/ Monday Maul

Monday Maul
The ferocity of the wolfpack
Tom Hamilton
April 28, 2014
Chris Ashton was sensational against Clermont © Getty Images

It was a weekend dominated by defence and the Monday Maul looks back at the key talking points.

The ferocity of the wolfpack

Steve Borthwick's final match at the Rec for Bath back on May 4, 2008, was against, of all people, his new side Saracens. By half-time, Bath were 45-0 up and eventually ran out 66-21 victors. Post-match then Bath coach Steve Meehan said "we wanted to test them in defence", it was an area they perceived to be weak within Saracens' ranks. How times have changed.

At No.8 that day was Paul Gustard, Saracens' current defence coach and the mastermind behind their much-heralded 'wolfpack' mentality. Against Clermont on Saturday, Saracens put in one of the most remarkable defensive performances seen by a team on the European stage. Jacques Burger was heroic at openside with his 27 tackles and the correct recipient of the Man of the Match award, but to a man, one through to 15, the players hammered back anything moving in yellow and made life terribly difficult for Clermont. Mako Vunipola finished the match with 16 tackles while Brad Barritt put in 13. It was the perfect display of the 'wolfpack' they have built at Saracens and they will take some unpicking in the final.

Ashton deserves spot on plane to New Zealand

All sorts of records were broken on Saturday. For the first time in Heineken Cup semi-final history, six tries were scored by one side and a 40-point winning margin was secured. Chris Ashton also broke an individual record becoming the first man to score 11 tries in one Heineken Cup campaign. Swan dives apart, his finish against Ulster in the quarter-final was world-class and he put in a similarly impressive showing against Clermont.

The weekend's awards

  • Player: Jacques Burger
  • Team: Saracens
  • Effective defence: Saracens
  • Disappointment: Poor attendance at Twickenham
  • Tap-tackle: James Downey on Bryan Habana
  • Harsh call: Nigel Owens' decision to sin-bin Brock James

At present he is the in-form English winger and if Stuart Lancaster is picking on form alone, then Ashton has put in a perfect audition for starting against the All Blacks in June.

The battle of the ex-England captains

Fairytales are constantly mentioned when it comes to sport. Sometimes the seemingly inevitable path of rugby means players can finish careers exactly how they dreamt it would be. For Steve Borthwick and Jonny Wilkinson they will get the chance to bring down the curtain on their respective careers with some silverware at Cardiff on May 24.

For Saracens' Borthwick, his exit from the game is not likely to draw as much attention as Wilkinson's but while his personal achievements are not on a level with the World Cup-winner, you cannot begrudge that old gnarly second-row a last shot at winning the Heineken Cup. Both have given their bodies to the sport but only one will end up lifting that famous trophy.

Low attendance a disservice to European rugby

The sparse attendance at Twickenham for Saracens' match against Clermont was a shame for European rugby as a whole. The semi-final is an occasion that is broadcast around the world and while there were a good number of people watching the match from the comfort of their own sofas, just under 26,000 saw it in the flesh. The organisers of next year's new-look tournament must crack this problem and should weigh up an alternative venue to Twickenham, a better marketing strategy and more enticing offers to get people through the gates.

Bristol sign a gem in Jack Lam

Clubs are already planning for next season and Bristol have been very busy in the transfer market bringing in Dwayne Peel, Ryan Jones and Anthony Perenise but one player who has flown under the radar looks to be a huge coup. Jack Lam played at openside for the Hurricanes on Saturday in their game against the Reds and while Cory Jane finished the match with a hat-trick, Lam was immense.

He was turning over the ball at will and made 43 metres with ball in hand, a distance only one player on the Reds side bettered. He looks to set to be a star for Bristol next season regardless of whether they are in the Championship or Premiership.

Championship split between 'haves and have nots'

The weekend saw the league stage of the Championship come to an end and the results paint a picture of it becoming a two-tier league, there seems to be a growing divide between those teams who are better off and those who are living off more meagre resources. Bristol finished the season with a 55-31 win over London Scottish while London Welsh thrashed Nottingham 64-12.

Despite this, the league still retains a good element of drama as Jersey survived the drop by a single point thanks to a final day bonus point win over Bedford, a triumph that consigned Ealing to relegation.

The former Exiles excelling in new pastures

Both have flown under the radar this season but there are two ex-London Irish flankers who are having superb campaigns. For Leicester, Jamie Gibson has proven to be one of the signings of the season. It is not easy to break into the Tigers' side but Gibson has become a regular at blindside and could end up being a household name at Welford Road.

The same is happening a few miles south with Matt Garvey at Bath. Against Wasps on Sunday, Garvey was outstanding and even though Rob Webber scooped Man of the Match, it could have easily gone to the blindside. He has brought an incredible work rate to Bath's back-row and helped nullify Wasps' monster pack. Both Gibson and Garvey, you expect, will be on England's radar.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

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