#360Rugby: Europe sees red, Premiership set for thrilling finale

Martyn Thomas 20:45 11/05/2015
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  • Sergio Parisse was one of a number of players to be sent off this week.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Bonus Point

    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)