Sights in the Northern Hemisphere were once again set on domestic matters — events in Cardiff aside — as Test stars returned to club action.
But who caught the eye and who had a weekend to forget?
Player of the weekend
Prem (Martyn Thomas): Danny Care. The Harlequins scrum-half enjoyed a fine autumn with England and took that form into Quins’ clash with Saracens as he set up all three of his side’s tries as they secured a tense 20-19 win. Both of Charlie Walker’s tries were a result of intelligent kicks from Care, and although his last-minute crossfield kick was not as accurate, it led to Tim Visser’s dramatic winner after Alex Goode was unable to quite hold onto it. Fortune favours the brave.
PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): James Lowe. Leinster have always had quality from the Southern Hemisphere, with the likes of Rocky Elsom, Brad Thorn and most recently Isa Nacewa reaching near legendary status in Dublin 4. Lowe took a step onto that platform on Saturday, scoring a brace against Treviso and while bigger tests will come in the Champions Cup, Lowe’s name might yet be added to the list.
Top 14 (James Harrington): Chris Ashton. Another week, another double for the England outcast, who now has 13 tries to his name since joining Toulon from Saracens in the summer. Developing an almost telepathic relationship with league convert Semi Radradra has helped his numbers, but Ashton is clearly loving life — and rugby — on the south coast of France.
Flop of the weekend
Prem: Northampton. It is now five Premiership defeats in a row for Jim Mallinder’s men after they succumbed to a late Nili Latu try at Franklin’s Gardens Friday night. Saints have endured a roller-coaster season, having topped the Premiership table after five games despite suffering a heavy opening-day defeat against Saracens. It has been downhill from there, though, and they have a battle on their hands if they are going to put pressure on the top six.
PRO14: Connacht at Zebre. Kieran Keane has not had the best of starts at Connacht, with just three wins from their opening 10 games. There is some concern that the team lack direction and their style of play lacks the intelligence of knowing when to run and when to kick for territory. No doubt they haven’t been helped by the fact Bundee Aki is now part of Joe Schmidt’s Ireland setup and will be managed by the national team.
Top 14: Montpellier. The historical understanding that winning away from home in the Top 14 is more difficult than knitting fog may be marginally less true these days than in seasons gone by, but Vern Cotter’s Montpellier are making an artform of it. Nilled at Racing 92 last weekend and defeat at La Rochelle on Saturday is not the confidence booster the French side need ahead of a crucial Champions Cup outing at Glasgow Warriors.
Best coaching call
Prem: Exeter boss Rob Baxter opted to leave captain Jack Yeandle and returning England back row Sam Simmonds on the bench as Bath visited Sandy Park Saturday. The decision paid dividends as Yeandle’s replacement Luke Cowan-Dickie scored the game’s first try inside eight minutes, while Thomas Waldrom grabbed Exeter’s fifth as the Chiefs built a 35-3 lead by the 54th minute. Add in a 25-minute cameo from the returning Jack Nowell and it was a job well done.
PRO14: Bernard Jackman could have been forgiven for thinking that Friday’s clash with Ulster could have been dead to rights when Jack Dixon got sin-binned inside five minutes. But the Welsh region are not as willing to roll over and die under Jackman’s stewardship as they had been previous. They rallied back with five tries and but for a bit of composure in defence, they could have recorded their third PRO14 win of the season.
Top 14: A crazy match between Toulouse and Castres was about to enter its final quarter when Christophe Urios replaced the hard-working Alex Tulou at 8 with veteran Alexandre Bias. Three minutes later, Castres extended their lead — but, after 67 minutes, Toulouse scored the ninth try of the match to pull the scores back to 31-36. At this point, it was anyone’s game. But Bias would have the final word, finishing off one more move with the 10th — and final — touchdown of the game.
Biggest refereeing call
Prem: Luke Pearce (Harlequins vs. Saracens). The hosts displayed extraordinary composure to turn a late penalty into a five-metre lineout and, ultimately, a try — but should they have been awarded it in the first place? Will Skelton’s one-arm tackle on James Lang was not high, his hand making contact with the fly-half’s jersey halfway up his back. The hosts, though, can point to Pearce’s decision not to award a try to Elia Elia in the first half as Pearce wrongly adjudged he had been held up.
PRO14: Nigel Owens (Glasgow vs. Cardiff Blues). Owens was centre stage in Glasgow on Friday. With Cardiff winning 13-7 with a half hour played, the Welsh referee decided that Blues forward Taufa’ao Filise led with his shoulder, making contact with George Turner’s head. It left most scratching their head, with the Filise unable to do much as Turner was all-but pushed into him in the tackle.
Top 14: Adrien Descottes (Pau vs. Bordeaux). Pau were a point in arrears against Bordeaux when Mr Descottes sent the visitors’ Loann Goujon to the sin bin for a dangerous tackle on fullback Charly Malie. Two minutes later, Malie made Bordeaux pay as the hosts took the lead for the first time — and they would not give it up again, as replacement Tom Taylor notched three late penalties to make sure of the points.
Storyline to keep an eye on…
Prem: It is now five defeats in a row in all competitions for Saracens following the late drama at the Stoop on Sunday. Mark McCall will feel his side could, and possibly should, have got over the line in south west London but despite welcoming back their Test stars the north Londoners were unable to do so. Their performance lacked vim and things are not about to get any easier. Next up is a Champions Cup double header against Clermont.
PRO14: If you were a Munster fan, you might be slightly concerned with the fact that Peter O’Mahony, CJ Stander and Andrew Conway could follow Simon Zebo out of the province at the end of the season. The contracts of all three are yet to be renewed and while Zebo has already decided to leave for the Top 14, losing the three other stars as well would be detrimental to the development of Johann van Graan’s side.
Top 14: The escalating fly-half crisis at Clermont. The pickings at 10 look very slim indeed as Clermont head into December’s Champions Cup double-header against Saracens. In only his second match since joining as a medical joker from Toulon, Luke McAlister was replaced 12 minutes from time with a suspected broken hand at the weekend. With Camille Lopez and Patricio Fernandez already on the long-term absentee list, Franck Azema’s options are limited to the 18-year-old Dorian Lavernhe, or his petit general Morgan Parra.