After another fascinating weekend of rugby, it brings with a whole host of talking points – here we’ve got five that brought new and continued debate across the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro 12.
1. Newcastle Falcons flying high
Not too long ago, the Falcons were on the brink – teetering with the thought of possible relegation. Since then, they have only gone in one direction under the figurehead of Dean Richards. New signings Goneva, Socino and the development of younger players has only added to the success of late. The north-east club went into Friday night’s game in 8th in the table, following their heroic performance against Wasps – picking up a losing bonus point for their efforts. It was a game that Falcons could have snatched and the disappointment not to was only ever present on Dave Walder’s mind in his post-game reflections. But the win against Bath under the lights at Kingston Park was every bit as deserving and worthy from their hard work and commitment to the final whistle. Falcons’ intensity and game management has improved in bucket loads and with the spearhead of Joel Hodgson, look at team with a genuine cause to fight for nothing less than a top six finish. Friday’s win saw the Falcons pushed up to sixth in the standings, but results elsewhere during the weekend meant they fell a couple of places. But with the difference between ninth and fifth places just four points, the final run in could be eventful and Falcons will be right amongst it competing.
2. Saracens fight back to draw after early Barrington red
Saracens loosehead prop Richard Barrington was shown a red card after his shoulder made contact with Geoff Parling’s head from a high tackle from captain Brad Barritt. Referee gave Barrington no other option for the forward, but it was baffling to see no sanction for the Sarries captain. In effect, it was Barritt’s tackle, where his arm made contact with the head/neck area causing Exeter Chiefs’ Parling to fall into the shoulder of Barrington. Essentially it left the reigning champions with an uphill battle with 14 v 15. Made even harder after going 10-0 down following a Gareth Steenson cross filed chip and a sublime catch and dive for the line from Chiefs flyer Jack Nowell. From that point the game seemed to turn on its head – Sarries rallied and quite possibly pulled off their best second half performance of the season. Richard Wigglesworth and Michael Rhodes played blinders and both combining to halt Don Armand in his tracks with what looked to be an impossible try saving tackle resulting in a knock on. The Hendon-based club defended and attacked like men possessed during the second 40 – gaining territory and creating chances. The Chiefs’ defence looked rock solid throughout, but a Sarries lineout on the 5m line on the 73rd minute mark and subsequent rolling maul gave the home team a glimmer of hope. On their day, Saracens are the best in the business in that department. The result epitomised their tenacity and determination not to go down without a consolation – a result they wouldn’t have wanted beforehand but also a good result under the circumstances.
3. Munster humble Racing in Paris
Munster travelled to Paris for the postponed Champions Cup fixture following the passing of Anthony Foley. It has to be said, that since that day, Munster have been playing superbly, as if they’ve been under some kind of supernatural trance. But Racing’s European campaign has been miserly, losing all three of their pool games – a totally different team that reached the final last season before winning the domestic title in the Top 14. Munster dominated the tie from the off and effectively sealed the game by half time. A fourth try and thus securing the bonus point early in the second half underlined Munster’s prowess and strength in a competition they are favourable to land at the end of the season. By taking control of the pool, Munster look set for an advantageous second round and providing there are no injury setbacks, Thomond Park will be rocking. But in Paris, Simon Zebo and CJ Stander were exceptional. As well as getting over the whitewash, they will be crucial to Munster’s quest for European glory.
4. Ospreys take top spot above Irish contenders
An ugly win is a win nonetheless and at this stage of the season head coach Steve Tandy will take it. The bonus point win at home to Connacht heaps the pressure back on Munster and Leinster as Ospreys moved to the top of the Pro 12. Ospreys have been formidable this season – scoring tries at will and putting on a real attacking display. Having already picked up 8 try bonus points underscores their desire to compete with Munster and Leinster who aren’t too far behind. A welsh side haven’t lifted the domestic crown since 2011/12 when Ospreys themselves won the title and with Irish teams dominating in recent times, Ospreys will feel their chances are greater than ever. With their current crop of players, there’s no doubt they have the foundation to land a fifth domestic title. Their Welsh stars in Dan Biggar, Dan Lydiate and Alun Wyn-Jones will all be vying for a seat on the plan to New Zealand this summer, so upping their game in the Pro 12 will be of paramount importance. With Wales seemingly falling behind England and Ireland and Scotland pushing their way forward, competition for a Lions Jersey looks set to be as fierce as ever.
5. New tackle law debate rumbles on
In a weekend that saw yet another red card, the World Rugby’s new tackle laws continue to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. But, personally, I think if it continues to dominate pre-game build up then that is what will cause the negativity and pressure on players and officials alike. Players have reacted relatively positively to the new changes, stating that it isn’t impacting on training and how they are coached. As the new laws become embedded into the rugby world, the positives provide the game with a new approach – we’ll see less choke tackles and more offloads to create a faster free flowing game. Something us spectators and commentators long to see. Much has been said about the tackler and the safety of the player without the ball. Rugby is a game where reaction times and margins of error are forever decreasing and it means the tackler has to adapt in the split second it takes to make a decision. Tacklers were getting knocked out before these changes were implemented – poor technique and heads making contact with hips has been happening for a long time. Hopefully as the season progresses and into next season, we’ll see a positive change in the tackle area.