Best of the Weekend: All Blacks remain unbeaten
Some startling results in the Aviva Premiership provided more than enough ammunition for a week’s worth of debate and consternation, but there was more for rugby fans to enjoy beyond the domestic dust-ups. Here is your regular run-down.
All Blacks conquer Soweto while Aussie power halts Pumas
Behind early on thanks to the prolific Brian Habana, New Zealand found themselves trailing 16-12 at half-time to a set of Springboks spurred on by typically partisan crowd. Befitting their status as one of the best sides our sport has ever seen, not one man in black panicked. Twenty unanswered second-period points followed, and even when Alain Rolland sent Israel Dagg to the sin bin in the final quarter with South Africa seemingly resurgent, there was an all-consuming inevitability about the result. No one seriously doubted that Richie McCaw’s troops would deliver a 100th Test victory to their indomitable leader.
Four scintillating scores either side of the break outlined the All Blacks’ unparalleled attacking prowess, each featuring irresistible running lines and slick handling. The first, finished by Sam Whitelock after nice interplay between Hosea Gear and Keiran Read, was perhaps the pick of the bunch, though each of the efforts from Aaron Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were special. Now the sixth team to go through the southern hemisphere round-robin unbeaten, Steve Hansen’s vintage just keep raising the bar.
Across in Rosario, Argentina had a golden chance to cap a fantastic first foray among the big boys by beating Australia’s walking wounded. Unfortunately for the Pumas, a combination of Mike Harris’ unerring boot and a heavyweight Wallaby pack was too much to overcome. Fittingly, the hosts had the last word through a Juan Imhoff score, but credit must go to Robbie Deans, who has emerged from a dire season ravaged with injuries to burgle a runners-up berth. Only time will tell whether that is enough to save his job.
Irish click into gear while Chiefs ambush Quins
Salford was the scene for the start of this weekend’s Aviva action, Leicester condemning Sale to a sixth consecutive loss. Though the Chesire outfit are now well adrift at the foot of the table, Bryan Redpath will have been heartened by his team’s determination against the Tigers – but for another blunder from the television official, Sale could have been awarded a crucial second try to move into a 15-6 lead just before half-time. As it was, skipper Dave Seymour was curiously adjudged to have knocked on. From there, the boot of George Ford – handed a rare start by Richard Cockerill – and an encouraging comeback score for Ben Youngs overhauled the hosts.
A customarily fraught atmosphere descended on Kingsholm the next day for the West Country derby between Gloucester and Bath. Despite exploding into life when Stephen Donald sprinted clear of the Cherry and White defence with only 32 seconds on the clock, the contest thereafter mirrored the tension in the stands. Having enjoyed the more consistent start to the campaign, it was perhaps unsurprising that Gloucester eventually prevailed. Not quite at his fantastic best, Freddie Burns still nudged Stuart Lancaster with a snap drop-goal that added to Rob Cook’s pivotal try.
Saturday’s two remaining fixtures provided points aplenty, not to mention a couple of eyebrow-raising outcomes. Seething from a slip-up seven days ago against Saracens, Harlequins headed to Sandy Park in search of redemption. It was not forthcoming, however, as Exeter found their most rampaging rugby in the glorious sunshine. A Jason Shoemark double rubber-stamped a 42-28 victory, leaving Conor O’Shea with a sore head. Meanwhile in Reading, London Irish underlined the value of home comforts by derailing Northampton’s 100 per cent start. Jonathan Joseph banished his defensive jitters to steal the show, scoring one and laying another on a silver platter for Topsy Ojo by way of an audacious off-load. The Exiles are channelling Dr Jekyll once more.
There may not have been a fairytale London Welsh debut for Gavin Henson at the Kassam on Sunday, but the tangoed enigma let none of his new teammates down. He kicked his goals and looked assured at fly-half, though it was his opposite number that stole the show. Freed from the burden of international concern, Charlie Hodgson recovered from handing the hosts their opening try with a wild pass to grab all of Saracens’ 28 points, narrowly ousting the competition newcomers. Another Welsh bonus point was well deserved – Lyn Jones is cultivating something pretty impressive.
Evidently intent on adding to his single cap, Joe Simpson provided some spark during the weekend’s final encounter between Wasps and Worcester. Sadly, there was not much else to behold in High Wycombe. Christian Wade set up a tense finale by uncharacteristically butchering a certain try, but Simon McIntyre’s close-range score early on was enough to decide an unremarkable dogfight.
Leinster take battle of Irish big guns, Wilkinson roars Lions worth
Treviso took a Scottish scalp by battling past Edinburgh in a dour RaboDirect Pro 12 game on Friday evening, but there was a lot more to get excited about a day later at Lansdowne Road as Leinster and Munster renewed age-old hostilities. Brian O’Driscoll – who else? – was the match-winner, scrambling over in the left-hand corner to give the Heineken Cup champions the win. Ospreys, Glasgow, Ulster and Scarlets were also successful and head into the European period with momentum.
Having emphasised his desire to redeem the pain of 2001 with the British and Irish Lions in Australia next summer, Jonny Wilkinson was up to his old tricks in the latest round of Top 14 action. Toulon simply battered Biarritz, easing to a remarkable 36-9 result away from home. Steffon Armitage, Matt Giteau and Vincent Martin got the tries, but Wilkinson – and his 21-point haul – was the difference. Toby Flood and Rhys Priestland might yet miss out on a pretty important plane ticket.
Just about anyone from Exeter Chiefs had a worthy shout of making Hero of the Weekend, their defeat of Harlequins providing another symbol of their inexorable rise – next up are champions Leinster in the Heineken Cup. However, the abiding image of the inaugural Rugby Championship was there for all to see on Saturday afternoon as Richie McCaw stood with two trophies – the official tournament silverware and a humungous black eye, indicative of another battle won. 100 Test wins is a wonderful achievement. McCaw is a wonderful player.
With bragging rights on the line during a manic finale at Kingsholm, every player on the paddock trod the thin line between gutter and glory. Jimmy Cowan threw the game back to Bath, but Ollie Devoto kicked it away again. Worthy of a (harsh) Villain of the Weekend award.
He never stays quiet for long and Gavin Henson was the architect of our latest Try of the Weekend against his former employers, floating a sublime pass 25 metres to find Nick Scott of London Welsh’s left wing. Some delightfully simple interplay involving Phil Mackenzie followed, before Tom Arscott crashed over the Saracens line. More of the same please, Gav.