A solid if uneventful weekend in the Guinness Premiership – Leeds nearly registered their first home win of the season; Sale nearly defeated Saracens and Bath nearly upset Northampton at home but all the matches ended as most would have expected.
On Friday night Leeds welcomed Harlequins with the Londoners stuttering and stumbling through their season so far and the men from Yorkshire just about keeping in touch at the bottom of the league. Leeds took the lead with a well worked Richard Welding try before Quins eased ahead with two tries from Chris Robshaw and one from the ever-improving George Lowe after a horrible mix-up at the back for Leeds gifted the Quins man an easy opportunity to reclaim his kick and dot down.
Leeds displayed the spirit they’ve been building as they fought back from 24 – 13 down to come within 3 points of Harlequins. However the experienced partnership of Danny Care and Nick Evans saw the game out as Quins scraped home 30 – 27.
Saturday saw some more tight tussles as the competitiveness of the league this season was underlined. Worcester have wrestled the title of “draw-merchants” that Newcastle had earlier in the season as they completed a remarkable third straight draw.
This weekend it was the turn of London Irish to drop points against them as neither side was able to dominate proceedings. A neat try from John Rudd after the break had put London Irish ahead but Worcester played the percentages and made few errors to get themselves back into the game but were unable to close it out, ending 16 – 16.
Bath came ever so close to recording only their second win of the season, away to Northampton, but capitulated to a late Chris Ashton score as they went down 15 -13. Getting close isn’t going to be good enough for Bath and it already looks as if their play-off hopes are out of the window.
Northampton, on the other hand, retain their 3rd spot in the league and are looking like title contenders with each passing week. It’s amazing what two points will do for a team!
Bath’s woes might be compounded tomorrow as England winger Matt Banahan goes up against a disciplinary panel to rule on what length of ban he will receive for his red card in Saturday’s match. Whilst his rucking was reckless, at first glance it doesn’t appear there was malicious intent so he will be hoping the penalty won’t be too severe. However there have been some oddly inconsistent bans this year so you can never quite tell.
On Saturday evening Saracens welcomed a disgruntled but well-rested Sale side to Watford and for most of the match looked as though they might finally relinquish their unbeaten record. Sale’s Charlie Hodgson dominated proceedings in difficult conditions and their no.8 Sisa Koyamailbole looked in fine fettle as he grabbed the only try of the game before half-time.
However this Saracens side will never allow a team to get too far ahead and slowly they tackled and kicked their way back into this match. In the second half they took the lead and despite Sale having opportunities to retake the lead, Saracens held on 15 – 13.
A six-point buffer at Christmas is an outstanding position to be in and Saracens have every chance of maintaining or extending that lead during the next international window in February and March. Are they really going to go all the way this season or will the hard grounds and sunny days in April and May result in more adventurous sides like London Irish and Northampton taking control?
Also on Saturday, Gloucester executed a slick victory at home to Newcastle in an effort to pull their season together. A try from Charlie Sharples and 20 points from the boot of Nicky Robinson helped Gloucester to a comfortable 25 – 13 win.
Both teams are comfortably mid-table now and will be looking for a big post-Christmas push to challenge for the play-offs. However, judging from performance, neither have yet shown enough to warrant one of those four coveted spots.
On Sunday Wasps and Leicester contested another grudge match between the two most successful English teams of the past decade. These matches never need any extra incentive but Richard Cockerill thought it worth adding his damning opinions on the Wasps management’s refusal to play at Sale in the days building up to the match.
It turned out that Wasps regained the bragging rights over their old adversaries for the fifth time in a row in all competitions as they took the match 24 – 22. An excellent individual try from Paul Sackey and a simple crash and pop between Dave Walder and Steve Kefu gave Wasps the lead and they never relinquished it.
The stop-start nature of this competition continues as we take a break for a European rugby fortnight then the clubs get back into league matches in the weekend following Christmas.
By Jon Hobbs