Harlequins will finish 2012 on top of the Aviva Premiership following their 26-15 victory over London Irish at a sold out Twickenham. The match itself was affected by poor weather with neither team really running the ball and giving the capacity crowd something to shout about. Quins fly-half Nick Evans encapsulated the mood as both teams struggled to impose themselves after the Christmas break. Evans produced some deft offloads but he was also responsible for the Quins attack breaking down on more than one occasion. Whatever expansive game plans the management hoped to implement were brushed aside as the forwards fronted up to each other and kept the game tight. However, when Quins did run the ball they were rewarded with a Danny Care try and a penalty try at the death. It capped a marvellous year for the reigning Premiership champions and showed that they are a real force in the domestic game despite not yet living up to last season’s lofty standards. For Irish, there were some real positives as they were competitive for the majority of the game but they remain only a point ahead of bottom placed Sale and their fixture on 7 January will have serious implications for both sides.
Saracens kept up the pressure on Harlequins after surviving a last-minute penalty kick by Northampton’s Stephen Myler to register a crucial 17-16 win. Sarries raced into an 11-0 lead but allowed Northampton back into the game and were lucky that Myler’s long-range effort bounced away to safety off the crossbar. It was desperately cruel to Northampton, who will feel aggrieved that they have taken only losing bonus points from their last two games. They welcomed back captain Dylan Hartley from suspension and full-back Ben Foden continued his rehabilitation into the side following his injury lay-off. They remain in sixth place but a full strength Northampton team can beat anyone on their day so will be eyeing up one of the play-off berths come the end of the season. Saracens continue to grind out victories and while their squad rotation policy and their territorial game plan continues to attract criticism, it works for them and they represent the biggest threat to Harlequins this season.
Sale dominated the headlines this weekend for reasons on-and-off the pitch. On Friday night, they beat Worcester 33-27 with recalled Danny Cipriani providing the catalyst of attacking invention and contributing 16 points with his boot. A lot has been written about Cipriani’s defensive fallibility but he is one of the best attackers in the Premiership and Sale should utilise him as much as possible if they want to survive this season. While most believed the win could provide a turning point for the club, they were rocked by the sudden departure of recently installed head coach John Mitchell. His tenure was always expected to be short, but the fact it only lasted a month was a surprise as he returned to South Africa citing personal reasons. Under his management, Sale did produce a better brand of rugby but his departure will only add to the instability surrounding the club. Who replaces him remains to be seen but after a summer spent heavily investing in the team, Sale cannot afford to be at the bottom of the pile at the end of the season.
In atrocious conditions at Welford Road, Leicester edged past Gloucester 17-12 in which an actual rugby match never looked likely of breaking out. For England fans the match represented a chance to see two young tyros go head to head at fly-half. Gloucester’s Freddie Burns has received rave reviews this season and many tip him to be challenging for the England number 10 shirt in the Six Nations. He lined up against Leicester’s George Ford who was deputising for Toby Flood. Ford has been tipped for the top but never looked settled as he didn’t adjust to the conditions as well as Burns who outkicked him with four penalties to Ford’s three. Despite Burns winning his individual battle, Leicester came out on top as their forwards won the battle up front and Anthony Allen’s try proved the difference. Alarmingly for the rest of the Premiership, Leicester have yet to really fire this season and as the most successful side in English history they will surely have a say as to who wins the title this season.
Wasps managed to end their miserable streak away from home as they registered their first victory away from home in over a year as they beat London Welsh 34-15. After a miserable 2011/2012 season where they barely retained Premiership status, their gamble on youth seems to be paying off. A traditional powerhouse of English rugby, they have looked a shadow of their former great sides as legends such as Lawrence Dallaglio, Rafa Ibanez and Joe Worsley weren’t adequately replaced. However, with a core of English players now coming through led by Joe Launchbury, Elliot Daly and Joe Simpson, they look a much more formidable outfit and this victory could provide a springboard to challenge for a European place next season. For Welsh it was a disappointing way to end 2012 but it was a memorable year as they gained promotion and despite being tipped for relegation that have performed admirably thus far.