Saffas lead Sarries’ charge for top spot

GARETH DUNCAN looks at the South Africans who impressed in Europe over the weekend.

Centre Brad Barritt, replacement scrumhalf Neil de Kock, No 8 Ernst Joubert, flanker Justin Melck, lock Mouritz Botha and hooker Schalk Brits helped Saracens beat Leicester 15-14 at Welford Road, which secured a English Premiership double for the victors as they beat the latter at home earlier in the season. The win closes the gap between the top two English clubs by two log points (Leicester first and Saracens second) with only eight weeks remaining before the play-offs.

Skipper Luke Watson, flyhalf Butch James and scrumhalf Michael Claassens’s Bath suffered a blow to their semi-final ambitions as they lost 34-22 against Gloucester, which also ended their five-match winning streak. Luckily for Bath, tighthead prop Brian Mujati’s Northampton Saints, who are also top four contenders, blew a 9-3 half-time lead as they lost 30-9 against Exeter Chiefs.

There was another comeback victory as lock Marco Wentzel’s Leeds Carnegie sparked their relegation fight as they overturned a 16-10 half-time decifit to beat tighthead prop Faan Rautenbach’s London Irish 27-19.

In the Magners League, replacement loosehead prop Wian du Preez’s Munster continued their impressive run with a 38-17 home victory over Newport Gwent Dragons, which keeps their nine-log point advantage at the top of the standings.

Ruan Pienaar featured at flyhalf and kicked eight points for No 8 Pedrie Wannenburg and lock Johan Muller’s Ulster in a 23-10 win over lowly Aironi, who played wing Danwel Demas and flanker Gareth Krause. Flank Robbie Diack also came off the wood for the former.

Loosehead prop Heinke van der Merwe and hooker Richardt Strauss fronted Leinster’s 26-15 victory over Scarlets. Flyhalf Willem de Waal’s 10 points with the boot couldn’t help Treviso in their 31-25 defeat against Connacht. Lock Corniel van Zyl also started for the Italian club.

In the French Top 14, loosehead prop Daan Human’s Toulouse lost ground at the top of the table as they suffered a 19-13 defeat to wing Sam Gerber and replacement fullback Joe Pietersen’s Bayonne. Fullback Frans Steyn, lock Francois van der Merwe and No 8 Jacques Cronje’s Racing Metro only trail the table leaders by two log points as they picked up an important 38-19 away win over Bourgoin-Jallieu, that featured centre Piet van Zyl, flanker Wessel Jooste, lock Coenie Basson and tighthead prop Ruaan du Preez.

No 8 Joe van Niekerk’s Toulon continued their poor form as they lost 19-12 against Clermont. Centre Marius Joubert was an unused sub for the winners. Flanker Johan Wasserman and centre Grant Rees’s Montpellier strengthened their play-off chances as they snatched a 25-24 win over Saffa-laden Agen, who fielded flyhalf Conrad Barnard, flankers Hendro Scholtz and Adri Badenhorst, lock Dewald Senekal and tighthead prop Gert Muller.

Centre Gavin Hume’s Perpignan thumped replacement scrumhalf Noel Oelschig’s Stade Francais 21-9. Flanker Gerrie Britz and centre Rudi Coetzee also came off the bench for the former. Loosehead prop Eduard Coetzee’s Biarritz edged lock Cobus Grobler’s La Rochelle 32-30 while flyhalf Scott Spedding, flanker Gerhard Vosloo, replacement lock Retief Uys and No 8 Antonie Claassen’s Brive lost 20-12 to Castres.