The weekend started off with a bit of a shock as Bath finally got their season underway with a hard-fought victory at Sale. Not many teams go to Edgeley Park on a Friday night and come away with the spoils so this is a victory that should resonate around the league, signalling Bath’s re-emergence as a potential force this season.
The new stand at Welford Road
There is still room for improvement, but it looks like Nicky Little will provide better cover for Butch James than Ryan Davis did in the first two matches of the season. Davis has showed glimpses of his ability but will benefit from a bench role for the majority of this season.
With Little’s guiding hand and decent array of passes, it finally allowed Bath’s midfield of Shontayne Hape and new recruit Matt Carraro to show their worth, which Carraro did with two very well taken tries. The first came from a horrible missed-tackle from Ben Cohen wide on the left but good strength from Carraro. Matt Banahan also pressed his England claims with a typically powerful try from close range and for the first time this season Sale’s Lee Thomas misfired with the boot as Bath ran out deserved winners, 25 – 12.
Having seen Bath secure their first win, it was up to Harlequins to get their season up and running with a home tie against in-form Saracens. It’s difficult to pinpoint the differences in playing style that have resulted in Sarries’ performances, it looks like more to do with a determination and belief that South African players and managers seem to be blessed with.
There is a good balance to their team with some gnarled forwards, very experienced heads at half back and invention out wide. This combination proved too much for Harlequins as they looked bereft of the attacking ideas that had been so attractive last season and ended up being booted to death by a resurgent Derrick Hougaard. One drop-goal of his was particularly audacious but when you’re on a roll, as Saracens are, everything seems to go your way – they took this one by 22 – 9.
Both teams had unfortunate injury worries to contend with that may have an effect on England’s autumn selections. Steve Borthwick has sprained rib cartilage and Jordan Turner-Hall has damaged his shoulder but both will be hoping for a speedy return to playing.
Northampton’s playoff credentials are rising at a rate of knots, as are Shane Geraghty’s England chances. Before he was injured/not selected for London Irish at the end of last season his attacking prowess was there for all to see and, much like Hougaard moving from Tigers to Sarries, Geraghty’s move to Northampton seems to have reignited his spark and enjoyment for the game.
Northampton travelled to Gloucester at the weekend and it soon became the Geraghty show. As with any good fly-half, he appears to have so much time on the ball and the ability to change his mind dependent on what he sees in front of him. On quite a few occasions he, and his dependable back line, cut the Gloucester defence to shreds. However it’s also clear that the Saints have a hard edge up front as the front-row union rampaged through the heart of the Gloucester defence for the first try which went to Tongan prop Soane Tonga’uiha.
Gloucester were never likely to allow another drubbing on the scale of last week’s Irish match and remained competitive throughout. Akapusi Qera remains one of the best back-row forwards in the league and sealed a decent performance with a try, as the teams went in at half-time 19 – 14 to the visitors. However Saints were able to pull away with the combined kicking efforts of Geraghty and Bruce Reihana and ended up comfortable winners, 27 -14.
On Saturday evening Leicester welcomed Newcastle to Welford Road and unveiled their new Caterpillar Stand to bring their crowd capacity to 24,000. They would have loved to have scored a try to mark the occasion, ending their 3-match drought, and surely would have if referee Andrew Small hadn’t have got in the way of a scoring pass to Tom Croft (which made very little difference but had to be blown!).
Leicester’s attacking limitations seem to be masking the fact that they also haven’t conceded a try this season, which is surely as great an achievement. So, as with both Leicester’s previous matches, this one became a kicking duel and Leicester again came out on top. Jeremy Staunton proved his worth with 5 penalties to Rob Miller’s two as Leicester won 15 – 6. Miller’s performance was very composed for a youngster who only knew he was starting shortly before kick-off and he looks like another excellent Falcons 10.
On Sunday Leeds Carnegie cemented their relegation credentials with a heavy loss to London Irish, who look better each week. London Irish are picking up from last season by looking to score at every opportunity and no other team can finish like them. In this match they scored seven tries to Leeds’ one and looked completely dominant, as they had done against Gloucester last weekend, to take it 56 – 7.
It goes to show how good the Saracens team is as they’ve beaten Northampton and London Irish, who have both gone on to win their other two fixtures so far. Leeds’ season will only get tougher from here, already they will be looking at key home fixtures that they must win in order to stand a chance.
In the final match of the weekend, Wasps continued their winning streak with a victory over their bunny team, Worcester Warriors by 23 – 3. Whilst the score was fairly comprehensive, Wasps’ performances so far haven’t been those of potential champions and there is still room for plenty of improvement. They are usually slow-starters so their continued run of victories should be worrying the other Premiership sides.
Tom Varndell continued his stunning scoring record by touching down for his fifth of the season and 50th of his Premiership career.
London’s clubs can be found at the top and foot of the table with Wasps and Saracens at the top sharing the only unbeaten record in the league and Quins at the bottom, the only team to have lost all their fixtures so far.
By Jon Hobbs