As is the case in many sports, rugby administrators often get a bad press – let’s be honest, they hardly make themselves difficult targets – but European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) deserves plenty of positive recognition for its decision to host the finals of the 2018 and 2019 Champions and Challenge Cups in relative rugby badlands of Bilbao’s San Mamés and Newcastle’s St James’ Park respectively. With the finals of this year’s tournaments held in Lyon – as opposed to, say, Twickenham or Cardiff, which hosted 12 of the 19 Heineken Cup finals – EPCR is continuing to fulfil a promise it made when it took over the tournaments two years ago. It’s taking rugby into new areas, and that has to be good for the game. Organisers of other tournaments, take note.
European rugby’s 21st-century marmite man scored twice in Saracens’ Champions Cup quarterfinal against Glasgow to move level with Vincent Clerc as the tournament’s leading try scorer, with 36 touchdowns. What’s even more remarkable is that he reached his tally in just 59 games. Clerc has played 82 European games (including 11 as a replacement), and had played just shy of 70 times when he scored number 36 for Toulouse during the 2015/16 season. As well as his brace in the Glasgow encounter, Ashton made another score and could have had added to his tally. Chances of him making the Lions’ tour? Slim.
Speaking of try-machines, here’s one international player you probably won’t have heard of if you don’t follow England sevens. But Dan Norton, who has been a sevens international since 2009, is an Olympic silver medallist and this weekend likely to set a new all-time try-scoring record at the Hong Kong Sevens. He is currently level on 244 tries with Kenya’s Collins Injera.
Here are just a few of the 244:
Anything Treviso can do, rivals Zebre can do as well. A week after the former beat Ospreys to create a gap in the two Italian teams’ personal Pro 12 battle for next season’s Champions Cup place, the latter closed it up again with a deserved 25-22 win over Connacht in a rearranged match. To be fair, the win was no less than Zebre deserved. They were 22-10 up when original fixture had to be postponed at halftime as a storm of biblical proportions hammered Parma’s Stadio Lanfranchi. So now, with four rounds of the regular season remaining, just two points separate the sides at the bottom of the Pro 12.
Ah, Billy. Three years ago, Goldilocks was an England regular. Today, he’s a club journeyman. But, every now and then, he reminds rugby fans that he is somewhat smarter than the average midfield bear. He did it again in Gloucester’s come-from-behind Challenge Cup quarterfinal win against Cardiff Blues, having moved from his usual midfield position to fly-half following Billy Burns’ early concussion. Not only did he notch five penalties, his inch-perfect crossfield kick for Jonny May’s try in was a delight that kickstarted Gloucester’s win. A Lions’ bolter for 10? Stranger things have happened.*
This breathtaking Wasps breakout had all the hallmarks of one of the great European rugby tries, a touchdown that would be played and replayed over and over again in years to come. Apart from one small and trivial matter.
The Stade Francais man has form for discipline issues. He was banned for 15 weeks in January 2016 for an eye-gouging incident during a Champions Cup pool match against Munster. Now, he has been cited for a stamp on Ospreys’ Keelan Giles during the Top 14 side’s Challenge Cup quarterfinal win at the Principality and could receive a ban ranging from two to 52 weeks. He received a yellow card at the time, after referee Matthew Carley consulted with the TMO, and his game ended when he was shown another early in the second half for a more minor incident. There is a silver lining, for Stade if not the player, though. They won each of those games, despite losing a player.
To lose one head coaching job may be considered unfortunate. To lose two in less than a year, however…. Mike Ford was sacked by Bath in May 2016, after a disappointing season on the pitch and worsening tensions off it. He returned to coaching with Toulon early in this campaign, taking over from Diego Dominguez as head coach in October. But, while his contract with the Top 14 side was set to finish at the end of the season anyway, he and the club have parted company ‘by mutual consent’ nearly two months earlier than anticipated following the 29-9 Champions Cup quarter-final defeat at Clermont.
Super Rugby seems to have the whole video referee thing much more sorted that it is in the northern hemisphere, where referees still ask “try, yes or no?” or – worse – “is there any reason I can’t award the try?” (yes, two minutes and 17 phases ago you missed the tiniest of knock-ons) and review video footage on the big screen for what seems like hours while, all around them, fans holler and jeer. And even then, they get it wrong. In their Champions Cup match against Munster, Toulouse were awarded a try despite a pass so forward it wore lingerie; while Francois Cros was yellow carded for an ugly late elbow on Duncan Williams only after the referee had watched the footage from all angles, at all speeds, several times. As was the Josaia Raisuqe incident at the Principality. Still, could be worse. Could be golf.
The barney between the FFR and the LNR is like watching galaxies collide in super-slow-motion. You know it’s going to be a disaster, but it’s cruelly fascinating to watch in a really boring, takes-forever kind of way. In the week of the merger debacle, you may remember, the LNR postponed matches involving Racing 92 and Stade Francais. Then, two days after the matches should have been played but weren’t because they had been postponed, the FFR un-postponed them – and said that the games had been forfeited.
Now, the LNR has gone to court to have the matches un-forfeited and re-postponed so that they can be rescheduled for later this month. But the court they went to washed its hands of the matter, which means the LNR has to go to another court to make its case. It has even released the dates and times that the rearranged matches will be played if they go ahead (Stade could end up playing three games in eight days). Meanwhile, four teams – three of them with playoff ambitions and one with a Challenge Cup semifinal to play and Top 14 relegation to avoid – are in limbo as time rapidly runs out on the season. All of which does French rugby no favours whatsoever.
*No, they haven’t.