Biggest Winners and Losers in World Rugby for Weekend of January 29-31

Tom Sunderland@@TomSunderland_Featured ColumnistJanuary 31, 2016

Biggest Winners and Losers in World Rugby for Weekend of January 29-31

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    Saracens booked their third successive victory on Saturday as they returned to the Aviva Premiership calendar with a win over Bath, retaining their place atop the English order.

    With the Six Nations now just a week away, some of Europe's big guns have seen their options limited by the calls to international duty, but the Top 14's titans all thrived even with some of their stars missing.

    This week also saw a leading candidate for the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour coaching role ruled out of contention, but Ireland fans will be happy to hear the news.

    Read on for discussion of all that and more as we break down the biggest winners and losers in world rugby this weekend.

Winner: New Zealand Sevens

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    New Zealand claimed their first title of the 2015-16 Sevens World Series on Sunday after storming back to clinch a comeback win over South Africa on home soil.

    Wellington's Westpac Stadium was sent into raptures after watching coach Gordon Tietjens' men rally from 14-0 down to triumph 24-21, giving their campaign a much-needed jump-start and moving to third in the standings.

    After the win, captain Tim Mikkelson spoke of the impact former Chiefs star Liam Messam had on the team, and All Blacks veteran Sonny Bill Williams was also in action. Per ESPN Scrum, Mikkelson said:

    All week we talked about how we needed a lot of heart and a lot of ticker. Liam Messam came back from Japan and talked about putting the pride back in the jersey after the last couple of tournaments, and that's what we did.

    We talked about securing the kick-offs and we bumbled a few and put ourselves under pressure but we knew if we could keep the ball in hand we could win.

    Last season's third-place finishers could hardly have hoped for a better end result in Wellington, and New Zealand will look to use Sunday's revival as a platform for further 2016 success.

Loser: Joe Schmidt

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    Ireland coach Joe Schmidt has ruled himself out of the running to coach the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour after insisting the terms of his Irish Rugby Football Union contract—which expires on June 30, 2017—prevent him from doing so.

    The New Zealander had been tipped as a front-runner to coach the team on their trip to his native land next year, but he confirmed he won't be able to take on the responsibility, per the Press Association (h/t ESPN Scrum):

    To be honest the terms of my current contract don't allow me to do the Lions, so it's actually a moot point. It doesn't distract me because it isn't actually something I can do unless the terms of my contract change. I finish at that time and there's some outside influences on that that will probably dictate anything beyond that.

    So I'm not planning for beyond where my contract finishes, and to be honest, if you're a coach sometimes you don't even get to the finish of it because that's the harsh reality, it's a very success-driven environment.

    Irish Rugby confirmed in July 2015 that Schmidt had agreed to a one-year extension to his deal, and while Irish fans will consider this uplifting news, the tactician himself may consider it a missed opportunity.

    Perhaps then the British and Irish Lions could be considered the loser in this regard, but with Wales coach Warren Gatland still the favourite for the job, the team could still be placed in good hands.

Winner: England's Comeback Kings

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    Saracens are becoming an increasingly frequent fixture in our biggest winners pile, mainly due to the fact they've been exhibiting some of the best rugby Europe has to offer for months now.

    Coach Mark McCall's men were once again in resilient form on Saturday as they scored 13 points in the final seven minutes of their clash with Bath to seal a 19-13 comeback win, while Leicester Tigers also staged a late escape.

    Leicester boss Richard Cockerill's side trailed Gloucester 18-12 with two minutes remaining at Kingsholm, and the west country hosts were left dismayed after Logovi'i Mulipola snatched a 78th-minute try, with Freddie Burns adding the extras.

    Saracens' victory ensured they remain at the top of the standings, while Leicester's victory means they're still eight points from the Premiership leaders following two morale-boosting results.

Loser: Top 14 Strugglers

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    On a weekend where Toulon moved up to third in the Top 14 standings with a 23-16 win over Stade Francais and Racing 92 kept their place at the summit, it was a terrible week for those at the other end of the table.

    Pau and Oyonnax mustered a pitiful three points each en route to defeats against Toulouse and Racing, respectively, while basement outfit Agen suffered a 33-27 home defeat to Grenoble.

    It was a pair of particularly dim finishes from Pau and Oyonnax that sealed their fates, each failing to register a single point in the second halves of their respective outings, and future prospects are far from bright.

    The minnows of France can only hope the Top 14's giants may suffer in the weeks to come as a raft of their international players depart for France's Six Nations campaign, needing to make the most of their window of opportunity.

Winner: Road Warriors Wasps

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    Wasps booked back-to-back wins for the first time since November after beating Northampton Saints 24-11 at Franklin's Gardens on Friday evening, their first victory at the venue since 2005.

    Ending that 11-year drought in Saints territory means Wasps' boss Dai Young's side move above Northampton and up to fifth in the Premiership standings thanks to tries from Dan Robson, Rob Miller and John Bassett.

    Wasps' away win is also their first domestic victory on the road since November's beating of London Irish, showing how the English outfit has struggled away from their Ricoh Arena home of late.

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