Guinness Premiership Report: Round 8

In a week where Scotland ended a 27-year losing streak against Australia, Ireland uncovered a fly-half worthy of being O’Gara’s successor and a fan won £250,000 on the night Saracens beat South Africa, you could be forgiven for failing to notice the Guinness Premiership rumbling on.

However, rumble it did as Newcastle shocked London Irish, Gloucester out-kicked Leicester and Saracens notched yet another victory.

On a cold Friday night at Kingsholm, Gloucester finally showed the grit and determination they’ve been renowned for to edge out a depleted but in-form Leicester side, 12 – 9. All is not yet forgotten though, had Lote Tuqiri not fumbled a difficult pass with the try-line begging in the final play of the game, it might have been a different story.

Bryan Redpath has turned to rookie fly-half Freddie Burns more in desperation than expectation in recent weeks but the youngster has a cool head and an eye for a drop goal and scored all of Gloucester’s points in this crucial victory.

In another try-less encounter achieving nothing in the war against the premiership’s detractors, Worcester came back with a late penalty at home to Bath to seal a draw, 12 – 12. Both coaches were quick to praise the defensive efforts of their teams but neither will be troubling the play-offs unless they are able to improve.

Boosted by the return of Foden and Lawes from England duty, Northampton secured a well-fought victory against Harlequins in Saturday’s solitary encounter, 26 – 17. Northampton’s back-three of Reihana, Ashton and Foden are currently the most impressive attacking talents in the Premiership, the key to which is the way they complement each other in style. Reihana is the old-hand, covering when the other two commit themselves and drawing defenders to him; Ashton is the lightning quick finisher who, through skill rather than chance, puts himself on the end of all the best of Northampton’s attacking waves; and Foden is the mesmeric stepper – able to ghost his way through gaps and a constant threat.

Granted it has taken a season for these players to gel and they have remained relatively injury free but England surely must take note and realise that specialist players are needed for combinations to work.

Harlequins welcomed back their much-maligned winger, Tom Williams, and the rugby gods duly responded by dishing out a bloodied nose to the young player. He was replaced by Josh Drauninui, the England sevens specialist, who’s evidently making the transition to Premiership-level with ease as he picked up two tries in the second half.

Saracens’ brand of stable set-piece, high-pressure kick-chase rugby is proving a thorn in international and Premiership sides alike as they clinically dealt with an improving Wasps side, 22 – 6. The flair of the day came from Schalk Brits’ magnificent side-step and acceleration out of nothing to score the only try of the encounter.

Wasps are still there or thereabouts in the Premiership and still battling away in both European and domestic cups so this season could yet become a success for them, however they are by no means close to the finished article yet.

The biggest shock of the round came at the Madejski as London Irish lost to a determined Newcastle Falcons outfit, 15 – 11. Ryan Lamb’s Gloucester demons came back to haunt him for the first time this season as he was unable to get the team firing and was replaced early in the second half. It will be very interesting to see how he, and Toby Booth, react to this slight slip.

Jimmy Gopperth was the Falcons’ only points scorer with five kicks but it was their pack who executed their quick-ball, high-intensity game plan to great effect and received the credit from coach Steve Bates.

In the final match of the weekend, Leeds Carnegie were unable to maintain their winning momentum although their performances keep improving, as they lost 24 – 17 at home to Sale. It says a lot for Sale’s resolve as they fought back from 14 – 3 down at half-time to score three second half tries, crucially all converted by Charlie Hodgson.

Saracens now have a clear lead atop the table, with their immaculate 8 from 8 wins a clear 6 points ahead of second-placed London Irish and the chasing pack. Leeds remain in touching distance of the rest and should be encouraged enough to keep the faith in their players, coaches and tactics to keep themselves competitive.

This weekend sees a feast of rugby on Friday night as Saints, Wasps and Sarries have tough away trips to Newcastle, Sale and Worcester respectively. On Saturday, Leicester will look to get back on track at home to Leeds, while Bath face London Irish and Harlequins take on Gloucester.

Jon Hobbs