Another action packed weekend of Guinness Premiership rugby saw the Tigers secure their place at the top of the table, Leeds win for the second week running, Harlequins victorious in the battle of the basement and Sale left in real trouble at the foot of the league.
‘The performance in the first half was fantastic, our best of the season so far’ was how ecstatic Leicester coach Richard Cockerill described his team’s showing on Saturday. The Tigers were untouchable in a first half display – against fellow title contenders London Irish – that reaped 25 points and three stunning tries.
The first came after some smart handling courtesy of Martin Castrogiovanni and Anthony Allen, which set up an easy run in for Alesana Tuilagi. The second, although scored by Scott Hamilton was set up by the impressive Lote Tuqiri, playing his last game for Leicester before departing to join Wests Tigers rugby league team in Sydney. His scintillating break from a standing start drew enough attention from the reeling Irish defence that it allowed Hamilton space to cross for Leicester’s second score.
The next try was greeted with the loudest cheer of the day as the ever popular Castrogiovanni intercepted a pass on the 22 and galloped over the whitewash before being mobbed by his fellow teammates. Although Irish scored just before half time through Steffon Armitage, whose broken field running caused problems for the Tigers defence all day, the Exiles never really got themselves back into the game and on 71 minutes George Chuter sealed the bonus point victory for Leicester and a 35-19 win.
There must be something in the air in Twickenham at the moment because the run of dull rugby in South West London continued on Saturday, when Harlequins hosted fellow strugglers Worcester Warriors. Rory Clegg was the hero for Quins as a late penalty from inside his own half snatched what looked like an unlikely victory. Clegg has probably just dragged Harlequins safely away from the relegation zone that still continues to consume the Warriors season. Mike Brown dived over a pile of bodies for Harlequins’ only try of the game after ten minutes but just a minute later Miles Benjamin finished off an attractive back line move for Worcester’s only try of the game. The game deteriorated into a kicking duel from there on until Clegg’s late intervention earned the men from the Stoop a 14-11 victory.
Fellow strugglers Sale hosted a Northampton side that arrived in Stockport off the back of a confidence-boosting victory over Leicester last weekend. This was a must-win game for the Sharks as they were sat just off the bottom of the Premiership table coming into this weekend’s round of fixtures. Unfortunately for them, an 8th loss in all competitions ensued as the Saints ran out victorious 7-15. The men from the midlands went into half time 7 points in the lead after the only score of the half courtesy of Paul Diggin.
In the second half Sale were dominated from the off and Chris Ashton heaped more pressure on Kingsley Jones’ men when he started and finished a try to land his 19th try of the season in all competitions – surely Martin Johnson cannot ignore his talent for too much longer. Sale finally got them back into the game when Ben Cohen muscled his way over in the corner which Charlie Hodgson exquisitely converted. However, it was not to be Sale’s day as a late penalty from the trustworthy Hodgson hit the post and denied them a losing bonus point.
The loss for Sale was all the more bitter by the fact that an improving Leeds side grabbed an impressive victory over the early Premiership leaders Saracens at Headingley Carnegie. Two early dropped goals from South African fly half Derick Hougaard gave the travelling Saracens’ supporters something to cheer about until a try from Lee Blackett and a penalty from Joe Ford put the Yorkshire men in control. The Leeds pack dominated their opposing eight and as their scrum earned penalty after penalty, Ford thanked them by dropping over three points after three points. The game was still finely poised until a late drop goal from the young fly-half earned Leeds a 19-12 win that moved them off the bottom of the table.
In the battle for the final play-off spot Bath improved their chances of reaching fourth position and continued their impressive run of wins after a victory at Kingston Park over the Newcastle Falcons. Tries from Matt Banahan, Nick Abendanon and England prop David Wilson against his old club put Bath into a strong position, but a Rob Vickerman try kept Newcastle in touch. Although the Falcons were the stronger team entering the last quarter a resilient Bath held on for a 13-17 victory which moved them within five points of a play-off berth. News that England flanker Lewis Moody will be joining the men from the Rec. next season will surely have spurred Bath on to their sixth straight win in the Premiership.
Wasps entertained Gloucester at Adams Park on Sunday afternoon as they sought a victory that would put them level with the current fourth placed team London Irish. Dave Walder scored all of Wasps first half points – including a try that meant a lead of 16-6 going into half time. The second half contained two tries of the highest calibre. David Lemi stepped his way over the whitewash for a fantastic solo effort for Wasps before the returning Mike Tindall sliced through the midfield before diving over under the posts for the travelling Gloucester. It was enough however as Wasps earned a 24-19 to heap pressure on London Irish.
The Premiership takes a break now until after the Six Nations but I can assure you that it is not going to be all quiet on the domestic front. Sale will need this break to re-group and attempt not to slip down into the lower echelons of league rugby whilst Leeds may rue this break if their present momentum is lost.
At the top of the table, Leicester look like the team to beat but Northampton keep grinding out results. Saracens appear to be slipping out of the play-off spots as Bath and Wasps will keep up the pressure for the race to Twickenham in May.
By Andrew Daniel