Best of the Weekend: Tigers resurgent but All Blacks stall
An Antipodean encounter joined a typically hectic schedule of European action this weekend and there were some sensational contests to savour. Here are the best bits.
All Black run ended after Bledisloe blockbuster ends in draw
Not many across the world of rugby would have begrudged New Zealand joint tenure of the record for successive Test win on the bounce and, when Dan Carter edged the world champions ahead against Australia on Saturday with his sixth successful penalty ten minutes from time, another sublime achievement seemed certain. Unfortunately for Steve Hansen’s men, Brisbane extracted an incredible level of bloody-mindedness from their opponents.
Harangued by critics and plagued by injuries, the Wallabies were inspired by the chance to derail the victory train of their nearest, dearest rivals. Led by Nathan Sharpe in his final international on home soil, the forwards were particularly uncompromising. Though Scott Higginbotham undoubtedly overstepped the mark with a nasty attack on Richie McCaw, Australia strangled their illustrious adversaries through sheer industry.
Craig Joubert’s interpretation of the breakdown once more baffled New Zealand, handing nerveless Mike Harris plentiful opportunities to keep the scoreboard ticking over. Having seen their side fight to a 12-6 half-time advantage, a raucous Suncorp crowd would have perhaps been slightly underwhelmed with a share of the spoils – it could have been worse, though. A poor pass from Piri Weepu stifled Carter’s last-gasp drop-goal attempt and the post was shaved. The southern hemisphere super-powers now have plenty to ponder before heading over our way.
Youngs and Flood fire Leicester to brilliant bonus
The Heineken Cup weekend was once beckoned in by an impressive Ulster win, albeit of an entirely different nature to the pasting of Castres at Ravenhill seven days ago. Battling atrocious conditions as well as a determined Glasgow Warriors outfit at a sodden Scoutstoun Stadium, last season’s finalists slipped to a 19-8 triumph courtesy of Chris Henry’s try and the boot of Paddy Jackson. With Northampton Saints slipping up over The Channel and Stephen Ferris raring to return ahead of the December double-header against the East Midlanders, Ulster’s emotional quest to go one better is gathering momentum.
More resurgent than reliable, Leicester Tigers also outlined their title credentials, although locked at 19-19 after 65 minutes of their match against Ospreys at Welford Road, there was a genuine possibility of Richard Cockerill’s men crashing to an ignominious exit. What followed was relentless and – no doubt to Stuart Lancaster’s delight – orchestrated prominently by the much-maligned partnership of Ben Youngs and Toby Flood.
First, Flood picked off a pass from Dan Biggar before showing surprising pace to glide home from 60 metres. Then, a wobbly punt from Thomas Waldrom found its way to prince of opportunism Youngs via Matt Smith and the exceptional Steve Mafi. Scenting a potentially crucial five-pointer, Tigers launched an all-out assault. Sealing a personal double to a huge roar, Manu Tuilagi secured the double on the stroke of full time. Though Treviso challenged Toulouse gamely, Leicester will target ten points from their two-part Italian job in a couple of months.
A polished first-half showing in a rousing atmosphere vindicated Saracens’ decision to take their ‘home’ clash with Racing Metro to the King Baudouin Stadium in Heysel, tries from Chris Wyles, Steve Borthwick and the excellent Will Fraser laying sturdy foundations for a 30-13 result. Mark McCall’s campaign now awaits its acid test – home and away fixtures against Munster, who compounded Edinburgh’s misery by thrashing the Scots 33-0.
Elsewhere, French heavyweights Toulon and Biarritz flexed their considerable muscles to beat Cardiff and Zebre, while Harelquins came from behind to hijack Connacht with Danny Care again outstanding in bagging a brace of scores to instigate a 30-22 win on the road. Unfortunately, Sale could not quite repeat that effort in Montpellier, but a brave defeat – not to mention more creative class from Danny Cipriani – is something to be proud of.
Following something of a false-start in the face of intrepid Exeter a week ago, the Heineken holders returned to something closer to normality by dismissing Scarlets in Llanelli. Jonny Sexton’s sweet drop-goal and a cross-kick for Isa Nacewa’s wriggling finish were the highlights, although Joe Schmidt urged further improvement at the final whistle. That will be necessary too, as Clermont Auvergne are looking ominous. They tore into the Chiefs at Sandy Park, crossing six times on the way to a 46-12 win.
London Welsh open European account as London Irish run riot
The Amlin Challenge avalanche of points continued apace as there were more mismatches this weekend. A pair of tries for Christian Wade saw Wasps to a thrashing of Rugby Mogliano, while Perpignan put 90 on Bizkaia Gernika. London’s Exiles also enjoyed themselves – Irish coasting past Mont de Marsan and Welsh hanging on to beat I Cavalieri Prato 32-31. There was good news for the West Country too, as Gloucester and Bath took the spoils against Bordeaux and Agen respectively.
Form is temporary, class is permanent. Such a cliché can get tiresome. Still, there is something satisfying about witnessing proof of the old adage. Ben Youngs managed just that on Sunday afternoon at Welford Road, silencing some critics and coasting to Player of the Weekend in the process. One break from a line-out in the second half was gloriously reminiscent of his electric score for England at Sydney in 2010 and his try shortly afterwards gave Leicester the impetus they needed to push on for what could be a pivotal five-pointer. With Danny Care also on fire, Stuart Lancaster must be purring.
First Quade Cooper, now Scott Higginbotham – Richie McCaw has evidently become a magnet for Aussie cheap-shots. This time, at the bottom of a ruck, the Queensland Red aimed a knee and a head-butt to the All Black skipper’s head. There will be a ban forthcoming, but Villain of the Week is fine for now
The summer is getting closer all the time and debates over Lions places are, happily, fair game. Standing out in a crowd of utterly stellar names at the Arms Park, Leigh Halfpenny maintained a strong case for inclusion. His score from a well-worked set-piece after just two minutes was a fine exhibition of finishing and grabs Try of the Weekend.