Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Benetton Rugby making history, Chris Boyd and Pat Lam
Last Updated: 13/05/19 11:14am
Benetton Rugby making history, Chris Boyd's Northampton, Bristol, Bath and South African scrum-halves are all discussed by Stuart Barnes in his latest set of talking points.
1. Where else to start this week than Treviso? Benetton created a little slice of rugby history by becoming the first Italian club to qualify for the Guinness Pro 'Two Too Many Teams' play-off. Sealed with a bonus point win against the rather more hapless other Italian team, Zebre, there was no fluke about the achievement.
They have been up there in contention throughout. I have been reading much about the influence of Conor O' Shea when all the credit belongs to Kieran Crowley, an All Black full-back I played against in the 1985 England tour of New Zealand. Through the mists of time, well done, Kieran.
2. If the first part of the Benetton story transpired in Italy, the second, and far more dramatic part, occurred in the heart of Welsh rugby; in the Principality. The Scarlets' loss to the Dragons secured Benetton's berth. The Scarlets have fallen too quickly from the pedestal of Celtic rugby.
A disappointing, no, make that a desperate season, culminated with defeat against the Dragons who haven't won away from home since the game turned pro, or something like that. At 17-6 down at half-time, the men of Gwent were written off but they bounced back to scalp the Scarlets and head for summer with their heads held high.
Welsh fans are starting to worry about whether Wayne Pivac was a premature selection for the national team. I wonder whether the appointment itself didn't destabilise the Scarlets... I'm a nice guy, trying to find an excuse for a season now dependent upon beating the Ospreys if they are to qualify for Europe. That derby will be some finale to the club season in Wales.
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3. Toulouse deserve plenty of credit for beating Castres, a week after their disappointing form against Leinster in the semi-final of the Champions Cup. Castres would have fancied their chances of bloodying their Big City rivals still further but Ugo Mola's men hung in there for victory. A win that keeps the champions far from sure of their qualification for the knock-out action.
4. The Crusaders keep on, keeping on. In an average start to the Super Rugby season they have been the consistent exception. It seems that they have sprinkled their stardust on Sevu Reece, former Chief and potential future All Black. He could yet be a bolter for the All Blacks World Cup squad.
5. Were the Sunwolves abject or were the Highlanders superb? I'd like to think it was the latter (if for nothing more than the sake of Japanese rugby as the World Cup approaches). One reason to see it from the positive perspective is the return to the starting team of Aaron Smith.
I mentioned him in this column last week. The speed of his mind, pass and the manner in which he bosses the big boys in front of him is a delight.
If New Zealand are to be beaten in Japan, getting to the golden hands of their half-back is imperative. It's something Faf de Klerk and South Africa managed last season as they won in New Zealand and should have won in Pretoria.
6. Let's stick with the Kiwi angle. Smith, Crowley and now a mention for Chris Boyd. The former Hurricanes boss is working his charms in the East Midlands. Game by game he is turning them from a turgid team of one-out carriers to a slick side who will be capable of giving any team a fair old game next season. Maybe even this season. I wouldn't write them off against Exeter away from home in a play-off.
It's no surprise to see Tom Collins weaving spells. Boyd, unlike so many European coaches, isn't obsessed with size. The smaller men can flourish. In Wellington he placed his trust in Nehe Milner-Skudder, in Northampton it is being placed in Collins.
7. Another man of Kiwi culture but, in this instance Samoan pedigree, is Bristol's Director of Rugby, Pat Lam. Survival was assured on Saturday as Bristol completed the double over Leicester, this time at Welford Road. Not only has he kept his team up, he has done so playing in a style that many well known English rugby players and coaches have said cannot be achieved by teams fighting against relegation.
Well, Lam has always said it's about more than relegation. Maybe he has taken the pressure off his team by constantly refusing to discuss the drop. Whatever he has done, it worked. Now, with Sale at home and Newcastle, all but relegated, away, he has a real shot at that sixth spot and qualification for the Champions Cup.
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8. If Bristol make the Champions Cup, I think it will be at Bath's expense. The West Country men departed Sale with a losing bonus-point on Friday night. There was a poignant shot of Todd Blackadder, Toby Booth and Darren Edwards together. All three coaches leaving at the end of the season. It cannot be particularly good for morale. Stuart Hooper has a lot to do and even more to prove next season.
As for Sale, if they are as bad as they were Friday night, Bristol will hammer them. Bristol will be favourites to win this match in the West Country and jump ahead of Sale who are currently in that much desired sixth position.
9. On Sunday afternoon I watched Worcester secure their survival and send Leicester plummeting to 11th place. The Warriors are playing some decent rugby. A word for the reliable Chris Pennell. I thought he was rock solid at full-back. What a hero he has been for Worcester over the years.
10. Watching the win against Gloucester, I realised that South Africa's three best scrum-halves are all playing in the Premiership. On form the pick of them is currently Cobus Reinach. Boyd has his man in brilliant form. But, at test level, Faf de Klerk has proved he deserves to be the number one, No 9.
At Worcester, the muscular play of Francois Hougaard keeps catching the eye as well. Rassie Erasmus has a way of bending South African rugby rules like Yuri Geller (remember him) could spoons. What he would give to have this trio in Japan.