ESPN’s European rugby review January 8 — Player of the weekend, flop & more

Rugby


It was another action-packed weekend in Europe as Premiership leaders Exeter were beaten at Newcastle, Rhys Webb proved his value to the Ospreys and Brive and Agen both secured vital victories in the Top 14.

But who caught the eye, who had a game to forget, and what will we all be talking about ahead of the next round of fixtures?

Player of the weekend

Prem (Martyn Thomas): James Phillips (Bath). Billy Vunipola was impressive on his return to the Saracens team following a lengthy layoff, but it was Phillips who stole the show this weekend. On his very first start in the Bath second row, the former Bristol and Exeter lock was a presence on both sides of the ball. Phillips made all 10 of his attempted tackles while the highlight of his nine carries was a barnstorming run from the 22 that scattered the Worcester defence and gave Bath a bonus point in a game they would eventually win 46-25.

PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): Rhys Webb (Ospreys). The Welsh scrum-half showed what the region will be missing when he departs in the summer. A brace of tries against Cardiff proved crucial in a one-point victory; first finishing off Dan Biggar’s chip and gather and then scything through the Blues defence to add a second. With the Ospreys still in contention to qualify for the Champions Cup quarterfinals, he and Dan Biggar could sign off their current stints in Wales in style.

Top 14 (James Harrington): George Tilsley (Agen). The former All Blacks Sevens player was at the heart of everything good Agen did — and there was plenty of it — as they racked up their first try-scoring bonus win of the season at home to Castres. He supplied the decisive pass for the first try of the match and wrought havoc with the ball in hand all game. It was entirely appropriate that he was the one who scored the hosts’ bonus point-sealing third try 11 minutes from time.

Flop of the weekend

Prem: Wasps. Sunday’s clash with Saracens presented Wasps with an opportunity to celebrate Dai Young’s new contract in style, while putting pressure on leaders Exeter and leapfrogging their visitors in the process. However, once Saracens had repelled their early efforts — and bar period in which Schalk Burger and Owen Farrell were in the sin bin — it was a gruelling afternoon for the hosts. Wasps edged possession and territory, but it was their inability to score in the opening seven minutes of the second half, with their opponents down to 13 men, that ultimately proved decisive. From there Saracens produced a counter-attacking masterclass.

PRO14: Ulster. What a difference a week makes. After a comeback victory over 14-man Munster last week, Ulster were demolished by Leinster as their playoff hopes suffered a huge blow. It took 73 minutes for Ulster to register a score and by that stage Leinster had already secured the bonus-point win. Their defeat has seen Edinburgh and Treviso narrow the gap with a battle now for the Champions Cup very much on.

Top 14: Martin Puech. Plenty of competition this weekend, with Ma’ama Vaipulu’s stupid red card for Castres, and, indeed, the whole Castres team, pushing hard for this ‘accolade’. But Puech’s late bid for dubious glory — getting himself sent off three minutes after he came on during Pau’s match against Toulouse — takes the title. He’ll have breathed a huge sigh of relief when the whistle came and Pau had held on to their one-point lead.

Best coaching call

Prem: Not necessarily a coaching call, but Newcastle’s defensive effort was a credit to Dean Richards’ backroom staff, and ultimately secured an impressive victory over table-topping Exeter at Kingston Park. The hosts ceded possession and territory for much of the game but were able to put extreme pressure on the Chiefs attack with ferocity of their defence, making a phenomenal 215 tackles and forcing 16 turnovers. Mark Wilson’s late turnover ensured the Chiefs finished without a match point for only the third time in the Premiership since New Year 2015.

PRO14: With Treviso trailing at the break at home to South Africa’s Cheetahs, Crowley made a number of changes, including bringing on Epalahame Faiva. The hooker ended the match with a brace of tries as the hosts controlled the game well. The ability to bring on Ian McKinley to help Marty Banks at fly-half has also helped their march towards a Champions Cup place.

Top 14: Oyonnax’s Adrien Buononato faced a gut-wrenching choice seven minutes after time expired on an epic encounter against La Rochelle at Stade Charles Mathon. Maxime Veau’s converted try, less than two minutes from the end, gave the Top 14’s basement side one last, desperate shot at an unlikely victory against their high-flying visitors. For the next seven minutes the hosts phased their way upfield from deep inside their own 22 — until they won a penalty in front of the posts. Seeing his exhausted players had nothing left, Buononato called for Ben Botica to kick for goal to level the scores at 38-38. Despite their efforts, Oyonnax lost ground on relegation rivals Agen and Brive, who both picked up vital wins.

Biggest refereeing call

Prem: Matthew Carley (Sale vs. Harlequins). Joe Marler should discover Tuesday evening whether his moment of madness will cost him the chance to be a part of England’s Six Nations title defence from the off, and he can few complaints with Carley’s decision to show him red at Sale. Marler clearly made contact with the head area of TJ Ioane and regardless of the force involved, it was a completely unnecessary thing to do. It also cost his side momentum in a match they ultimately went on to lose by a single point.

PRO14: Frank Murphy (Treviso vs. Cheetahs). The decision to issue yellow cards to Cheetahs pair Torsten Van Jaarsveld and Shaun Venter within 60 seconds of each other changed the whole complex of a game the Cheetahs had been leading up until that point. In neither case did Murphy go to the TMO as he issued two cards which ultimately dented the Cheetahs’ PRO14 playoff hopes.

Top 14: Pierre Brousset (Brive vs. Toulon). The visitors’ scrum-half Alby Mathewson broke from the back of a ruck a metre or so from Brive’s line seven minutes into the second half. A score looked inevitable, but Mr. Brousset referred the touchdown to the TMO, who ruled — from a low angle that was the only one available — that Mathewson had put the ball down a matter of inches short. The score was ruled out, and Brive would go on to win by a single point courtesy of a converted try on the last play of the game.

Storyline to keep an eye on…

Prem: Following his side’s narrow defeat at Leicester, London Irish director of rugby Nick Kennedy urged his side to swap the rock hammer for a sledgehammer as they chip away at the gap between themselves and 11th-placed Worcester. Obituaries for the Exiles have already been written following a damaging loss to the Warriors last month, but might they prove premature? Irish’s next three Premiership matches are all against teams in the bottom half, while two are at home — including the return against Worcester. February would be a good time to start swinging that sledgehammer.

PRO14: The playoff spots are all but secured. In conference A Munster are 13 points clear of the Cheetahs — who have two games in hand — while Leinster have an 11-point advantage over Ulster in Conference B. What is still very much up for grabs is the automatic Champions Cup playoff spots, with Cardiff, Connacht, Ospreys and Zebre all separated by eight points in conference A. Ulster are going to be embroiled in a battle for third place in Conference B, with Edinburgh three points behind them and Treviso 11 points adrift.

Top 14: The health of 19-year-old Samuel Ezeala. The winger, who was part of a patched-up Clermont backline, needed urgent on-pitch treatment behind screens at the U Arena after being knocked unconscious when he tried to tackle Racing 92’s Virimi Vakatawa. A later tweet from the Clermont press office revealed Ezeala had regained consciousness, was able to move normally, and was being taken to hospital for further tests. Here’s hoping he makes a full recovery.



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