European rugby may have taken a sojourn after a sumptuous two-week stay, but a domestic fixture list full of enticing subplots provided plenty with which to whet the appetite. Here is the pick of what went on.
Cracker at Kingsholm as Quins sneak back to the summit
The weekend had barley begun before Bryan Redpath’s excruciating run of Premiership pain had extended to a scarcely credible run of twelve consecutive defeats. Sale – who have now suffered the last seven of those – stay rooted to the bottom of the table following a tight tussle at Sixways, which was only decided by a typically brilliant flash of individual flair from David Lemi. The slight Samoan sparkplug scythed inside three would-be tacklers to cross the whitewash in the first half and, though the visitors once again showed admirable attacking verve, Worcester’s experienced half-back pairing of Paul Hodgson and Andy Goode did enough to guide Worcester to victory.
If that provided an adequate aperitif, there was immense intrigue to come. With Stuart Lancaster naming a largely unsurprising squad for next month’s autumn Tests on Thursday morning, England expected talking points. And – after elementary errors and the exemplary Francois Louw prevented Exeter from ending a 34-year win-drought against Bath at The Rec – that is exactly what they got.
Niggles and needle have not prevented Northampton and Saracens from producing some compelling clashes in recent years. Although there was only a single try to savour this time round, Franklin’s Gardens still witnessed something significant. Fiercely effective up front, the Fez-heads took few risks and emerged with a win that was more comfortable than the 16-6 scoreline suggested. Alex Goode’s try, forged from an excellent counter-attack featuring Schalk Brits and Joel Tomkins, was an apt game-breaker, while worrying knee injuries to Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes rubbed salt into a painful wound for Jim Mallinder.
Another man at the forefront of Lancaster’s thoughts did not even make the pitch later that afternoon, as a tight hamstring saw Ben Youngs withdraw from the Leicester Tigers line-up before kick-off at Kingsholm. Even so, a bona fide classic occurred and, interestingly, it was those outside the international fold that figured most prominently. A virtuoso performance from Freddie Burns commanded admiration. It yielded 17 points, including a quicksilver score from a delightful chip-and-chase before the break. There was also a fantastic piece of vision to set up Charlie Sharples (with 46 seconds on the clock) and accurate kicking, but most impressive was Burns’ involvement in an incredibly determined finish from a Gloucester side that had been reduced to thirteen men on the back of late yellow cards for Jimmy Cowan and Rob Cook.
Subjected to a torrid twelve-minute spell, the Cherry & Whites just about weathered the storm, limiting the rampaging Leicester forwards to a solitary penalty try. Before that, James Simpson-Daniel – another apparently exiled from the Test arena – had conjured the winning score for Akapusi Qera with a truly magical run. How Nigel Davies managed to keep his emotions in check at the final whistle is an utter mystery.
Attention turned to the capital on Sunday for a duo of London derbies. First up was a see-saw contest at the Madejski, which the boot of Ian Humphreys very nearly won for Irish. Champions never lie down, though. When Quins centre Tom Casson crossed in the corner at the death, he thought he had knocked on. After around eleven replays, the television official ruled that the grounding was legal. “We used up a lot of luck,” smiled Nick Easter afterwards. Pretty accurate.
As the early-evening darkness closed in on High Wycombe, Wasps continued their happier campaign into the winter with a third win, this time over London Welsh. Once more Lyn Jones’ charges gave everything. Once more it was not enough. Points have to come more consistently for another year in the big-time to be earned.
Ulster march on, Cardiff collapse and Parisse topples Toulouse
Cardiff may have been brave in the face of Toulon last weekend, but the wheels certainly flew off in Dublin against another set of European giants. In fact, Leinster barely broke sweat in running up a nine-try blitzing. At half-time, the score was 40-3. That just about defines the doldrums that the Blues are wallowing in. Dragons fared little better in Belfast on Friday evening, but at least they fought a while before falling 46-19. Ospreys and Scarlets salvaged some Welsh pride by beating Connacht and Edinburgh respectively, while Munster and Glasgow saw off Italian opposition to complete the RaboDirect Pro 12 action.
Evidently indifferent to goings-on in Blighty, the Armitage brothers continued to revel in the relative obscurity of Top 14 competition, grabbing three tries between them in table-topping Toulon’s thrashing of Bayonne. Elsewhere, a brace from Sergio Parisse saw Stade Francais to an eye-catching defeat of Toulouse.
Hero of the Weekend was a pretty easy call, but one that defined the fickle nature of our sport. Seven days ago, Toby Flood was lauded as the architect of Leicester’s resurgence. On Saturday, he was comprehensively outshone by an awesome young man on a mission. There is not a great deal more that Freddie Burns can do, now. Your move, Mr Lancaster.
Far more brainless than brutish, Dan Hipkiss takes the Villain of the Weekend title for an idiotic sending off against Exeter. Interfering with the ball from a spot in the sin-bin gave referee Wayne Barnes no option and the red curtain had to descend. Oh, and Bath were under the pump at that point, too. Plain stupid.
Try of the Weekend heads to another tipped, but deemed not quite complete enough, for England honours. For sheer pace, Christian Wade takes some beating. His second against Welsh on Sunday left defenders gawping.