With the Northern hemispheres rugby season beginning to draw to a close, this weekend saw top clubs across Europe take one step closer to claiming top domestic honours. We now have the finalists f0r the Premiership, Pro 12 and Championship playoffs confirmed alongside this seasons Top 14 semi-finalists.
Although the majority of the games adhered to the form book, there were one or two surprises along with a couple of games that went right to the wire somewhat unexpectedly.
Ulster v. Scarlets – as had been widely expected, pre-game favourites Ulster ran-out to a relatively comfortable 28 – 17 victory over their Welsh counterparts. Ulster went in at the break 18 – 3 up after an impressive first half display and despite a spirited response from visitors the Scarlets the margin was far too large to bridge. Although the Ulstermen were not at their best they still put in a decent shift even when under pressure and are now likely to go into the Pro 12 final as favourites. The calm experienced head of Ruan Pienaar kept the score board ticking over whilst Bowen, Diack and Court ensured Ulster emerged victorious.
A great victory for Ulster to ensure their playoff final birth coupled with an encouraging display by a young Scarlets side that suggests there is a lot more still to come from the LLanelli based region.
Tries: Bowe, Diack, Court
Pen: Pienaar 3
Tries: G Davies, Timani
Con: O Williams 2
Pen: O Williams
Leinster v. Glasgow – Ulster will be joined in the Pro 12 final by fellow Irish province Leinster in what will be head coach Joe Schmidt’s last game in charge of the Dublin based outfit. In what was one of the most enthralling games of the weekend Leinster narrowly edged out Glasgow 17 – 15 and had it not of been for a late missed conversion from British and Irish Lion Stuart Hogg then the game could easily have gone to extra time. The Glaswegians started the game strongly and produced a typically free-flowing attacking performance that had the Dubliners on the back foot for large chunks of the game, however the Irish teams experience shone through as they narrowly edged out the Warriors.
Leinster once again showed their class in reaching a fourth consecutive final whilst Glasgow have torn up the form book in reaching the final this year. Although the Scottish team may feel disappointed in losing by such a narrow margin they should take heart from the manner of the performance and come back stronger next season for another assault on the top of the league.
Pens: Sexton 4
Try: Matawalu, Bennett
Yellow Card: Matawalu
Leicester v. Harlequins – in one of the most hotly anticipated games of the weekend Leicester ran out comfortable victors in their 33 – 16 defeat of incumbent champions Harlequins. Despite an evenly contested first half a yellow card for Quins scrum half Danny Care in the second period helped provide Leicester the momentum to run in three second half tries and emerge victorious. Even had Care remained on the field it’s hard to imagine the scoreline would have altered dramatically given the power and precision of the Leicester team from 1 to 23.
A spirited first half performance by Quins came unstuck in the second as Leicester demonstrated the reason they have appeared in each of the previous 8 Premiership finals. Harlequins unfortunately do not look the same force that they did at the beginning of the season so must look to re-group during the summer break and come back stronger next season. Leicester on the other hand now go into the playoff final as firm favourites after yet another demolition of a top 4 competitor.
Tries: Goneva, Morris, Croft, Tait
Cons: Flood 2
Pens: Flood 3
Pens: Evans 3
Yellow Card: Care
Saracens v. Northampton – in by far the biggest upset of the weekend 4th placed Northampton Saints defeated 1st placed Sarances 27 – 13 in style. Despite previously being undefeated at new home Allianz Park, it was the home team who went in 17 – 0 down at half time. Despite a spirited fightback in the second half the deficit remained too large for the favourites to redress therefore meaning Northampton Saints will face Midland rivals Leicester Tigers in the final at Twickenham on 25th May.
Although Saracens were widely expected to compete in the show piece event they were brutally exposed by a powerful Saints team that defied all expectation. Saracens have already announced a number of top new recruits for next season and so will come back again stronger ready for a renewed charge on the Premiership after a strong season. In contrast an average season for the Saints that saw rumours surface of Jim Mallinders removal as directory of rugby now looks set to end on a high. Whatever happens come the final whilst on 25th May the Saints have a huge summer ahead with a number of big players leaving and new recruits to bed in.
Pen: Farrell 2
Tries: Mujati, Elliott, Van Velze
Con: Myler 3
Pen: Myler 2
Toulouse v. Racing Metro – defending champions Toulouse have taken another step towards retaining their league crown after a 33 – 19 victory over Racing Metro. Kiwi playmaker Luke McAllister helped guide his team into a semi-final against Toulon with another impressive display with the boot. Racing fought valiantly through to the end but unfortunately could not get a foothold in the game to challenge.
Next season is sure to see Paris based Racing Metro return even stronger with the acquisition of Lions Jonny Sexton, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate, alongside Northampton powerhouses Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga’uiha.
Castres v. Montpellier – in the second French play-off 17 points from the boot of scrum-half Rory Kockott carried the home side to a deserved 25 – 19 playoff victory over their South coast rivals. The victors means Castres will now take on favourites Clermont Auvergne in the semi finals of the Top 14 playoffs. A yellow card for giant Georgian forward Mamuka Gorgodze in the second half handed Castres the advantage which they duly accepted. Gorgodze then conspired to get himself sent off for stamping on an opponent making the challenge too great for Montpellier.
All in all a decent season for Montpellier who narrowly made the Top 14 playoffs alongside a trip into the Heineken Cup knock-out stages. The signings of Nicolas Mas and Jim Hamilton will add extra steel to an already powerful pack and is likely to see them challenging for major honours once again next year.
Newcastle v. Leeds – despite being early favourites for the Championship crown Newcastle stumbled to a first leg playoff defeat to a young Leeds side at Headingly last week. Despite this Dean Richards men regrouped for the return leg which they won 15 – 6 despite torrid conditions. The boot of fly-half Jimmy Gopperth once again proved invaluable as he scored all of the Falcons 15 points whilst rookie fly-half Ford could only score 6 points from the tee for Leeds.
Despite the disappointment of missing out on the final so narrowly, Leeds would never have expected to be in this position at the beginning of the season. They are currently building a good young side at the club and look set to challenge for promotion once again next season.
Nottingham v. Bedford – a narrow 21 – 23 victory for Bedford was enough to ensure that the Blues grasped their place in the Championship final with both hands after overcoming pre-match favourites Nottingham. The Blues stormed into an early first half leaf but a second half resurgence from Nottingham was not enough to overturn the deficit.
A decent showing by Nottingham but they would really have hoped to have come out victorious in this game. With the Championship seemingly getting stronger each season there will be a lot of pressure on the club to make a real push for promotion next season or potentially struggle for years to come.