Best of the Weekend: Saracens steal spoils at The Stoop

Owen Farrell

The Rugby Championship returned this weekend to join a typically saturated programme of domestic action around Britain and France. Here are the highlights.

Wallabies wounded, All Blacks exceptional

It was a painful evening of punishment for Australia in Pretoria as they were brutalised by a clinical Springbok side. There was a staggering catalogue of injuries including Adam Ashley-Cooper’s concussion and a punctured lung for Berrick Barnes, but the Wallabies were also outclassed considerably. Perversely, South Africa’s attacking instinct seemed invigorated by the absence of Morné Steyn, with young Johan Goosen breathing life into Heyneke Meyer’s men.

Zane Kirchner was a perennial nuisance in wide channels, while 21 year-old debutant Jaco Taute took to the Test arena with poise at outside centre. However, the undoubted star for the hosts was Brian Habana, whose sublime hat-trick capped a 31-8 win that could have been even more emphatic. Extending a career tally to 46 tries, the winger was effervescent, exercising incredible speed of thought throughout the contest. Robbie Deans must instil some sort of belief in the troops still standing – they must travel to Rosario next.

As the clocks of these shores wound up to midnight, Argentina and New Zealand rounded off the penultimate round of this year’s tournament in Buenos Aires. The Pumas exploded out of the blocks with a sensational score from scrum half Martin Landajo after Lucas Amorosino’s slicing break, but such success proved an extremely false dawn.

In fact, from that point the All Blacks not so much avoided the banana skin as decimated it. Auditioning convincingly for the talisman role that Richie McCaw will vacate next month for a well-deserved sabbatical, Keiran Read was exceptional, linking his powerful pack with marauding backs at will. There was a treble for Cory Jane and an excellent brace for Julian Savea as the hosts tired in the second half. It is a mark of Argentina’s progress that a thrashing to the tune of 54-15 was something of a surprise, but they will learn as much from this as their recent near-misses. Keep the faith.

Saints hit the summit as Saracens defeat champions

Friday night at Franklin’s Gardens was the scene for the latest leaders of the Aviva Premiership to take top spot, as Northampton made it five from five with a 24-6 win over Wasps. Luther Burrell and Courtney Lawes again impressed with robust, muscular showings, but the headlines were stolen by Kiwi James Wilson, whose brace proved that life during Ben Foden’s recovery period need not be so bleak.

The same optimism cannot be attached to Sale, however. Quite simply, there are not many reasons to be cheerful for the Stockport side and Bryan Redpath’s angst will have intensified following defeat to Bath in Olly Barkley’s swansong at The Rec. Joining them at the foot of the table, London Irish are also in trouble and were handed a 35-11 hiding by resurgent Worcester.

At Welford Road, Leicester banished all memories of last season’s double defeat to Exeter, breezing past the Chiefs on the back of a polished display. On his maiden appearance in a Tigers shirt, winger Adam Thompstone endeared himself to the East Midlands faithful with a well-taken hat-trick, forging a very useful union with Matt Smith at the first time of asking. Richard Cockerill’s charges are now prowling in fourth place, six points off the pace but one ahead of Gloucester, who managed to halt a stubborn London Welsh effort at the Kassam Stadium. Once more, Freddie Burns enhanced his reputation and is building a compelling case for autumn involvement with England.

Sunday’s other fixture was the weekend’s juiciest on paper, Saracens heading south for a showdown against Harlequins. Despite hordes of class in each side, though, an atmosphere thick with niggle descended. There were swinging arms, petulant trips and brainless offences at every turn, but one man kept his (bandaged) head while nerves all around him frayed. Fresh from a fortnight of criticism, Owen Farrell’s unflappable personality prevailed. A sixth penalty just six minutes from time was crucial in clinching a fraught encounter – maybe Stuart Lancaster’s faith is justified after all.

Points aplenty but Lydiate faces lengthy lay-off

A number of high-scoring clashes characterised the latest round of the RaboDirect Pro 12, with Connacht’s surprise thumping of their more illustrious rivals Leinster the most eye-catching result. Elsewhere, Ulster returned to action in a glorious manner, making a fitting tribute to their fallen brother Nevin Spence by battering Cardiff 48-19 at the Arms Park. Ospreys maintained their much-needed momentum too, while Glasgow Warriors held off a determined Zebre outfit to triumph 22-19.

Unfortunately, though, the most significant news from the Celtic corner was not of a happy nature. Three minutes into the Dragons’ 32-12 win over Edinburgh at Rodney Parade, Dan Lydiate suffered a break to his left ankle. Though he left the field on his feet and subsequent X-rays halted fears of a supplementary dislocation, the flanker is now in a race against time. Next spring’s Six Nations is a very useful shop window for the Lions trip Down Under. Lydiate could still tour as Warren Gatland’s wildcard, but he will be desperate to play a part.

Across The Channel, Toulouse unceremoniously halted Toulon’s successful run in a replay of this summer’s Top 14 final, a 27-point haul from Luke McAllister swiping the plaudits. A humdinger at the Stade Marcel Michelin on Friday night will occupy the rest of the highlight reel from France, as a last-gasp drop-goal from Brock James stole a 28-25 win for Clermont over Stade Francais.

Brian Habana made it extremely difficult to pick anyone else as Hero of the Weekend, rediscovering the form that brought him a World Cup winner’s medal back in 2007. He simply tore Australia to shreds on the way to a brilliant treble. Though Julian Savea and Cory Jane managed five tries between them against Argentina, they will have their work cut out next week.

He could well be celebrated as the mastermind behind a Lions series win next summer, but Shaun Edwards grabs Villain of the Weekend this time around. In the five games since his introduction as a defence coach, London Irish have shipped 180 points. Ouch.

On a personal level, Matt Smith’s weekend took some beating. On Friday, he got engaged to long-term girlfriend Alicia. 24 hours later, the former Saxons centre took the field for his beloved Leicester. A man-of-the-match performance followed, including a big hand in the Try of the Weekend that rounded off a debut treble for Adam Thompstone. After sweeping backline move found its way to Smith on the right flank, a delicious grubber was aimed past a pair of hapless defenders. Thompstone’s pace did the rest.

By Charlie Morgan – @CharlieFelix

15 thoughts on “Best of the Weekend: Saracens steal spoils at The Stoop

  1. Feel for Lydiate, he was playing well, but such is a rugby player’s lot. He’s not the only one on the sidelines. Have Australia got any backs left?

    Interesting to see what Lancaster does with the 10 position. Surely Burns has to be involved even if Flood and Farrell are playing better than a couple of weeks ago. I understand that Farrell has been recovering from injury so I guess he has a reason to improve.

  2. Never doubted Farrell’s ability to bounce back. He has nerves of steel. And as predicted, with some good pressure on Evans, he had a wobbler, and missed crucial penalties.

    1. I don’t think that anyone has ever doubted Farrell’s nerves or temperament. That and his goal kicking were just what England needed last season. However I think that we need more from him now (which I think that he can deliver as he is still young and can still develop his game). With that in mind, how did the rest of his game go?

      1. It’ll be difficult for him to rectify his problem of no pace and footwork. Watching him try to jink is like watching the slow mo highlights video at the end of a match. At least burns doesn’t just play a clockwork game plan. It was incredibly frustrating to watch sarries strangle quins offloading game. If Farrell can create I cant remember the last time that a play of his resulted in a try. We’re short on options though, everyone who is screaming out to see George ford play might as well look for a miracle. Toby flood has started the past dour games with ford getting g a sniff at ten minutes at most. Why kill the development of one of English rugby’s brightest young prospects by never letting him play. Yes he’s only 19 but Jonny was 18 when he was first capped. All I’m saying is that he’s shown on the lv cup final and the knockout stages of the Prem last season that he can run the show. Why persist with an underperforming flood? If he doesn’t get more game time soon than I could see him moving teams if he gets the chance. He would be well embraced at London Irish or a similar team that is in the hunt for a fly half.

        1. Totally agree. Farrell is short on pace and flair. But he can kick well and is as solid in defence as any centre in the premiership, and more so than any other 10.

          At the moment Burns is looking like the best all round (English) 10. Haven’t seen enough of him to see how his defence holds up.

          There has been some talk of Ford going to Saints, but with Myler and Lamb there, it doesn’t make much sense. Would love to see Ford get more game time, and can’t understand why Leicester don’t play him more. But Flood has been prone to injuries the last few seasons, so he may get his chance. I suspect that if he doesn’t get more game time soon, he will be looking elsewhere. The question is where does he go?

  3. Woeful Friday night in Cardiff. Our new non-tackling tactic, presumably to keep the boys fresh for attacks by avoiding wearing ourselves out in defence, will take some time to reap rewards I fear. Some credit must go to the ref though as he played his part in twenty or so of Ulster’s points. Ulster would have undoubtedly won but the margin would have been more decent if he had not been such a buffoon. He capped his night off perfectly with the last play – Tom James concussed by the nuclear bomb that is Ulster’s 8 Williams .. James wobbles about a bit before passing out on the ruck … ref blows a penalty against the Blues for James coming in from the side. Ulster have to organise the kick while a clueless James is helped to his feet by the medical team. Priceless.

  4. I think for Farrell to develop as a fly half he has to leave Saracens.

    He has the potential and the raw talent to go with his metronomic boot, but he’s almost robotic in his game, and i don’t feel that England will progress as a team or him as player with the way he is and Saracens are currently.

    In the terms of a fly half, I think he is behind the likes of Flood, Burns and I’d probably go as far as saying even Heathcote and Ford are more natural at 10 and further advanced than he is.

    1. Not convinced Farrell is behind Heathcote and Ford in development, although they may be more natural FH’s.

      1. I would say Farrell is potentially currently third choice behind Flood and Burns.

        I don’t think he needs to leave Saracens, he just needs to be developed there, playing week in week out there will help him. He has Charlie Hodgeson at the club, and when he plays he gets the back line moving so I certainly do not think it is a club thing.

        He needs to look at the way Hodgeson plays and try to learn from that. (obviously only certain parts of Hodgesons game!)

      2. Farrell was shoe horned into twelve during the juniour world cup we nearly won. That was to make room for Ford. The only thing seperating them is game time at the moment. Something Farrell won’t get at Saracens thanks to hodgson and something ford won’t get at tigers due to cockerill and flood. Cockers is coming across very anti England at the moment. Its his stubborn one mindedness I think.

        1. I can assure that Farrell will get plenty of game time at Sarries, due to the rotation system. Last season both Farrell and Hodgson made 25 appearances each. The season before that (before Hodgson joined) Farrell made 30 appearances, mainly due to Hougard getting injured pre-christmas and Farrell having to step up and take over the 10 shirt.

  5. Farrell will get plenty of game time but that still won’t help him develop in to the number 10 England desperately needs. For someone who plays such an important position, his distribution is poor.

    In my opinion, Flood is the 1st choice number 10, with Burns backing him up. Burns has all the skills, plus his game management has come on loads. With doubts over Flood’s ability to stay fit, I can see Burns taking over as first choice within 12-18 months; hopefully sooner.

    Ford has all the skills needed to push on, but he might have to leave Leicester to really kick on. A move to somewhere like Quins (will Evans sign a new deal?), Wasps or Bath could be just what he needs. He won’t go to Saints as they like their bog standard, flakey 10’s.

  6. Looking at it Ford’s best hope appears to be to move clubs and get time on the pitch.Sad but true.As for Farrell,admirable though his better qualities are the fact is he is not an instinctive or speedy runner and basically never will be.

  7. I also hate how cockerill won’t give Tuilagi game time at 12 or try to develop him there. In the mid week matches of the SA tour Allen played 13 and looked classy. Surely a re jig with the juggernaut Tuilagi at 12 and Allen outside to create would only strengthen Leicesters game? Especially with their huge pack. Tuilagi punches a hole after a few forward carried and offloads to Allen outside? That would be hell for defences to deal with. Especially if Tuilagi was steaming down the 10 channel and took two backs and a back row out of the defensive line. That would look good for England.

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