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Premiership Rugby

2003/4 Zurich Premiership Preview Two

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

But, it is a marathon not a sprint, one swallow does not like summer, and all that.  Nobody in their right mind is going to read too much into the early season tables, especially as the return of all those  World Cup stars midway through the Premiership is almost certain to have a huge effect.  The opening day’s action was exactly the mix of spectacle, shock and top-class Rugby that the organizers could have hoped for, while confirming for some directors of rugby that this season is just about on track, and convincing others of the need for a swift return to the drawing board. This weekend’s matches will confirm which teams are quick learners and which  have more homework to do.

BATH (1) vs NORTHAMPTON SAINTS (7)

Before the season started, this fixture had to look of boys against men. Both sides would be without their World Cup stars, but, whereas Northampton had a reservoir of hard-nosed, hard-bitten experience to call on, Bath would have to make do with a bunch of rookies. Last Saturday morning, after the Saints had shared the points at Sale in an eight-try, 74-point thriller, wagers were being taken on the size of a Northampton victory at The Recreation Ground. Last Sunday night, after Bath had roMPed to an unlikely victory at Leeds, all bets were off.

The personnel will be the same, but the spirit will be different. Bath, who finished 11th in each of the last two seasons, were beginning to believe some of their own bad publicity. During that time away wins have been rare, and try bonus points rarer still.  To have got one of each in the bag at this stage of the season, should have done wonders for the confidence of a team still bedding in a whole host of newcomers as well as a new coach, Jon Connolly. Against Leeds, two of eight debutants, Brendan Daniel once of Bristol, and former Tykes No 8 Isaac Feeunati, scored tries, as did former England fullback Matt Perry and Alex Crockett, relishing the absence of World Cup centres Kevin Maggs and Mike Tindall. Fellow centre Olly Barkley landed eight kicks from 9 for 21 points, while outside half Chris Malone,back from a loan spell at Bristol, contributed a drop goal.

Northampton also needed help from a former Bristol man- Shane Drahm kicking an injury time penalty at Sale to level the scores and complete a 22-point individual haul- with the other tries coming from former Bath favourite Jon Sleightholme, Mark Tucker and Bruce Reihana. The Saints did snatch the lead at Edgeley Park, but ended up grateful that, against a powerful-looking Sale side  the away draw was two points gained.

Having won on their last two Premiership visits to the Recreation Ground-27-10 last March and 29-11 the season before-and having won seven of the last ten matches against Bath, the Saints will fancy their chances of picking up some more points on the road. But Bath won their last two matches at The Recreation Ground last season- indeed the last  team to defeat them in front of their own fans in the Premiership is Northampton- and they will be riding a wave of confidence. That said, I expect the Saints to have too much experience, and too much know-how. An away win.

ROTHERHAM TITANS (12) vs NEC HARLEQUINS (4)

The Titans fought hard last week at Gloucester, before going down by 22 points to 8 at the home of last year’s league winners. Afterwards, they professed themselves to be by no means overawed on their return to the top-flight, and quietly confident of holding their own in the weeks to come. Their defence was indeed up to scratch, if on some occasions bordering on the desperate as and on others on the illegal, and the pack was well-organised and workmanlike.  But, an interception by the excellent No 8 Geraint Lewis apart, they never really looked like scoring a try, and they finished well adrift of a very poor Gloucester team.

Harlequins snatched an unlikely victory at home to reigning champions Wasps.  Quins were 19-6 down just before half-time, yet thanks to a stunning pair of tries from new wing sensation Ugo Monye and another from debutant fullback Andy Dunne, they were able to turn the tables in spectacular fashion, Paul Burke ramming home  the advantage with three conversions, three penalties and a drop goal.

But Quins have never been very good travellers, and Rotherham are sure to have targeted this match, their first Premiership fixture at Millmoor, as one they can win. Harlequins won 32-12 at Clifton Lane a couple of seasons ago and were also victorious, by 26 points to 13, at the Stoop in August 2000. They ought to  make it three wins from 3, but, because of their appalling away form, I think they will lose at Rotherham.

Sunday

LONDON IRISH (11) vs GLOUCESTER (2)

The Irish, unique in the Premiership in not losing a single player to World Cup call-ups,  nevertheless opened their Premiership campaign with defeat at the hands of Leicester, the team most affected by next month’s tournament. Thanks to the boot of outside half Mark Mapletoft, the Exiles were able to stay in touch of the Tigers for much of last week’s match but despite a late try from fullback Michael Horak against his old club, they failed to register a bonus point.

Gloucester, who have supplied two props to England and one to Argentina, felt the  loss of  England scrum-half Andy Gomarsall most keenly as they struggled to impose themselves on a rugged Rotherham side at Kingsholm. The lack of control and direction from rookie halfbacks, Brad Davies- attempting to fill the boots at No 10 of the prolific Ludovic Mercier- and Simon Amor-attempting to forge a new career as a scrum-half- may cost the Cherry and Whites dearly before the end of the season, but at least Marcel Garvey was able to conjure up try out of nothing to save any blushes on Saturday. His scintillating break, rounded off by the 18 –year-old fullback Rory Teague, made sure that Gloucester won the match, but it was one of very few high spots.

Nevertheless, the successful integration of Bristol forwards Alex Brown and Paul Johnston into an already formidable pack augurs well for Gloucester in the coming months. They should have too much power, and just enough magic behind the scrum ,to account for a London Irish side over whom are they did the double last season (including a 40-19 the victory at the Madejski Stadium)  and against whom  they have won four of the last five matches. This should be another away win.

LONDON WASPS (9) vs LEEDS TYKES (10)

Champions Wasps began that the new season in style, but after a 30 minute display of all the qualities that had taken them to glory in the spring, they fell apart in the face of some inspired counter-attacking from Harlequins at the Stoop. With an early try from former Bath fullback Tom Voyce and four first-half penalties from Mark van Gisbergen, Wasps were well in control. In the end, however that they were lucky to snatch a bonus point with an injury time penalty from the substitute outside half. 

The fact that  they forced Harlequins to make  more than twice as many tackles in the match as they had to do, suggests that they continued to dominate possession. From that point of view therefore, director of Rugby Warren Gatland may not be too dispirited. Nevertheless, the points dropped at the Stoop  may well be crucial come the end of the season.

Leeds will also be indulging in some soul-searching this week.  The team that finished 4th last season will be asking themselves how they managed to play so poorly at the start against Bath- who had clinched a four-try bonus point before the hour was up- and so well at the finish- when  three late tries, from Alan Dickens, Colm Rigney and Dan Scarborough, earned them a point that perhaps they didn’t deserve.

Nevertheless, even though both prop Mike Shelley and scrum-half Clive Stuart-Smith will miss the match after being injured against Bath, the Tykes will take heart  from last season’s performances against Wasps. After drawing 27-27 at Adams Park- from  this season on, re-named the Causeway Stadium- they beat the Londoners 18-15 at Headingley in December.

But Wasps lost rarely in front of their home fans last season , and are unlikely to do so this weekend against  a Leeds side that still has plenty of work to do.  Home win.

SARACENS (5) vs LEICESTER (3)

Saracens upset the form book to win 25-20 at Newcastle last weekend , while Leicester made light of World Cup call-ups to beat London Irish 29-19 at Welford Road.

If there was something predictable about the Tigers’ victory- after softening up their opponents in the first half and they stretched away after the break with tries from Olly Smith and Henry Tuilagi- Saracens needed a controversial penalty try, awarded by referee Steve Lander after outside half Andy Goode appeared to be obstructed in chasing a kick ahead, to open up a big lead at Kingston Park. Goode had earlier kicked two penalties and converted a try from Paul Bailey: though Newcastle levelled the match and 20-20, a late try from Richard Haughton delivered victory for the Watford based-side.

With new forwards Taine Randell and Emiliano Bergamaschi settling in well for new coach Rod Kafer, Saracens’ half-backs Morgan Williams and Goode were able to bring out the best of some pacy backs, including former league star Nathan McAvoy- particularly, in the first half-hour when the Newcastle defence was described as “naïve”.

A Leicester defence that has for the last five years been coached by England guru Phil Larder will not be anything like as generous, while the three Tigers who failed to make the World Cup cut, Austin Healey, Olly Smith and Graham Rowntree, will continue to believe they have points to prove.

Leicester have won the last five meetings between the sides, including a 48-7 win at Vicarage Road 18 months ago. But last years victories-23-18 at Welford Road, and 26-18 in Watford- were a lot closer, during this season in which Leicester showed themselves to be surprisingly intolerable  away from headquarters. A very young set of forwards might well struggle at Vicarage Road. A narrow home win is on the cards.

NEWCASTLE FALCONS (8) vs SALE SHARKS (6)

A second half comeback from Newcastle, with tries from James Grindal and Warren Britz, failed to paper over a “horror” start against Saracens, and has put the Falcons on the back foot as they go into a second successive home match.

Sale also have plenty to regret, as, having clawed their way back into Friday’s match against Northampton- in the process securing a try bonus point with touchdowns from Steve Hanley (2) Andy Sheridan and Matt Cairns- they allowed the Saints back into the match had had to share the spoils in a 37-all draw.

In the continued absence of outside half Charlie Hodgson Sharks once again had to rely on the goalkicking “skills” of the willing Jos Baxendell; he, and they, will be more than relieved that former Springbok ace Braam van Straaten is fit to play at Newcastle.

The Sharks have lost their last five matches at Kingston Park (last year going down by 31 points to 20 in October) and they trail a 12 match Premiership series by 9 losses to three. Newcastle, with David Walder deputizing admirably for the World Cup-bound Jonny Wilkinson, showed a game made life difficult for the Sharks.  Another home win.

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