After the packed rugby month of November, the first week of December’s pickings looked a little slim, as a result of the return to domestic action and the ongoing battle with the arctic conditions. However, here are the best bits:
Barbarians put in an excellent performance at Twickenham
Saturday’s match at HQ brought to an end what has been a long, hard year for everyone involved in Southern Hemisphere rugby. But what better way to bring it to a close then a match between the Barbarians, featuring 6 Australians and 5 New Zealand players along with a colourful array of other international stars, against the World champions South Africa. In an entertaining game, played in front of a disappointing crowd compared to previous years, the Barbarians opened up a very impressive half time lead before the youthful Springbok side came back, scoring a try in the 79th minute to make the final score 26-20.
You wouldn’t have blamed the likes of Drew Mitchell, James O’Connor, and Will Genia for just wanting to get home after a month and a half in the freezing Northern Hemisphere autumn, but that would be underestimating the value of what an honour it is to be selected for the Barbarians side. Mitchell was particularly excellent, and benefited from some great work from Genia and Matt Giteau at half-back, scoring two tries. O’Connor also crossed over following Neemia Tialata’s rampaging break, and there was a try in the second half for the South African born Italian international lock Quintin Geldenhuys, again after good work from Tialata.
Much was made in the build-up to the game of the lack of first choice players in the South African line up, but those who ran out in the Green & Gold in the second half especially put in a proud performance. Elton Jantjies at fly-half was accurate with the boot, Willem Alberts and Ryan Kankowski were consistently strong with their running in the loose, and Odwa Ndungane took a very smart interception to race away under the posts in the second half. Their scrum as well in the second half was just monstrous. But it all came too late, as the Barbarians simply had too much quality in the backs, with the damage having already been done in the first half.
Irish in trouble as Saracens and Leicester climb the table
Whilst the three games up north at Sale, Leeds and Newcastle were all cancelled, the remaining three games based down South all went ahead, beating the chill. Starting with the match at the Madejski, an incredibly powerful performance from the Leicester pack ripped London Irish apart as the home side conceded their first home Premiership defeat of the season.
The boot of Billy Twelvetrees has kept Leicester rumbling on in recent weeks despite Toby Flood’s absence, and his form was great throughout the game, unlike his counterpart in the number 10 shirt, Ryan Lamb. However, in the second half, possibly as a result of some encouraging words from Mike Catt, Lamb came out confident. His chip kick over the top for Topsy Ojo was perfectly weighted, as the former England winger slid over in the corner to bring the Exiles back into the game at 8-9. But Leicester like the champions they are instantly hit back, following good work from Geordan Murphy out wide to send over Thomas Waldrom. Irish clawed their way back into the game through Lamb’s boot to make it 14-16, and with minutes to go the home side were sniffing for the chance to seal an unlikely comeback. But following a poor pass from Richard Thorpe, Irish conceded possession in their own 22 and their scrum was put under huge pressure metres from their line, before Dave Pearson had enough and ran under the posts to give Leicester the penalty try which sealed the win.
It was Irish’s fifth consecutive defeat in what has been a torrid month, and it is not set to get any easier as they face Toulon home and away over the next couple of weeks in the Heineken Cup. Leicester you sense meanwhile are just starting a nice Christmas run to the top of the table, which is remarkable considering the amount of injuries and international call-ups they have to deal with over the last month or so.
Saracens also climbed up the table to third, following a good win over Harlequins at home. Conducted excellently by the young prodigy Owen Farrell, a nice try from David Strettle and another from Schalk Brits in the first half put Sarries well ahead of Harlequins at half time, leading 20-11. But the second half was less entertaining, just 9 points scored between both sides, as Saracens cruised home to win 26-14. In the other game of the weekend, London Wasps continued their fine resurgence in form by defeating Exeter Chiefs 24-12 at Adams Park. With plenty of possession, tries from Ben Broster and David Lemi along with 14 points from Dave Walder in his 150th Premiership appearance saw Wasps home. Their defence was also excellent, restricting the Chiefs to only scoring through the boot of Ryan Davis. After the hammering they suffered at home against Northampton before November, Wasps have really turned their game around, and now sit solidly at fifth in the table.
Try of the weekend goes to Drew Mitchell, for his second effort in the first half in what was a great team move. From turnover ball the ball went wide from Ma’a Nonu onto Adam Ashley-Cooper and then to Mitchell, who used the space on the outside to get past half way and flick the ball back inside to Ashley-Cooper. AAC’s kick through looked like a lost cause, but the pace of Mitchell was extraordinary as he leaped through the gears to outpace the defence to touch down.
Hero for the week is Owen Farrell. Much of the talk when looking to the future at 10 for England has been focused on the names of Alex Goode, George Ford, and possibly Rory Clegg. But Farrell’s performances in the last few weeks have been more than noteworthy, and yesterday the way he not only ran the game but also kicked his goals under pressure was very encouraging for any Red Rose supporter. His game management is excellent, and he never appears hurried. Add to this a couple of beautiful touch finders to pin Harlequins back in their 22 and you can forget Gavin Henson arriving, because Sarries already have a new star player.
The villain for this week wasn’t too predictable, but let’s go with the rather interesting refereeing decision of Nigel Owens. Ruling out any foul play off the ball is absolutely right to condemn, but stating you’re not going to make a fuss and then calling over all 30 players on the pitch in the 17 all draw between the Scarlets and Leinster is a just a tad contradictory. It was certainly an odd way of resolving what is a common issue of the game.
by Ben Coles