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Premiership Rugby

2003/4 Zurich Premiership Preview Five

A Gallagher Premiership Rugby ball

With Sale Sharks recording their first win of the season-an impressive and totally unexpected victory at Welford Road against Leicester – Rotherham’s closest rivals at the bottom of the table are now their Yorkshire neighbours, Leeds Tykes, while Harlequins’ first defeat of the season has allowed Bath to open up a three point gap at the top.

Despite winning for the second time this season, Saracens are the only team, other than Rotherham, to have failed to pick up a bonus point of any description so far.

Newcastle’s five-try thrashing of last year’s league winners Gloucester at Kingston Park means that they join Sale on three bonus points, two more than the table-toppers. Harlequins, with another 33 points in defeat at Vicarage Road, remain the Premiership’s leading  scorers, while Bath, conceding just 19 points in their victory at Wasps, retain the most parsimonious defence.

In four matches they have leaked just 66 points, at an average of under 17 points a game. Last year, when they won just seven matches out of 22, they were giving points away at a rate of 22 per match. And the west countrymen, with three wins on the road, have already gained more away victories than they managed in the whole of last season.



Sale won their first match of the season, and recorded their first Premiership victory since last March, with an astonishing 22-16 win at Leicester. Australian Graeme Bond scored their try after just four minutes while Braam for Straaten was back to something like his best form with the boot, for a personal tally of 17 points.

Wasps lost agonisingly at home to Bath, denied their second win of the season by a late Olly Barkley penalty. They were the first to score, through a Simon Shaw try after just ten minutes, while outside half Mark van Gisbergen kicked the conversion as well as four penalties.

Wasps were slow to start last season as well, before a storming second half to the season saw them finish up as runners-up in the league and winners of both the Parker Pen Challenge cup and the Premiership trophy. This year, with Lawrence Dallaglio, Joe Worsley, Josh Lewsey and Stuart Abbott all on World Cup duty with England, and Kenny Logan representing Scotland in Australia, they have more excuse. Nevertheless coach Warren Gatland will be disappointed  with the first month of the new campaign which has seen them losing narrowly to Harlequins as well as to Bath, and by a convincing margin at Northampton.

Sale are also feeling loss of their World Cup stars, Jason Robinson and Bryan Redpath, as well as the continued absence of the injured Charlie Hodgson. In theory, Van Straaten was to be a more than adequate substitute as goalkicker, while allowing Jos Baxendell to bring the best out of a very talented backline.

Unfortunately, the Springbok was injured in preseason and in his first game for the Sharks kicked badly, while Baxendell also picked up an injury. Sale’s shock victory at Leicester last weekend however suggests that the South African has now been in assimilated into the Sale way of doing things.

Sale, however, are still looking for a first win at their new home of Edgeley Park, while Wasps are looking for a first away win this season. Wasps did win 16-9 at Heywood Road last May, after losing the home fixture 32-25. They are slightly ahead in the twelve match series with six wins to Sale’s five, although the Sharks have been successful in three of their last four fixtures against the Londoners.

Confidence should be high after that win at Welford Road while Wasps will be deflated by the manner of their defeat by Bath. A home win for Sale is likely.



Everything is going right for Bath this season, while the opposite applies to the Titans.

The West Country side have squeezed through in tight matches at Sale as well as at Wasps last weekend, while winning convincingly at Leeds on day one of the new season and at home to Northampton. Last weekend’s victory at Wasps showed venue-found tenacity of last season’s bottom but one club. After falling behind to an early Simon Shaw try, Bath worked their way back into the game with two tries from Brendan Daniel, both converted by Barkley, who still needed to kick an injury time penalty to earn the victory.

Rotherham fought hard before being well beaten at Gloucester on the season’s opening day, but since then have struggled against Harlequins and Leeds before going down 42-13 at home to Northampton last weekend. Jason Strange converted his own try for the Titans, after Phil Jones had kicked two penalties.

Bath won both matches against Rotherham in the 2000-2001 season, triumphing 68-12 at Clifton Lane and 42-19 at the Recreation Ground.

The side is blossoming under new coach John Connolly, and should win with some ease against the Titans this weekend.


Both these teams are suffering from the absence of their World Cup stars. Without Andy Gomarsall, Gloucester have had to make do and mend at scrum-half, with first Simon Amor and then Alex Page struggling to provide a smooth link between forwards and backs, and the team stuttering as a result.

After making heavy weather of their opening day win over Rotherham, the Cherry and Whites looked to have got their act together when beating Saracens in their other home match, before last week’s 42-22 reverse at Newcastle suggested that there is still a lot of fine-tuning to be done. Fullback John Goodridge scored the opening try at Kingston Park to enhance the good impression he made in touching down twice against Saracens, while James Simpson Daniel and Jake Boer also crossed against the Falcons, with Henry Paul adding the extra points.

Leicester slumped to their first defeat of the season – after wins against London Irish at Newcastle, and a draw at Saracens – when Sale took the spoils at Welford Road last weekend. The Tigers’ pack, with five first-choice players on World Cup duty with England, was out-muscled by the Sharks, while full-back Tim Stimpson, on one of his last appearances before his transfer to Perpignan, was inconsistent with the boot. He did convert Sam Vestey’s try, and he did kick a late penalty to earn the Tigers a bonus point, but also missed several other points-scoring opportunities.

Gloucester beat Leicester 31-13 at Kingsholm last May, after going down 20-15 at Welford Road. Although the Cherry and Whites have only won four of the last 12 Premiership fixtures against the Tigers, they have not lost at Kingsholm for well over two seasons.

Leicester, depleted and demoralised, do not appear to have the fire-power to reverse that trend this weekend.


Harlequins shocked the Premiership, and seasoned observers, by notching up three straight wins – against Wasps, at Rotherham and at London Irish – at the start of the season. They need to prove to themselves, and to their critics, that last weekend’s 39-33 reverse at Saracens was just a blip, and not a signal to return to last season’s infuriating inconsistency. They will take heart, however, from the way that, after squandering the lead set up by an early Ceri Jones try, they earned a valuable bonus point at Vicarage Road with a late fight back.

The Falcons’ five-try 42-22 thrashing of Gloucester was easily the best performance of what has so far been a very inconsistent season. After losing at home to Saracens on day one, Newcastle edged home by the narrowest of margins against Sale before coming unstuck on their first away trip the season, going down 28-21 at Leicester. In all those matches, the Falcons showed flashes of brilliance, without being able to sustain their effort for the full 80 minutes. Against Gloucester, they put it all together, with centre Tom May scoring a hat-trick, Jamie Noon and Michael Stephenson also crossing, and Ben Gollings weighing in with four conversions and three penalties.

Last season, Harlequins beat Newcastle 47-23, a record score for the fixture, at the Stoop in October, before losing 32-17 at Kingston Park in February. In all Newcastle have won on two their last four visits to the Stoop, that they have only won one of their last five fixtures with the Londoners, who have begun to turn the Stoop into something of a fortress. They have already beaten Wasps at London Irish in front of their own fans this season and should make it a hat-trick of home wins against a side that does not always travel well.


Northampton thrashed Rotherham at Millmoor last weekend scoring tries through Rob Hunter, Chris Hyndman, Dan Richmond, Mark Tucker and replacement scrum-half Jonny Howard, with Shane Drahm weighing in with another 17 points. That was the second time this season that the Saints had earned a try scoring bonus point – they opened their Premiership account with a 37-all draw at Sale. It was also their second win of the season. After losing disappointingly at Bath they had recovered to beat Wasps in their only home match to date.

London Irish also recorded their second victory of the campaign, when they beat Leeds Tykes 31-16 at the Madejski Stadium.  Kieron Dawson, Paul Sackey and Mark Mapletoft scored their tries, with the former Gloucester and Harlequins outside half kicking four penalties and two conversions for a match haul of 21 points. The Exiles have now won both their home matches this season, and lost-at Harlequins and at Leicester- on the two occasions when they have been required to travel.

The Irish did however win at Franklin’s Gardens last season, a 22-10 victory at the start of the New Year, although they lost 14-12 in front of their own fans in October. They may have only won four of the last 12 Premiership fixtures against the Saints, but they have triumphed three times in the last five encounters, including a record 48-12 win at the Madejski Stadium in November 2001.

That said, Northampton appear  to be running into form at the right time while the Exiles- though possessing the second-best defence in the Premiership- have scored fewer points than any other team except Rotherham. Northampton to win.



Leeds lost for the third time in four matches this season when London Irish beat them 31-16 in Redding.  Duncan Hodge, with a try, conversion and three penalties, scored all the Tykes’ points. Although Leeds staged a late rally to take them to within three points of the Irish in the second half, they were well beaten. The rich promise of last season, when they surprised everyone by finishing fourth, has evaporated somewhat this campaign, their only win so far, a fairly comfortable success against neighbours Rotherham.

Saracens upset the form book to beat Harlequins 39-33 last weekend, with Andy Goode converting tries from Thomas Castaignede, Richard Haughton and Taine Randell as well is kicking five penalties and the drop goal for good measure. That was Saracens’ second win of the season- they had scraped through 25-20 at Newcastle on day one-and also a return to form. After drawing at home to Leicester they had stuttered badly at Kingsholm with the previous weekend.

Saracens beat Leeds 11-6 at Vicarage Road last December, after losing all three of their previous encounters with the Tykes.

The Watford-based side do not, by reputation, travel particularly well, although the result at Newcastle, combined with the arrival of former all Black captain Randell has given them a much more competitive edge. I think they will win at Headingley.


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