Sunday 23 February 2014

Round Up! Aviva Premiership Round15

Saturday saw the Wasps head to The Rec to face one of the most consistent teams in the Premiership, Bath. The London Wasps wanted to burst the Bath bubble but they couldn't quite manage it. An absolute 'try-fest' from both sides, with Anthony Watson stealing the show, making his mark with two tries, one of which was from a great interception. Wasps looked lethal and almost in grasp of an away win but Ollie Devoto set up a great try for Kyle Eastmond, sealing the 32-25 victory.

Gloucester hosted the Harlequins and caused a stir at Kingsholm as they managed to defeat the London side on home turf, 25-20. What better way for Mike Tindall to celebrate his 200th appearance and Matt Kvesic to score his first ever try on home turf for the club? Gloucester's momentum saw them take control, with the forwards pack looking strong, marking their territory comfortably and sealing the deal!

Worcester Warriors welcomed Sale Sharks to Sixways and with the Warriors facing relegation, their battle to secure a home win looked even more unlikely as the Sharks showed they were on top form from the word go. Sale were into double figures before the half time whistle blew and Worcester looked nowhere to be seen! However, they came back to restore a little dignity with the final score, 12-24. Sale are dark horses in this Premiership. They're not shying away from a play-off place. Could they be pushing for the 4th spot?

Newcastle Falcons and Northampton Saints met at Kingston Park on Sunday afternoon with the Saints looking to secure their 11th consecutive win. Poor defence from the Falcons pack saw James Wilson score two tries and another from academy player Tom Stephenson, taking the Saints to a comfortable lead. But Newcastle came back to settle the score at 22-16 with an awesome interception try from Noah Cato. A close encounter for Northampton if they want to retain the top spot.

The Leicester Tigers headed to the Madjeski Stadium to take on London Irish. Unfortunately the luck of the Irish had run its course and even though these two sides were pretty well balanced in their set play going into half time, it was short lived as the Tigers clawed their way to a 15-20 victory. Leicester are gaining momentum and breaking away from the Harlequins to retain 4th place. The question is, could they creep higher up the table? Or more to the point, do they deserve to?

It was Happy 1st Birthday to Allianz Park on Sunday as the Saracens welcomed the Exeter Chiefs and normal service resumed for the 2nd place side: But it was a bumpy ride. The Chiefs threw everything at the home side in the first half, real resilience shone through but Saracens were dominant in the scrums and when it boiled down to it, their set play won them the game, 23-10. Exeter were yet again, left searching for the win!

A Tale of Two Halves

Exeter Chiefs had lost their last two home games and in total, the last four Premiership matches, so the trip to Allianz Park was destined to be utilised as a platform of redemption.  It looked set to be a triumphant afternoon for the Chiefs at half time but it was definitely a game of two very different halves as the Saracens fought back to win very convincingly, 23-10.

Early on there was a sense of bravery within the Chiefs camp, rather than kicking the points after being awarded a penalty, Steenson kicked for touch. He portrayed confidence in his team’s ability to beat the Saracens defence from the outset, and they meant business.

The strength of the Exeter forwards pack showed real tenacity and their physicality in defence was brutal, which caught the Saracens off-guard several times. The London side found themselves in a dangerous situation and attacking in their own 22 on numerous occasions.

This gave way to what was a beautiful try for Exeter; set up after countless phases of play and domination in the first 10 minutes. Exeter's ability to attack was consistent. The back line strength shown to its full glory as Ian Whitten crossed the line with ease. Saracens looked lethargic, weak in defence, somewhat disjointed and the ability to counter ruck was proving a problem. Were they comfortable on home turf? I wasn't so sure!

The Exeter attacking force weren't tiring, especially when fantastic footwork from
Fetu'u Vainikolo - described as a 'one man battering ram’ - provided a break through the Sarries defence again, beating a handful of defenders and a decent hand-off saw him make significant ground. The sound of the tomahawk chop resounded around Allianz Park and at one point I was tempted to join in! This side had come out to win and were proving their passion and worth to wound the Saracens.

For a moment, I thought the Sarries had found their feet, when an outstanding overlap and a beautifully timed run by Joel Tomkins enabled him to angle his attacking line to threaten the Exeter defence. However, the Chiefs remained resilient and even though Chris Wyles made a break, he was subsequently chased down. Clinical aspects of the Sarries performance saw them flounder as they failed to put any points on the board.

The basics weren't executed well enough in my opinion with poor handling errors to blame.

One couldn't fault the work rate of both sides however - it was immense - but there were not enough points to show for either team’s efforts. Continuous line outs and scrums saw little passages of play, most of which were in the middle of the pitch. Several kicks to touch from Charlie Hodgson showed the Saracens attempting to take control of the game but it seemed somewhat pointless when there was no sense of urgency to compete in the line outs!

Having said that, their dominance in the scrum was proving advantageous. Just shy of half time the Saracens forwards pack showed stability and Exeter were penalised. The confidence of Mouritz Botha and James Johnston to work together as a pod to bash the Exeter defence paid off, as Johnston crossed the line seconds later.

A great effort from the forwards and a deserved try, but I commend the Exeter defence for keeping their composure. A brutal and physical end to the first half and Exeter had remained focussed. A skill in itself not to have conceded a try for a full 34 minutes!

HT 7-7

Exeter's attacking line looked fierce first half and this West-Country side looked real contenders for the win as they went into the second half.

Saracens had been lax in their performance so far but a ‘Eureka!’ moment occurred as they returned to the field. An absolutely fantastic rolling maul saw a 10-man surge head over the try line with Schalk Brits at the bottom of the pile. A well deserved try. It made me question why on earth they hadn't utilised this in the first half, especially as their ability to maul was a real strength? It was proving effective, especially when a penalty was awarded, enabling Hodgson to extend their lead further.

There was no real air of excitement in the second half but more a concern when a fatal high ball saw a collision resulting in Mouritz Botha being stretchered off. To the crowd’s relief, an announcement confirmed he was conscious and smiling. Phew!

The 'Wayne Barnes Effect,' however, did humour the crowd for a minute or two when
Schalk Brits collided with the referee and bounced off him. The comical moment passed and then a sense of frustration ensued as Exeter's attack plateaued. They were a side who had gone from showing dogged determination to completely lacking spontaneity and spark. This proved critical; especially as they had shown the potential to be lethal. But Saracens then regained control of the game.

Even with Jacques Burger being sin-binned for a high tackle on Phil Dollman, with 9 minutes left to play, Exeter still couldn't break the Saracens’ barrier.

Exeter conceded too many penalties in the second half, their game management was somewhat poor and Saracens stepped it up a gear when it was needed. Their ability to switch phases of play from the forwards to the backs was clinical and perfected. When it came down to it, this is what enabled them to win on home ‘turf.’

It was very much a forwards game as it was the backs match. Both sides showed flair and running rugby in what were decent conditions even if there was a little wind: But it was frustrating to see the Chiefs become complacent in their capabilities and losing momentum.

There was a real sense of frustration from Exeter’s Director of Rugby, Rob Baxter, as he told me it was the, 'story of their season'. Exeter are a competitive side but they're struggling under pressure and they need to understand how to respond to that and maintain their ability to stay on the front foot. He went on to say,

'Great credit to Saracens, I thought they played the elements the second half fantastically well but we certainly helped them.'

When the Saracens did finally get going, their drills were immaculate.

Saracens surged forward in the second half to cement their position in second place in the Premiership, but the result must leave Exeter wondering, where they will end up in their Premiership journey?

FT 23-10

10 mins Ian Whitten try conv. Gareth Steenson 0-7
34 mins James Johnston try conv. Charlie Hodgson 7-7
HT 7-7
45 mins Steenson pen 7-10
49 Schalk Brits try conv. Hodgson14-10
54 mins Hodgson pen 17-10
57 mins Hongdon pen 20-10
76 mins Hodgson pen 23-10
FT 23-10

Unstoppable Tigers Claw Their Way To Yet Another Victory

By Shaun Wren 

London Irish 15 Leicester Tigers 20 

It was another unconvincing win by the Leicester Tigers as it marked a bad weekend for Irish rugby fans in London.

Things could have been so different if James O’Connor had been able to score all seven of his penalty kicks, it would have given Irish 21 points. Not to mention the two controversial Leicester Tries!
The game started so well with less than a minute into the game, London Irish were already three points up from the boot of O’Connor.

However, after Leicester found a way into the game, Irish conceded a penalty in their own 22. The Tigers put on the pressure in the scrum pushing the Irish pack back and with Louis Deacon seeming to be in an offside position, it opened a gap for Ben Youngs to score in the corner.

But the question is should it have been a try?

After O’Connor missed a penalty and the chance to give Irish the lead and with the Tigers continuously conceding penalties, the Australian fullback wasn’t going to miss the chance of giving his side the chance to regain the lead, converting two penalty kicks to put Irish 9-5 ahead.

Then six minutes from half time Leicester scored their second controversial try as a driving maul pressured the home side back, enabling Leicester’s tight head prop Logovi’I Mulipola to crash the ball over the line. However, with referee JP Doyle going to the TMO, it was clear to see the ball was held up but the referee gave the try anyway.

With Owen Williams missing his second conversion Tigers had a one point lead.
Before both sides went off for half time London Irish centre Eamonn Sheridan was sin binned for taking out Leicester fullback Matthew Tait.

The Tigers started the second half in the best way possible, as outside centre Vereniki Goneva used his clever footwork to get past the Irish defence. Williams finally scored a conversion to give the current champions a 9-17 lead.

It wasn’t long for the fly-half to get on the score sheet again as he kicked a penalty to extend Leicester’s lead to 11 points.

O’Connor’s kicking was still hit and miss as he missed the chance to close the gap on the 56th minute but was able to put three points on the board in the 61st minute.

When replacement number eight Thomas Waldrom got sin binned, Irish had the chance to take control of the game but the 23 year old fullback missed his kick again!

With 10 minutes to go, Irish took the chance to close the gap to five and switching kicker fly-half Ian Humphreys made it 15-20.

Then London Irish came so close to clinching the win as they were within metres of the Leicester try line but unfortunately Irish knocked the ball on and even though they had a good scrum, the Tigers held on for another close win.  

Mrs Brown’s Boy Steals The Show

England 13 Ireland 10

Take a bow Mrs Brown. Your boy’s a real England hero and he just keeps getting better!

Mike Brown is a real multi-tasking master: A rock of reliability in defence and an inspiration on the counter-attack.

His performance against Ireland at Twickenham today showcased all of his talents.

© Getty Images

He displayed the agility of a football goalkeeper to dive full stretch to gather one Irish punt through … the dancing, darting footwork to create space with the ball … and the speed to leave defenders in his wake.

No surprise then, it was his clean break and smart pass which sent his Harlequins team-mate Danny Care over for England’s match-clinching try under the posts, which Owen Farrell converted.

And no surprise then, that Mr Brown was named Man of the Match.

The stark statistics will show that England won by 13 points to 10. But this was a match of high intensity, hard hits and high tension, with the result in doubt right up to the final whistle.

The first half was frenetic, fast-flowing and absorbing, with both teams’ attacking charges being repelled by super resilient defences. But for all the attack and counter attack, a penalty from Owen Farrell was the only score of the first half, although he did hit a post with another attempt.

Ireland then put 10 unanswered points on the board within eight minutes of the restart. Rob Kearney burst into the line to scythe through the England defence and put the ball down under the posts, while many in the crowd were still taking their seats. Sexton converted and then added a penalty.

Another Owen Farrell penalty soon after, brought it back to 6 -10, but then a Sexton error turned the game.

His restart drop kick didn’t go 10 metres and also went straight into touch. Scrum to England on the centre spot. Time for Mike Brown to take centre stage – along with several of his Harlequins’ club-mates! Danny Care threw a long pass to Chris Robshaw, who off-loaded to Brown, who cut through the Ireland defence at pace. He then drew a tackler to feed Care on a good support run and create the decisive moment of the match.

The remaining 20 minutes were no less intense or absorbing but it was the Men in White who held tight.

They began the match knowing they had to win, to have a chance of winning the Six Nations championship. But in the event, they gave a character-defining performance that will be seen as a far more important step on the way to the World Cup next year.

England 13
Try : 56 mins Care
Con: 57 mins Farrell
Pens. 23 mins, 53 mins Farrell (2)

Ireland 10
Try: 41 mins Kearney
Con: 42 mins Sexton
Pen: 48 mins Sexton

Thursday 20 February 2014

Rugby Tonight Hosts Archbishop of Banterbury

From the moment I stepped onto the bus heading to the BT Sport studio for Rugby Tonight, I knew I was in for a treat.  Olney RFC had hijacked the radio and were singing all the way.  With coach loads of rugby supporters turning up to participate as the audience, the atmosphere was bound to be electric for this exciting highlight of the week.

The lean, mean, rucking machine, James ‘The Hass’ Haskell, was welcomed into the studio by an almighty roar from the audience and he certainly didn’t fail to impress, giving several female members of the audience a very sincere kiss –

No James, it’s not Take Me Out!

The self-proclaimed ‘Archbishop of Banterbury’ was in for a revelation if he thought heading to the studio to be met by BT Sport’s five International Players turned presenters would be an easy ride.  They don’t pull their punches these guys.  There were bound to be a few surprises along the way.

Lawrence Dallaglio threw the first curved ball, stirring twitter into action with the ‘caption competition’ for Haskell’s spray tan. 

The response on Twitter was hilarious, with no other than David Strettle jumping onto the banter bandwagon with,

 ‘Spray gun for the Abs and a shotgun for the face.’ Ouch!!  This had us all chortling.

But the best by far was a suggestion that James' audition to play Austin in "Splash! The Movie".  Would he get the part?

Having highlighted Sam Burgess move from Rugby League to Rugby Union and the mention of Wilson replacing Dan Cole in the England Squad, It was the moment we were all looking forward to, James trying his luck at the Smash-o-meter!. 

He took off his blazer to prepare for the hit and surely it was certain to rival Lawrence’s brutal result of 101, but did it?

No - it was nowhere near!  Whether it was the effect of ‘Stampgate’ from the episode at the weekend, he scored just 62 and 69 respectively, leaving him looking not so much the ‘Haskellator’ more the ‘Masquerader’.  As we all looked to the scoreboard, it put the ‘Archbishop of Banterbury’ to shame, especially when an Olney RFC player hit 72, with Lawrence Dallaglio leading the scoreboard at 101 to date.

 Audience participation in the demonstrations is definitely one of my favourite elements of the show:  And a rucking masterclass from the very best was definitely worth the wait. 

James Haskell lived up to his reputation tonight but I was slightly disappointed by his lack of gas to take down the tackle bag - all show no go?

His nutritional tips and insight however were invaluable and it’ll be interesting to see how Martin Bayfield progresses, taking on the challenge to follow James Haskell’s diet.

Speaking as a rugby fan, there is absolutely nothing like Rugby Tonight on TV.   It's impressive to see how some of the legends of the game have made the natural and professional transition to TV presentation .......with a rapport and banter to rival any top rated TV show.

The whole programme brings together lovers and participants of rugby union, up and down and the country, professional and amateur alike.

It is compelling viewing; edgy, constructive, topical and informative. There is something for everyone, served up with a great dollop of camaraderie, fun and good humour. 

With the Northampton Saints special being shown next Wednesday at 8pm, which player would you like to see hit the Smash-o-meter?

I’ll go with Samu Manoa!

Until next time….



Monday 17 February 2014

Gutsy Gloucester get close, but Tigers steal a win

A resurgent Gloucester came within four minutes of a deserved draw at Welford Road, but somehow stuttering Leicester managed to steal a win, with Toby Flood kicking a penalty.
However, it will be Gloucester who will take most from this match. Gone was the ganderflanking of some previous games. This was about grit, determination and intent, as well as some sparkling back play at times, with Charlie Sharples and Mike Tindall prominent. 
As Gloucester’s Director of Rugby Nigel Davies said afterwards, this performance at Leicester must now be their benchmark. But if only their scrum could be more stable. It really was a liability at times.
His Leicester counterpart, Richard Cockerill, could only reflect on a “poor performance.”   The victory, he said, was the only positive from a poor afternoon.

At times, Leicester were befuddled and bemused, with a verbal spat between Flood and Mulipola illustrating their frustrations.  Gloucester will look at the replays and rue missed opportunities in the first quarter when points went begging. It was 3 all at half time.

Ten minutes after the restart Gloucester were ahead 3 - 8.   The ball was sent out wide to
Martyn Thomas, who managed to skilfully flick an inside pass behind his back to send Sharples shooting over the line from inside the 22.    Rob Cook was unable to convert.

Although they kicked Leicester backwards for the next ten minutes or so, the Tigers finally came surging forward and they got their reward when Youngs fed Flood who sent Tait over.   A missed conversion meant it was again all square at 8 all; with ten minutes to go.

And while the most hardened Gloucester fan might have had faith in the Cherry and Whites becoming the third team to draw at Welford Road this season, most rugby followers would have instantly and instinctively known there was only going to be one result. 

And there you have it, the moment we were all waiting for, an official to make an irrational decision to penalise Gloucester for not feeding the ball straight in the scrum. Expected? Yes. Amazed? No. Frustrated? Very; especially as Luke Pearce hadn't brought this to our attention for the last seventy-odd minutes! 

With four minutes from time, another Gloucester infringement at the scrum gave Flood the inevitable opportunity to convert the winning penalty from around 23 metres.

To their credit, Gloucester did manage to regain the ball from the restart, but rather than keep the ball in hand and work their way forward for position, they eventually kicked across field and all hopes of at least a draw were gone.

A poor performance from the Tigers resulted in a win.  How?  Yes we were all left asking that very question.  Leicester never give up without a fight but this time, it was the touch judge who made that game-changing decision and handed them the win, on a plate.

Gloucester restored their pride today but this episode begs the question, if TMO's are called upon to verify what did happen,when can they be called upon to clarify what didn't happen? Discuss.
NB: 'ganderflanking' is a centuries-old Wiltshire word for messing around, which is becoming popular once more.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Round Up! Aviva Premiership Round 14

Friday night lights gave way to an unfortunate 10-15 result and a loss for Sale Sharks, as they hosted Saracens. Sale conceded too many penalties due to poor execution of play in parts, which enabled Charlie Hodgson to kick all of Saracens points and steal the win. But Sale have made a steady climb up the premiership ladder and they're sitting comfortably in 6th place. I have high hopes for this club in years to come, they're proving to perform consistently this season, watch this space!

The talking point however was the West Country derby, as the Exeter Chiefs welcomed Bath to a sunny Sandy Park. This was a tug of war not to be missed. The try of the game came from the Clermont-bound player Nick Abendanon, who showed skill in his ability to ground the ball from a phenomenal chip and chase. Even though Exeter remained resilient, it wasn't enough to fend off Bath, who evidently were the more composed of the two sides. It was unfortunate though, to see the Chiefs lose on home turf, 23-27.

It wasn't such a walk in the park for Northampton Saints either. They hosted a feisty Worcester Warriors side who made it a hard fought battle in the first half. It was only really in the last quarter that the Saints took charge at Franklin's Gardens and really got into their stride to bag the win. Straight trucking saw them make it their 9th consecutive Premiership victory beating the Warriors, 30-14. They were just short of the bonus point try on Saturday but overtake Saracens to go top of the table... for now.

Luck was on the Harlequins side again at the Stoop as the Newcastle Falcons landed to prey on the London side. And to be honest, it was sneaky Sam Smith who stole the 18-14 win for Quins, again. Newcastle were edging ahead at one point but it was another reliant finish on the TMO, as Smith touched down in the corner. The Quins remain in joint fourth position along with the Tigers but how long will it last before they crumble?

The close encounter at Adams Park was a woeful tale with the luck of the London Irish side winning with the last kick of the game, 20-23. London Wasps nearly upstaged the Harlequins last week but it seemed that they let possession go to waste this weekend. A frustrating fight and another disappointing score. With little sting in their tails, are they likely to turn it around? I hope so.

All eyes turned to Welford Road on Sunday as the Tigers took on the underdogs, Gloucester. The Cherry and Whites had nothing to lose and if anything, their performance undoubtedly was the strongest of the two sides. The game should have deservedly been a draw, and it was... with about 8 minutes to go. But poor decision making by touch judge Luke Pearce, saw Gloucester being penalised for not feeding the ball straight in the scrum.  Once again, Leicester Tigers were let off the hook winning 11-8, from what was a scrappy and poor performance. Gloucester were robbed.

Chiefs Come Out Fighting But Bath Win The Battle

Exeter 23 Bath 27

It was inevitable that this West Country derby would be a talking point this weekend, especially since the Exeter Chiefs hadn't beaten Bath since 1978. 

So the question on everyone's lips was, could they turn the tables on home turf at Sandy Park?   Nearly… but not quite!

Rob Baxter wanted a bright start for Exeter, and that's what he got.   A dominant forwards pack saw a steady set scrum which made Bath uncomfortable and uneasy.  That wasn't all.  Three scrums in seven minutes would be tough on any player, but Exeter were marking their territory and quite rightly so, showing Bath why it's so hard to play at Sandy Park as the Tomahawk Chop resounded round the stands. 

From the outset the visitors looked passive in their set piece; somewhat disjointed and under confident.  Bath failed to win any line outs in the first-half and Exeter's momentum and resilience saw them pounding and tiring the Bath defensive line.  

The Chiefs are renowned for playing a lethal, physical, attacking game and their ability within the forwards pack signaled their intent: But I must admit, when Bath did manage to handle the ball, it was Ford who proved why he should be in an England shirt.  For example, an extremely well-timed pop to a quick-stepping Ollie Devoto, enabled him to angle his line of attack and rip through a poor Exeter defence from half way, to score a some-what soft try. However, I felt for the Chiefs; their work rate so far had been consistently high, but irregularly spaced inside defenders will always provide the opposition with extremely fortuitous gaps.

Exeter's patience and continuity however were proving positive and their passion clear to see. The Chiefs were awarded a penalty, just short of half time and fancying their chances, kicked for touch. With two minutes to go, the forwards drove the maul, accompanied by the Tomahawk chop which roared around Sandy Park.   An outstanding effort from Dave Ewers gained them ground but it was Ben White who headed straight over the line, scoring a vital try!    

Right on the stroke of half time, Exeter's hard work had paid off.  Could they keep up the momentum going into the second-half?   

It was Bath who showed glimpses of hope on the attack in the second half but poor phases of play and handling errors saw them fall short of the try line.   But Bath then started to clear their bench, with Anthony Perenise a change in the front row, Peter Stringer on at scrum-half, Nick Abendanon on for Matt Banahan and Anthony Watson moved to the wing.  Surely this would this help them find their feet and gain control of the game? 

Initially, Exeter's defensive effort proved sound but Bath now upped their intensity and started to threaten as their phases of play became clinical and concise.  It was only a matter of time before this focused effort would deliver a try and it was enthusiastic Kyle Eastmond, accepting a pass from Ford and breaking through Chief’s defensive line, who delivered the goods:  A really strong piece of continuity play by Bath.   It was definitely the first time they'd looked dominant and deadly on the attack. Emptying the bench had paid off.

Shortly followed by a show of brilliance when Nick Abendanon took a wide pass from Ford, belted down the wing, chipped the ball, chased it and then finished the display with flair and grounded the ball.   The Clermont-bound player flashed his ‘Class Act’ credentials and in the last quarter of the game, Bath were coming into their own. 

Never the less, Exeter exerted again and bounced back on the attack.   It was electric to watch as they played the ball safely though hands from one side of the pitch to the other at real pace.  Bath couldn't drift quick enough to cover their 22 and a gap was created out wide, handing a golden opportunity to Ian Whitten who broke through the passive or somewhat non-existent Bath defence to hear Sandy Park roar as he touched down.   Just wow!  The Chiefs were back in the game. Steenson converted.  

The question now was, could they carry on and break this losing spell?  Could Exeter close the one point gap?  They advanced on the Bath line but the ball was stolen metres from the end zone and Ford cleared the ball.   Abendanon galloped down the pitch for the chase and it was like ping pong;  attack to defence, all that was parting these two sides was discipline.  Suddenly, this game had rapidly rocketed in intensity, becoming too close to call! 

But finally, with a penalty awarded to Bath in the dying stages, Ford sealed the deal for the visitors.  It was so near - yet so far, for Exeter.  If they had kept their passes simple late on, would they have made history with a drop goal?   Hindsight is a wonderful thing. They couldn't afford to run the risk of losing possession and it proved very expensive, costing them the game. 

Exeter showed admirable strength of character but Bath pipped them at the posts, quite literally.  Overall, both teams were balanced in the scrum and even though line out possession was won hands down by Exeter in the first half, the second half was an uphill struggle. 

Quality and composure edged it for me, enabling Bath to steal the win.  Exeter lost control in the final stages of the game but if they re-evaluate and work hard, I'm in no doubt the Chiefs will be top four contenders in the Aviva Premiership. 

I look forward to reporting from Allianz Park next Sunday as Saracens host the Exeter Chiefs! 

10 mins pen Exeter Gareth Steenson 3-0 
12 mins pen Bath George Ford 3-3
27 mins try Bath Ollie Devoto conv. Ford 10-3 
32 pen Gareth Steenson 6-10
40 try Ben White conv. Steenson 13-10 
44 mins pen Exeter - Steenson 16-10
53 mins try Bath- Kyle Eastmond conv. Ford 16-17
63 mins try Bath - Nick Abendanon conv. Ford 16-24
67 mins try Exeter - Ian Whitten conv. Steenson 23-24
80 mins pen George Ford 23-27

Hodgson Puts The Boot To His Former Team

By Shaun Wren 

Sale Sharks 10 – 15 Saracens

Charlie Hodgson kicked all of Saracens’ 15 points as the London side temporarily moved top of the Premiership table on Friday night.

It only took the former England international five minutes to get on the score sheet. After defending their line so well, Sale conceded a silly penalty to enable Hodgson to give Sarries a three point lead. Danny Cipriani levelled the score in the 15th minute after a mistake from Mako Vunipola.

Soon after, Saracens could have scored the first try of the game as they built pressure in the Sale half. A great pass from Hodgson to outside centre Duncan Taylor put him through space, created by David Strettle and Chris Ashton, and just when Taylor looked certain to score, he off-loaded to no-one and Sale were able to clear their lines.

Saracens would quickly regret not taking the opportunity. In the 36th minute Sale’s pack piled on the pressure after Michael Paterson had stolen the ball and with Sarries conceding a line out, they had no chance against an unstoppable Sharks’ driving maul. Hooker Marc Jones scored the try and Cipriani converted. 
10 – 3 to Sale.

Just before half-time Hodgson had a chance to score from a penalty but his kick had neither the distance nor the accuracy and the Sharks went into the break seven points up.

Saracens started the second half impressively, no doubt getting the hairdryer treatment from Director of Rugby Mark McCall. But as the away side kept attacking, Sale’s defence kept pushing them back and it looked like Saracens would have to create something special to break the wall.

However, a mixture of poor discipline and Hodgson’s boot were going to break Sharks’ hearts as within the space of 10 minutes, Sale went from a seven point lead to being behind by two.

With five minutes to go replacement fly half Nick Maclead had the chance to give the home side the lead but his penalty went just wide. Then Hodgson 
rubber-stamped the victory against his former club with his fifth penalty and a minute left on the clock.

I really felt for the Sale defence, as they were the stars of the match and to keep Saracens quiet, Steve Diamond and defence coach Mike Forshaw must be doing something right.

If they keep up putting in these performances, I could really see the Sharks fighting for a play-off place at the end of the season.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Round Up! Aviva Premiership Round 13...

The biggest surprise this weekend in Round 13 of the Aviva Premiership was Saracens losing their winning streak on home turf to London Irish, 13-22. If this wouldn't stun you then I wouldn't know what would. A quality team sitting top of the Premiership who've only been beaten once prior to this encounter. What went wrong? I know Saracens are without some of their regular first-team players due to their involvement in the Six Nations, but surely dependency on them won't gain then a place in the Premiership final?

So this is where the irony begins. Three matches all won this weekend on the smallest of margins. One point. Yes,  you heard right. Northampton Saints travelled to Sandy Park and left it until the dying moments of the game to take control. George Pisi stormed the try line and stole the win, 16-17 against the Exeter Chiefs, pushing them to the top of the Aviva Premiership table after eight consecutive Premiership wins.

And so to Worcester, who welcomed Leicester Tigers to the Sixways Stadium. The Warriors fought hard on home turf but just couldn't manage to seal the deal. An unfortunate outcome for the home side, which didn't reflect their game play. Worcester have struggled so far this season but one would say that Tigers' ill-discipline saw an undeserved win by just one point  22-23.

Now to the London derby, where Harlequins took on the London Wasps. The last encounter between these two sides resulted in a Quins triumph and a one point score line. But even though history repeated itself this weekend 11-10, it was Wasps who looked the likely winners. They had consistency throughout the game, but fell at the final hurdle to a late try by Sam Smith.

Bath were back with a vengeance this weekend and sitting comfortably in third place of the table. They're one of the most consistent sides playing at the moment and proof was in the pudding, as they stormed to success at the Rec to win 24-6 against Newcastle Falcons. Bath are a side who've not shown any real struggle with the loss of players to the Six Nations - due to strong squad development maybe?

Finally, to the most predictable result of the weekend, Sale Sharks winning 24-19 to Gloucester. I can't put my finger on what's not quite right in the Gloucester pack, lack of enthusiasm maybe? With two yellow cards shown in this game and a weak defence the loss was inevitable. A side that's slowly slipping down the Premiership table, they need to regain confidence and momentum to bounce back.

One's to watch next weekend: it's all to play for in the South-West derby between Exeter Chiefs and Bath in Round 14 of the Aviva Premiership.

History Repeats Itself, Quins Triumph!

Harlequins 11 Wasps 10 

The London derby between Harlequins and Wasps was always going to prove a close run thing. Only one point separated these two teams in the Aviva Premiership and ironically one point was all that parted these sides in their last encounter on the opening weekend of the season at Twickenham, where Quins triumphed 16-15. Wasps were out for revenge.

Initially it didn't look promising, with Andy Goode being pulled up in his fitness test, but his replacement Joe Carlisle, packed a real punch!  His confidence and ability to use the wind claimed to be advantageous and when a penalty was awarded early doors, he had no problem converting.  However generally, the strong wind played havoc with any kicking game - proven when a box kick from Karl Dickson headed straight into touch - but both sides had been battling against this all week in training, so it was clear early on that straight trucking was on the cards.

Even though Evans came back to convert a penalty for Quins, it seemed to be downhill for them from thereon.  Wasps looked dangerous on the attack with superb offloads and the powerful display from their back-line showcased great execution of play.  Their tempo was significantly higher than that of Quins, who seemed somewhat passive and lethargic in their set play.

Wasps ability to take the ball on at pace from depth enabled them to gain solid ground in the Quins 22 and this is where they spent most of the first-half, camped out metres from the try line.  Wasps marked their territory, but their hard work was to no avail when they were penalised several times at the breakdown.   If only the ball had been passed out wide to the backs on several occasions, the 2/3 man overlap would have paid off and been reflected in the score.

Consistency was always going to be key in this game but the scrum proved problematic; as did the ability for either side to keep hold of the ball.    A lot of loose play and scrappy passes saw several high balls and passes being missed across the pitch.  The boot of Nick Evans played into the hands of the Wasps back line, enabling them to play the running rugby that they love, with a superb break down the wing by James Short.   Wasps versatility was also reflected by the forwards pack.  Their ability to maul slowly broke the Quins defensive barrier and their hard work paid off after 28 minutes when a penalty try was awarded.   Strong, solid power and driving the maul, as they do so well, enabled Wasps to take the lead.  Their pack proved dominant, especially with the majority of possession in the first half!
Quins failed on the attack with poor handling errors proving disastrous.

No-one said it would be a clinical performance but they couldn't even get the basics right.   No surprise then, when one supporter shouted: 'Wake up Quins!'.

Strong pod work from the London Wasps was such a crucial part of this physical game, with the skills of the forwards to pick and drive proving a significant factor, in addition to their commitment at the breakdown.  But their lead wasn't a comfortable one.    A massive hit by Maurie Fa'asavalu on Andrea Masi - felt and heard by the crowd - was somewhat of a game changer.  The Harlequins upped their intensity and you felt they were closing the gap on Wasps - or maybe not!   A pass to Jordan Turner-Hall went straight into touch and nowhere near his hands.

This was really frustrating to watch.   It felt like Quins hadn't left the runway; Was there any danger of them even taking off today?

I do, however, have to commend Karl Dickson.   He put the 'r' in resilient for me today; Playing some fantastic quick balls which resulted in Quins fighting for dominance in the Wasps 22.  But the constant pressure from the Wasps defence saw a handful of knock-ons and it felt like Quins were back to square one... again!

With six minutes to go, a final push for Quins; It was now or never.    Sensing the crowd behind them, the momentum and sense of urgency to win this game eventually kicked in.   Determination to succeed saw the Harlequins driving forward on the attack.  Wasps lost their sting for all of a couple of minutes and catching them off guard enabled Sam Smith to score in the corner.   Or did he score?
The decision could've gone either way.  I personally thought the ball was millimetres short of the line but the TMO thought differently and the try was awarded, 11-10 with two minutes to go until full-time.

And there it was again, that one-point difference looming over the Stoop as the game drew to a close.

This was a bitter-sweet ending for the London Wasps. They remained consistent, won nearly all of the collisions and seemed worthy of the win.  But they failed to grasp full control in the first-half and extend their lead as a cushion.   It proved mightily costly, and even Connor O'Shea told me afterwards:

'I feel for Wasps because they deserved to win.'

But the ability of the Quins pack not to feel sorry for themselves, to stay in the game and to come up with a winning score, that in itself tells you a lot about the characters within that group. They keep on pushing boundaries.

I would say that Harlequins got the opportunity to steal the win and they did so by the skin of their teeth. Wasps were outstanding across the pitch but they fell at the final hurdle. Emphasis will be on the positives of this game going into next week, with discipline and composure in defence on the agenda as they prepare for London Irish heading to Adams Park.

And Harlequins need to hope their luck doesn't run out, as they welcome Newcastle Falcons to the Stoop.

3 mins pen Wasps – Joe Carlisle 0-3
6 mins pen Quins – Nick Evans 3-3
20 mins pen missed by Joe C
29 mins penalty try Wasps conv. Joe Carlisle 3-10
HT 3-10
51 mins pen Quins- Ben Botica 6-10
78 mins try Quins – Sam Smith
FT 11-10

Friday 7 February 2014

Burgess Move to Bath Confirmed

By Shaun Wren
England Rugby League superstar Sam Burgess has publically announced he is switching codes to Bath Rugby Club, in time for England kicking off the 2015 Rugby World Cup!
Reports have confirmed the South Sydney forward has signed a three-year deal worth an estimated £500,000 with Bath. Will Stuart Lancaster be hoping to include the English forward in his World Cup squad?
Burgess has been a key figure for Australian NRL club, South Sydney Rabbitohs since being signed by owner Russell Crowe back in 2010 and I doubt he’ll have taken this decision to move lightly.
The agreement over the financial package has been completed – with a compensation fee of £500,000 to be paid out to the Rabbitohs and Burgess will be at the Rec from October.

So the question on everyone's mind is, what type of player will Bath get?
Someone who can bring in a solid crash ball as well as a habit to score tries; so having Mike Ford and his rugby league roots, Sam might feel at home.  
There has been talk of the 25-year-old to play centre like other former rugby league players Joel Tomkins of Saracens, but I think his versatility as a player will enable him to play either inside centre or on the wing.
I think Slammin' Sam will be a huge hit for England Rugby Union and potentially he could be this country’s answer to Sonny Bill Williams.

Can you imagine both Sam Burgess and Manu Tuilagi starting in the centre for England in the RWC 2015?

They would be unstoppable.