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

Plenty was sorted out over an enthralling weekend as Exeter and Saracens stormed into the Aviva Premiership final, Leinster set up a Dublin date with Scarlets, Ulster secured Champions Cup rugby and Castres and Lyon both upset the form guide in France.

But who shone, who had a weekend to forget and what will fans be talking about ahead of a busy period of domestic action?

Player of the weekend

Prem (Martyn Thomas): Owen Farrell (Saracens). It took less than two minutes for the new England captain to make his mark at Allianz Park as he exposed two tight-five forwards in the Wasps defensive line to breeze through and set up Alex Lozowski for the first try of the match. Thereafter he was pivotal in keeping his side on the front foot as they punched holes in the visiting rearguard almost at will. Farrell enjoyed a perfect day from the kicking tee, too, contributing 27 points and alleviating pressure with a couple of nerveless second-half penalties when it looked as though the Wasps comeback was on.

PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): James Lowe (Leinster). The Kiwi has had to bide his time in Dublin, missing out on Champions Cup semifinal and final victories due to rules limiting Leinster's matchday squad to two non-European players. He put any disappointment to one side as his break down the left touchline put his side on the front foot early. After being put to ground the winger made his way into midfield where he jinked inside two Munster defenders and produced a delightful offload as he fell to ground to put Jack Conan in to score Leinster's only try. He will be eager to show Leo Cullen what he continues to bring in the final against Scarlets.

TOP 14 (James Harrington): Armand Batlle (Castres). The winger recovered from a calf injury suffered in Castres' win over Oyonnax on the final weekend of the regular season to score both his side's tries in the playoff qualifier at near-rivals Toulouse. The first was a classic winger's score at the end of a sweeping pitch-wide counter-attack. And he was immensely brave for the second, finding a gap that almost wasn't there between hulking Toulouse forwards Richie Gray and Leonardo Ghiraldini, who were lining up to smash him into the middle of Tuesday.

Flop of the weekend

Prem: Having waited so long to make an appearance in the Premiership semifinals, Newcastle may feel they let an opportunity slip by. Ending the regular season in the top four was in itself a fine achievement for a club more associated with the lower reaches, and they will have learned some hard lessons from their afternoon in Devon. Exeter were relentless in their approach and put pressure on the Falcons from the first minute as they hogged 92 percent of possession in the first half. Newcastle's scrum struggled to cope with the power of the Chiefs, while their lineout misfired on too many occasions. Falcons boss Dean Richards was rightly keen to focus on the positives of the campaign, he knows they will get better from this experience.

PRO14: No. 10s. Across the weekend's action, the losing fly-halves had a bit of a mare. Finn Russell had an urge to kick possession away against Scarlets, JJ Hanrahan missed a penalty and conversion in Munster's 16-15 defeat to Leinster, and despite becoming the PRO14's highest points scorer of all-time, Dan Biggar missed two penalties early on at Ulster and his game management was poor. Russell departs for Racing 92, but after a disappointing season, the Top 14 side might have their doubts. Against Joey Carbery and Ross Byrne, his rivals for Ireland's back-up 10 role, Hanrahan came off worst while Biggar will hope for a rebirth of sorts at Northampton.

TOP 14: Jody Jenneker (Castres). Until an hour into the second barrage match of the weekend, this weekly anti-award was destined for Chris Ashton's mantelpiece, after he butchered two neon-lit, gift-wrapped, gilt-edged, tied-with-a-bow scoring opportunities. But then Jenneker had a hold my beer moment. He was rightly sent-off after losing the plot three meters from his own line, smashing into a ruck and slapping a prone Maxime Medard repeatedly in the face moments before Toulouse scored what could have been a comeback try. He has copped an automatic one-match suspension, and a longer ban seems inevitable, meaning his season is over. Maybe his Castres career, too, as he is out of contract in June with no official news yet on his future.

Biggest coaching call

Prem: Saracens boss Mark McCall and his opposite number at Wasps, Dai Young, both elected to bring their England No. 8s back into the fold following lengthy layoffs. But while Nathan Hughes started slowly for the visitors before building into the game and playing 66 minutes, the gamble on Billy Vunipola could have backfired. Vunipola was replaced at half-time at Allianz Park, and although Saracens initially insisted it was a tactical switch, it was later reported that he had suffered a recurrence of a hamstring injury. "Billy fought with us at half-time to go back out but it didn't seem worth the risk," McCall said.

PRO14: Leo Cullen. With Joe Schmidt keen for Joey Carbery to get more game time at fly-half, it would have been easy for Cullen to accede to the Ireland head coach. But choosing Ross Byrne at 10 was what was needed. He is a better option than Carbery, his kicking game is arguably better than his more illustrious teammate and he showed calmness under pressure. Byrne has proven his worth for Leinster and on the back of a decent season could be an outside pick for Ireland's tour of Australia.

Top 14: Lyon's Dylan Cretin is destined for French rugby greatness, even though Les Bleus have an embarrassment of young riches in the back row. On Friday, the forward, 21, showed impressive pace and incredible awareness to score what turned out to be the crucial match-winning try -- four minutes after coming on as a replacement for starting No. 8, Taiasina Tuifua. Head coach Pierre Mignoni will have not-so quietly enjoyed that Hannibal Smith "I love it when a plan comes together" moment.

Biggest refereeing call

Prem: JP Doyle (Saracens vs. Wasps). Wasps fans will have few complaints following their semifinal defeat against a Saracens side that dominated them in every facet of the game. Yet, it is also fair to say that a couple of refereeing decisions went against them. The decision not to award Elliot Daly a try early in the second half seemed odd as the reasoning of Doyle and his TMO Graham Hughes -- that the ball was grounded against the corner flag -- did not appear to be supported by the television replays. It mattered little as Wasps scored within a minute but it was not Doyle's finest afternoon. Will Skelton was lucky to stay on the pitch following a late swinging arm, while Marcelo Bosch's pass to Schalk Brits that set in motion the final Saracens try was a good metre forward.

PRO 14: John Lacey (Glasgow Warriors vs. Scarlets). Former Scotland utility back Sean Lamont left little doubt over what he thought of Lacey's performance on Friday, suggesting on social media that the Irish referee should retire. Lacey's decisions were far from the reason Dave Rennie's side failed to make the PRO14 final but it is never good when a semifinal is spoken is remembered for poor officiating rather than the two teams. Lacey didn't seem to referee the offside line, and looked like he disallowed a perfectly good try for Glasgow.

Top 14: Mathieu Raynal (Toulon vs. Lyon). For an hour, Toulon swarmed Lyon and looked certain to run away with the game. Ashton had already squandered two chances when, three minutes into the second half, it looked for all the world as if Semi Radradra had stretched out an arm to score the game's opening try. But, unlike the vast majority of the sell-out crowd, referee Raynal was not convinced and turned to the TMO for confirmation. His concerns were justified. Replays showed Radradra had slammed the ball down the shortest possible distance shy of the try line without actually hitting the whitewash, and knocked on. In a game decided on tries scored after the two sides could not be separated after 100 minutes of tense rugby, this was a crucial decision.

Storyline to keep an eye on...

Prem: Eddie Jones and Dai Young will both be waiting nervously for updates on Jack Willis' fitness after the young back row suffered a serious-looking knee injury in the closing stages of the first half at Allianz Park. A brilliant breakthrough season had earned Willis a place in the England squad for next month's tour of South Africa, but he will almost certainly now miss the trip. His standing leg was caught in the pitch as he was tackled by Owen Farrell and subsequently hyperextended, and he later went to hospital with his knee in a brace. The fact that Saracens have a 4G pitch is likely to reopen the debate on artificial turf and its impact on player welfare.

PRO14: It has been a rollercoaster ride for Ulster supporters this season. Poor performances saw Les Kiss axed in January, while Jono Gibbes announced he was returning to New Zealand for family reasons only for reports of a move to La Rochelle to emerge over the weekend. That will leave a bitter taste in the mouth of fans, and it remains to be seen whether incoming head coach Dan McFarland can take the reigns before January. Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have departed following their rape trial, while Charles Piutau, Andrew Trimble and Tommy Bowe have played their last games in white. Ulster are a few backs short but at least they have Jacob Stockdale -- for now, at least -- and Champions Cup rugby.

Top 14: For one home side to lose a Top 14 playoff barrage match can be considered unfortunate. For both home sides to be knocked out, however, requires defining something new. Castres have never before won at Toulouse in the playoffs, while Lyon have made the semifinals at the first time of asking. More importantly, ahead of the announcement of the France squad for the June tour of New Zealand, those shock defeats will be quietly welcomed by France coach Jacques Brunel. Suddenly, another section of his likely squad get a couple of weeks of unexpected -- but, from an international point of view, entirely welcome -- rest..