As international rugby took a back seat for the weekend, all English eyes were on the Guinness Premiership. With some international players being released back to their clubs by their respective countries, the Premiership was set up for an exciting weekend of high quality rugby and a chance for potential internationals to show off their skills. Wins for Leicester, Bath and Leeds over fellow strugglers Sale has seen the league table take a significantly different look.
The weekend started at Edgeley Park on Friday night on an awful pitch, where Sale entertained bottom of the table Leeds. A game that turned out to be more of a scrap than anything stylish ensued with Leeds helping their intentions to stay in the league no end of good by winning 19-10. A slow start led to the first points of the game coming from the boot of Leeds’ Cieron Thomas through a smartly struck drop goal.
Sale then piled on the pressure and eventually the Leeds defence crumbled, leading to Chris Ormsby diving over from close range. Leeds showed patience to get back into the game and after a vast amount of phases, replacement Scrum half Scott Mathie scored in the corner to drag Leeds back into the game. Leeds clung onto the victory through some dogged defence in a period which saw the Sharks’ David Bishop being held up over the line late on.
Last weekend saw Harlequins slip to a big loss at Gloucester and the signs this week looked like they were not due to buck that trend. Numerous internationals were still away on duty whereas visitors Northampton held on to their national representatives for another week. The Saints would have also been buoyed by the news that giant second row Courtney Lawes had put pen to paper on a new deal that will keep him at the club for the foreseeable future.
Quins started well however and going into half time were surprisingly comfortable with their 13-0 lead. A try for former England full back Mike Brown after some slick hands and powerful forward play was the only one of many chances that Harlequins converted in the first half. Northampton – who came into this game off the back of a six match winning streak – came back hard in the second half but an impressive and aggressive defensive display from Quins saw the Saints reap only two Stephen Myler penalties as reward for their hard work and handed Harlequins a morale-boosting 13-6 victory.
A full house at Welford Road witnessed a Leicester victory that showed all other challengers exactly why they are top of the league and the current favourites to retain this year’s Guinness Premiership. The subplot of this game was the battle for the England number 10 shirt with the current second choice – Toby Flood – starting for the Tigers. Flood didn’t disappoint, kicking 18 points and claiming an assist for Lote Tuqiri’s try after a neat inside pass that left the Gloucester defence reeling. Certainly some food for thought for England Manager and ex-Tiger, Martin Johnson.
The game was slow to get up to pace leading to Flood and Nicky Robinson exchanging a brace of penalties each before Tuqiri dived over for the first try of the match. The Tigers led 16-6 at half time and didn’t hesitate to add to their lead when the returning captain and full back Geordan Murphy broke through the line to cross the whitewash.
Gloucester’s centre replacement Johnny May scored to give Gloucester hope even though he appeared to drop the ball before crossing the line, but it was another potential England half-back that had the last word as Leicester scrum half Ben Youngs picked the ball up from the back of a scrum and rounded Olly Morgan to go over for an impressive score as Leicester ran out 33-11 victors.
The ever-improving Bath team continued their climb up the table with a second consecutive bonus point victory over the hapless Worcester Warriors at The Rec. Bath’s revival has coincided with the return of Butch James and now the long awaited-return of Olly Barkley is finally over as the influential centre made his first appearance for the West Country outfit since returning from rivals Gloucester.
Worcester started the brighter of the two and were good value for their early lead when Willie Walker scored under the posts. Bath came back strongly though and two tries for Joe Maddock gave Bath an advantage that they never looked likely to relinquish. Further tries for Michael Claasens, Jonny Fa’amatuainu and a rampaging Matt Banahan helped Bath to see off the 14 man Warriors 37-13 after Tom Wood was sent off late on for a second yellow card.
Newcastle and London Irish played out a 12-12 draw on a cold winter’s night in the North East of England. Tries from George Stowers and Steffon Armitage for the exiles put them 12 points up but four penalties from fly half Jimmy Gopperth meant that Newcastle claimed their fourth draw of the campaign, and remarkably, the 9th draw of the season in this competition.
The weekend ended at Adams Park where Saracens were the visitors to play London Wasps. A turgid game and three penalties from Melbourne-bound Danny Cipriani led to Wasps breaking into the top four after a 9-0 win over the early pace setters. Wasps dominated the game and created numerous chances to extend their lead but poor handling and some poor finishing meant that the try line was never breached.
With the season edging closer to the end and play-off spots up for grabs the top five teams look as though they will be fighting it out for the four coveted spots. At the bottom of the table Leeds are battling week in week out and grinding out results that may see them survive at the expense of a more experienced premiership incumbent such as Worcester or even Sale.
By Andrew Daniel