As if Santa Claus had never set out on his annual assignment, domestic rugby continued apace this week. Here is your weekly round-up.
Tempers flare at Sixways as Exiles stun Kingsholm
Friday night’s tie between Worcester and Leicester was supposed to be about the long-awaited return of Tom Croft, who finally shrugged off a nasty neck injury to take his place among the Tigers line-up for the first time in eight months. However, although the Lions blindside gave an encouraging showing, his side’s tense 19-14 win was notable for a lot more.
The Warriors careered out of the blocks, opening up a 14-0 over the shell-shocked visitors. Then, as Leicester gradually came back into the contest, uglier instances took centre stage. The first two, Andy Goode knee-drop on try-scoring Scott Hamilton and an off-ball barge from the abrasive Matt Smith, were rather by-the-by. The third, Toby Flood’s tip-tackle on Goode, will warrant further sanctioning. A hearing is set for Tuesday.
Less controversy did not make for a lack of headlines the next afternoon in the West Country, London Irish showing blatant disregard for the form book by beating Gloucester. On a day he was earmarked for an well-earned promotion into Stuart Lancaster’s EPS squad, Freddie Burns was not quite at his best and the Exiles took full advantage. An unlikely brace by effervescent lock George Skivington sealed the Exiles’ invaluable triumph, and while more worrying news surfaced thanks to Alex Corbisiero’s continued knee trouble, Brian Smith can be ecstatic.
Thanks to a blistering start, Exeter are already assured of top-flight rugby next season. Even so, Rob Baxter will not be thrilled with their recent returns and a 30-19 reverse at home to Northampton is another irritating set-back. Ken Pisi, Soane Tonga’uiha and GJ van Velze crossed for the resurgent Saints.
Mixed returns for Welsh and Sale as relegation battle heats up
It might be somewhat out of necessity – their tight five are not the most scrum-sturdy in the Premiership – but Wasps sure are good to watch. Beating Bath 29-15 at High Wycombe on Sunday, overturning a 12-3 deficit, a number of Dai Young’s seriously talented youngsters caught the eye. Joe Simpson was sparky, Billy Vunipola brawny, Elliot Daly inspired and Joe Launchbury brilliant. Scoring his team’s opening try, Christian Wade displayed typical electricity, too. Unfortunately, there was also time for another tip-tackle to grab the headlines, Tom Varndell seeing yellow for what appeared, to me at least, to be a good piece of defending.
Elsewhere, there were contrasting stories of defeat for the basement boys. Sale were sunk by a familiar foe, Charlie Hodgson sealing a 32-12 win for Saracens with a try in the final ten minutes. With Harlequins leading 21-6 at the break, London Welsh seemed set for a catastrophic hiding, but fought back to force a courageous bonus point thanks to scores from Ed Jackson and Nick Scott. On those thin margins, the Championship trap-door decides its victim.
Blues hijack Munster, Ulster batter Scarlets and Clermont continue incredible run
By grinding to a 17-6 triumph in Cork, Cardiff seized the upset of the RaboDirect Pro 12 round. Owen Williams and Robin Copeland dotted down to condemn Munster to a record of just one win in 11 home matches across all competitions. Sadly for the Scarlets, that was where the Welsh luck ended, Ulster romping to a 47-17 victory during which George North was stretchered off. Wins for Ospreys, Glasgow, Connacht and Leinster completed proceedings and, intriguingly, it will be a while before an educated guess can be made on a semi-final line-up.
That cannot be said for the Top 14, where Clermont and Toulouse pulled away with Toulon at the top of the table this weekend by ousting Montpellier and Mont-de-Marsan respectively. The leaders went down 19-14 at home to Racing Metro but remain four points clear.
Hero of the Weekend this time around is shared among Clermont Auvergne, whose 36-18 defeat of Montpellier extended an already immense unbeaten record at home to 53 matches. Intimidating.
Annoyingly, the tip-tackle must again dominate Villian of the Weekend nominations. Toby Flood was close after a clumsy challenge of Andy Goode, but referee Andrew Small wins out for me after his TMO-led team came to the conclusion that Tom Varndell’s powerful piece of defending against Horacio Agulla merited a sin-binning.
Ulster have played some exceptional rugby since September will have a host of things to be proud of when they look back on this season. Any of their efforts against the Scarlets could have won Try of the Weekend, but the first, by a rampaging Robbie Diack, was my favourite.
By Charlie Morgan