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

Dylan Hartley of Northampton Saints leads his team off the pitch during the Aviva Premiership Big Game 10. David Rogers/Getty Images for Harlequins.

As most of the Northern Hemisphere prepared for the countdown to 2018, professional rugby players across the Aviva Premiership, PRO14 and Top 14 clocked into work as normal.

But who caught the eye, who had a game to forget, and what will we all be talking about ahead of the next round of fixtures?

Player of the weekend

Prem (Martyn Thomas): Danny Cipriani (Wasps). The playmaker ended the weekend being linked once more with a money-spinning move to France, but he began it by offering further evidence that his continued absence from the international stage is something to be lamented. Cipriani, alongside half-back partner Dan Robson, was at the heart of an impressive display Friday night from a Wasps backline shorn of Elliot Daly, Jimmy Gopperth and Kyle Eastmond. His ingenuity kept Wasps on the front foot and ensured Bath were kept at arm's length as the visitors scored five tries.

PRO14 (Cillian O Conchuir): Johnny Sexton (Leinster). The Ireland international showed his class in difficult conditions during Leinster's defeat of Connacht, landing a monster penalty from 45 metres out. In a very tight game, he showed he could be back to his best ahead of crucial Six Nations and European Cup games.

Top 14 (James Harrington): Lionel Beauxis (Lyon). The forgotten France fly-half, 32, played his last international back in 2012. Against Pau, he rolled back the clock to give French fans a hint of what might have been. His tally of 17 points -- 15 of them in the first half -- was reasonable enough. But his switch from lethal attacking force to shrewd-eyed tactical kingpin after prop Francisco Gómez Kodela was sent off was nothing short of brilliant.

Flop of the weekend

Prem: Northampton Saints. Coach Alan Dickens revealed that he had told his players they face 10 big games before the end of the Premiership season, after they were beaten 50-21 by Harlequins in Big Game 10. It was a nice sound bite, and hard to argue with. Saints are dropping like a stone ahead of Alan Gaffney's arrival and against Quins they played without any belief for much a humbling encounter. Phil Dowson has a big job on his hands to fix their porous defence.

PRO14: Edinburgh. Not even a fire alarm which forced the temporary evacuation of the stadium could prevent Edinburgh from winning flop of the week award. After a superb 14-man performance to beat Glasgow the previous week, they once more failed to back it up. Richard Cockerill's men had a chance to put pressure on Ulster for third spot, but on this performance, Champions Cup rugby is further away than ever for his side.

Top 14: Montpellier. Vern Cotter's powerful and gnarly side headed to 13th-placed Brive for the final weekend of 2017 at the head of the Top 14. They finished the weekend in second, having picked up nothing from their away day at Stade Amedee Domenech. And they leaked four tries as Brive picked up their first try-scoring bonus point of the season to move above Agen and out of the relegation red zone.

Best coaching call

Prem: Rob Baxter proved Sunday that it is sometimes best to do nothing at all. Having toiled in the opening 40 minutes with the Sandy Park wind swirling at their backs, the 6-3 lead the Chiefs had built at the break looked far from good enough as George Ford levelled with a penalty early in the second half. But Baxter had urged his players to trust in their ability on TV and refused to make wholesale changes. His faith was repaid as Don Armand crashed over, and from there his side didn't look back.

PRO14: It's incredible that after beating Munster last weekend Leo Cullen was able to make 13 changes for the visit of Connacht on Monday. James Lowe and Dan Leavy were the only players retained and they still edged over the line against Connacht, with Johnny Sexton, Luke McGrath and Max Deegan on form.

Top 14: In a crazy game in which replacement Castres scrum-half Rory Kockott played 10 in place of Ben Urdapilleta and injury to centre Aurelien Rougerie prompted a reshuffle of Clermont's backline with Charly Trussardi the only available option off the bench, coach Christophe Urios's decision to give up lineout options by replacing lock Loic Jacquet with back row Alex Tulou on the hour seems almost mundane. It was pure genius after just a minute, when Tulou blitzed over for the try that dragged the visitors right back into a game they would go on to win in dramatic circumstances.

Biggest refereeing call

Prem: Luke Pearce (Bath vs. Wasps). The laws surrounding what constitutes a deliberate knock-on are up to interpretation at the best of times but Pearce got it spot on at Bath Friday night. Less than a week after Jonny May had seen red for two deliberate knock-ons, Marcus Watson stayed on the pitch having committed as many in the first half an hour at the Rec. The difference? As Pearce and his TMO rightly pointed out, his first offence was instinctive and constituted only a penalty. The second, when caught in no man's land tackling Jonathan Joseph was deliberate and deserved the yellow it got.

PRO14: The TMO had a busy enough day as Cardiff lost narrowly to the Scarlets on Sunday, with Cardiff's Tomos Williams and Scarlets' Gareth Davies having tries chalked off. Williams was held short, while Davies' effort was ruled out after the ball was kicked out of the scrum.

Top 14: Pierre Brousset (Stade Francais vs. Bordeaux). It was a weekend in which one referee brandished eight yellow cards, and another awarded a try then denied it after a quick conversion. But sending Tony Ensor to the bin for a deliberate knock-on midway through the second half of a tight game would have the greatest impact. Or it would have done had the TMO not intervened. Video evidence showed Ensor hadn't touched the ball. Mr Brousset reversed his decision, the fullback stayed on -- and played a key role as Stade closed out the game.

Storyline to keep an eye on...

Prem: A glance around the Premiership grounds over the weekend would have turned up a host of stellar performances from English-qualified hookers. Tom Dunn put in 18 tackles for Bath, Dave Ward was a try-scoring wrecking ball for Bath and Jamie George was, well, Jamie George. Unfortunately for Eddie Jones and England, Dylan Hartley had a match to forget at Twickenham, missing five tackles and ensuring the debate over his place as captain rumbles on into 2018.

PRO14: After the back-to-back derbies of the last two weeks, the Cheetahs look to be in a very strong position. They are currently eight points behind Munster, meaning victory in both games-in-hand against Southern Kings, coming up this month, could propel them into the playoff spots. Their most difficult games remaining see them face Glasgow Warriors away and Munster at home in the run in, meaning a playoff spot is very much within their grasp.

Top 14: The growing pains of the new France coaching set-up. It was confirmed at the weekend that Lyon forward coach Sebastien Bruno will join Jacques Brunel's ticket. But questions remain over who will join them, as Top 14 coach after Top 14 coach distance themselves from a role at Marcoussis. Franck Azema, Fabien Galthie, Patrice Collazo, Pierre Mignoni and Xavier Garbajosa have already said no, while Vern Cotter has claimed no contact. Recent whispers have included Racing's Laurent Labit and the currently out-of-work Jean-Baptiste Elissalde.