Our Best of the Weekend feature is back on The Rugby Blog for the new season, as we round up the domestic action in the Aviva Premiership, Rabodirect Pro12, and look at the ITM Cup Final in New Zealand.
Exeter pull off a huge win at Welford Road as the Aviva Premiership kicks off at Twickenham
Six matches saw all 12 teams start the new domestic season in England over the weekend, with a recorded 70 players away from their respective sides at the Rugby World Cup. Of those 70, Leicester have lost a staggering 11. Even for a club with a squad as impressive as the Tigers, losing that many top players was going to seriously hamper their preparations, but their team sheet still made for some impressive reading with the names of Scott Hamilton, Thomas Waldrom, George Chuter and new signing Julian Salvi.
Four phases and 24 seconds after the kick off though, and the Tigers were behind to a try from Chiefs centre Sireli Naqelevuki. Leicester fought back with tries from Waldrom and Niall Morris, but Exeter broke back through a Richard Baxter try, and plenty of points from the boot of fly-half Ignacio Mieres. The Chiefs cry could be heard around Welford Road as a rarity occurred, with the Leicester scrum creaking and conceding penalties for Mieres to slot over. A soft try from Matt Jess late on after some slack Leicester defence gave the visitors a 12 point gap at 18-30, but Leicester wouldn’t be Leicester if they didn’t fight back, and a Billy Twelvetrees penalty and beautiful chip from Waldrom sent Morris behind the defence, with the Irishman grubber kicking on and touching down. It set up a nervous ending, and with 18 year old George Ford’s missed drop goal attempt, the Chiefs nabbed a famous win.
Meanwhile at Twickenham, Harlequins opened the season at Twickenham against London Irish with a close 29-24 victory. Tries from big prop James Johnston in the first half and a neat finish from Ugo Monye in the second half came between plenty of points from the boot of fly-half Nick Evans. The Kiwi kicked a total of 19 points for his team, underlying his class with seven out of seven attempts at goal. Harlequins defence proved too much for the Exiles, and they capitalised on Irish’s lack of discipline at the breakdown. Irish’s young side showed plenty of promise, with Topsy Ojo crossing for two excellent tries in the second half, but their inexperience was evident and they will learn from this loss having put in a good performance.
In the other match at the Double Header, Wasps pulled off a surprise victory against champions Saracens, with their two flyers Christian Wade and Tom Varndell both pulling off impressive scores and Nick Robinson kicking a crucial 10 points to bring about an upset. Wasps were a bit of an unknown package coming into this season giving their full-scale changes but, a combination of established players Riki Flutey and Richard Birkett combined well with new boys Jonathan Poff and Robinson, on top of a great performance from youngster Joe Launchbury. As for Saracens, this was definitely not in the script and looked well off the pace. Given that the majority of last season’s starting XV was on show at Twickenham, bar the absent Matt Stevens and Chris Wyles, not picking up a win came as a surprise.
New boys Worcester return with a win as Bath and Northampton start strongly
After a season in the Championship that nearly ended with disaster thanks to a tricky bouncing ball against Bedford Blues, Sixways hosted a Premiership match for the first time in two years and picked up a win as they defeated visitors Sale Sharks. Andy Goode dictated the play very well for the Warriors at number 10, sending out some great passes, and England Saxon Miles Benjamin (right) touched down for the home side. Worcester’s other try was a penalty try after persistent infringements at the scrum. Encouraging scenes for the Worcester faithful, while Sale still seem far away from gelling.
To the north and up at Newcastle, Bath produced a clinical if not ambitious performance to defeat Newcastle 22-9. Their defence was excellent, forcing the Falcons either into touch or backwards. Newcastle finished with the lowest number of tries scored last season, but they looked dangerous momentarily in the second half.
Jimmy Gopperth’s golden boot will only get them so far this season, and his opposite man Sam Vesty racked up the points for Bath with four penalties and a drop goal, as well as the conversion for Matt Carraro’s first half try. A first win of the season for head coach Sir Ian McGeechan.
In the last match of the weekend, Northampton hosted Gloucester in arguably the best match of the weekend. A late Freddie Burns drop goal looked to be enough for visitors Gloucester, as they edged 23-24 ahead with minutes left on the clock. It marked a spirited performance from the Cherry & Whites, with centre Jonny May and scrum-half Dave Lewis both impressing, as they fought back bravely to seemingly clinch victory. The consequent action from their second row Will James certainly was neither brave or spirited though. His name will appear later on, but the infringement lead to new Saints signing Ryan Lamb knocking over a last minute penalty against his former club to steal the win.
Minus many bodies including their England stars Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Chris Ashton and Ben Foden, Northampton’s new players stepped in well, with lock Samu Manoa and flanker Ben Nutley putting in plenty of big carries and tackles. Northampton received plenty of praise last season for the first team but were condemned for the lack of strength in their squad. This season, that problem may have been fixed.
Champions Leinster suffer a heavy defeat as the RaboDirect Pro12 begins
The newly branded Celtic League also kicked off this weekend, with the Ospreys pulling off the result of the weekend defeating last season’s winners Leinster 27-3 at the Liberty Stadium. Three tries from Hanno Dirksen, Rhys Webb and Justin Tipuric, along with 12 points from the boot of Dan Biggar tallied up a convincing victory for the Welsh side.
Elsewhere Cardiff ran four tries past Edinburgh, including two scores from loosehead Sam Hobbs, in a comprehensive 38-15 win up at Murrayfield. At Parc y Scarlets fly-half Dan Newton racked up 19 points for the Scarlets in their 32-9 win against Aironi. There were also wins for Ulster, Munster and Connacht.
Canterbury clinch fourth successive ITM Cup triumph
It was the same old story for Canterbury as they defeated Waikato in Hamilton, winning by 12 points to 3 in a match you wouldn’t exactly put down as a thriller. The Waikato side were hoping to send off fly-half Stephen Donald with some silverware before his move to Bath, but it wasn’t to be as they failed to put together enough attacking opportunities and couldn’t make it past the excellent Canterbury defence.
Try of the Weekend goes to London Wasps Tom Varndell against Saracens at Twickenham. Good work from scrum-half Charlie Davies put Varndell on the outside of Saracens debutant Charlie Hodgson, and the former England speedster raced past him and the broke the tackle of James Short to head under the posts.
This weekend’s Hero is Ryan Lamb (right) of Northampton Saints. The new signing missed a shot at goal after coming on for Stephen Myler, but when the opportunity to clinch the game with a penalty kick came on the 77th minute, he made no mistake from 40 metres out.
Meanwhile the Villain of the weekend was the man who gave away Lamb’s match winning penalty, Will James. The lock’s swinging punch at the ruck connected finely with replacement Northampton hooker Nathan Morris, giving referee Andrew Small no choice but to award the penalty, and undoing all the good work of Freddie Burns’ drop goal just seconds before.
That’s all for this week, what were your highlights?
by Ben Coles