Best of the Festive Period: Big wins for Leeds, Sale and Harlequins

Firstly a very Happy New Year to you all, 2011 looks set to be an excellent rugby year, with some event called a “World Cup” happening… no big deal. Whilst it may have been a jolly festive period off for all supporters, the players were still grafting up and down the country and watching their turkey intake. Here are the best bits:

Gavin Henson- a note

So far Gavin Henson’s comeback has been all song and dance (sorry, had to) following his return to the game. After 120 minutes of game time, the hysteria behind his return should now be put to rest and I won’t discuss him further, but I will say this; against Sale, admittedly out of position, he looked sluggish, off the pace, missed tackles and failed to break the line. Until he puts in enough graft and hard work to becoming a rugby player again, he shouldn’t be discussed in terms of national selection. However, although Saracens are well within their right to play him wherever they want, they will never get the best out of Henson playing him out of position. Brad Barritt has the number 12 shirt because he has earned it, and you hope that Henson will have seen this and rather than constantly stating in post-match interviews how he wants to start, he will show in training and on the pitch that he must do so.

Weekend of shock results as the Premiership enters 2011

Leeds and Sale left 2010 long behind them after they both picked up important wins on the opening weekend of the season. However bad Bath or Sale or London Irish’s form had been up to this point in the season, Leeds had been worse as they entered Christmas with three league points and no wins. Winning at home will have not only boosted the team’s confidence, but lifted what has been a slowly vanishing crowd at Headingley. If Leeds can follow Exeter’s example by targeting their home games and creating an intimidating atmosphere for the opposition, then they have a chance of survival.

Sale’s sacking of Mike Brewer was the boldest decision made so far this season and it looks to have paid off, as they produced one of the best first halves of the season against Saracens. Something never seemed to feel right with Brewer in charge and when he spoke in interviews, the way he described his side’s play was far from inspirational. So by turning to someone who knows the club inside out in Pete Anglesea, despite his lack of experience coaching at the top level, the right call has been made. They may have been smashed at Leicester but they scored three cracking tries, especially Dwayne Peel’s score, and against Saracens with the return of Charlie Hodgson they are instantly a better team. Add to this Mark Cueto’s excellent form this season on the wing, the carrying of Andrew Sheridan, James Gaskell and Sisi Koyamaibole upfront and Paul Williams clearing up at full back and you instantly have a good Premiership side. Under Anglesea’s direction, they could come into contention for a Heineken Cup qualification spot.

The last shocking result from the Festive period is Harlequins’ away win at Northampton. Winning at Franklin’s Gardens has been regarded as a nearly impossible task given how imperious Saints have been at home over the last few years, but through some unrelenting hard work and pressure from Quins in the latter stages of the game came a huge win, their first away win for over a year in the Premiership. Any side that wins having been 10-3 down with only 13 men away from home deserves a hell of a lot of credit, and following on from their win in the Big Game 3 against Irish over Christmas, they are starting to gain a bit of momentum as they try and crack their way into the play off places.

Irish’s terrible run of form continues

Nine losses in all competitions have seen London Irish drop from the top of the table down to fifth, the club’s worst run of form since 2002. Against Bath on New Year’s Day they produced a good performance, but they have shot themselves in the foot over and over again with indiscipline at the breakdown, and it was from a penalty that they lost with the final kick of the game from Olly Barkley’s shot at goal. The best way to move on from a run like this is to look ahead, but Irish’s next fixtures aren’t exactly easy. Take the next three games for example; Saracens away, Ospreys at home, and then Munster away. None of those are easy, but Irish must be positive going into them and optimistic that they can pick up some kind of result.

The inclusion of Alex Corbisiero and Matt Garvey into the pack has added some youthful exuberance, and Irish had far more ball in on Saturday as a result of the forward’s better performance, but the problem lies at fly-half. With Chris Malone pulling the strings Irish kick away too much possession, and lack the attacking threat they have become so respected for. Within two minutes from switching from inside centre on Saturday, Dan Bowden sparked the whole backline into life when he took over at 10, getting Irish up the field and then providing a wonderful pass for Topsy Ojo to scorch under the posts. Irish were instantly a better side, and whilst Malone’s goal-kicking has admittedly been very strong, he looks odd in a backline surrounded by the likes of Ojo, Seilala Mapusua and Sailosi Tagicakibau, all abrasive, fast attacking players. Bowden does not lack experience in the position, he was Dan Carter’s back-up in the Super 14 for the Crusaders last season. If Irish are to get back to winning ways, then he has to start against Saracens next weekend.

Manu Tuilagi making quite the impression at Leicester

With England’s search for the right centre combination not fully complete, one young player has been turning heads and battering bodies over the last few weeks at Leicester, and making quite the impression on both the media and supporters. The latest of the Tuilagi dynasty to play for Leicester but the first one eligible for England, Manu has really impressed with his strength and ball-carrying skills playing at outside centre for the last few weeks. He possesses the same rare ability as Ma’a Nonu and Yannick Jauzion in the way that he simply draws tacklers to him, not that they seem to be always successful in getting him down. This raw, fear-inducing ability is exactly what England need and the calls for him to be called into the EPS squad are correct. Should he be rushed in for the Six Nations? If he continues to play as well as he has done leading up to the tournament then it may be hard to keep him out.

Try of the festive period goes to Lifeimi Mafi for Munster, as picked by Ken Sutton. Well into overtime but continuing to thrill, the Red Machine broke right through the hands out to Keith Earls. The centre burned his way through the gap and shrugged off a tackler before feeding wide, the ball then flicked back inside to Donnacha Ryan who found Mafi on his inside to go under the posts. Great ambition and flair from the Magners League leaders.


Choosing a hero isn’t easy as there are a ton of contenders from Leeds, Sale and Harlequins following their performances, but Mark Cueto was rampant on the left wing for Sale, chasing anything and everything that his old mate Hodgson booted into the skies. His try was also well taken as he caught Henson napping. He has continued his decent run of form from the Autumn Internationals and it’s great to see him carrying it on for his club.

There has been some atrocious refereeing over the last couple of weeks, and one game that really got the blood boiling was chief villain Andrew Small. The Big Game 3 wasn’t the spectacle it could have been thanks to Small’s hyperactive whistle blowing and confusing interpretations of the breakdown. It nearly killed the game as a spectacle, and referees really must do all they can to keep the game flowing.

by Ben Coles