Who’s hot and who’s not: Champions Cup star performers, unbeatable England and reckless red cards

Colin Newboult

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!

Robert Baloucoune: Take a bow, Robert! The Ulster wing’s hat-trick of tries helped his side seal an all-important win at Toulouse on Saturday in the European Champions Cup and boost his hopes of breaking into Andy Farrell’s Ireland XV ahead of the 2023 World Cup. Baloucoune was outstanding throughout, causing significant problems with ball in hand, but his third try was his most impressive. In the 66th minute, with Ulster under pressure, he showed his defensive skills and instinct to intercept a wide pass from Antoine Dupont from within the Ulster 22 and run the length of the pitch unimpeded. The Toulouse fans weren’t happy but Baloucoune was clearly onside and that try could be crucial ahead of the return match in Belfast.

Leicester Tigers: The Premiership outfit deserve plenty of praise after they delivered an outstanding performance en route to their 29-10 triumph over Clermont Auvergne in Sunday’s round-of-16 first leg encounter at the Stade Marcel-Michelin. The result was a momentous one as it is the first time in 17 years that Leicester have managed to beat Clermont away from home. It also sets the Tigers up nicely for the second leg at Welford Road this Saturday as they take a commanding 19-point advantage into that encounter.

Zach Mercer: It was quite the message to send to England head coach Eddie Jones, who decided to discard the then Bath number eight following their international against Japan in 2018. Mercer continued to play well for the West Country outfit but another call-up was not forthcoming, so he decided to move to France. It is a decision which has worked out superbly as he has helped Montpellier to the Top 14 summit. He continued that form in the Champions Cup and was outstanding in their 40-26 victory over Harlequins. Mercer scored two tries, caused Quins all sorts of problems throughout his time on the field and easily won the duel with current Red Rose eight Alex Dombrandt.

Unbeatable England and record crowd: On Saturday afternoon, Kingsholm became Queensholm as the Red Roses put 10 tries past Wales in their quest for a Grand Slam in the 2022 Six Nations. The 58-5 victory snapped Wales’ win streak and extended England’s going into their Round Four clash with Ireland in two weeks’ time. Simon Middleton’s women seem to have gone up another level over the past 12 months and will be incredibly difficult to stop. A talented France outfit are their closest challengers but even the French, despite being at home and in front of a raucous crowd, may struggle to get close to the Red Roses on this form. It was also an important day for the sport as a whole as a record attendance for a women’s match in the UK packed into the home of Gloucester. The game continues to grow and it is great to see fans flock to see high quality rugby.

Fiji Sevens: After a difficult 2021/22 campaign so far, the Pacific Islanders returned to form in stunning fashion by taking home the Singapore Sevens title, overcoming New Zealand in the final. Their best performance prior to this tournament had been a semi-final in Dubai but, after missing the events in Spain due to Covid, the Fijians were back to their best here. They ended South Africa’s stunning run – winners of all four competitions this season – in the quarters and continued that form all the way to the showpiece event, where they beat the All Blacks Sevens 28-17.

Dan Carter’s efforts for charity: An outstanding effort from the All Blacks legend, who has raised over $370,000 for Unicef by kicking 1,598 goals – the amount of points he scored for New Zealand – in 24 hours. The money donated will help children in Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu with Carter saying: “I just want to go to the Pacific and give them the money.” It was an incredible effort from the 40-year-old, who was understandably very tired by the end of the feat.

COLD AS ICE!

Another rugby great gone too soon: Rugby was left mourning the loss of another wonderful player and man as Scotland legend Tom Smith sadly passed away at the age of 50 following a long battle with cancer. Smith will be remembered, in the words of Sir Ian McGeechan, as “the greatest Scotland player of the professional era.” He was, despite being short in stature, an incredible scrummager, with the loosehead’s superb technique making up for his lack of size. Smith played a massive role in the British and Irish Lions’ series victory over South Africa in 1997 and ended up winning 67 Test caps in total – 61 for Scotland and six for the Lions. However, even more important was his impact as a human-being. Smith was highly regarded by everyone in the game and our thoughts go out to his friends, family and former team-mates.

Sale v Bristol: A worse game of rugby you are unlikely to see this season. For two sides that finished in the Premiership’s top-four last season, this was utterly dreadful. It rather showed why both have struggled to recapture the highs of the previous campaign, with mistakes dominating the encounter. Bristol play with such pace and verve, while their skill levels are usually out of the top-drawer, but this was dire. Sale, who do play a more conservative brand, were similarly awful and preferred to go into contact rather than find space. Let’s hope the reverse fixture is better. To be honest, it couldn’t be much worse.

All Black players promoting drinks label: New Zealand rugby league great Graham Lowe has criticised current All Blacks Damian McKenzie and Anton Lienert-Brown, as well as 2011 Rugby World Cup winner Stephen Donald, for promoting their alcohol company. Lowe feels the aforementioned trio are abusing their position as role models to youngsters and it’s difficult to argue his point. While there’s been a big backlash from some quarters on people advertising smoking and gambling – the former also being banned in most countries – it hasn’t always been the same for alcohol and maybe it’s time to do likewise for that.

Dan Leavy’s retirement: For both club and country, Leavy was a fantastic flanker who was fierce and strong in attack and defence but has unfortunately had his career cut short due to a knee injury. The Leinster and Ireland forward said: “I can’t do any more or ask any more of my body” having made enormous efforts to recover and get back on the field. It is utterly cruel for a hugely gifted player, who was hugely popular with fans, coaches and team-mates alike. Leavy could have been one of Ireland’s greats but we are sure that whatever the 27-year-old does next in his career, he will be a success.

Juan Cruz Mallia and Tolu Latu: Reckless play from Toulouse’s Mallia saw him shown a red card after he clattered into Ulster wing Ben Moxham when challenging for a high ball. The 20-year-old was taken out mid-air and hit the ground from a considerable height leading to the correct dismissal of the Toulouse player. It was poor from the wing and has potentially cost his side a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions Cup. Even more stupid and reckless was Stade Francais front-rower Latu, who was sent off for, in terms of what the lawbook says, a similar offence. However, the Australian hooker’s was much, much worse as there was no real attempt to go for the ball and he instead went right through the Racing player that went into the air to compete. It was incredibly dangerous and a long ban should be handed out to Latu.

Chiefs: They have had some good moments this season, such as the impressive victory over the Crusaders, but this was a very poor display at home. The Blues were excellent, with Beauden Barrett outstanding on his return following a head knock, but the hosts never really got going. The Chiefs couldn’t even take advantage of the visitors’ ill-discipline. The Aucklanders had three players sin-binned and were down to 13 men at one stage, but the Waikato-based outfit failed to score even a single point. A very poor day at the office.

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