ESPN's European rugby review: Player of the weekend, flop & more

The weather might have played havoc with the fixture list -- especially in the PRO14 -- but as teams continue to jostle for playoff places there was plenty on the line in both the Aviva Premiership and Top 14.

Who caught the eye, who had a game to forget, and what will we all be talking about ahead of the next round of fixtures?

Player of the weekend

Prem (Martyn Thomas): Denny Solomona (Sale). The England wing has been a shining light for Sale since his protracted switch from rugby league at the end of 2016. He has now scored 17 tries in that time -- only Christian Wade (21) has scored more -- and on Saturday helped himself to a second first-half hat trick of his Sharks career. His three tries against Northampton were a study in smart running and expert support lines. With Solomona, Faf de Klerk and AJ MacGinty in fine form, Sale could yet make a run for the playoffs.

Top 14 (James Harrington): Colin Slade (Pau). The former All Black was the driving force, the beating heart, and the guiding light of Pau's first win at Castres since January 1974. He picked the perfect line to score the opening try, supplied the break and telling pass for two more, added another nine points with the boot -- and even found time to make a last-ditch try-saving tackle. He was so good that you could forgive him for the pass in 80 otherwise near-perfect minutes that was intercepted by Castres hooker Marc-Antoine Rallier, who trotted under the posts to score.

Flop of the weekend

Prem: Northampton. The flip side of a thrilling performance from Sale was another worryingly meek home defeat for their hosts. The initial uplift that followed Alan Gaffney into Franklin's Gardens has not been maintained and Saints have now won just one of their last four Premiership games -- against basement club London Irish. Defence was again Northampton's Achilles heel as they missed 19 of 83 tackles attempted. Following the match Gaffney appeared to suggest Wales wing George North had not wanted to play in the match. All does not seem to be rosy at the Gardens.

Top 14: Jarrad Hoeata (Montpellier). It takes something rather special for a player to get himself sent off in the opening five minutes of a game -- but a forearm smash into the face of a prone opponent at a ruck will do it every time. The New Zealander only arrived at Montpellier as a medical joker for Jacques du Plessis in January -- and now faces a ban that is set to see him miss several of the six remaining weeks of the regular season.

Best coaching call

Prem: Joe Simmonds would have expected to be on the bench for Exeter's postponed clash with Saracens at Sandy Park, but the youngster repaid coach Rob Baxter's faith with a man-of-the-match display. Making only his second Premiership start in the Chiefs No. 10 jersey, Simmonds, 21, -- younger brother of England back row Sam -- produced a delicious pass to set up Phil Dolman for his side's first try. That extended a lead Exeter would not lose, thanks largely to four penalties from the fly-half.

Top 14: Time will tell whether it's too little too late, but Oyonnax's embattled head coach Adrien Buononato has finally managed to turn his side's undeniable backs-to-the-wall fight into crucial points. It's no surprise that he resisted the temptation to tinker with the squad that won at Clermont for the weekend's crucial home match against Stade Francais. Nor should it be a surprise that it worked. Again. The Top 14's basement side are just four points behind 13th-placed Brive -- and seven from guaranteed safety. It's still very much a long-shot, but with seven rounds of the regular season left, Oyonnax suddenly have hope.

Biggest refereeing/TMO call

Prem: Craig Maxwell-Keys (Gloucester vs. Newcastle). Credit to TMO Trevor Fisher, who stepped in and advised Maxwell-Keys that he should take another look at David Halaifonua's tackle on Sinoti Sinoti. The Newcastle wing was left pole-axed by what was undoubtedly a late and mis-timed hit. But should it have been red? Halaifonua is not in control of his action, and his shoulder connects with Sinoti's head. There would have been few complaints had the Tongan walked for good. As it was he was shown yellow and would return to score in a losing cause.

Top 14: Mathieu Raynal (Castres vs. Pau). For all the single-handed heroics of Slade, the inconvenient truth is Julien Thomas' match-winning try came courtesy of a forward pass that referee Raynal stubbornly missed ... despite the best efforts to alert him to the fact by the partisan crowd, Castres' acting captain Mathieu Babillot -- who argued long and hard -- and the TV director, who ensured the pass in question was replayed several times on the two big screens at Stade Pierre Fabre. Maybe he was making up for the fact that Castres' hooker Rallier was several yards offside when he intercepted that Slade pass.

Storyline to keep an eye on...

Prem: Exeter's victory against Saracens has given them a healthy seven-point cushion at the top of the league, but beneath them there is set to be an almighty scramble for the remaining playoff and Champions Cup places. Newcastle's win at Gloucester has maintained their push for a slice of the post-season activities, but only seven points separate the Falcons and Sale in eighth. With Leicester, Gloucester and Bath in between those two there should be a few twists before the regular season ends.

Top 14: Battle lines have been drawn at both ends of the table. The top three -- Montpellier, Racing and Toulouse -- have a safety cushion but the next five sides are separated by a single point, and are battling it out for three remaining playoff places and the lucrative Champions Cup berth that comes with post-season qualification. At the other end of the table, Oyonnax, Brive and Stade Francais are gearing up for a relegation dogfight which could yet drag in Agen.