As much as professional sportsmen moan about being deprived of a rest over the Christmas period, we all know that the two weeks at the end of December and into January are pivotal in how any season shapes up. This time around was no different. Here is a round-up of what went on.
Harlequins shun style for substance as Leicester and Saracens roll up their sleeves
Conor O’Shea’s men have made a name for themselves as prime entertainers over the past two campaigns, never afraid to attack wider channels or push ambitious passes. However, while those attributes were conspicuous by their absence during two rather mechanical fixtures, twin wins to finish 2012 were evidence of an evolving team. Indebted to Nick Evans’ boot for beating Northampton 18-9 at Franklin’s Gardens and an immense forward effort for warding off London Irish at Twickenham, Harlequins now occupy the Aviva Premiership top spot. And it is looking ominous for everybody else.
As is their way, Leicester matched their final-hurdle conquerors from last tear with two victories of their own. First up on December 22 they clinched a last-gasp bonus point at the Madejski after a virtuoso showing from Toby Flood. Seven days later, an illness to first-choice fly-half gave George Ford a chance to go head-to-head with the mercurial Freddie Burns of Gloucester. On paper, it was fascinating. On mud, as it turned out, there was still enough to produce an enthralling encounter, a try from the excellent Anthony Allen just enough to oust the Cherry and Whites.
Over the years, Tigers’ domestic dominance has been borne out of fierce competition for places in the pack. Although they would never admit it, Saracens are thriving off a similar blueprint. A slick team score from Richard Wigglesworth lit up the first quarter of a 22-0 defeat triumph at a rainy Rec, but Matt Stevens and co. dismantled Bath thereafter. Likewise, Saints were eventually overhauled in Milton Keynes after a pretty grim game devoid of much quality. The Fez-heads now sit second.
Wasps wrestle much-needed momentum, Sale grab lifeline
On the approach to the end of the calendar year, Dai Young will have earmarked consecutive contests against Sale and London Welsh as imperative successes. Thankfully for Wasps, they managed such a double to move into an unlikely fifth place. The young axis of number eight Billy Vunipola and Joe Simpson is starting to gel with the experience of Stephen Jones, while the second-half display that vanquished the Exiles was notable for more excellence from Joe Lanchbury.
A decidedly divisive former Adams Park favourite was forced to respond to some scathing criticism last weekend, Danny Cipriani finding himself back in the side after a public dressing down at the hands of Sale owner Brian Kennedy. Dropped for the Wasps tie, the 25 year-old booted his new employers to an important result against Worcester on Friday night.
Undeniably, the backroom shambles must cease – John Mitchell has now left Stockport for good – but there is hope. While Worcester, Bath and Exeter are probably already safe, London Irish and London Welsh are nowhere near a haven free of relegation. Certainly, 2013 promises plenty of surprises.
First domestic defeat for Ulster, Lions contenders face fitness fights
Unable to follow up an impressive win over Leinster, Ulster were dispatched 24-10 by Munster on December 29. In fact, the latest round of RaboDirect Pro 12 action saw a traffic jam form between second and sixth in the competition, Glasgow winning the 1872 Cup against Edinburgh and Ospreys casting the Dragons aside on New Year’s Eve.
At the dawn of a Lions year though, it would be foolish to look beyond some essential off-field developments. Ireland talisman Brian O’Driscoll has an imminent return for Leinster to look forward to, while Dan Lydiate has targeted the Six Nations for a foray back into international rugby. However, giant lock Paul O’Connell is in a worrying race against time, unlikely to be fit before April following an intricate operation to correct a bulging disk in his lower back.
Over The Channel, Toulon polished off a great year with a pair of victories, away at Agen and at home against Perpignan. A seven-point gap has now opened up, bringing some delicious transfer rumours along the way. Martin Castrogiovanni and Michael Claassens are the latest to be linked with a move to the south of France. As if their squad wasn’t exotic and imposing enough.
My Hero of the Fortnight goes to Anthony Allen. The centre was brilliant at a sodden Welford Road against Gloucester, making a huge amount of tackles and proving a nuisance at the breakdown too. He will not mind being branded “an exceptional club performer” – one of Stuart Barnes more back-handed compliments – a bit.
Villain of the Fortnight is a collective effort, and is unquestionably won by the Sale Sharks backroom set-up. The level of indecision in Salford has now soared past the farcical, with the club being forced to deny that Andre Bester would be joining the coaching triumvirate of Steve Diamond, Bryan Redpath and Peter Anglesea in the wake of John Mitchell’s departure. Frankly, it is unfair on the players.
For creating something out of nothing, Joe Simpson has few peers across world rugby. His Try of the Fortnight shortly after the break for Wasps against Welsh utterly defined that quality. Taking the ball from the tail of a lineout, he dummied and set off on a magical, mazy run that ended over the line.
What were your highlights of the festive period?
By Charlie Morgan
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images