A festive weekend of derby matches and tight, tense rugby saw Saracens lose for the first time this season, wins for strugglers Bath and Leeds and a record crowd at HQ for ‘Big Game 2’.
Joe Simpson: try-scorer at Twickers
The weekend’s fixtures started on Boxing Day at Sixways where Worcester hosted Northampton. Northampton confirmed their title challenging credentials with a powerful 26-6 victory. The Saints’ second half performance proved too strong for the Warriors with tries from Chris Ashton, Phil Dowson and Ben Foden leading to a convincing victory.
Foden was particularly impressive, not only by scoring but setting up Dowson after a scintillating run from near the half-way line – a timely reminder to Martin Johnson prior to the England Manager’s imminent announcement of his Elite Squad for the Six Nations.
Saracens’ unbeaten start to the season came to an end after an absorbing encounter with London Irish at the Madejski Stadium. Although Irish ran out 23-19 winners, Saracens had led for long periods of the game. After Justin Melck traded tries with the hosts’ Chris Hala’ufia, Glen Jackson’s three penalties saw the side from Watford six points clear at half time.
Two Chris Malone penalties early in the second half sparked an Irish comeback and when Elvis Seviali’i crossed the whitewash with 10 minutes to go, Saracens were condemned to a losing bonus point. More good news followed the game for Irish fans with the announcement of the re-signing of both Armitage brothers.
At the bottom of the table there were welcome victories for both Bath and Leeds. Tries from Jack Cuthbert and giant winger Matt Banahan helped Bath beat bitter West Country rivals Gloucester 24-8 at the Rec. The win will have been tempered by the fact that bottom of the table Leeds shocked Newcastle, to record their second victory of the season away at Kingston Park. The only try of the game came from Leeds’ Alfie To’oala and despite not threatening the scoreboard after the break, Leeds held on gamely for a 16-15 victory.
Leicester gained a comfortable bonus point win after inflicting a 32-6 defeat on Sale in front of a packed Welford Road. 24,000 fans watched on as Leicester extended their unbeaten run at home to 24 games. Leading after an early penalty from the boot of Toby Flood, Leicester never looked like surrendering their advantage and tries from Johne Murphy, Ben Kay, Lewis Moody and Jordan Crane gave Sale to a day they would be happy to forget.
The festive season was wrapped up at Twickenham in front of a record crowd of 76,716 for ‘Big Game 2’, where another close derby match ensued with Wasps coming out victorious against Harlequins. Joe Simpson received a late Christmas present after three minutes when a defensive horror show from David Strettle led to the simplest of touch downs for the Wasps Scrum Half.
The kicking games of Nick Evans and Danny Cipriani looked vulnerable with both players missing numerous opportunities to put valuable points on the board, but on 68 minutes, Danny Care breathed life back into the game with a typical sniping try that brought Quins back to within a point of their London rivals.
This revival was short lived however, as in the 74th minute, a cute offload from Simon Shaw allowed Joe Hart to cross the line with the resulting conversion from Dave Walder settling the game. Even though David Strettle, making amends for his earlier error, showed a clean pair of heels to score at the death, it was too late and the spoils went to their London adversaries, 21-20.
By Andrew Daniel