TWICKENHAM, ENGLAND – Saints are at the top of the Aviva Premiership table after squeaking by Harlequins in the seventh edition of the “Big Game.” 82,000 turned out to watch Northampton against Quins, while weekend action around the rest of the league saw the favorites prevail.
Northampton v. Quins
The match started off on a good note for the home side, as Quins raced to an 8-0 lead within 10 minutes thanks to a George Lowe try and Tim Swiel’s penalty. Saints struck back before the half with 13 unanswered points. Toulon-bound Samu Manoa added to his ever-growing collection of Man of the Match awards, picking up a try, an assist, and 10 tackles. Quins dominated the match, with over 70 percent possession in both halves, and Saints were forced into a Herculean defensive effort for the second consecutive week. Jim Mallinder’s team is quickly becoming comfortable with that role, racking up 174 tackles. When the Saints did have the ball, they were lethal. Northampton scored three tries and Stephen Myler performed his kicking duties admirably, nailing all six of his goal attempts. The full time score of 30-25 did not reflect the match that everyone had just watched, but the result is all that matters to the team seeking consecutive Premiership championships.
Bath v. Exeter
Exeter sank to back-to-back defeats for the first time this season, succumbing to a powerful Bath pack, 31-14. Mike Ford continued his front row rotation, giving Nick Auterac, Rob Webber, and Henry Thomas starts. The ploy worked as well as most things have for Bath this campaign. Bath won all 9 of their scrum feeds, and managed to march up and down the field for four tries and a bonus point. Ford will be especially pleased with the discipline shown by his side, who only conceded three penalties in 80 minutes, though they were the beneficiaries of a particularly slow whistle on a number of occasions. On the whole, Bath continued to demonstrate why they are favorites to return to the playoffs, and they now boast the best point differential in the league at +155.
Saracens v. Newcastle
Newcastle almost shocked Saracens in the most surprising result of the weekend, losing a narrow 25-23 decision at Kingston Park. Saracens sent out a full strength side, but Newcastle built upon their impressive performance against Quins the weekend before to show unexpected resilience. The Falcons actually moved ahead in the 44th minute after a try from Sinoti Sinoti, before Saracens put on the afterburners and responded through Chris Ashton and Nick Tompkins. The two sides were relatively evenly matched in all statistical categories, but Saracens will be worried about their lineout after losing three of their own throw-ins.
Leicester v. Sale
Leicester defeated Sale in an instant classic on Saturday, winning 32-30 after trailing by ten at the half. The Tigers were looking for an immediate response after their tepid display against Northampton the weekend before, and they received it from a new-look back line. Freddie Burns re-entered the side after an extended absence, Miles Benjamin got a start on the wing and Tommy Bell came into the side at full-back. Benjamin scored a second-half try, while Burns showed flashes of what made him an England prospect. Danny Cipriani rebounded quickly from his injury last weekend, and put in a characteristically assured performance at number 10.
London Welsh v. London Irish
The match between the Exiles was never likely to produce compelling rugby, and it did not disappoint. Irish ran away with a 24-9 victory, but headlines were made by Tom May and Dan Leo in the 34th minute, when both were sent off after an incident which saw May swing an elbow and Leo respond with a punch. Irish’s pack dominated after the dismissals, but this was a match long on set pieces (20 lineouts for the Irish, 14 for the Welsh) and short on attacking rugby. The Irish eventually scored three laborious tries, and the Welsh dropped one of their two best chances for victory on the season.
Wasps v. Gloucester
Wasps continued their winning ways, coming out on top 30-23 against Gloucester at Kingsholm. The victory was Wasps’ first on the road this season, and saw Tom Varndell, Christian Wade, and Nathan Hughes cross the line in an impressive first half. Gloucester struck back immediately after the break through three Greig Laidlaw penalties, but the Cherry and Whites were already too far adrift. Elliot Daly put the match away in the 76th minute with a penalty from long range, and Wasps secured their second positive result since the move from Coventry.