Leinster and Exeter stunned amidst thrilling New Year action

Jack Carty 16/10/2020
A feast of scintillating domestic rugby action saw the New Year in with a bang, with a plethora of mouth-watering ties across the Guinness PRO14, English Premiership and France’s Top 14 keeping fans entertained on the first weekend of 2021.

A feast of scintillating domestic rugby action saw the New Year in with a bang, with a plethora of mouth-watering ties across the Guinness PRO14, English Premiership and France’s Top 14 keeping fans entertained on the first weekend of 2021.

With the business end of the season looming large, a host of Guinness Six Nations stars were at the centre of all the thrills and spills, vying to catapult their club sides to league success.

Connacht trump PRO14 champions Leinster

Ireland international Jack Carty contributed 25 points as 2015/16 champions Connacht succumbed Leinster to their first league defeat since April 2019, with the Galway-based side prevailing 35-24 at the RDS Arena.

The 28-year-old notched two tries within the first 22 minutes to help Andy Friend’s men to a 25-5 half-time lead, with Alex Wootton also getting on the scoresheet for the visitors after Scott Penny had replied for the hosts.

Luke McGrath and Ryan Baird led the Leinstermen’s comeback attempt with tries in the second half while Ed Byrne did salvage a losing bonus point at the death, but Tom Daly’s score eight minutes from time had already put the result beyond doubt.

Ulster stretched their lead over Leinster at the top of Conference A with their tenth win from ten in 2020/21, overcoming Conference B leaders Munster 15-10 in Belfast.

First-half tries from Matt Faddes and Ethan McIlroy guided Dan McFarland’s men to a 15-3 advantage at the break, while the away side’s only try – Darren Sweetnam’s score in overtime – came too late to threaten the result.

In Wales, second-half tries from Sione Kalamafoni and Sam Costelow inspired Scarlets to their fifth win of the season as they saw off Dragons 20-3.

Dan Jones contributed eight points from the tee for the hosts, while the 24-year-old’s opposite number Josh Lewis kicked Dragons’ only points in the first half.

Ospreys provided the perfect response to their narrow Round 9 defeat at home to Scarlets by trumping Cardiff Blues 17-3 at the Cardiff City Stadium to close the gap on second-place Leinster in Conference A.

Ill-discipline cost Blues – who saw Seb Davies, Dmitri Arhip and Scott Andrews all sent to the sin-bin in the second period – and an Ifan Phillips score and a penalty try was enough to see Ospreys over the line.

The latest instalment of the 1872 Cup yielded a win for last season’s PRO14 semi-finalists Edinburgh, with Richard Cockerill’s men shading a gritty affair against Glasgow Warriors 10-7.

Jaco van der Walt opened the scoring deep into the second half before replacement Magnus Bradbury went over for the afternoon’s first try, with Lewis Bean crossing at the death for the visitors.

Benetton remain winless in the PRO14 this season with Italian neighbours Zebre the latest side to get the better of them, Michael Bradley’s men cruising to a 24-15 win in Treviso.

Italy skipper Luca Bigi was at the centre of the action with a dazzling brace of tries for the away side, while Callum Braley and Monty Ioane touched down for the struggling hosts.

Wasps exact revenge on Exeter

Wasps got their own back against reigning champions Exeter Chiefs following their English Premiership final defeat in October, by cruising to a 34-5 win at the Ricoh Arena that spelled the Devonians first league loss of 2020/21.

James Gaskell crossed twice either side of a Richard Capstick score, before Lima Sopoaga and replacement prop Simon McIntyre (2) made sure of the result following a dominant second-half showing from the hosts.

Bristol Bears joined Chiefs on 20 points at the top of the table thanks to a 29-17 victory over Newcastle Falcons on New Year’s Day that condemned Dean Richard’s men to their first league defeat of the season.

Ratu Naulago, Charles Piutau, Nathan Hughes and George Kloska were all on target for the Bears, while George Wacokecoke, Mark Wilson and Philip van der Walt crossed for the visitors.

Interim head coach Paul Deacon enjoyed his first win in charge since succeeding Steve Diamond at Sale, with the Sharks coming from behind to pip bottom side Gloucester Rugby 22-19 at Kingsholm.

First-half tries from prop Fraser Balmain and young Wales international Louis Rees-Zammit put the Cherry and Whites in control at the break, but a last-ditch Josh Beaumont score snatched victory for the away side.

Ten-time English champions Leicester Tigers climbed up to seventh after a thrilling comeback 36-31 win over bitter rivals Bath Rugby on Sunday, with Beno Obano and Ben Spencer having launched the Blue, Black and White into an early 14-0 lead.

Tries from Freddie Steward, Harry Wells and Cameron Henderson proved enough to propel Tigers to victory, while Cameron Redpath did claim a third Bath try late on.

La Rochelle maintain lead at the top

In the Top 14, a stunning hat-trick of tries from France hooker Pierre Bourgarit inspired league leaders La Rochelle to a thumping 43-13 win at bottom side Agen.

Fellow Les Blues star Gregory Alldritt also notched a brace for the visitors while Wiaan Liebenberg crossed, with Raphael Lagarde going over for both of Agen’s scores.

Second-place Toulouse maintained the heat on Ronan O’Gara’s charges with their fifth successive Top 14 win, 16-9 away at Montpellier.

2020 Guinness Six Nations Player of the Championship Antoine Dupont came off the bench to set up Antoine Miquel’s decisive late try, after Anthony Bouthier and Zack Holmes had kicked three penalties apiece for Montpellier and Toulouse respectively.

Toulon lost crucial ground in the race for the title after going down 31-18 to Bordeaux Bègles at the Stade Chaban-Delmas.

Tries from Cameron Woki, Matthieu Jalibert – who finished with 21 points – and Romain Buros fired Bordeaux to victory, while Isaia Toeava and Bryce Heem touched down for Toulon.

Castres sprung a shock by edging Lyon 15-14 on their travels, with Charlie Ngatai’s try at the death not enough to prevent defeat for the hosts.

Izack Rodda put Lyon in front early on before Anthony Jelonch and Geoffrey Palis replied for Castres, with Benjamín Urdapilleta’s 62nd minute penalty ultimately proving decisive.

The Top 14 action came to a conclusion on Sunday with a thumping 51-21 victory for Stade Francais against Brive and Racing 92’s 24-22 comeback win over Clermont Auvergne.

The other scheduled Top 14 game for this weekend – Bayonne against Pau – was postponed due to coronavirus.