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

The PRO14 playoffs are now confirmed and with the Aviva Premiership and French Top 14 facing a dramatic finish next weekend, there is still much to play for with playoff places up for grabs and team eager to book a place in next season's Champions Cup.

Who shone, who had a weekend to forget and what stories made our talking point this weekend?

Player of the weekend

Prem (Martyn Thomas): Niki Goneva (Newcastle). Even at the grand old age of 34, the Fijian wing remains one of the most potent players in the Premiership. On Friday night Goneva was frequently used as a first-phase battering ram off lineout ball and his ability to create holes in opposition defences had an almost immediate effect at Welford Road as he scored after just 74 seconds. It was a ploy that worked again with 11 minutes remaining, his second try acting as the catalyst for Newcastle's dramatic late fightback. In all he made 96 metres with ball in hand, beat seven defenders and made two clean breaks. There's life in the old wing yet.

PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): Dan Biggar. The Welsh fly-half may be heading towards the exit door this summer, but he showed his class as he picked up a try in a 21-point haul during Ospreys' victory over Cardiff at the Principality Stadium on Saturday. Should Leinster win the Champions Cup and the four Challenge Cup semifinalists qualify for the Champions Cup through their league position, Ospreys won't face Ulster in a playoff for a place in next year's competition as both will qualify automatically. That would mean Biggar has played his last game at the club.

TOP 14 (James Harrington): Facundo Isa (Toulon). Nominally starting at seven, the Argentinian future legend was everywhere, doing everything -- and better than anyone else on the pitch. He battered the hapless Castres defence from the first to the 59th minute, when he finally gave way, to a deserved ovation, to compatriot and old legend Juan Martin Fernandez-Lobbe. In an hour, he had scored one try, made another, broken the gainline countless times, defended and tackled as if his life depended on it, and had given the visitors' defence palpitations whenever he had the ball in hand. Even his substitution -- not least who replaced him -- felt like a changing of the guard.

Flop of the weekend

Prem: Harlequins. John Kingston's reign in west London continues to drift meekly towards an unsatisfactory conclusion. Worcester began the game needing a bonus point to guarantee their safety and they were barely required to break sweat as four tries were amassed before half-time. Two of those came when Danny Care was in the sin-bin, but it would be wrong to blame this listless performance on the scrum-half's indiscretion. Quins were second best all over the pitch, gave away 13 penalties and lost five of their 18 lineouts. Defeat was the club's eighth in nine league games in 2018, whoever replaces Kingston has a big job on their hands.

PRO14: PRO14 Organisers. With Edinburgh and Ulster both vying for a playoff spot, the decision to play their games with a two hour difference left league organisers open to ridicule once again this season. From players turned back at airports, a Lion bite and officials taking charge of a game involving one side from the ref's own country, the PRO14 has had some interesting moments this season. But with so much on the line it made no sense and with every game being broadcast next season, it won't be the last time this questionable thinking will come into play.

TOP 14: Castres Olympique. No contest, despite Sebastien Vahaamahina's best vulgar gesture efforts after getting a red card, or Bordeaux gifting visitors Racing a five-point win. Admittedly, Toulon are almost impossible to beat at home -- especially when they unleash a backline of Ashton, Tuisova, Nonu, Bastareaud, and Radradra. It can take rugby from another planet to beat them. And that's exactly what Castres played. Unfortunately, it was rugby from a planet that had never previously heard of the game. Julien Dumora running into one of his own team-mates while surrounded by acres of space summed up the day -- even before they conceded three tries after the 76th minute, including two after the 78th minute.

Best coaching call

Prem: Todd Blackadder's decision to fight fire with back row fire paid dividends at Kingsholm as Bath secured west country bragging rights with victory over Gloucester. Francois Louw was particularly impressive, making an impact on both sides of the ball as he provided a try assist while making 39 metres with ball in hand as well as 17 tackles as the home side's breakdown threat was nullified. Victory kept Bath's faint Champions Cup hopes alive, although it would still require a minor miracle for them to make the top six.

PRO14: It has been a pretty bad season for Connacht to put it kindly. For the most part they have lacked any real threat over the course of the year, missed out on Champions Cup qualification and are a shadow of the glorious running rugby they were known for. But with John Muldoon playing his final game, and Leinster playing a weakened team, Kieran Keane's team obliterated the Champions Cup finalists. Without the Champions Cup next season, expect a more competitive brand of rugby next season.

Top 14: Heaven knows, there's an embarrassment of playing riches at Racing 92. But, when selecting Dan Carter as starting 10 becomes worthy of a mention here, it's clear that those riches are beyond the ken of mere mortals. With Machenaud and Lambie on the bench after their Champions Cup semi final-winning exploits last weekend, Carter teamed up with scrum-half Teddy Iribaren to produce a masterclass in game management as Racing picked up a bonus-point victory away from home at Bordeaux. Lambie did not make it on to the pitch, while Machenaud came on when Iribaren went off for an HIA... more on that later.

Biggest refereeing call

Prem: Luke Pearce (Leicester vs. Newcastle). Ally Hogg's dramatic late try, and the successful conversion from Sonatane Takulua that followed, condemned the Tigers to a seventh home defeat of the season in all competitions and left them in real danger of missing out on Champions Cup qualification. But by the letter of the law it should not have been awarded. Few would doubt that Hogg got the ball down, but none of the television replays provided the conclusive proof needed once Pearce had asked his TMO "Try, yes or no?" The referee then clearly blew his whistle before the Newcastle No. 8 touched down for a second time. In the end the right result was reached, and the Falcons fully deserved victory, but Tigers can feel rightly aggrieved with how the decision was made.

PRO 14: Ben Whitehouse (Munster vs. Ulster). The official took centre stage on Saturday and while some were far from impressed with his performance, he got the major decisions right, going to the TMO perhaps too often, but was quick to brandish yellow cards to Robin Copeland and Luke Marshall. If the saying about good referees going unnoticed in games is true, Whitehouse could take a backseat to players.

Top 14: Julien Castaignede (Agen vs Clermont). It was, in the scheme of Top 14 things, a fairly meaningless match. Both sides were safe from relegation, while any play-off ambitions they may have once harboured had long since vanished. But Mr Castaignede was apparently refereeing a Top 14 final in front of 80,000 supporters. It is right and proper that the refereeing team works to make the right decision each time, every time, but Stade Armandie was plagued by referrals -- there were no fewer than five lengthy trips upstairs in the opening 40 minutes, which eventually ended with the scores at 10-3. The first half had barely finished when the three other Top 14 games that kicked off at the same time started their second halves -- and there were still more than five minutes on the clock when the last of those matches ended.

Storyline to keep an eye on...

Prem: The hunt for the Champions Cup. The weekend's results mean the make up of the top four is decided, but below them the remaining two places in Europe's premier club competition are up for grabs. Four clubs, including eighth-placed Bath, are in with a shout of making the top six with two of those going head to head at the AJ Bell Stadium. Sale can book their place in the Champions Cup with victory over Leicester, and that result would also open the door for Gloucester -- who are away at Saracens -- and Bath, who end their campaign with a home clash with London Irish.

PRO14: The speculation that Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt plays a key role in deciding moves for contracted players in Ireland stepped up a notch over the last few weeks with Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne linked with a move to Ulster. Neither are said to be interested in following Jordi Murphy out of Leinster as Schmidt looks for improved game time for Irish fly-halves ahead of next year's Rugby World Cup in Japan. The speculation won't please provincial head coaches who are looking to build depth in their own teams but with Ulster an unlikely option, it will be interesting to see whether both are at Leinster next season.

Top 14: The cruel injury ended the season for Racing 92 scrum-half Machenaud. He was helped off the pitch in obvious pain with a knee injury a few minutes after coming on as a temporary injury replacement for Teddy Iribaren -- who could only watch from the side as he waited to return after passing a head injury assessment. Although the club made all the right noises immediately after the match, the concern was palpable. It was later reported that Machenaud had suffered a total rupture of the cruciate ligaments. He will miss the Champions Cup final in Bilbao, as well as the summer tour of New Zealand. Team-mate Virimi Vakatawa will also miss the All Blacks' tour, reports say, as he needs a hernia operation.