GLOUCESTER, ENGLAND – It was a weekend of upsets in the Aviva Premiership, with results shaking up the standings and leaving the battle for the final playoff position tighter than ever. As we do every week, Rugby Wrap Up has you covered with recaps of all the round’s major action.
Gloucester vs. Saracens
The headline coming out of this game should have been one of Gloucester’s finest results in two years. Unfortunately for the Cherry and Whites, Ben Morgan, the number 8 appears to have suffered a fractured leg and will definitely miss the Six Nations. Morgan had stormed into England’s starting fifteen during the most recent autumn internationals, finally putting his considerable bulk to its best use carrying the ball. Opposite number Billy Vunipola will likely move back into the lineup in his absence, while Lawrence Dallaglio has called for the reinclusion of Nick Easter. Such an act is unlikely from the ever-forward facing Stuart Lancaster, who may bring Thomas Waldrom back into the side after his extraordinary season thus far. Other supporters see this as the ideal opportunity to reintegrate Steffon Armitage into the team. Easter was the man of the match against Leicester this weekend, and Lancaster once more has an injury headache to deal with before major matches.
The game itself was a true advertisement for the Premiership. James Hook captured victory with an astonishing 50-metre penalty serving as the last act of the game, nudging Gloucester ahead 24-23 in stoppage time. Saracens got off to a flying start in the match, and were awarded a penalty try after seven minutes due to Gloucester illegally pulling down a five meter lineout for the second time in the young game. From there on, the Cherry and Whites demonstrated their fluid back play, though several potential Jonny May opportunities went wanting because of Billy Twelvetrees’ repeatedly poor decision-making. With the loss, Saracens remained in third place, while Gloucester closed ground on Sale. Currently, the Cherry and Whites sit at 29 points, while Saracens possess 39.
Sale vs. Northampton
Sale pulled off an astonishing upset in Salford, beating table topping Northampton 20-7. The Sharks recovered nicely from two traumatic defeats, and Danny Cipriani impressed once more against his direct competitor for the third fly-half slot, Stephen Myler. Sale director of rugby Steven Diamond suggested that Cipriani might seek the greener pastures of France if he is not selected for the upcoming Six Nations, stating that his non-selection has provoked thoughts of Toulon. Northampton were caught short in the forward pack, which lacked Courtney Lawes, Samu Manoa, and Christian Day. The lack of second rows showed in the stat box, as Sale amazingly won all 24 of their lineouts on the day. Flanker Teimana Harrison scored the Saints only try of the match in the 64th minute, but they were behind 20-0 at that point, and would come no closer.
Harlequins vs. Leicester
Quins demolished Leicester at the Stoop, running away for a 32-10 victory powered by Nick Easter. The result was particularly surprising given the recent form of the two teams; Harlequins had struggled while Leicester seemed to have turned a corner with impressive victories against Sale and Bath. The return of Chris Robshaw seemed to spur Quins onward, especially at the ruck where the home side were dominant. Owen Williams was a lone bright spot for the Tigers, hitting all four of his attempts at goal. However, Harlequins responded with four tries, through Danny Care, Jack Clifford, and Marland Yarde before Tim Swiel secured the bonus point in the 80th minute. The victory will taste especially sweet, since it moves Quins a mere 2 points from the fourth playoff spot.
Exeter Chiefs v. London Irish
It may be too soon to say that Exeter’s magical season is falling apart, but after an embarrassing 28-26 loss to the Exiles, it may be time for the Sandy Park faithful to be concerned. Exeter raced out to a 13-5 lead in the first half on the back of a Dean Mumm try and two Gareth Steenson penalties, before the Exiles struck back through Tom Guest and Alex Lewington to move ahead 17-13. From there, a seesaw battle commenced, ending only when Shane Geraghty sweetly struck the winning drop goal a minute after the horn.
Newcastle vs. London Welsh
Newcastle continued their impressive form, dismantling the poor London Welsh 38-7. The Welsh are certainly condemned to relegation, and sit an astonishing 20 points from safety. Newcastle ran in six tries, including another contribution from RugbyWrapUp favorite Sinoti Sinoti. American prop Eric Fry came off the bench for the Falcons and played well in the final twenty minutes of action. Newcastle have now won four matches in thirteen tries, one more than they had all last season. The progress may be somewhat illusory, based off their two wins against the worst Premiership club of all time, but their offensive ambition has been particularly impressive. The Falcons have already scored more points this season than all of last season, and their backline has improved immeasurably.
Bath vs. Wasps
Sam Burgess collected the first try of his Premiership career against the Wasps in a 39-26 bonus point victory for his club at the Recreation Ground. Burgess also put in a number of crunching hits, perhaps placing himself in the running for a Saxons spot ahead of the late January squad announcement. He was joined in the scoreline by Francois Louw, Semesa Rokoduguni, Matt Banahan, and Ollie Devoto. Bath also completed the signing of Welsh international Rhys Priestland this weekend, giving the West Country club a true embarrassment of riches in the backline. All is not sunshine and light at the Rec however. The club’s ambitious recruitment possibility has been questioned by multiple influential figures, and even casual observers are left to wonder how Bath can possibly afford 300,000 pounds for a backup fly-half while retaining their other increasingly expensive talent. While no action has been taken yet against salary cap violators, this is a story to watch in 2015.