The second round of the European Rugby Championships Cup saw some interesting rugby; some of it exciting and some intriguing, and many were dramatic.
And at Franklin’s Gardens, his home ground, George North had the game of his life for Northampton.
Here are reports on some of the games.
Munster 14 — Saracens 3
Munster beat Saracens on a drizzly Friday night in front of a raucous home crowd.
The score was tied at the break 3-3 after a half that lacked sparkle. The ball was hoisted in the air so often it was as though frequent flyer points were the objective of the game, not match points. Munster had most of the pill in the right area of the field, but despite a couple of favourable chances could not get over the line.
To their credit Sarries were shooting out of the defensive line like bullets and mowing the Munstermen down, but on attack they could not get the ball in the right real estate for the better part of half an hour.
Saracens had their best period of play after the break when players like fullback Alex Goode and winger Chris Ashton were looking dangerous, but that stopped abruptly when Sarries’ reserve prop Rhys Gill got binned in the 52nd minute.
Munster kicked a penalty goal and kept the pressure on their 14 opponents. Eventually they drove a maul over the goal line to score after being denied a valid try a minute before.
The Red Tide were in control, 14-3 ahead with 15 minutes to go, and their main purpose became denying Sarries a try for a losing bonus point, which they did.
If Munster want to do better than just make the quarter-finals they had better get a flyhalf who can slot the ball between the posts more often, because Ian Keatley is no Ronan O’Gara.
Likewise the Saracens’ tight five had better muscle up for the rest of the tournament.
Conor Murray – man of the match
New commentator Brian O’Driscoll gave the man-of-the match award to Munster 9 Conor Murray, who controlled the game in the French style, but 8 CJ Stander was a powerhouse runner and tackler, and flankers Tommy O’Donnell and Peter O’Mahony made for a cracking backrow with him.
For Saracens 8 Billy Vunipola ran in a bruising manner and Goode troubled defenders most times he had a run.
Aussie watch: 13 Andrew Smith retained his starting Munster spot this week and was more solid on defence.
Toulon 23 — Ulster 13
These sides had not played each other before but Ulster was not fazed by the team of galacticos; after all, they had beaten French teams four times straight “in Europe”.
They got some luck with Toulon injuries also, as backrow JMF Lobbe was carted off in the second minute and flyhalf Matt Giteau crocked himself on the quarter hour and limped on until he was replaced on the half hour by countryman James O’Connor.
They got a bit more luck too when Toulon “scored” at 32 minutes but the pass was deemed forward, surprisingly.
James O’Connor – replaced Matt Giteau at flyhalf
Ulster had problems with the lineout last week and the scrums this week. Toulon were stronger over the ball and were able to slot penalties from this activity, and the scrums, to lead 9-3 on the stroke of half time.
But with the ball still live at 40 minutes winger Bryan Habana scored almost from nothing after good hands from James O’Connor and reserve Juan Smith, plus a bullocking run by Chris Masoe.
Ulster had made a couple of breaks that were unproductive but their biggest failures were the two fruitless lineout drives from near the Toulon line. The team lacked focus and the absence of two of their leaders from last year: Muller (retired) and Pienaar (injured), was noticeable.
Half time score: Toulon 16 – Ulster 3
Ulster slotted an early second-half goal but scarcely got into the Toulon 22 with the ball thereafter. Their visitors had tightened their loose defence from last week and with Ulster kicking directly to them, and not to the seagulls, Toulon had no trouble returning the ball to Ulster territory.
The hammer blow came for the home team on the hour mark when spiky Toulon winger, Delon Armitage, read a rare Ulster promising move perfectly and intercepted a pass to score under the posts. Toulon 23 – Ulster 6.
Delon Armitage – about to score intercept try
Ulster played their best rugby at the end of the match trying to score another ten points to get a losing bonus point. They went close after they scored a converted try near the end of the game, but missed a long range penalty goal at the death.
Final score: Toulon 23 – Ulster 13.
Commentator Stuart Barnes gave the man-of-the-match award to 8. Chris Masoe who is showing some of the commanding form for Toulon that he had in Castres a few years back. But 7 Steffon Armitage and substitute backrow Juan Smith were also punishing around the rucks and on the break. Centres 12 Maxime Mermoz and 13 Mathieu Bastareaud had fine games with and without the ball—and together.
For Ulster 9 Paul Marshall penetrated dangerously from quick taps and 7 Chris Henry and 8 Roger Wilson gave as good as they got.
Aussie watch: O’Connor had a reasonable game at flyhalf subbing for Giteau, and did not overplay his hand.
Scarlets 15 — Leicester 3
It wasn’t a great start for home team Scarlets because they lost Wales’ lock Jake Ball in the warm-up and No 8 Rory Pitman at ten minutes. Worse was to come when jewel-in-the-crown Wales’ centre Scott Williams had to retire at 19 minutes.
Leicester had beaten Scarlets in six of their seven matches “in Europe” and were all over them at the start of the game. Although they dropped the ball over the Scarlets’ line in the 9th minute, one thought there was a lot more to come soon.
There wasn’t; and after a long Scarlets’ kick, Leicester fumbled a ball carry without contact and Scarlets strolled over to score.
Winger Kristian Phillips – had to pack down in Scarlets’ scrum
That signaled a turnaround in fortunes in the second quarter of the match, but Scarlets didn’t get much of a return for their strong play because they botched four reasonable shots at goal in the half, including the conversion of the try.
Scarlets did slot one penalty goal after getting into a strong position following a charge by 5 Johan Synman, and this made the score 8-3 at half time. It was a modest scoreline for a modest game of rugby.
It was an arm wrestle after the break and Leicester, who gifted ball back to Scarlets for most of the half, looked under the cosh near the hour mark but were saved by a poach by 7 Julian Salvi on his goal line.
Leicester continued to turn the ball over when attempting a pass on an end run, and it was 9 Aled Davies of Scarlets who received the pill before scampering 40 metres in the other direction to score. Strangely the conversion was slotted from wide out and Scarlets led 15-3 with 18 minutes remaining.
The injuries continued for Scarlets and winger Kristian Phillips had to pack down on the blindside flank in the scrum; but it didn’t help Leicester striving to score a least one try for a bonus point loss.
The scoreline remained at Scarlets 15 – Leicester 3.
It was a poor effort from Leicester who were anything but Tigers. Scarlets were not as colourful as their name would suggest but they did their fans proud with their meritorious win in adversity.
Aled Davies – man of the match
There were few standouts in a game that did not stand out, but commentator Austin Healey gave the man-of-the match award to scrummie Aled Davies of Scarlets for his clean work and game-clinching recovery of a poor pass to score.
Aussie watch: 7 Julian Salvi of Leicester poached a ball on his own goal line, which probably saved a try when Scarlets were rampant, and he was also otherwise notable in a cause that became lost after the first quarter of the game.