Packed with enticing clashes across the United Kingdom, this weekend gave rugby watchers a tantalising insight into how a season in its infancy may unravel. Between a re-run of last season’s superb Aviva Premiership final and a fiercely-contested south Wales derby, there were plenty of highlights. Here is your regular run-down.
Leicester lose out, London Welsh march on
Almost exactly four months on from their Twickenham trophy-decider in May, the two premier clubs in England locked horns again at Welford Road. The result – another victory for Harlequins, this time 22-9 – will have been debilitating for the hosts’ pride. Driven by an energetic pack and guided by Nick Evans’ guile, the champions exuded an aura of steely composure, so often a quality synonymous with Leicester. Forging a first-half lead following Tom Williams’ opportunistic score and a delicious Danny Care drop-goal, they held on very tight and punished Tigers’ sporadic indiscipline.
Although stifled slightly by injuries, especially among the backs, the East Midlands outfit contributed gamely to the contest but could not breach their opponents’ line, even when Sam Harrison’s tenacious snipe was met by a charging Julian Salvi late on. The openside was hauled down five metres short and Richard Cockerill was left to rue some costly penalties that allowed Evans to twist the knife.
At the opposite end of the league ladder, Sale slumped to their fourth consecutive loss, this time to London Welsh, who are thriving on simple, direct tactics and heaps of hard work. Tries from twin talismans Jonathan Mills and Ed Jackson were enough to record a fantastic result in Salford. Steve Diamond may not quite have pressed the panic button yet, but the unceremonious sacking of forwards coach Steve Scott suggests that the Sharks are sweating significantly.
Elsewhere, London Irish got off the mark after an extremely nervy encounter with fellow stutterers Bath, while Gloucester battled well to hold off Wasps at Kingsholm. Franklin’s Gardens saw a try-fest between Northampton and Worcester that Saints edged 37-31, surviving a stirring comeback from the visitors that started in the doldrums of 37-3 adrift.
A sodden Sunday at Sandy Park completed round four of Aviva action, Exeter Chiefs relying on their characteristically stubborn qualities to overturn Saracens in grim conditions. The only try came from ferocious Fijian wrecking-ball Sireli Naqelevuki, who took advantage of another needless Chris Ashton sin-binning to burst over on the flank.
Ospreys land precious smash-and-grab
Over the Severn Bridge at Parc y Scarlets on Friday evening, Ospreys made a mockery of their dire start to the RaboDirect Pro 12 campaign by hijacking the homecoming of the league’s front-runners. Though Llanelli featured two young darlings of the Wales set-up in Rhys Priestland and George North, it was two more gnarled names that stole the show. Loosehead Duncan Jones was industrious and eye-catching enough in 51 minutes to earn a man-of-the-match award, while 31 year-old workhorse Ryan Jones scored the first of his team’s two late, decisive tries. A 23-16 win away from home – Steve Tandy’s men are back on the rails.
There were broad smiles for a granite-jawed likely Lion-to-be the very next evening as Jamie Roberts celebrated his return to Cardiff colours with a try in the Blues’ 34-18 victory over Treviso. Kicking 14 points with the boot and assured in attack and defence, Rhys Patchell was again impressive. There will be much sterner tests for him to face, but the red-headed teenager has made a strong start to life in the fast lane.
In Limerick,Munsterromped to a bonus point against the Dragons. Kick-started by early efforts from Ian Keatley and Niall Ronan, Rob Penney’s men churned out a dominant performance to move into second place in a rather congested table.
Magnificent Michalak maintains Toulon’s momentum
A positional change did not diminish Freddie Michalak’s influence in the slightest as the mercurial magician gave an exceptional showing from scrum half, steering Toulonto a 33-12 win over Castres. Ticking along nicely in his haven away from England, Jonny Wilkinson added 18 points to guarantee Mourad Boudjellal’s Galacticos a spot at the summit of the Top 14.
Leading the chase keenly, second-placed Clermont Auvergne thrashed Grenoble 44-20, while Toulouse confounded their critics by battering Bayonne 35-6. Ever entertaining and enigmatic, Guy Noves had some philosophical words at the final whistle. “We need to rediscover our passion,” he explained. “This is sport; we are not working in a factory.”
Out of devastation came a raw reminder of sport’s ability to bind. Hero of the Weekend goes to all those who campaigned for a moment’s silence and a chorus of ‘Stand up for the Ulstermen’ before this weekend’s matches to honour the memory of Nevin Spence, his brother Graham and father Noel. Flawlessly observed by all fans, such a united show of respect was spine-tingling. The hurt will never fully heal, but the remaining Spences do have their rugby family to lean on.
A rather misjudged series of tweets gets Quade Cooper my Villian of the Weekend prize. Following allusions to a desire to move to NRL, a foolish cacophony was reached with a venomous barb towards the Australian Rugby Union. “I love rugby but there’s s*** going on behind the scenes that effects the whole organisation,” it read. Robbie Deans will have taken note. This one might get ugly.
An encouraging effort from Courtney Lawes and spectacular solo scores by Eliot Daly and James Simpson-Daniel all merit mentions, but Try of the Weekend heads somewhere more obvious. The Tom Williams run that separated Harlequins andLeicester on Saturday showcased the champions’ very backbone. There was a slick offload from Nick Evan and a burst from bruiser-in-chief George Robson before the winger pounced. As the man who personified Bloodgate as a scapegoat in the dim and distant past, Williams deserves happier times. And, boy, how Harlequins are enjoying them now.
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images