The Guinness Premiership season kicked off with more of a splutter than a bang at the weekend with most matches being won by the team making slightly fewer mistakes. It usually takes the whole month of September before the league starts to take shape but the weekend certainly threw up some interesting results.
Photograph © Andrew Fosker / Seconds Left Images 2009 – www.secondsleft.co.uk
On Friday night, in pretty grim conditions, the league started with a shock defeat of reigning champions Leicester, away to Sale, by 15 – 12. In their defence, Leicester did have a slightly depleted team out but it was the kicking duel between Lee Thomas and Jeremy Staunton that formed the focus of the game, with Staunton coming off second best.
With a couple of minutes to go, Staunton had a very kickable penalty to draw the game but he pushed it wide and Sale held on for the win. Leicester have other players to come back into the starting XV, Harry Ellis and Tom Croft to name two, and will improve. Sale will kick on from this and might well have a decent start to the season with upcoming fixtures against Newcastle, Bath and Worcester.
Saturday saw two matches at Twickenham and a record attendance for the “double header” of 67,684. First up were London Irish and Saracens – a first chance to see both teams’ new signings in competitive action. Unfortunately for the Irish their big new name, Ryan Lamb, rather bottled the occasion by fluffing some important kicks at goal and generally being unable to control the game.
Saracens’ new South African boys were keen to throw their weight around, and generally did so to good effect, only bubbling over on a few occasions with Schalk Brits and Ernst Joubert going to the sin bin for petty scraps. This almost allowed Irish back into the game, but Saracens were better value throughout, with Glen Jackson picking up where he left off last season to guide them to victory. Saracens took the match by 18 – 14.
A more farcical opening for the second match of the day, between Wasps and Harlequins couldn’t have been imagined. After less than a minute’s play, Harlequins second row, George Robson apparently head-butted Wasps’ Joe Simpson and was red-carded. I’m yet to see conclusive footage of the incident but the referee’s assistant was adamant so the referee, Dean Richards (would you believe?!), had to send him off.
Credit to Harlequins, they didn’t lose their belief and they pushed their London rivals all the way. No players really stood out from either team but the Harlequins pack that remained on the field can hold their heads high after an admirable performance. For Wasps, Tom Varndell scored two tries but was cruelly exposed in defence by a neat Danny Care kick for Gonzalo Camacho to latch onto and score. Despite the continued Quins resilience, Wasps saw out the game to win 26 – 15.
On Sunday the remainder of the Premiership teams got underway, first up was a very interesting match between Northampton and Worcester. Last season Franklin’s Gardens was a fortress but it seemed all the defences had fallen down over the summer as Worcester raced to a 17 – 0 lead. However the Saints didn’t panic and under the guidance of new captain Dylan Hartley managed to claw their way back into the game and nick it at the end, 20 -17.
New signing Shane Geraghty was instrumental in the Northampton fight back, moving to fly-half in the second half and kicking the important points when it counted. On the weekend’s performances, his is a big loss for London Irish but it is still early days yet.
Worcester will take pride from their performance and cement their belief that they can compete this season against the better teams, however points will be hard to come by and this could be a big opportunity missed.
Whilst this game was an exciting start to the season, the match between Leeds and Newcastle was anything but. Both teams struggled for cohesion and quality and it was left to the kickers to duel it out, with Ceiron Thomas and Jimmy Gopperth both having a hit and miss day and the 9 – 9 result being a fair one.
Leeds will probably take slightly more from the game than Newcastle but both teams will need to improve for next week as they take on Worcester and Sale respectively. There was nothing here to suggest that either team will be challenging for the upper half of the league but there’s a long way to go yet.
In the most polished performance of the opening weekend, Gloucester despatched Bath by 24 – 5. Even allowing for the fact that a couple of the Gloucester tries were interceptions, they completely outplayed Bath and looked particularly hungry on a weekend when no other team stood out.
Good fly-halves remain the most sought after commodity in world rugby and it’s easy to see why when comparing the performances of Nicky Robinson for Gloucester and Ryan Davis for Bath. Robinson’s was immaculate and perpetuated the form he showed for Cardiff towards the end of last season that took him into late Lions reckoning. Davis’ was poor and highlighted Bath’s great need for a fit again Butch James.
With this winning margin Gloucester go straight to the top of the league and will travel to London Irish next week with a new sense of confidence. With an opening game under the belt, all the teams will be looking to improve on their performances – if they want to compete with some highly impressive French clubs in the Heineken Cup they are going to need to.
By Jon Hobbs