Best of the Weekend: London Welsh find fairytale finish
From intriguing ties on domestic and international fronts to gut-wrenching tragedy in County Down, this weekend in rugby threw up an extremely eclectic mix. Here is how it all unfolded.
All Blacks better Boks, Argentina edge even closer
Scrappy and punctuated by misses from Morné Steyn’s wayward boot, a disjointed Test in Dunedin was just about saved by three flashes of brilliance as New Zealand prevailed 21-11 over South Africa. Continuing a happy habit of collecting eye-catching tries, Israel Dagg finished a gorgeous attack to put the hosts ahead in the first quarter, latching onto audacious interplay between Sam Whitelock and Keiran Read.
Shortly after half-time, an electric effort from Bryan Habana brought the Springboks back in front. Bursting through a feeble tackle from replacement scrum half Aaron Smith (who had been dropped for a disciplinary breach in Wellington), the prolific winger then executed a perfect chip-and-chase at break-neck speed. Even within Habana’s vast collection, score number 43 for South Africa will take some beating.
On the hour mark, a stark statistic rolled across the television monitor. With the score at 8-8, George Clancy’s penalty-count reached 16 – an alarming ratio of points to pings. However, Smith found redemption seconds later with a searing snipe from 25 metres out. Deputising nicely for Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden then booted the visitors’ bonus point away at the death. Next stop for Steve Hansen’s men: Buenos Aires.
Buoyed yet further by their exploits on the Gold Coast, Argentina will await the world champions with gusto. Building on an impressive start to their fledgling Rugby Championship career, the Pumas were once again exceptional during a tight loss to Australia.
Rodrigo Roncero and sublime skipper Juan Martin Fernandez Lobbe epitomised desire throughout with robust displays, while Juan Imhoff and Marcelo Bosch attacked with verve and pace. After a gloriously chaotic start to the second half, which included a terrific try for blindside flanker Julio Farias Cabello, the perennially plucky underdogs had opened up a totally deserved 19-6 lead.
Immense credit must go to Australia, who overhauled seemingly unstoppable momentum to grab 16 unanswered points. Inspired by indomitable captain Nathan Sharpe, the Wallabies eventually negotiated the tournament’s banana skin following well-worked scores for Pat McCabe and Digby Ioane. Whatever happens, though, make sure you find a television for the rematch in Rosario on October 6. History beckons.
Wasps impressive as Exiles get off the mark
Naturally, all eyes turned to Wembley on Saturday afternoon for what, on paper, was set to be a titanic tussle between two Premiership giants. Unfortunately, what actually transpired on the hallowed turf of the iconic stadium was a 9-9 draw, Saracens playing out a dour, sometimes dire dogfight against Leicester. At least no one had to fork out £1 million during the half-time entertainment, I guess.
Despite another unremarkable stalemate between Worcester and Gloucester at Sixways, there were reasons to be cheerful elsewhere. Northampton outlined their title credentials with a hard-fought win at Bath, while Harlequins destroyed Sale, Nick Evans the architect of a 37-14 victory. In Wycombe, it was another experienced stand off that ran the show, Stephen Jones making a Wasps debut to remember. Alongside brilliant halfback partner Joe Simpson, the 104-cap Welshman oversaw a 43-14 romp over a beleaguered London Irish outfit who, having now shipped 123 points in three matches, must improve.
It was a much happier outcome for the Aviva Premiership’s other Exiles, however, as London Welsh overturned a 14-0 deficit to record their first top-tier win of the season over Exeter Chiefs. A late Ed Jackson try, converted coolly by Seb Jewell, sent the Kassam Stadium into raptures. What is more, they managed such a feat against a side that have become the blueprint for promotion and progress. More fairytales might yet follow.
Leinster grind out Italian job, Toulouse slump against Perpignan
A cagey round of RaboDirect Pro 12 action saw Heineken Cup champions Leinster indebted to their talisman Jonny Sexton once more, the Lion-in-waiting grabbing a last-gasp drop-goal to secure 19-18 away win against Treviso. In the west of Ireland, Scarlets scaled the summit of the table by beating Connacht 24-11.
Over The Channel, a compelling Top 14 campaign continued with Perpignan condemning champions Toulouse to a 34-20 defeat, crossing five times in the process. Former England Sevens speedster Richard Haughton was a familiar name among the scorers.
Argentina come close to second consecutive Hero of the Weekend gong, but Ed Jackson edges it on the basis of grabbing what could be a very significant try. If Welsh defy the critics and hold on to top-level status (without the help of lawyers), their maiden victory will long be lauded.
Making a mockery of their tussle for the England fly half berth, Owen Farrell and Toby Flood merit mentions in the Villain of the Weekend stakes for lead roles in the Wembley horror show. However, a needless forearm smash into Richie McCaw’s chops isn’t often a great idea. Step forward, Dean Greyling.
There was no shortage of candidates for Try of the Weekend, but one man ensured recognition with a tidy brace. Tom Varndell’s second dot-down against Irish provided a scintillating microcosm of the new-found confidence in the Wasps camp. Joe Simpson scythed through a gap and linked up with his winger fifty metres later. New owners and, perhaps, a new dawn for the sleeping giants of English rugby.
Finally, a word for the fallen. The death of 22 year-old Ulster centre Nevin Spence in a tragic farm accident, which also saw his brother Graham and father Noel lose their lives, rendered the rugby world numb this weekend. It is excruciatingly tough to articulate the pain of such a loss, but the Ravenhill club’s statement was touching in its simplicity. “Nevin was a wonderful player, but also a wonderful person,” said Ulster chief executive Shane Logan. Nothing else needs adding. Rest in peace.