If this is your first time visiting these pages, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Harpin On Rugby. For over 12 years I’ve been scribbling mostly on Leinster & Ireland matches every Monday, but since neither was playing last weekend, I have chosen instead to pick 5 matches to cover with shorter writeups instead; I enjoyed the format so much after Leinster’s date with Toulon was cancelled I thought I’d give it another go.
And to be fair I think I have another decent set of 80 minute clashes on which to harp this time around, with two European finals plus some Rainbow Cup action involving both South African and Italian clubs so without any further ado, let’s get to it...
LA ROCHELLE 17-22 TOULOUSE
Obviously as a Leinster fan I had mixed emotions in the build up to this match, with loads of elements feeding into it. Having done so well to overcome the reigning champions away from home in what was always going to be a physical quarterfinal, to go on to the semifinal only to be extremely outgunned in the second half was disappointing to say the least.
But when it came to my allegiances for this day, well they were always going to be with La Rochelle, partly because of ROG (some might say I should be against him because he’s Munster but I’d be more inclined to be for him because he’s Ireland) and partly because of a natural tendency to go for the underdog. Preventing Toulouse from getting their 5th star first was probably in there somewhere too.
Another big element was of course the crowd. We’re all aching to get back watching live rugby and I knew several Irish fans who had gotten tickets despite it being two French teams. Perhaps the atmosphere seemed a bit more “normal” the previous night given there was an English team involved but still anything remotely resembling an atmosphere was great to both see and hear.
Now to the action...one thing you can say about these two clubs is that the current Top 14 table tells you a lot more about their form than does the amount of stars on their respective crests. However disappointed La Rochelle may be with this result, few would bet against not only having another crack at Toulouse for the Bouclier de Brennus, but also overcoming them.
And let’s face it, in a match that was always going to be about familiarity, caginess and fine margins, it was their own mistakes that cost them in the end, and I don’t just mean the red card, though we should probably look at that first.
Once more it’s hard not to look at this through a Leinster lens - there were millimetres in the difference between Botia on Médard and Henshaw on Balacoune a week before, but they were the millimetres which make the difference between nothing happening and a straight red.
While it’s always a shame for a decision like that to take place so early in such a big match, I still appreciate the officials being able to come to the correct conclusion without being deterred by the fact that no player had seen red before in a Heineken final. Though despite having the man advantage, Toulouse still had to make it count and it has to be said they really did make heavy weather of it.
The scoreline was only 6-6 when the red was shown and although that was the most costly penalty of the evening, I really don’t think it was the dumbest - that honour went to Toulouse flanker Rynhardt Elstadt for playing the ball on the deck minutes later allowing the ref to even up the numbers, if only for ten minutes.
Still, La Rochelle were unable to capitalise and a series of poor decisions and lack of accuracy cost them throughout. Before the sending off, they won a series of penalties in a kickable position only to go for the scrum option - in many ways it made sense since their pack had a big early win but especially in a final, once you make that call it is imperative to get a try and they couldn’t do it.
There was also a time in the second half when they found themselves with some rare front foot ball in the opposition 22 and with the score still level at 12-12 and Toulouse struggling to make hay with an extra man, I thought for sure a drop goal was on the cards yet they persisted for the try and Bougarit knocked on and the chance was gone.
But maybe the reason they didn’t go for that was a lack of confidence in their out half Isaia West because he certainly sold them short from the kicking tee. You can’t simply turn the amount of missed kicks into points on the scoreboard but I still contend that if he had landed just one of his failed efforts the result could have been different.
All of which meant that while Toulouse had to be frustrated after being denied a couple of times by the TMO, they still had time to find some class from their star studded lineup and in the end the gap provided by the personnel advantage was found after a sweet miss pass from Ntamack found Tolofua in the wide channel and his offload back inside put Juan Cruz Mallia through and although there was still 20 minutes left, the writing was really on the wall for La Rochelle.
To their credit they did all they could to stay in it but before their efforts led to a try for themselves, they also led to a penalty against which allowed Toulouse a cushion and the run in was comfortable enough in the end.
I rarely disagree with Paul Williams’ take on things but in this tweet I can see the point of view he’s disputing. Obviously with a European title on the line there will always be tension, and like I said earlier the return of fans was a major boost as well, but I think as an 80-minute spectacle this lacked a lot of spark even before the red card. A lot of needless penalties, a lot of stoppages, neither team able to find the rhythm which got them to this stage.
But then again when we got our 4th star it wasn’t exactly a classic either, so I very much doubt fans of Les Rouge et Noirs are exactly complaining about how they got their 5th and it’s important to express the significance of this victory for Ugo Mola in particular, since this is the first Noves-less title for the great club.
LEICESTER 17-18 MONTPELLIER
If you were to go just by the BT Sport coverage, there was only one team in this final.
Now don’t get me wrong - Leicester had their moments and were really good in certain areas, but let’s just say that spending ages fawning over a rolling maul is all very well but when the same team is also letting someone line Rattez dot down a ball he had no right to reach then you really should be pointing that out.
To be fair to the home pundits, they did call this one right from the start in that it was going to be mostly an aerial battle and mistakes were likely to decide it. It’s just that the teams were pretty much as bad as each other when it came to making those mistakes, only while Steve Borthwick’s men had to rely on them for scores, MHR were always better equipped to make something out of nothing and the cup-winning try by Goosen proved this.
Of course you can always make the “level playing field argument” whereby despite the fact that both sides are outside the playoff places domestically, the French side had a World Cup winning outhalf in Hendré Pollard to spring from the bench to see their narrow lead home. But that debate can be applied to every European clash between teams from different unions and I reckon the right team won on the night.
SHARKS 22-25 STORMERS
With no Rainbow Cup action in the Northern Hemisphere, it was a good time to check on things down south and there were two fascinating contests to provide a decent undercard to go with the European finals, with both matches finishing very close.
First we had the Sharks hosting the Stormers and the Natal based franchise jumped out to an early 10-0 lead only to have it clawed back by a wonderful individual try from Stormers winger Edwill van der Merwe who basically took a ball in his own half, made a bee line for the first prop he could find ahead of him and having left him for dead proceeded to accelerate even more to get all the way to the line.
He added a second before the break and just after it, a crushing line from the man mountain that is Peter Steph du Toit saw him power over to stretch the lead even further. The Sharks struck back first thanks to a brilliant break from RWC winning skipper Kolisi which put through Penxe for a score, and then took the lead after a lucky bounce allowed Fassi to fly hack his way from defence to attack and score down the other end.
This put the sides level at 22 but a penalty scrum in the 77th minute allowed TIm Sweil to make up for an earlier miss by slotting what proved to be the winning three points for the visitors.
Altogether an intriguing match and great to see so many test stars in action - as well as those I mentioned there was an all-Springbok front row for the Stormers and as this four-team round robin progresses week to week you can see how the regular game time is getting them all up to speed in plenty of time for the arrival of the Lions.
LIONS 34-33 BULLS
One of those matches where most fans are entertained by end to end scoring while the “purists” moan about the poor defence. It won’t surprise regular readers to learn I fall somewhere in between.
From start to finish it was really a case of “anything you can do I can also do” and there were highlight reel tries from both starting right wingers in the first half. Maxwane’s was more of an individual effort but his opposite number Tambwe also showed impressive footwork before providing his own finish.
The home side were a point ahead at the break but when the Bulls started to show why they’re leading the “log” in the second half thanks to two very clinical tries by Smith and Kreil, it looked like their lead was definitely going to be extended, but the Lions refused to give up and those scores were cancelled out by Pelser and Zalinga respectively in the closing stages to give them a thrilling win and you could tell what it meant to their coaches in particular as the final whistle blew.
All of this leaves the Bulls still on top with 15 points but they are still to play both the Stormers and the Sharks, both of whom have 11 so that could easily change in the final two rounds. One thing is for sure - if these four clubs can guarantee lineups like this for the Pro16 then they should bring everything to the league we’re hoping for and more.
BENETTON 34-27 ZEBRE
I know this match was from the previous weekend but the reason I’m featuring it now is that my next guest on the Harpin On Rugby podcast is the author of The Italian Rugby Blog so I wanted to be ready.
With South Africa Rugby all the rage these days among the home nations, and rightly so what with the Lions and all, I thought it might be a good idea to turn the spotlight on the Italians even for a moment. For one thing, for all the debate out there regarding their eligibility for both Six Nations and Pro 16, the fact remains they are not going anywhere.
Plus, it’s not like they’re sitting idly by without trying to do anything about their current predicament and with not only a new coach taking over the test team but also a new president of the union, they definitely have an opportunity to have a go at righting all the wrongs.
And I have to say, I really enjoyed this match. After Munster’s defeat to Connacht the day before, Benetton were the only unbeaten team left in the northern group but although Zebre lost their starting outhalf Rizzi in the opening minutes, his replacement wasn’t the worst in Carlo Canna and the visitors had the most of the opening exchanges, albeit with just a 3-0 lead to show from it.
But once Paolo Garbisi was able to get some front foot ball it was an entirely different story altogether. And I don’t just mean that say it was all about him, he was pulling the strings and needed support like a fine offload in the tackle from Negri to put Halafihi into the corner to put them in front.
Next it was quick thinking from Monty Ioane chasing his own kick ahead and dotting down, and despite both of their first half tries being in the corner, Garbisi was able to effortlessly convert them both putting the table-toppers 14-3 ahead at the break.
Zebre started the second half much as they did the first only this time they managed a try from D’Onorfio to get back within a score. However a silly penalty shipped after the restart put Benetton right back in their 22 with an attacking lineout and the resulting maul snaked its way all the way to the line for Luchesi to get it down.
The bonus point try which was to ensure that Benetton remained in pole position was all down to centre Ignacio Brex. It was his massive hit that jarred the ball free as Zebre tried to get back into the match, it was his carry that kept the subsequent front foot ball going and it was his final pass which put Padovani through for another excellent score.
So that made it 31-13 but Zebre weren’t done. Biondelli pulled one back before a superb length of the pitch move “KBA” style saw Violi bring his side back within four to set up a possible grandstand finish but Benetton had the nerve to bring the lead home adding 3 more points from Garbisi before the full time whistle blew.
Whether or not Treviso can maintain their lead to reach what would be an historic final remains to be seen, but for them to be in first place for two straight weeks at very least has to be a good thing for them and like I said, it wasn’t like Michael Bradley’s Zebre did themselves much discredit here either. Plenty of positives to be seen in Italian rugby’s future and I can’t wait to learn more about it on this week’s pod.
Well there’s no Leinster match next weekend either so there’s every chance I’ll be doing another one of these posts next Monday. Obviously I’ll feature the Irish provinces and since Leinster’s two remaining opponents Dragons and Warriors are playing each other that will probably be worth harping on as well.
In the meantime why not subscribe to our podcast for that Italian rugby interview during the week and we’ll also continue some regular features like Front 5 and Rugby on TV. Thanks again for tuning in. JLP