The domestic calendar year signed off in style as Round 7 contained a very ‘Big Game’ at Twickenham Stadium, vital victories for London Irish and Bath Rugby and at the Ricoh Arena Saracens maintained their unbeaten record.
Over the course of the opening seven rounds of the competition we have seen individuals flourish and with Eddie Jones’ first EPS squad announcement edging ever closer players across the country are stepping up.
The festive round started at the Madjeski Stadium where London Irish hosted the Northampton Saints. It had been 3 years, 2 months and 20 days since London Irish had beaten the Northampton Saints however on Saturday afternoon they did so through a combination of grit, determination and sensible rugby. In the centres academy member Johnny Williams again excelled, the 19-year-old continues to spark the Exiles’ back line and make the twelve jersey his own. The first-half was all about the home side, they played sensible rugby dominating the territory and physically abating Saints. Just prior to, and after half-time, the Saints started to launch their counter and the result was three consecutive tries however Irish weren’t ready to give up just yet. Tom Coventry’s men rode out a period with Aseli Tikoirotuma in the sin bin and then launched their final charge and when Jamie Gibson was given yellow the Saints chose to go into their final scrummage a man short. The result was a powerful shove from the Exiles’ pack that resulted in a penalty try. The seven points took the match and also lifted the Exiles off the bottom of the table. For the Northampton Saints further soul searching is required as they still don’t look like the Saints of old; key players are trying too hard and a further blow is that Kieran Brookes is out for the foreseeable future having recently had a knee cartilage operation.
The second of three Boxing Day matches was played at Sandy Park and once again the conditions were testing for both the Exeter Chiefs and the Sale Sharks. That said the howling gale didn’t stop the game being a thoroughly enjoyable affair that showcased the talent housed within both squads. Both sides were evenly matched for sixty of the eighty minutes before the Chiefs capitalised on a spot of loose play from the Sharks and had the experience to push on from there. Of the seven tries the pick of the bunch were the Sharks’ Number 8 Josh Beaumont stretching his rangy legs from just beyond half-way, Chiefs’ Will Chudley sniping away for a double and then James Short’s 68th minute score that swung the balance of the game. Sale’s squad is a young one and one that will learn from the defeat, although the result will be frustrating Mike Haley continues to excel from full-back and Sam James is now looking very comfortable with life in the Aviva Premiership.
The Newcastle Falcons started strongly against the Leicester Tigers at Welford Road. Dean Richards’ side were wholly competitive early on however as their Director of Rugby said they lost their patience and their ill discipline again proved to be a challenge. The match was riddled with groundings/non-groundings; Freddie Burns’ pinpoint crossfield kick to Telusa Veainu was said to have been spilled over the line however Veainu atoned with a score off the next play. Matthew Tait was also deemed to drop the ball over the line and at half-time the scoreboard read 10-10. However in the second half Peter Betham found his way through and Laurence Pearce added a second for the home side. Overall Leicester’s day was dominated by missed opportunities and they could have had a bonus point with the last play of the game however they misfired and settled for the victory instead.
Prior to the season commencing four points for Bath Rugby against the Worcester Warriors was considered to be a given however after the start of the year that Bath have had had Sunday’s Premiership victory was a significant one. Mike Ford had held firm and rotated his squad giving Rhys Priestland his first club debut at 10 and changing 9 of his starting XV to the one that played against Wasps in the Champions Cup. The Warriors were wholly competitive throughout, we expect nothing less of them now, however certain areas let them down in particular their scrummage. The match was far from a vintage affair, instead penalties were the order of the day, expect for Horacio Agulla’s first-class finish in the far left-hand corner of The Rec. Academy member Levi Douglas came on midway through the second-half and exerted himself physically on the game delivering a very positive first team and Premiership debut and a man at the other end of the age spectrum, Phil Dowson, led the way for the Warriors in every facet. Overall Bath’s cohesion going forwards remains far from where it was however for them Sunday’s match was all about the victory and as Dean Ryan rightly said following the game ‘a point here at the end of the year will probably look a lot bigger than it does now’. Of course Ryan is as points mean prizes in this business.
On Sunday Wasps hosted Saracens at the Ricoh Arena and the visitors squeezed the home side, as they have done to every other team in their path this season. Wasps were made to pay after taking their eye off the ball mid-way through the second-half and couldn’t get themselves back into the match. Owen Farrell’s 21-points won’t go unnoticed by Eddie Jones nor will the work of Maro Itoje who improves with every single and he made Joe Launchbury’s life difficult at the lineout. Although Wasps did gain a late consolation score they’ll be disappointed with the two tries that they gave to Saracens while Mark McCall’s side roll on with their winning record unblemished.
The final match of the weekend was in front of 70,718 people at Twickenham Stadium where Harlequins hosted Gloucester Rugby and it more than lived up to its ‘Big Game’ title. Just where do you start with a game that contained 10 tries in total and finished 39-39? Well it would be remiss of me not to mention Rob Cook’s sensational solo try on 67 minutes – one of the best individual scores that we’ve seen this season however his score was just one of six in the second-half. Credit must go to the home side for what Conor O’Shea calls their ‘mental durability’ to get themselves back and draw the match from eight-points down with a little over ten minutes to go. Gloucester Rugby’s day was bitter sweet, the tries that they scored were some of their best of the year including Henry Trinder’s double after so long out however his injury and their inability to keep maintain their final lead will frustrate. If you’ve got a free 80 minutes then I suggest that you view this one in full for there is so much to take in; Matt Kvesic’s individual performance at openside will turn heads especially given he was directly opposing Chris Robshaw. James Hook delivered his best eighty of some time and for Harlequins Danny Care had a captain’s day at the office leading by example and Jamie Roberts’ impact on his Premiership debut was impressive and adds so much to Harlequins going forwards.
By Emma Thurston
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