Who’s hot and who’s not: Irish trio progress to semi-finals, Pacific Islanders impress and an unfortunate omission in Wales squad

Colin Newboult
Hot and Not

It’s time for our Monday wrap of who has their name in lights and who is making the headlines for all the wrong reasons after the weekend.

THEY’RE ON FIRE!

Canny Connacht: The Galway-based outfit produced a very smart display to overcome fellow Irish province Ulster, utterly dominating the contact area and earning a series of penalties at the breakdown. Their back-row was particularly outstanding, but pretty much every member of their squad contributed in that area on Friday. Not too many favoured Connacht to emerge victorious at Kingspan Stadium, but they are a well-coached outfit, and they nullified Ulster’s strengths. We’re looking forward to seeing what they do to counteract a powerful and talented Stormers squad this week, but it’s a big ask as they make the long flight down to Cape Town for what promises to be a much tougher game.

Fine end to Bath’s season: The photograph of boss Johann van Graan taking a moment after the win summed up just what the victory over Saracens meant after what’s been a tough old season. The bonus-point success, albeit against a second-string Sarries, meant it was the Rec outfit who claimed the last remaining Champions Cup qualification spot ahead of their rivals Bristol Bears. People may undermine the triumph over the regular-season winners, but Bath deserve credit for the entertaining brand they are playing, with plenty of positives to take into the off-season as they look to start 2023/24 on firmer footing. They have the side to compete so we’re interested to see their progress.

Pacific Islanders: Fijian Drua once again displayed their quality by overcoming the Hurricanes in another stunning result. Earlier this season, they shocked defending Super Rugby Pacific champions the Crusaders, and they followed that up by overcoming yet another New Zealand heavyweight. Drua are proving to be a fine, fine team and a threat, especially at home, to all sides in the competition. Fellow Pacific Islanders, Moana Pasifika, aren’t fairing quite as well, but they are not far away and were incredibly unlucky against the Blues at Eden Park. Only a late – perhaps rather harsh – penalty try stopped from emerging triumphant against Leon MacDonald’s men. As disappointing as it may be for Moana, they and their Fijian counterparts have certainly added plenty to the competition and should only get better each week.

Munster’s hearty win: That was one of the more gutsy performances you’re ever likely to see as Munster rolled up their sleeves and won against an in-form Glasgow Warriors on Saturday. As head coach Graham Rowntree said afterwards, Scotstoun is a tough place to come out on top, but Munster dug in, crucially early on, and eventually came out on top. The province’s season has gone from strength to strength as they keep their United Rugby Championship title hopes alive with a trip to Leinster, meaning three Irish teams have made it to the last four.

Sharks bring back John Plumtree: It is fair to say the Sharks are in desperate need of an experienced coach to breathe fresh ideas into the side after what’s been a disappointing season. With all the Springboks they have at their disposal, the form the men from Durban have shown in 2022/23 hasn’t been up to standards, and the heavy loss to Leinster brought down the curtain on a forgetful campaign. However, news last week of Plumtree’s return to the job is good news for Sharks fans, not least because of his success at the club in his previous stint.

Will Jordan’s return: The exciting All Black made his rugby comeback over the weekend as he started at full-back for the Crusaders in their handsome victory over the Force. Jordan, who has been battling an ongoing migraine-related illness which has kept him out of action since New Zealand’s last match of the 2022 Rugby Championship, against Australia in Auckland on September 24, looked like he had never been away as he set up two tries in the 48-13 triumph. His ability to find gaps in defences is second to none, and it is great to see him back.

BROKEN THERMOSTAT

John Mitchell appointment: It’s certainly an interesting decision from the Rugby Football Union with Mitchell, who was defence coach for the men’s side between 2018 and 2021, now taking charge of the England women’s squad following Simon Middleton’s departure. There is no doubting the 59-year-old’s ability, but there are concerns from a few in the women’s game how he will fit in, considering his approach to the game. There’s hard-nosed, and then there is Mitchell, so it will be fascinating to see how it goes down with the team and backroom staff.

COLD AS ICE!

Bad first impression from prospective Exiles owners: London Irish’s players and staff spent the week worried after their April wages weren’t paid. They were consistently assured by their supposedly future owners, an American consortium set to take over from Mick Crossan, that all was fine, but no payment was forthcoming – apparently due to an issue moving the money from the US. Their Premiership game with Exeter Chiefs was, therefore, in doubt due to concerns over medical insurance cover, but it was eventually resolved when Crossan stumped up the wages on behalf of the prospective owners. Not a great start to their time in charge of London Irish, who we all hope are indeed reputable.

Joe Hawkins omission: The biggest surprise of the week was seeing the centre failing to make the 54-player list for Wales’ Rugby World Cup training squad. The Welsh Rugby Union deemed that Hawkins’ deal with Exeter made him ineligible, as he signed the contract after his Test debut. It was a blow for both the player and coach Warren Gatland, who put a lot of faith in the youngster during the Six Nations as he played in four games. He’s only 20, so he has plenty of time to turn out for the national team in the future, but you just wonder when that will be.

Jonny Gray injury: It’s never nice to see injuries strike any player, but with major tournaments on the horizon viewers and players feel it more. Scotland lock Gray suffered a dislocated kneecap in Exeter’s recent loss to La Rochelle in the Champions Cup, which has put his Rugby World Cup hopes in serious jeopardy. Hopefully, surgery goes well, and it gives Gray a chance of recovery in time, but the signs are not good.

Munster’s wounded list: Speaking of injury problems, no team has been beset by more after the weekend than Munster; of that there’s little doubt. During the win at Glasgow Warriors, they lost Peter O’Mahony, RG Snyman, Conor Murray, Calvin Nash and Diarmuid Barron, with all five issues not looking good at all for Rowntree’s men. The win certainly came at a cost, and now their medical team will be working overtime ahead of that Leinster showdown, as Munster will need those big guns if they are to stun Leo Cullen’s team at the Aviva Stadium.

Newcastle’s season ends with a whimper: A 14th defeat of the league campaign brought down the curtain on a dismal season for the Falcons. They were hammered by Sale Sharks on Saturday, and with all the turnover in coaching staff off the field in 2022/23, it’s fair to say this season has been one of their worst in recent memory. Newcastle desperately need to have a good off-season, but the signs of a revival in 2023/24 are not evident from what we’re seeing. Falcons fans might do well to prepare themselves for another tough campaign next season.

Australian rugby left reeling after CEO departure: A disagreement between Andy Marinos and Hamish McLennan led to the former tendering his resignation. Reports in Australia stated that the pair were at loggerheads over the size of Joseph Suaalii’s contract. It leaves a sour taste just a few months out from the Rugby World Cup as Australia scrambles to find a replacement in the interim. The rift between the bigwigs does not bode well for Australia, with McLenanan also in an outgoing public spat with the NRL chiefs and is reportedly lining up a bid to be vice Chairman at World Rugby. Marinos also only took on the job two years ago. A messy situation that one would not want to deal with in World Cup year.

READ MORE: United Rugby Championship Team of the Week: Stormers and Munster rewarded for quarter-final performances