London Irish open up clear water

The Guinness Premiership is a marathon, not a sprint. Trophies aren’t won in December. It’s all about peaking at the right time.

As long as the chasing pack keep believing these clichés, London Irish will carry on sitting pretty at the top of the table and revel in the title of “surprise package of the season”. After the event it’s easy to look back and say it wasn’t so much of a shock – they have a settled squad, they reached the semi-finals of the Heineken Cup, they’ve been beating the best teams in one-offs – but really I doubt anyone predicted this start to the campaign for the Exiles.

If teams were going to underestimate Irish before the weekend, they certainly won’t do now after the men from the Madejski beat Gloucester 42 – 12. Although the result is very impressive, Gloucester didn’t really show up and Irish were not made to work particularly hard for their victory.

Teams can afford slip-ups like this in the middle of the season but what will worry Dean Ryan is the fact that his boys lost almost every collision, never chased a kick properly and looked tactically naïve for most of the match. Where Irish kicked deep, pressurised and played for points, Gloucester seemed to randomly decide when it would be time to kick or counter without assessing what was in front of them. These kinds of physical and tactical failings will need to be resolved before too soon if they are to be able to win the knockout phases.

Leicester kept tabs on the leaders as they comfortably defeated Newcastle 20 – 3. Both squads had their problems with injuries and illness going into the match but Leicester were never really troubled. Aaron Mauger is playing some excellent rugby this season and he capped this performance with his third premiership try of the season.

Bristol did very well to earn two points at Worcester with a hard-fought draw, 20 – 20. Results like that are keeping them in touch with Newcastle this season and will hopefully ensure that the bottom of the table remains competitive throughout. This result will bring some much-needed cheer to Bristol’s fans who have suffered recently through the club’s financial struggles and poor results.

In a much more intense and skilful top-o-the-table match than Glos/Irish, Bath engineered another late rally to beat Sale, 24 – 20. Three players were sin-binned as the pressure mounted, Chabal has claimed his flurry of punches aimed at Bath’s Michael Claasens was a response to a boot in the face – indicative of the bad-tempered nature of the contest. Trailing in the last few minutes by a point, Banahan scored from a cross-field kick to steal the points and propel Bath into 2nd, with Sale lying in fifth.

Northampton kept themselves clear of the bottom two with a deserved victory at home against Harlequins, 23 – 13. It is tempting to put this one down to Quins’ physical and emotional fatigue from the past fortnight of stunning European rugby. There are only so many “big games” you can psyche yourself up for before you allow your edge to diminish, just a little. The beauty of the Premiership is that if you fall into that trap the rest of the teams are there, ready to pounce on you as Saints did on Saturday.

Wasps ground out another win to make it four in a row in all competitions by beating Saracens 33 – 24. The difference this week was that they actually played some decent rugby and scored a few tries. One of Wasps’ fringe players, Rob Hoadley, had a great game capped off with a try. He wasn’t expecting to be in the matchday squad until very late on Friday, then was promoted into the starting line-up shortly before kick off. The ever-improving Noah Cato scored two for Saracens – watch out for him in the Six Nations “A” matches in the spring.

The big match of the festive period has to be Quins v Leicester at Twickenham on 27th. If you can get yourself up off the sofa after all the turkey, head over to watch the match – tickets are cheap and I promise it’ll be worth it (as long as it isn’t snowing).