What a weekend of rugby UK fans have been treated to! In the Premiership, the semi-finals were decided by a combined 3 points, with both games being won by tries in the dying minutes. Meanwhile in the Pro12, the Scarlets became the first team in tournament history to win a semi-final away from home, despite playing over half the game a man down! Munster also kept their remarkable story going by beating Ospreys to make the final in a season where they have had to deal with the passing of Head Coach Anthony Foley.
I was lucky enough to have this weekend off work so was able to watch the first 3 games live on TV and record the Munster game in order to watch later, even if this did mean I had to make do with an S4C broadcast with no English commentary. With the finals on Saturday and the Lions tour beginning soon after, here are my thoughts on the weekend’s semi-finals.
Leinster 15 – 27 Scarlets
What a fantastic (and thoroughly deserved) result for the Scarlets! Their performance could very easily be described as a game of two halves: In the first half the Scarlets took full advantage of every time they were able to rip through the Leinster defence with a combination of great support lines and exquisite handling. Steff Evans’ red card just before halftime meant that the Scarlets had to change their approach in the second half and their dogged defence was as impressive as their attack had been in the first 40! James Davies was rightly named Man of the Match after being a nuisance at the breakdown and using his sevens experience to help cover the wing in Evans’ absence. Leinster’s tactics may have played into the Welsh region’s hands, but to outscore them in the second half despite being a man down is no mean feat! Next week’s final may be a step too far, but if the Scarlets can pull out another performance like on Friday night, anything is possible.
One man who probably didn’t enjoy this game was Warren Gatland. With the first Lions game mere weeks away, Johnny Sexton had a thoroughly forgettable performance against the Scarlets and seemed to suffer a couple of knocks. If he can barely make it through a Pro12 match, how he can be expected to survive a Lions Tour to New Zealand is a mystery to me! As if that wasn’t bad enough, he also witnessed two of his selected props, Jack McGrath and Tadhg Furlong, leave the field earlier than planned with injuries. Furlong is a likely Test starter for the Lions and McGrath has every chance of making the 23, so Gatland will surely be hoping that neither of these injuries is serious.
Munster 23 – 3 Ospreys
The score probably flatters Munster, but they were the better team on the day. Ospreys clearly came with the intention to play positive rugby but often couldn’t even do the basics right! So many attacks were over before they even began courtesy of handling errors or a lack of support. Possibly the worst moment from this perspective was a line-out that floated past an oblivious Alun Wyn Jones and hit Bradley Davies on his behind, somehow I doubt that was the move they called. Brendon Leonard, deputising for the injured Rhys Webb, had an evening to forget, failing to catch a relatively simple pass off the top of a line out early on and sailing a number of kicks too long, allowing the Munster players to call a Mark. Dan Biggar was largely ineffective too, so I was surprised to see the coaches replace him with Sam Davies so late in the game, by which point Munster’s victory was as good as confirmed.
I wasn’t surprised to hear that Francis Saili was named Man of the Match as he had a fantastic game. Despite being penalised early for a tackle off the ball (a penalty that I felt should have gone the other way as Biggar was in front of the ball carrier so technically obstructing Saili), the Kiwi continued to interrupt the Ospreys midfield with a number of big hits, whilst often looking dangerous going forward. His try in the first half was very well taken, to pick up a bobbling ball without knocking on and then have the strength to power over the line. With performances like this, it is crazy to think that Munster have chosen to let him go! I’m sure that, much like Ulster with Ruan Pienaar, if there was less strictness from the IRFU surrounding foreign imports then he would have still been with the province next year.
Exeter 18 – 16 Saracens
This was probably the day where Saracens’ success proved to be their undoing. With so many internationals in the squad and having gone all the way in this season’s European Champions Cup, it appears that this was a match too far for the defending Champions. Already missing defensive linchpin Brad Barritt, losing both Michael Rhodes and departing winger Chris Ashton in the opening 10 minutes was always going to make things difficult. Despite this, they still came within a minute of victory and if it wasn’t for such a ballsy kick from Henry Slade they likely would have held on. The introduction of Schalk Brits really improved Sarries’ attack, I just feel that if they had also replaced Richard Wigglesworth with the more attacking Ben Spencer midway through the second half then they could have caused the Exeter defence more issues.
Last May, it is fair to say that Exeter were somewhat overawed in the final and it took them far too long to get into the game. While it took them a while to get going again, they grew into the game much quicker and by the end of the first quarter were as competitive as Saracens. Possibly the most impressive thing about the Exeter performance was the way they kept their heads up after Mike Ellery’s late try. To win the big games, it is important to have clutch players, and Henry Slade proved how clutch he was with that penalty kick from his own 10m line to give the Chiefs a line-out just short of the Saracens 5m line. Even then, the forwards did a fantastic job not to get too excited and give away a stupid penalty on their way to crossing the try line. Wasps may be the favourites in the final, but write off Exeter at your peril!
Wasps 21 – 20 – Leicester
Before kickoff, I fully expected Wasps to run away with this game, a feeling that was strengthened when they took an early lead. However, Tigers proved me completely wrong and did so well to come within a few minutes of victory. It must be remembered as well the quality of player missing from the 23 through injury. When on form, Maxime Mermoz, Manu Tuilagi, Matt Toomua and JP Pietersen could walk into most Premiership teams. Tom Youngs’ personal issues would have been a fair reason to finish the season early, and it was a testament to his character to see him not just play, but also perform so well. What must also be mentioned is the reception that Youngs got from both home and away fans. The BT Sport commentary noted that the cheer for Tom Youngs was almost as loud as the ones for the home players when the teams were announced, and the way he was cheered when leaving the field made me proud to be a rugby fan.
The 2016/17 Wasps back line is possibly one of the most exciting things that I have ever seen in professional rugby. However for much of the game they played into Tigers’ hands by playing a tight game rather than the expansive rugby we are used to. In the last 20 minutes they finally began to spread the ball and were rewarded with the winning try. They will certainly be hoping that Kurtley Beale’s injury was nothing serious as he is a quality player who brings so much to the Wasps attack. Perhaps their biggest worry ahead of the final will be the scrum. They have struggled with injuries in the front row this season and this is arguably the weakest area of the squad. Tigers had some fortune in the scrum and Exeter looked very impressive in this area against Sarries, so Wasps need to do everything they can to get the ball out as quickly as possible or, better yet, avoid the scrums in the first place!
What were your thoughts on the games? Do you think I missed anything? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge