Best of the Weekend: Cagey start for Rugby Championship
A hectic weekend on either side of the equator saw thrills and spills in equal measure as the opening fixtures of the inaugural Rugby Championship coincided with the resumption of France’s Top 14. Here are your best bits.
New Zealand and South Africa set a sluggish pace
Argentina’s introduction to the old Tri-Nations ensured that the build-up to this new, expanded tournament has been drenched in anticipation and intrigue. Frankly, two fractured contests couldn’t quite justify the hype. Pedantic officiating compounded some wayward set-piece, with error-strewn handling also prominent. Don’t worry, though. There were enough flashes of excellence to suggest that this competition will make for a truly compelling three months.
Sydney’s Bledisloe Cup curtain-raiser did not lack for ambition. Attempting a trademark backdoor offload inside his own twenty-two after about eleven seconds, Sonny Bill Williams made sure of that. From there,New Zealand briefly threatened to dismantle their trans-Tasman rivals with well-worked first-half tries from the fantastic Israel Dagg and Cory Jane. However, a strange caginess engulfed the game thereafter, Alain Rolland at his most pernickety.
Veteran Nathan Sharpe kept the Wallabies in it by scoring on the stroke of half-time before a dogfight descended in the second period. Guided by Richie McCaw – the unparalleled expert in edging tight tussles – the visitors were always favourites and Dan Carter gleefully jumped at the chance to denyAustraliaa bonus point at the death. In the end, 27-19 was completely fair.
Across the hemisphere at Newlands, Santiago Phelan’s Pumas prowled into the upper echelon of world rugby. As expected, they showed plenty of passion and no little muscle. Unfortunately, unsurprisingly, that wasn’t enough, even against their decidedly unimaginative hosts. Two lapses of concentration led to typically direct scores from the Springboks before the break and Bryan Habana killed off the contest on the hour after collecting Morné Steyn’s cross-kick. Heyneke Meyer would have been irritated with a failure to collect the fourth try, but a bigger blow – a seven-month cruciate injury to Bismarck du Plessis – may prove more costly.
Argentina can be encouraged by their industry – Patricio Albacete and Rodrigo Roncero did not take a backwards step. Outside them, Gonzalo Camacho and Juan Martin Hernandez clearly belong at this level. What this 27-6 defeat did prove, though, was that patience is paramount. This first foray among the big boys might feel very long.
Strong returns for Toulon Galacticos and Northampton’s silent assassin
Merely ten weeks after the final of the last edition was contested, the Top 14 reignited over The Channel, vacuum-packed with stellar names. Featuring Andrew Sheridan, Carl Hayman and Gethin Jenkins in the front row alone,Touloneasily took the prize for the most ridiculous match-day 22. Ominously for everyone across the continent hoping to get a whiff of Heineken Cup glory, they also gelled well to beat Perpignan21-15 away from home – six penalties and a drop-goal from Jonny Wilkinson enough for victory. There were also impressive wins for Biarritz, Stade Francais and newly-promoted Grenoble.
Closer to home, a comprehensive pre-season programme continued, Leicester drawing 14-14 with Ulster at Ravenhill and Saracens being edged out by Treviso in Chris Ashton’ first game for the Fez-Heads. Headlines were rightly swiped by Northampton, though, who smashed a young Leinster side 43-0 at Franklin’s Gardens. Tom Wood grabbed one of the seven tries to resounding, relieved cheers. Hopefully that is the end of his injury nightmares.
Perhaps shining brighter because of his underwhelming company, Israel Dagg grabs a coveted double – both Try of the Weekend and Hero of the Weekend. Not quite himself in the Test series against Ireland in June, the mercurial 24 year-old was back at his best, commanding under the high ball, electric on the counter-attack and rock-solid as a right-footed kicking option. Oh, and he also skinned Kurtley Beale with a gorgeous hitch-kick:
Nothing on the pitch really merited Villain of the Weekend status, so the booby prize is heading to the Cameron Shepherd saga. Snubbed by Saints on fitness grounds, the Australian has signed for Sale Sharks – and threatened legal action.Northampton have not shirked the feud and are preparing for a courtroom battle. Messy.