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The Chiefs take flight

Garry DoyleOwain JonesJamie Lyall

Finally the sun came out as fans basked in Vitamin D and the tries rained in as summer at last got under way. After Sale Sharks and Bristol duked it out in a titanic battle, leading to the Sharks reaching the play-offs for the first time since 2006, the Exeter Chiefs looked unstoppable against a sorry Newcastle Falcons side. Capturing the last play-off spot was Harlequins who outscored Bath in a thriller at The Stoop. In the Rainbow Cup, Munster edged Cardiff Blues in a contentious finale, while Glasgow’s upturn in form continued against the Dragons and Benetton’s win sees them well-placed for a first domestic final shot. There is plenty for The XV to discuss…

The Chiefs looks unstoppable

When Exeter Chiefs were on their decade-long rise to the top, for the large part of it, they were everyone’s second team. The plucky underdogs from Devon, who had muscled in on the traditional order, with the down-to-earth charm of Rob Baxter and a crop of locally reared players who would become England stars.

These days they are viewed through a different prism. The cultural appropriation of their name to native Americans has a small yet vocal protest group decrying their refusal to ditch ‘Chiefs’ from their branding and led to their mascot, ‘Big Chief’ being retired. Another example of an undercurrent of anti-Chiefs sentiment came Henry Slade’s contentious quotes on vaccination in the Daily Telegraph. They, understandably, caused such a furore and social media pile-on that the club were forced to clarify his position in a way that did not appease all their critics. In other words, the club are now being viewed like their arch-rivals Saracens. Serial winners who are respected and not so easy to love. Some would call it the price of success.

Yesterday’s demolition of Newcastle did not help their cause. With the fans basking in sunshine and the Tomahawk Chop reverberating around Sandy Park they ran in 12 tries in one of the biggest drubbings in Premiership history, 74-3, against an understrength Falcons side. They were simply irrepressible, with Sam Simmonds, Dave Ewers, Tom O’Flaherty and player of the match Slade cutting Dean Richards’ side to ribbons, whether it rumbling over from 5m, or running it in from distance.

Even though Bristol lead their West Country foes by three points with two games to go, the form of the Devonians suggest they want to retain their Premiership title and it will take some team performance to stop them. If they reach Twickenham on June 26, few would bet against them.

Italians breaking free of history’s chains

The most admirable thing about Benetton isn’t the slickness of their back play, which is infrequently seen, or the strength of their scrum, although it is impressive; it is their attitude.

Time could have killed it. Year after year they have been defeated and patronised, including this season: 16 regular season Pro14 games, no wins. Hence when a new competition was pencilled into the rugby diary, few people cared and even fewer predicted that one of the finalists would emerge from northern Italy.

Suddenly, though, the Rainbow Cup is doubling up as a metaphor for life because anyone who follows sport has a tendency to side with the underdog. It’s why people got behind Frank Bruno rather than Mike Tyson; why they backed Leicester City in the 2016 Premier League; Japan instead of Ireland, Scotland or the Springboks at World Cup 2019.

Now we’ve another improbable tale unfolding. After four games of the Rainbow Cup, it’s Benetton who lead the way in the Northern Hemisphere Conference; Saturday’s 20-12 victory over Connacht leaving them one win away from a place in the final – on home soil – against whoever emerges from the South African section.

Given Italy’s ancient sporting history of pitting the Christians against the Lions, this kind of feels familiar, although three weeks from now it’s likelier to be the Bulls, Sharks or Stormers rather than the Emirates Lions who’ll pitch up at the Stadio Comunale di Monigo, a venue that does not quite match the Coliseum’s architectural splendour. 

Monte Ioane
Treviso are heading for the biggest day in their history in the Rainbow Cup (Photo By Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images)

Still, it’s a place where rugby history may be made. Never before has an Italian team won a significant piece of silverware. Never before has one even come close, indeed it is six years since the Italian national side pulled off a win of any kind in the Six Nations. Benetton and Zebre, meanwhile, haven’t exactly set the Pro14 alight since Italian clubs were granted entry to the competition a decade ago, just one quarter-final appearance between them. In Europe, it is worse, Italy the only one of the six participating countries who have yet to produce a Champions Cup quarter-finalist.

That’s why this Benetton story is so significant. Rugby, for decades, has operated off a caste system. The nations whose teams led the way a century ago are still at the forefront of the game, France’s emergence as a force in the ‘50s, Argentina’s in this century, the only revolutionaries. 

So irrespective of the fact this Rainbow Cup is a competition with no heritage and possibly no future, irrespective of the convoluted qualifying process whereby Benetton could reach a final without having to play Munster, Leinster or Ulster, there’s still something exciting about the idea of a perennial whipping boy going up against South Africa’s strongest in the June 19 decider. No-one can argue that Benetton’s four wins in the competition have not been merited, especially Saturday’s over Connacht, where the boot of Paolo Garbisi, contributor of 15 points, the electrifying burst of Ignacio Brex, scorer of their only try; the resilience of their defence and most of all, the power of their scrum, guided them to a 20-12 victory. Ospreys are the next date in their diary, on June 12. Win there and it’ll be them rather than former European Cup winners, Munster or Leinster, who’ll be taking on South Africa’s best a week later.

You may have read a biblical story about this kind of thing once, only this time David hasn’t been given a sling but an oval ball.

Captain’s challenge

Let’s be honest, rugby matches are taking an interminable time to finish these days. Two-hour games are becoming the norm as TMOs pore over camera footage again and again to determine whether a try has been scored or go through the high-tackle framework to decide whether the colour of card will be yellow or red.

For the Rainbow Cup, three new laws are being trialled; the replacement for a red-carded player after 20 minutes, the goal-line drop-out and the captain’s challenge, which is ‘is aimed at enhancing the accuracy of decisions already under the remit of the match officials’. They can only be made in the last five minutes of the match, unless it’s in the lead-up to a try or to review foul play. Each side has one challenge and will only retain it if they are successful in the previous challenge.

Andrew Brace
Andrew Brace has to officiate three Captain’s Challenge’s In the last five minutes of Munster v Cardiff (Photo By Piaras Ó Mídheach via Getty Images)

All clear? Well in Friday night’s Munster v Cardiff Blues game, the law became farcical and ruined what had been an entertaining duel. Three challenges came in the final five minutes. Munster questioned Willis Halaholo obstructing a kick-chaser. Andrew Brace decided he had, so it was upheld, but the penalty was given to Cardiff because of a high tackle on Matthew Morgan. Next up, was the away side contesting whether a Munster side had entered a maul from the side. This challenge was essentially thrown out by Brace. As the clock went into the red, with the fans and presumably television viewers on the edge of their seats in a one-score game, the coup de grace was applied as Munster again queried whether Lloyd Williams had nudged the ball back into a maul as they pressed for a winning score. Again Brace stopped play, watched the footage and decided that Williams’ transgression warranted a free-kick, and with that, the game was over. A thriller reduced to a damp squib. 

Rugby is a complicated game, even for those who have been involved in it for decades. It is also in a bun-fight for the eyeballs of a new audience with withering attention spans and this ‘tweak’ to the laws is not helping. If you were being harsh, you could argue it is against the spirit of the game. All in all, there’s not a lot going for it. Common sense thinking should dictate when the trial comes to an end, we never speak, nor hear of it again.

Opportunity Knox for Munster’s kids

For nearly a decade now, CJ Stander has been Munster’s go-to man. Big moments required a big personality. Need a try? He’d deliver. Someone to carry into a watertight defence? Ask CJ. Hands up anyone who’ll take down the other crowd’s biggest, baddest ball-carrier? CJ’s paws went in the air. “No-one is more Munster,” said his coach, Johann van Graan after Friday’s 31-27 win over Cardiff, CJ’s last Stand at Thomond Park. The big No8 is retiring at the end of next month.

Given the size of his personality – Stander, remember, was the player who gently brought Anthony Foley’s two sons onto the Thomond Park pitch after that emotional Champions Cup win over Glasgow in 2016, the day after Foley’s funeral – you’d wonder if Munster would be able to replace him.

Step forward Gavin Coombes. You get the same have-a-go attitude from him, too. He has been Munster’s best player this season, their leading try-scorer, deputising for Stander at No8 when international duty called, relocating to blindside when Stander returned for key Pro14 and European games.

Friday saw Coombes step off the bench and do a shift as a replacement lock, setting up the match-winning try with a cheeky steal in the Cardiff 22. That, by the way, was finished by another of Munster’s repatriated South Africans, Keynan Knox, a young tight-head, who was schooled in Michaelhouse, the alma mater of Ruan Combrinck, Ross Cronjé, Patrick Lambie and Pat Cilliers. He captained them, as well as starring for the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks provincial side at U18 level, prior to Munster snapping him up.

Now he has gone from their academy to their first team, as has Coombes, winger Shane Daly, scrum-half Craig Casey, fly-half Ben Healy. Throw in the names of other prodigies, Jack Crowley, Jack O’Sullivan and Thomas Ahern and you have reason to believe that, at long last, a generation of talent is finally emerging at Thomond Park. The trick is to be brave enough to use them, because to misquote football pundit, Alan Hansen, you’ll win nothing without kids.

Sale muscle in on Premiership play-offs

That it took 44 minutes for Sale and Bristol to trouble the AJ Bell scoreboard on Friday night seldom mattered. This was a titanic prize-fight between two Premiership heavyweights, a colossal meeting of muscle and a striking clash of styles. 

Some of the defence on show in Salford was thunderous, frightening even. Impossibly large men atomised by gangs of even larger ones. Scoreless for an age, and yet utterly compelling throughout. 

Manu Tuilagi
Manu Tuilagi will add considerable muscle to Sale’s play-off push (Photo by Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

Sale, in the end, underlined their credentials as serious title contenders with the 22-12 comeback win, aided by Semi Radradra’s yellow card. This is a team evolving rapidly under Alex Sanderson. They showed the close-quarter brutality for which they have long been renowned, but also opened up beautifully in the latter stages, weaving some pretty and penetrative attacking rugby. 

In all of this, of course, the behemoth himself returned. Manu Tuilagi’s first appearance in eight months was greeted by the raucous home fans like a length-of-the-field try. The big man has seldom had injury troubles to seek, and what a glorious boost to have him available and hungry for the business end of the campaign. Sale looked more at ease, more cohesive, and imbued with a greater self-belief with Tuilagi on the paddock. That influence cannot be understated. 

Sharks will never play with the abandon of Bristol’s Bears, but they represent so much more than slabs of South African biltong. Friday night’s triumph sealed their first play-off berth since winning the lot back in 2006, when Jason Robinson, Sebastien Chabal, Jason White and their pals tore up the Premiership. Today’s vintage is tracking along very nicely indeed. A side that can cleave you asunder with brains as well as brawn? That is a side to be respected.  

Premier 15s get their deserved day in the sun

World Rugby likes to remind us that the women’s game is the fastest growing sport on the planet. It can only grow so far without proper buy-in from broadcasters.  

How heartening, then, and how justified, to see BT Sport showing Sunday’s Premier 15s final live, a whale of a contest between Harlequins and Saracens. 

Shaunagh Brown
Harlequins Women ground out a thrilling Premiership 15s win against Saracens (Photo by Naomi Baker – RFU via Getty Images,)

The rugby was tremendous; the weather idyllic; those inside Kingsholm enthralled. Quins, at last, claimed their maiden title with a dominant performance, vanquishing the same foe that toppled them in the past two finals of 2018 and 2019. It was a watershed moment for them and, perhaps, the sport in general. 

“This is not just about rugby but this is about women’s sport and showing we can produce an international standard of rugby in front of fans,” said tearful Shaunagh Brown, a hugely impressive voice in the women’s game, and deserved player of the match, at full-time. 

“I challenge anyone to say women’s rugby or women are not good enough because we are.” 

Brown’s emotional interview was soon flying around social media. Female players face a ridiculous array of challenges, especially since coronavirus began raging across the globe. This excellent showpiece must be a solitary day in the sun. 

Aki still to find form

This has been Bundee Aki’s poorest season in a Connacht shirt since he arrived from New Zealand in 2014. Two yellow cards, just nine appearances, only one try in his last eight games; his campaign has been marred by an injury, a suspension and a dip in form.

This wouldn’t be of much relevance to the wider world only for the fact Warren Gatland surprisingly named him in his Lions squad, a decision presumably based on Gatland’s faith in Aki rediscovering his old form rather than judging him on current performances.

Truth is those haven’t been good enough, not by Lions standards. Saturday in Treviso was his first game in two months for Connacht and the rustiness showed. There wasn’t the usual take-the-game-by-the-scruff-of-the-neck assertiveness which his opposite number, Ignacio Brex, showed when touching down for Benetton’s only try.

Yes, there’s still time for his form and rhythm to return. One more game for Connacht will precede the Lions’ schedule, history a reminder of players coming from nowhere to land a place in the Test team in years gone by – think Paul Wallace in ’97, Rob Kearney in ’09. Right now, though, you can’t even say Aki is Connacht’s best centre, never mind Britain and Ireland’s.

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