Another full programme of action across the hemisphere – the last before the autumn Tests challenge everyone’s strength in depth – provided plenty of talking points. Here are the highlights.
Sharks off the mark as Leicester prevail from dire derby
As if a seven-match losing spree had not already positioned a monkey on the back of Sale’s players, the farcical rumour-mill regarding the fate of Bryan Redpath that materialised this week must have been excruciatingly distracting as well. With that in mind, the Sharks potentially season-changing defeat of London Irish on Friday night was a great effort.
Understandably, the Chesire outfit’s first four-pointer of the term came with some nervy moments, but that won’t bother Steve Diamond a jot. Thanks to two tries – one a short-range barge from Nick Macleod, the other a brilliant, bustling burst by Johnny Leota – Sale managed to prevail 21-9. Birthday boy Danny Cipriani kicked three penalties and now Irish, second bottom and shorn of seven players for what could be a torrid autumn period, are sweating.
Welford Road provided the scene for the latest East Midlands derby between Leicester and Northampton, a fixture which has thrown up some fascinating rugby in the past. Not this time, though. A dour, error-ridden affair was decided by Matt Smith’s score that, appropriately, came from a Saints mistake. Other than that, there really was not much to shout about Tigers, fresh from a hiccup at Kingsholm, are back on course.
Gloucester themselves were down at the Twickenham Stoop facing up to the champions, and very nearly repeated their heroics. Staring at a 22-12 half-time deficit, the Cherry & Whites clawed back to within touching distance and, without yellow cards to Shane Monahan and Ben Morgan, they might have nicked it. Another 20 points from the boot of Freddie Burns and a try for Billy Twelvetrees foreshadowed England call-ups for the midfield pair, but Matt Hooper’s finish was a fitting match-winner and Harlequins held on.
Dean Mumm was effervescent in Saturday’s final clash and laid the foundations for Exeter’s convincing win over Worcester. The Wallaby, playing at blindside rather than lock, commanded the loose with a fantastic display of athleticism and power. Although missing out on a bonus will irritate, the Chiefs seem a very safe bet at Sandy Park and will surely be in the Heineken Cup shake-up once more,
Clinical was once more the name of the game for Saracens as they navigated a tricky home tie against Wasps. In fact, Tom Varndell gave the visitors an unlikely lead with a scorching finish in the early stages. The Fez-heads took control of a disjointed game thereafter, Charlie Hodgson’s unerring boot supplementing Alistair Hargreaves’ try to secure a 29-24 triumph. Even so, consolation point provided proof of Wasps’ resurgence out of last season’s dismal doldrums.
Finally, to the success story of the round – Lyn Jones’ Exiles, who overturned Bath on the back of an interception from Nick Scott and some manic defence. Normally laconic, Gary Gold was furious in the aftermath, spitting blame at Stephen Donald’s looped pass that was gobbled up with ease. London Welsh now have three wins and an eight-point cushion above the foot of the league ladder. The doubters are disappearing.
Ospreys great redeemers, Wilkinson sinks Stade
Damning indictments of Welsh regional rugby have been the (rather sour) flavour of the month. That said, losses for Cardiff to Munster and Dragons to Glasgow would have been satisfying for the most venomous critics. However, the Ospreys went some way towards instilling some optimism across the Severn Bridge by winning an edgy repeat of last year’s RaboDiect Pro 12 final against Leinster. Elsewhere, Connacht beat Treviso and Scarlets warded off Zebre.
Jonny Wilkinson once more enhanced his case for a role on the Lions’ tour of Australia next summer, kicking Toulon to a 24-19 win over Stade Francais. Clermont Auvergne stayed in touch at the summit of the Top 14 through tries from Sitiveni Sivivatu, Jean-Marcellin Buttin and Napoliono Nalaga against Agen, while Toulouse defied an injury crisis to beat Racing Club Metro.
Props, as a rule, don’t do emotion too well. Most are softly-spoken, some monosyllabic. For that reason, the tribute that Chris Budgen made to his twin boys that died over the past month was very special. After scoring Exter’s third try against Worcester, he was genuine and genial. “We had the boys’ funeral on Thursday,” Budgen said. “The one promise I made was that I would try and score for them, so when I got the ball there was no way I was going to stop.” A real Hero of the Weekend.
Stephen Donald came close to Villain of the Weekend but James Haskell won out. An ill-considered (albeit slightly unlucky) shoulder barge on Alistair Hargreaves could see him suspended for England’s autumn opener against Fiji. The aim of his globetrotting – to excel at international level – could be jeopardised. What a shame.
As mentioned earlier, Matt Hopper was in the running for Try of the Weekend but another cracker at The Stoop prevailed. Popping up at the end of a sweeping, pitch-long attack, Billy Twelvetrees finished a truly exceptional team score.