. The scrum-half goaded Scott Williams as he ran in on Saturday, only the Wales centre comfortably caught him before the try-line and forced him to knock the ball on.
To add insult to injury, the try would have proved decisive for Treviso and given them only their fourth win of the season. Oh dear…
European rugby union’s top leagues are beginning to take shape, with teams scrapping to make the end-of-season play-offs or get into the Champions Cup. Here’s what we learned from another exciting weekend.
Fourteen is the new 15
Something strange happened in England and France over the weekend. Three teams – Gloucester, Leicester and Stade Francais – had to play with 14 men for more than 40 minutes, yet all of them won.
Stade probably had the most to feel aggrieved about, seeing as a debatable 18th-minute red card robbed them of Sergio Parisse against Racing Metro. But while the sendings off of Gloucester’s Matt Kvesic and Leicester’s Seremaia Bai were more straight-forward, the achievements of their team-mates were no less impressive.
There was a time when a red card, especially when received in the first half of a game, would spell the end of a team’s hopes of victory.
However, with recent advancements in defence teams have become harder to break down even when they are a man light. That much was in evidence at the Ricoh Arena as Leicester were forced to make 151 tackles – succeeding with all but 19 of them – in order to see off Wasps.
What is so impressive about the wins secured by Gloucester and Stade, though, was that both teams dominated possession rather than the tackle stats in order to secure victory.
Stade Francais, Leicester Tigers and Gloucester all played the second half with 14 men last weekend. All won. Incredible #rugbyunited
— follow-rugby.com (@FollowRugbySite) May 11, 2015
It is tough enough scoring tries when you have a full complement, being able to create space when a man light really is something to applaud.
Kvesic red could yet cost Gloucester
Gloucester reacted incredibly to losing their England flanker, an incident that actually came at a time in their game against London Irish when the Exiles were on top.
But Kvesic’s transgression could end up costing his side a lot more than four points.
At the time of writing the Rugby Football Union (RFU) had not confirmed whether any action would be taken against the Gloucester No7, although it can be presumed it will.
And the Cherry and Whites know only too well the kind of punishment they can expect. Saracens second-row, George Kruis, received a three-week ban for a similar tackle on Gloucester’s David Halaifonua in January.
14 man rugby: We will have to hope that Matt Kvesic’s ban won’t impact too much on our European ambitions … … http://t.co/8Bbqmckpcy
— sportnetwork (@sportnetwork) May 11, 2015
At the time the suspension was seen as a little soft, and therefore there must be a worry for Gloucester fans that the RFU will come down harder on Kvesic.
Either way, a three-week ban would rule the flanker out of Gloucester’s European Champions Cup play-off against the eighth-placed Pro12 side, and were they to get through that then possibly of the subsequent game too.
Getting back into Europe’s top club competition is a top priority for the club as they seek investment and losing Kvesic for the play-offs would be a huge blow.
Premiership is set for a fantastic finale
Exeter’s remarkable win over Saracens on Sunday has set-up a thrilling finish to the Premiership season, as three clubs remain in the hunt for the last two play-off places.
Another barn-storming performance from Thomas Waldrom, that saw the hulking No8 gain 130 metres and run in two tries, helped propel the chiefs above their hosts on points difference with one game left.
The Chiefs are fourth, one point behind Leicester, whose victory over Wasps has ended the now Coventry-based club’s chances of a top-four place.
Thomas Waldrom scored 2 tries as Exeter beat Saracens 24-20. He’s on 16 tries for the season, one behind the record! pic.twitter.com/viU2ptslz1
— EatSleepRugby (@Eat_Sleep_Rugby) May 11, 2015
A bonus-point win for Wasps at London Irish next weekend could feasibly have seen them pull level with Exeter and Saracens, but they have currently won two games less than the two sides ahead of them meaning they have no chance of overhauling them.
Instead it will be two from Leicester, Exeter and Saracens who will take on Northampton and Bath in the end-of-season play-offs.
The Tigers will fancy their chances of getting the win they need to secure third, hosting a Saints side already assured of finishing top of the table and with a home semi-final.
Games between Leicester and Northampton are never friendly though, and a slip-up could see them leap-frogged by both Exeter and Saracens, who face Sale and London Welsh respectively.
With Sale retaining a slim hope of a top-six finish, though, Exeter will not have it all their own way down in Devon. There are sure to be many more twists and turns on Saturday.
Scarlets on verge of place at top table
Rhys Priestland bade farewell to the Parc y Scarlets with a starring role in the Scarlets’ 16-6 win over Cardiff Blues, contributing 11 points in the process.
— Scarlets (@scarlets_rugby) May 11, 2015
It was a vital result that edges them towards automatic qualification for the Champions Cup, seeing them go four points clear of Edinburgh with a game to play.
As that match is an away trip to Treviso it would seem the Scarlets have done enough to seal the Pro12’s final place at European rugby’s top table.
In that sense, the points that arrived from Bath-bound Priestland’s boot on Sunday could well prove to be his most important in a red shirt.
Welsh club rugby is in a rebuilding process at the moment, and while the Ospreys top the table the other three regions have not fared quite so well.
In fact, defeat against the Scarlets means the Blues can finish no higher than 10th, while the Newport-Gwent Dragons are guaranteed ninth.
At a time when the regions are trying to encourage Welsh players to head back home it is imperative that the country has two representatives in the Champions Cup. Barring a catastrophe next weekend, Priestland has ensured that, for a season at least.
Exiles would not be the answer to Pro12 problems
The inclusion of Italian teams in the Pro12 has not been without its issues. It is five years now since Treviso and Aironi were invited to join the competition – Zebre replaced Aironi in 2012 – but results have not improved.
— Steve James GMWSport (@GMWalesSport) May 11, 2015
Zebre and Treviso will again finish as the bottom two clubs this season, amid reports that they owe their rivals a combined €1.5 million (Dh6.2m).
The debt could lead to the Italian clubs’ expulsion and leave the league looking for two new members.
English exile teams, London Scottish and London Welsh, have put their names forward and are being considered should Treviso and Zebre lose their places.
However, while both clubs have a rich history, and could feasibly grow a large following, they are not going to immediately improve the competition either on or off the field.
Welsh have struggled badly in the Premiership this season, failing to draw large crowds at the Kassam Stadium, and are on their way back down to the Championship having garnered just one point from 21 games so far.
Scottish, meanwhile, did make the Championship play-offs but finished third – more than 30 points behind second-placed Worcester.
Moreover, cutting Treviso and Zebre loose would send out the wrong message at a time when rugby is trying to grow participation globally.
Italy are not going to improve internationally unless their players are playing at a reasonable level, week-in, week-out. There is no doubt that some serious concerns need addressing, but the Pro12 should not be too hasty in turning its back on its Italian members.
Toulon may be famous for a flowing back-line that boasts the likes of Bryan Habana and Drew Mitchell, but on the weekend prop Xavier Chiocci showed he’s no slouch either. (25 secs in)
Toulon weathered an early Clermont storm as they came from behind to seal a third-straight European Cup success and write a new chapter in their storied recent history.
In a repeat of the 2013 Heineken Cup final in Dublin, Clermont came up just short against a formidable Toulon side who sent Carl Hayman, Bakkies Botha and man of the match Ali Williams into retirement with another winner’s medal.
Mathieu Bastareaud and Drew Mitchell both scored tries for the victors, while Leigh Halfpenny, who finished with 14 points with the boot, kept his side in the game in the first half-an-hour.
Wesley Fofana had got the game’s first try, while Nick Abendanon produced a fine solo effort to add to eight points from Camille Lopez.
Abendanon may well regret a poor clearance late in the opening period though, that ultimately allowed Bastareaud to score and hand Toulon a half-time lead.
Clermont suffered a late set-back as fly-half Brock James pulled up in the warm-up, with French international playmaker Lopez drafted in off the bench.
It had a positive impact, initially, as Franck Azema’s men tore into their opponents, Naipolioni Nalaga’s first-minute sprint down the left touchline setting the mood for the opening 25 minutes.
Toulon were struggling to get out of their own half, and it was no surprise when their opponents notched the first try of the game as Sebastien Tillous-Borde’s charged down kick fell kindly for Fofana.
The France centre needed little invitation to gobble up the ball and sprint over the line.
Lopez missed the conversion, but thanks to his earlier two penalties Clermont now enjoyed a deserved an 11-3 advantage.
However, there had been warning signs for the men in white, and Halfpenny would soon haul his side within two points with his second and third penalties.
Halfpenny would inexplicably pass up the opportunity to give Toulon the lead a few minutes later, but the momentum had swung. Although, it was a mistake from Abendanon would allow them to sneak in front.
The former Bath full-back failed to gather his kick ahead, and then allowed Chris Masoe to bounce of his attempted tackle. Masoe powered into space to set up the move that ended with Bastareaud crashing over in the left corner.
Halfpenny made no mistake with his conversion and suddenly Toulon were heading into the break with a five-point lead.
It almost got a whole lot better for the defending European champions early in the second half as Stefforn Armitage’s hard running set in motion a passage of play that almost saw Matt Giteau over the whitewash.
The confidence that had coursed through Clermont in the opening exchanges had evaporated, as evidenced when Noa Nikaitaci fumbled a routine kick into touch.
Shortly afterwards, Halfpenny would extend Toulon’s lead with another penalty, silencing a rendition of ‘Swing Low’ in the process, but to their credit Clermont refused to buckle.
— Champions Cup (@ChampionsCup) May 2, 2015
Abendanon may have cost his side a try, but with a little over 18 minutes left he hauled his back into the contest with a moment of magic.
Fielding Bryan Habana’s clearance, the England hopeful took advantage of some confusion in the Toulon ranks to chip ahead, gather and score. Lopez added the routine conversion and Clermont were right back in it.
In keeping with a topsy-turvy contest, their momentum did not last long and within two minutes Ali Williams thought he had scored, only for replays to confirm he dropped the ball.
Toulon would not have to wait long for another try, though, as Mitchell cut through some static Clermont defending following an exquisitely timed pass from Sebastien Tillous-Borde.
Halfpenny, having received treatment for the second time, missed the extras, setting up a tense final 10 minutes with Toulon less than a converted try in front.
Clermont’s belief was renewed, but despite another break from Abendanon, were unable to deny their rivals a place in the history books.