Well, well, well. Week two of the Guinness premiership season and the competition continues to intrigue. The quality of play on show hasn’t quite hit the highs we saw near the end of last season but certain combinations are starting to bed in and it’s all about a constant improvement towards the business end in May.
Friday night saw Sale continue to edge out the close matches with a home victory against Saracens by 18-15. The match was dominated by the boot with Hodgson and McAlister slotting the penalties for Sale and Jackson replying in kind for Sarries. The scores were locked going into the final stages only for Hodgson to step up with a big drop-goal to seal it for Sale. England’s nearly-man didn’t make the full England or Saxons squads announced over the summer and will be lucky to get another look in but he’s certainly showing the form to register in big Jonno’s thoughts leading up to the Autumn.
On Saturday the pick of the fixtures saw Bath welcome Gloucester to the Rec, a fixture that – quite surprisingly – the cherry and whites had never won in the league. Dean Ryan’s decision to drop Ryan Lamb for Willie Walker was inspired as he scored the full house of a try, conversion, penalty and dropped goal to help Gloucester to a 21-17 win. Bath did muster a late rally to try to snatch the game having been 16 points down at one stage but all they could manage was a losing bonus point.
At the Stoop Harlequins took on Bristol and grabbed themselves the only win bonus point so far this season with a five try demolition by 31-13. The England young gun quartet of Care, Guest, Turner-Hall and Brown all got themselves on the score sheet along with Gonzalo Tiesi. This win sees Quins hit the dizzying heights of the top of the table and I would expect them to remain there or thereabouts throughout the season.
Meanwhile at Welford Road Leicester Tigers maintained their 100% win record with a close fought victory over London Irish, 24-22. Whilst London Irish will be gutted not to have squared the match in the last minute with a missed conversion, they will be encouraged by the fact that they ran a good team very close with limited possession.
The big news on Sunday was Jonny Wilkinson’s return to the Newcastle starting line up against Northampton and what a return it was. He scored 22 points and all of England will surely be happy to see him come through a match unscathed. Added to Wilkinson’s tally were a try apiece from Andy Buist and Ollie Phillips to see Newcastle home by 32-22. Jonny rubbed salt into the Northampton wounds by slotting a late drop goal to deny them even a losing bonus point.
Whilst Jonny’s return was big news, the biggest shock of the weekend came at Adams Park where Wasps were beaten by Worcester 11-10. With perfect conditions for rugby both teams struggled to string phases together with knock-ons and aimless kicking the order of the day. Worcester started the better team but they could only translate their dominance into an 8-7 half time lead.
Wasps then began the second half strongly and took the lead with a penalty 10-8, only to throw away decent attacking opportunities time and time again. With the clock dead and having wrestled back possession in midfield Wasps flanker Rob Webber managed to dive on the ball and somehow pop it up to a Worcester player on the charge – he duly fed Miles Benjamin who was dragged down 30m from the Wasps line only for Wasps to concede a penalty through not releasing the player right in front of the posts.
Loki Crichton couldn’t miss the kick and Worcester snatched the victory. Whilst the final passage may have been unlucky, the rest of the match was distinctly below par and Wasps have some serious head-scratching to do.
This weekend the pick of the matches looks to be Gloucester at home to Quins – if the Londoners manage an away victory they will surely be considered title contenders by all.
By Jon Hobbs