With Northampton at near enough full strength following injuries and the international games, they were expected to provide a stern test of last year’s Heineken Cup runners-up, Ulster. If fans were expecting a close-fought game, they were bitterly disappointed as Ireland’s northern province ran out convincing 25-6 winners. In a Lions touring year, the match was riddled with subplots, best personified in the battle between the hookers, Ulster’s Rory Best and Northampton’s Dylan Hartley. Best got the better of the adopted Englishman as the Irish side won the breakdown and set-piece battles. With influential flanker Stephen Ferris out injured, Ian Henderson moved into the back row and delivered a strong performance as Ulster showed the strength of their squad. They left the rising star of Irish rugby, Craig Gilroy, on the bench and their back three of Tommy Bowe, Andrew Trimble and Jared Payne fully justified their selection as each scored in an emphatic bonus point victory that suggested they could go one step further this season.
Saracens lost a tight encounter 15-9 against Munster at Thomond Park on Saturday evening as neither side managed to get going. In a game short on quality, both sides played with an abundance of passion, and on occasion, it threatened to boil over as off the ball scuffles punctuated the flow of the match. Both teams saw this fixture as vital for their European hopes as Munster looked to secure a victory that would keep their hopes of qualification alive. Saracens were undefeated coming into the game and seem to have found an attacking verve in Europe but didn’t carry much threat as they failed to get the basics right in front of a vocal crowd. A misfiring set-piece and the normally reliable boot of Owen Farrell caused them serious problems as the young Englishman missed four kickable penalties. In a game decided by the boot, it proved vital as Munster saw the game out but crucially Sarries secured a losing bonus point which could prove all the difference in such a wide open pool. With both teams level at the top, next Sunday’s fixture at Vicarage Road will be a must watch for any rugby fan.
Although Sale lost 17-6 to Toulon on Saturday, there were plenty of positives for new director of rugby, John Mitchell. Against the French outfit with an abundance of talent that would not look out of place as a Barbarians side, Sale only conceded one try and the entire team can be pleased with their contribution. While they remain rooted to the foot of the Aviva Premiership, the performances in particular of Danny Cipriani and Ross Harrison suggest that may not be a case for much longer. Cipriani was not originally selected but produced a composed game against the legendary Jonny Wilkinson, with intelligent kicking out of hand and a constant attacking threat. In a clear indication that his game is improving, his much maligned tackling stood up to the highest scrutiny, with one particular hit on Chris Masoe a highlight. Harrison, who is only 20-years-old, faced the toughest test of his fledgling career as he packed down against former All Black Carl Hayman. Harrison didn’t look out of place and even won a penalty against Hayman in a scrum. Sale have high hopes for the young prop and he delivered this weekend.
Harlequins secured a comfortable 57-14 victory over Zebre in snowy conditions. In a game they were expected to win, Quins eased to victory with eight tries and recorded their largest victory in the Heineken Cup. The London side opted to rest captain Chris Robshaw and benched winger Ugo Monye but otherwise put out a relatively strong side. The Italians managed to frustrate their more illustrious opponents in the opening 20 minutes until winger Sam Smith scored the first of his two tries. With youngsters such as flanker Luke Wallace and fly-half Ben Botica staking their claim for more game time as well, it was a productive winter jaunt for the Aviva Premiership leaders. The bonus point win leaves them six points clear in Pool Three and a win in the return fixture next week will effectively seal a quarter-final berth, eradicating their nightmare exit last season.
There is some argument regarding the inclusion of Italian teams in the Heineken Cup, with many suggesting they are a waste as they rarely trouble the bigger, more established sides. Clearly, Treviso do not prescribe to that school of thought as they ran Leicester close in an admirable 33-25 defeat. While the Tigers’ six-year unbeaten streak in the Heineken Cup was never in serious jeopardy, the Italians did enough to suggest that next weekend’s return fixture won’t be a formality for the English side. It was quite a strange game as Leicester scored five tries, securing a bonus point, and initially went into a 19-0 lead, but at 33-14, they lost control of the game and allowed Treviso to finish in the ascendancy. Like most sides, Leicester were welcoming back their large international contingent and will be pleased to register the win that keeps their hopes alive in a pool that includes Toulouse and Ospreys.