Owen Farrell inspires Saracens to second Premiership title

Sport360 staff 30/05/2015
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Owen Farrell came out on top of his battle with England World Cup rival George Ford.

Owen Farrell came out on top in his personal battle for No10 supremacy with England rival George Ford to engineer Saracens second English Premiership title success.

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Farrell amassed 18 points including a fine opening try as Mark McCall’s men overcame a Bath side which fought back strongly in the second half but came up short at Twickenham Stadium.

Victory for Sarries, in their fourth English Final in six years, helped them exorcise the mental demons of last year’s double Final defeat by Northampton and Toulon. 

Jamie George and Chris Wyles also crossed for Sarries, who finished fourth in the table, with Bath’s only try coming from England centre Jonathan Joseph.

Bath began nervously and Sarries dominated the opening half to grab a commanding 25-3 lead by the break. It would also have been a tense afternoon for England head coach Stuart Lancaster with 19 of his World Cup training squad involved in the contest.

Farrell was, however, fortunate to escape at least a yellow card for a clear high-tackle on Bath full-back Anthony Watson. Referee Wayne Barnes chose to merely give a penalty as England’s second choice fly-half dangerously dragged his international team-mate to the turf.

Farrell then showed the good side of his nature as his sublime dummy pass fooled the Bath defence and opened up a large hole for the No10 to dart through and over the line for the first try. He composed himself to kick the extra points for the ideal start by the 2011 champions. 

While Farrell and his team-mates celebrated, Watson, still dazed from his rival’s high tackle, trundled off for the field for a concussion assessment. Sarries almost capitalised again when Bath wing Matt Banahan lost Farrell’s high punt towards the right hand corner due to the glare of the sun. David Strettle jumped with Banahan but just failed to catch it. If the wing had managed to do so he was over the line for a second try.

Sarries No2 Jamie George showed commendable pace to cross the line with posse of Bath backs in vain pursuit. It was the perfect way for George to celebrate his unexpected call up to the England training squad, in place of the suspended Dylan Hartley 24 hours earlier.

Farrell increased the lead with his first penalty before Bath finally found some momentum and pressure, and Semesa Rokoduguni almost set up a try. The right wing broke down the flank, chipped ahead but was cynically taken out by full-back Alex Goode.

George Ford kicked the penalty to put Bath on the scoreboard. Sarries were controlling the game and a third try was soon on the cards with a sublime piece of skill from Strettle, managing to keep the move going as he chipped and caught the ball at full pace, led to George unselfishly passing it on to Wyles to stroll over the Bath line. Farrell converted but Sarries lost captain and lock Alistair Hargreaves who sustained a head injury at the start of the break.

The tide which flowed in favour of Sarries in the first half suddenly turned in Bath’s as Joseph darted over with pace and skill for their first try converted by Ford.

Suddenly Bath were back in the race. Ford and Farrell exchanged penalty blows but Bath failed to continue their revival and Sarries held firm for the victory.

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

Martyn Thomas 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…

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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…

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

Martyn Thomas 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.

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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)

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