#360Rugby: Clermont exact revenge, Tuilangi opens England door

Martyn Thomas 17:39 18/05/2015
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  • Hands up: Kyle Eastmond could solve England's midfield problem after Tuilangi's arrest.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    Bonus Point

    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…