Saints and Sinners: The weekend’s talking points
The Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 both kicked off at the weekend and the first round of matches featured tries aplenty, some shock results and plenty of controversy. Which players stood out, for the best and worst of reasons?
Starting with a bang
What more can a club ask from a new recruit than a try on debut? It’s a dream scenario for the player and the coach who signed him, and an astonishing number of debutants came up with the goods in the first round of matches this season – seven in the Aviva Premiership and five in the Guinness Pro12.
In the Premiership’s opening encounter Matt Scott grabbed two tries for Gloucester and JP Pietersen one for Leicester Tigers, and on the same evening Byron McGuigan crossed the line for Sale Sharks. On Saturday Schalk Burger was among the Saracens try-scorers in their big win over Worcester Warriors, replacement scrum-half Nic Groom scored for Northampton Saints, Tusi Pisi charged over for Bristol, then on Sunday Tommy Taylor got in on the act on his Wasps debut.
In the Pro12, Rob Lyttle came on as a replacement for Ulster and scored two tries in their 29-8 win over Newport Gwent Dragons while Pat Howard crossed the whitewash on his first outing for the Dragons. Three new faces scored in Cardiff Blues‘ win over Edinburgh – Solomoni Rasolea for the Scots and Nick Williams and Steve Shingler for the Welsh side.
Sam Parry started his season in style with an opening day hat-trick for the Ospreys in their 59-5 thumping of Zebre. The hooker was driven over twice in the first half and completed his hat-trick early in the second period.
Sam Davies was in fine form with the boot and converted all eight of the Ospreys’ tries as well as kicking a penalty. Their opponents should really be among the Sinners though, as Zebre were truly dreadful despite having ten Internationals in their team. As Martyn Williams said on BBC Wales’s Scrum V programme: “I don’t know what they have been doing all summer – drinking red wine and eating pizza?”
There wasn’t a lot of champagne rugby in the first 40 minutes of Saracens’ Premiership clash with Worcester at Twickenham as the score was just 6-3 at half-time but Ben Spencer provided a large measure of fizz in the final five minutes with a terrific individual try.
The replacement scrum-half broke from the base of a ruck and used superb footwork to dance around Perry Humphreys, Jackson Willison and Ben Te’o. Darting right and left, Spencer turned a half-chance into a try and left the Warriors shaking their heads in wonder.
Scarlets scrum-half Gareth Davies scored a different kind of individual try in his side’s defeat by Munster. The Scarlets were awarded a penalty inside their own half and while everyone else was taking a breather, Davies tapped and went, sprinting 60 metres and defeating the cover with a chip and chase to secure a try which brought the Welsh side back into contention, from 14-3 down to 14-10.
Glasgow Warriors started the Pro12 season in stunning style by breaching the defences of the usually impregnable home of champions Connacht and leaving the Sportsground with a 41-5 victory.
Stuart Hogg was the Man of the Match after showcasing his all-round skills to score one try and keep the Warriors on the attack. Tommy Seymour scored two tries in the first half and Tim Swinson, Sila Puafisi and Sean Lamont – on his 100th appearance for the Glasgow side – all crossed after the break.
Speaking out of turn
A bit of back-chat from Jordan Crane cost Bristol a try in what turned out to be a close match against Harlequins at Twickenham. As Quins ended up winning 21-19, Bristol might even have opened their campaign with a win if Crane hadn’t incurred the wrath of referee Luke Pearce.
The former Leicester Tiger was undoubtedly brought to the club to add Premiership experience to the newly-promoted team but when Marland Yarde touched down from the back of a driving maul late in the first half to bring Harlequins back from 14-3 down to 14-8, Crane said something inappropriate to Pearce, prompting him to award Quins a penalty from the restart. From there they kicked to touch, attacked from the lineout and Joe Marchant scored a try which sent Quins into half-time 15-14 up.
Just the other side of the break it was Marchant making a costly error when he failed to secure a kick ahead from Ryan Edwards, let the ball go loose close to the line on the wet turf and allowed Edwards to pounce for a try. That put Bristol 19-15 up after 41 minutes but they could not hang on to win.
Driven to distraction
Gloucester’s forwards are likely to be spending a lot of time working on defending driving mauls this week after they conceded a yellow card and two tries in striving in vain to stop the Leicester Tigers juggernaut on Friday evening.
Leicester fought back from 31-7 down to win 31-38 at Kingsholm from the last play of the game, largely due to the fact that the Gloucester eight were out-muscled by the Tigers’ pack in the second period.
Gloucester let themselves down after a fine first-half performance but they weren’t the only team to concede tries from driving mauls this weekend – far from it. The change to the maul law looks to have made it even tougher to defend this kind of play and there will be plenty of coaches looking for solutions this week.
Replacement Worcester prop James Johnston did his team no favours when he was sin-binned for a high tackle on Alex Lozowski 55 minutes into their game. He stuck an arm out and caught the fly-half at neck height. Saracens were already 23-3 up at that stage and a minute later Schalk Burger went over for his try which put the game far out of Worcester’s reach.
Let me get this right…
There were a few funny moments in this first weekend of league rugby as players and pundits tried to get back into their stride.
Tom Varndell prompted some giggles when he tried to charge down a penalty being kicked by Ruaridh Jackson in the Harlequins v Bristol match. Quins had been battering the Bristol line so maybe Varndell lost the plot a little and thought the kick was a conversion not a penalty. Either way, he raced up when Jackson began his run-up and the kick went marginally to the right of the posts. Jackson was allowed to take it again and missed in exactly the same spot!
BT Sport’s Tim Cocker had a foot-in-mouth moment at the end of the Saracens v Worcester game, when he was interviewing players in the tunnel and introduced South African superstar Schalk Burger as Schalk Brits. Cocker suffered the embarrassment of being corrected on live TV by Billy Vunipola, while Burger just looked a bit taken aback.
Ugo Monye might also have caused a red face or two in the BT Sport team during Friday’s Gloucester v Leicester match after the audio link failed when Richard Cockerill was giving a snap interview during the second half so the TV audience couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“I can imagine exactly what was said,” Monye piped up, clearly trying to be helpful. He then suggested what might have been going through the Leicester boss’s mind as he watched his team fight back from a poor first half – but for me it only proved what a lot of rugby fans already know: that mid-match interviews with coaches are a pointless gimic as what they say is almost always predictable and bland.