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

ESPN staff7 Minute Read

It was a momentous weekend in the Aviva Premiership with games being held at the London Stadium and St James' Park in an attempt to win over more fans. In the PRO14, Munster kept up the pressure on Glasgow with a win over Scarlets and in France Montpellier thrashed Castres to stay sitting pretty at No. 1 in the Top 14.

But 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

Beno Obano tackling Ian Whitten of Exeter, one of 21 tackles the prop made on Friday evening.Bob Bradford - CameraSport via Getty Images

Prem: (Callum Jamieson): Beno Obano (Bath). Obano was on the wrong end of a narrow defeat in a bruising West Country derby against Exeter but further enhanced his growing reputation with another destructive performance. The prop, 23, made a remarkable 21 tackles on Friday night and from Bath's backline only centres Jonathan Joseph and James Wilson made more metres. Eddie Jones was at the Rec and must have been impressed with Obano's all-round display, typified by his powerful carry, then two phases later his deft pass that set Paul Grant on his way to scoring.

PRO14: (Cillian O Conchuir): Justin Tipuric (Ospreys). Capped a man-of-the-match performance in their victory over Leinster with a fine try. But his work-rate on both sides of the ball was immense. In attack, three clean breaks in which he beat three defenders, while in defence he made nine tackles. If Ospreys are to clinch a Champions Cup place next season, Tipuric will surely have a crucial role to play.

Top 14 (James Harrington): Chris Ashton. The Toulouse flyer scored only once in 49 minutes of game time as his side ran seven-try riot against Clermont on Sunday afternoon. But it was a significant score. It was the one that drew him level with Napolioni Nalaga's Top 14 record of 21 touchdowns, set during the 2008-09 season -- and Ashton has another four regular-season matches to score at least one more.

Flop of the weekend

Ulster suffered their third straight defeat with a 35-17 loss to Cardiff Blues.Ashley Crowden - CameraSport via Getty Images

Prem: Worcester Warriors. The relegation fight looks dead in the water after London Irish blew a 17-0 lead to lose at home to Gloucester but Worcester suffered their third straight Premiership defeat. The Warriors fell to their heaviest loss of the season, 58-25 to Sale, with only a couple of late consolation tries saving them from real embarrassment. Alan Solomons lamented his team's physicality and said they must regroup ahead of their next game against a Newcastle side pushing for a top four place.

PRO14: Ulster. Three straight defeats have their Champions Cup hopes hanging by a thread. Currently they would play Ospreys for a place in next season's competition. Although they have a game in hand, they are just a point ahead of Treviso in Conference B. While Ulster face Edinburgh, Ospreys, Glasgow and Munster, Treviso face Dragons, Zebre and Leinster. High stakes indeed.

Top 14: This rather dubious award could have gone to Stade Francais' Waisea Nayacalevu, whose wild attempt at an offload when his side were chasing what would have been a match-winning after-the-hooter try was never on in a month of Mondays, let alone Sundays. It could have gone to Castres, whose Champions Cup hopes hang by a thread after an abject defeat at Montpellier. But, in the end, this week's flops are Clermont, who -- less than a week before the Champions Cup quarterfinal -- could barely muster a challenge let alone a point against Toulon, despite the return of some big names.

Biggest coaching call

Maro Itoje 'celebrates' after scoring Saracens' second try during the Aviva Premiership match against Harlequins at the London Stadium.Henry Browne/Getty Images

Prem: Mark McCall (Saracens). It would have been easy for McCall to have been sucked into the media meltdown that surrounded England's "knackered" stars and decided against recalling Maro Itoje straightaway, who had been singled out more than most for criticism. But McCall stuck to his guns and was richly rewarded with Itoje bouncing back somewhere close to his best as Saracens cruised past Harlequins at the London Stadium in front of 55,000 spectators. Itoje himself sent out a message with a sleepy looking celebration after he scored his first-half try.

PRO14: Danny Wilson (Cardiff vs. Ulster). Take a bow Mr Wilson. Five straight victories for a Cardiff side who largely lack the quality of the more established teams in the PRO14 has all but secured their place in the Champions Cup for the first time since the 2013-14 season. They dismantled an Ulster side that included the likes of Charles Piutau at fullback, as well as Irish internationals Craig Gilroy, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey and Jacob Stockdale. Congrats to the departing coach.

Top 14: It was a weekend in which no inspired substitutions, half-time rallying calls or random refereeing decisions changed any game's outcome. But Oyonnax's head coach Adrien Buononato must be wishing he could clone Ben Botica, who was understandably rested. How the relegation strugglers missed the Top 14's leading points scorer. It's probably too much to suggest he could have turned defeat at Pau into victory, but the fact is -- without him -- they never really looked like winning once the hosts had got their noses in front.

Biggest refereeing call

Barry Daly caused some confusion with his try for Leinster.Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Prem: Luke Pearce (Leicester vs. Wasps). There was a big moment halfway through the first period when Pearce, in combination with the TMO, decided that Nick Malouf's high tackle on Christian Wade was worthy of a yellow card. The crowd were not happy but on further inspection he could easily have been handed a red. Pearce decided the original contact in the tackle was with Wade's shoulder and it slipped up from there. Yet, even slowed down there was little proof of this. This is exactly the type of tackle authorities are attempting to remove from the game and while there has been improvement, Malouf's late, and high, tackle needed a more serious look.

PRO14: John Lacey (Ospreys vs. Leinster). Who knew that if a player wasn't in control of the ball that they could touch the ball down for a try, while they are in touch. That is exactly what everyone looking at Leinster's defeat to Ospreys found out as they searched the regulations. Barry Daly touched down for a try against the Welsh side, but his foot was in touch, however, rules indicate that if a player isn't in possession of the ball while touching down, it is irrelevant if they are in touch.

Top 14: Pascal Gauzere (Montpellier vs Castres). Not once but twice in the opening 23 minutes, the referee and TMO combined to reject Montpellier calls for a try against Castres, spotting first a deliberate block and then a fairly sizeable forward pass. No matter, it took barely two minutes more for the hosts to register the first of the five tries they scored in what was, frankly, a savage demolition of the visitors delusions of a top six place.

Storyline to keep an eye on...

Vereniki Goneva celebrates with his Alan Shearer impression after scoring the opening try of the game during the Aviva Premiership match between Newcastle Falcons and Northampton Saints.Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Prem: Newcastle Falcons. The Falcons continue to plough on towards a top four finish and the importance of their 25-22 win over Northampton cannot be overstated. It was a gamble to play at St James' Park, a stadium filled with the city's history of a different sport all together. Had they served up a damp squib to the 30,000-plus crowd much of their momentum on and off the pitch could have stalled. In the special black and white stripes, Newcastle weren't at their flowing best but got the job done against a Saints side with a new lease of life, all topped off by Vereniki Goneva's Shearer-esque celebration. If the Falcons keep performing the way they are and they break into the playoffs it would mark a truly remarkable season. Up next, Worcester.

PRO14: Did anyone think meritocracy in the PRO14 would see the possibility of two Irish provinces miss out on Champions Cup rugby next season? That is the fate awaiting Connacht and Ulster if some good results don't come their way in the final few games of the season. Forget about trying to attract players. It could be a hard sell holding onto players without top quality rugby. Connacht's focus could turn solely to the Challenge Cup, hoping victory could help them back into Europe's elite competition.

Top 14: The Springboks' director of rugby and head coach Rassie Erasmus was a very visible VIP guest of Mohed Altrad, as South African-laden Montpellier crushed Castres on Saturday. Who, of the seven South Africans in the Montpellier side was he interested in? Bismarck and Jannie Du Plessis? Ruan Pienaar? Another relative old boy in fly-half Frans Steyn, 30? Or -- and this would involve overturning South Africa rugby's 30-cap rule -- was he looking at younger uncapped trio Paul Willemse, Nico Janse van Rensburg or Henry Immelman? Of course, he could just have been there to enjoy the rugby...