It’s time for our weekly wrap up of who has their name in lights at the moment…and who is making headlines for the wrong reasons.
They’re on fire!
The Sun: Of course the sun is always hot, but last weekend in England the heat got turned up a notch. 44 tries across the weekend’s six matches was a handy reminder to it’s critics that the Premiership is not necessarily a dull affair. With their fates confirmed London Irish and London Welsh managed to rack up 10 tries between them at the Madejski, but it was the amount of points scored between sides hunting top six and playoff positions that really caught the eye – Northampton’s demolition of Sale sending a message that they are very much in contention. For those in the Northern Hemisphere who have called for summer rugby for years, their argument has been strengthened. After all, who doesn’t want to see as many tries as possible?
Capacity crowd in PE: Who says you need to be top of the Super Rugby standings to pack a stadium? Far from it, as witnessed at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth where 45,649 people turned up to watch their team – second last on the ladder – tackle the Bulls. And despite the hosts going down 34-0, nobody left their seats until the final whistle. Respect.
Clermont: The new Top 14 leaders are on fire. Unbeaten in 59 games on home soil, les Jaunards have lost just six out of 32 games all in competitions this term. The last three weeks have been particularly impressive: A drubbing of Montpellier in their Heineken Cup quarter-final was followed by a draw away to Toulon before blitzing defending French champs Toulouse. Munster had better bring their ‘A’ game on Saturday.
Mr and Mrs Frans Ludeke: Even before the trip to Port Elizabeth, the Bulls made some form of rugby history when their head coach became a father for the second, third and fourth time last Wednesday. His wife gave birth to triplets, making him – as far as we could determine – the first Super Rugby coach in the history of the competition to score a hat-trick of children.
Leicester’s Lions?: On the rollercoaster ride that is trying to make the cut for the Lions tour to Australia, Tom Croft and Ben Youngs have occupied two very different seats. Rewind a few months ago and Youngs appeared a certainty – on form for England and impressing for Leicester. But the scrum-half has had to battle back from an underwhelming Six Nations and produced the goods against Bath with an 80-metre moment of magic. Croft’s injury problems are well known yet he was so impressive in his few stints back for Leicester that England called upon him at the end of the Six Nations. Not short of pace, his burst and step for an impressive try at The Rec confirmed that one of the stars of the 2009 Lions tour is back to his best. Plenty for Warren Gatland to ponder.
Bath: Speaking of The Rec, the crowd have been waiting for a result like that against Leicester for years. Bruce Craig’s millions are gradually being converted into potential and whilst this season has come too soon for Bath to challenge for the playoffs, the quality of next season’s signings including Matt Garvey, Jonathan Joseph and perhaps a certain Gavin Henson, hints there is more to come.
Ulster and Leinster: The Pro12 Final looks likely to be an all-Irish affair. Leaders Ulster have scored nine tries in their last two games while Leinster – who scored five against Zebre last week after beating Munster and putting 48 points past Wasps a week earlier – could still win two trophies this year.
Bbbrrr….someone turn the heater up!
Waratahs’ broken stretcher buggy: The Waratahs’ medical staff were left red-faced after their golf buggy stretcher failed to start while Chiefs full-back Andrew Horrell lay on the ground in agony following a serious ankle injury. After several failed attempts to get the vehicle on the pitch, Horrell eventually hopped off the field assisted by two Chiefs personnel. Where the heck was Tah Man when you needed him?
Frans Steyn: It wasn’t a huge surprise to see the former Racing Metro star dropped from the Sharks’ starting XV after an underwhelming first half of the Super Rugby season. Our visit to last week’s Springbok training camp revealed a player overweight and seemingly under-motivated, judging by his apparent lack of enthusiasm and sluggish efforts in drills. How sad it would be if one of the game’s most talented players’ best season ends up being 2007…when he was 20.
Luke Watson: The Kings captain was a step behind the pace in Saturday’s drubbing at the hands of the Bulls. The newcomers’ back-row has set the bar very high this season and their returning skipper simply wasn’t up to scratch. In fact, his exit early in the second half put the brakes on the flood of points against the home side, who were able to keep the Bulls at bay for over half an hour once he had been subbed. In any other team in the world, the number eight would have made his comeback from a long injury lay-off from the bench. But who would dare leave Watson out of a side playing in Port Elizabeth? We all know what happened the last time he didn’t get selected for a team…
French promotion criteria Despite their positive intentions, with just 15 points from 25 games so far, Mont-de-Marsan have been the most unsuccessful team in the history of the Top 14. They have both the worst attacking and defensive stats in the league this season, conceding an average of 25 points per game whilst scoring less than 14. But should les Montois have been promoted in the first place? They only finished third in the ProD2 last term, a whopping 21 points behind champions Grenoble, but claimed the second promotion spot by winning a play-off amongst the next four teams. In theory, a team like Aurillac, who currently hold the final play-off spot – a massive 32 points behind leaders Oyonnax – could qualify for a move up to the top flight. Play-off games might add excitement to the end of the second division season, but they are also a recipe for promoting teams that are hopelessly ill-equipped to compete with France’s big guns.
Sale: Their Premiership safety may be assured, but Sale’s lacklustre performance against Northampton last weekend will have done nothing to ease supporters’ fears ahead of next season. Only a late try from James Gaskell added some form of respectability to the scoreboard after Sale had conceded seven tries at Franklin’s Gardens, with other results seeing them drop down to 11th place. After so much positivity in recent weeks, this loss is a much needed bump and fans will hope that Sale’s recruitment drive is now in full swing.
By Ross Hastie, Dave Morris and Ben Coles