Before this weekend, Wasps were probably listed as an outside bet at best for a top-four finish. However, with results going their way, they had an opportunity to move into play-off contention with a victory over Bath. After weathering an initial storm, they pulled through to run out convincing 29-15 winners. Despite conceding a Nick Abendanon try after only 23 seconds, Wasps managed to regroup and go on to totally dominate the second half and gate-crash the top four. It represents a remarkable turnaround for the Wycombe-based outfit after their flirtation with relegation last year, and although they may not have realistic title ambitions this season, the experience will stand them in good stead. Their young players such as Elliot Daly, Billy Vunipola and Joe Launchbury look like future England regulars but they were overshadowed by a superb solo try by electric winger Christian Wade. He showed great feet and strength to jink through four Bath defenders and give Wasps a lead they never looked like relinquishing. Bath look like a good mid-table side and seem to building for next season already. With the likely summer arrivals of Jonathan Joseph and George Ford, they will be looking for a serious assault on the top four next year.
It was fifth versus sixth at Exeter’s Sandy Park in a match that could prove pivotal to both sides’ top-four ambitions. Neither had a very successful festive period, and Northampton did well to come away 30-19 winners and end Exeter’s unbeaten home run. With Gloucester suffering an unexpected loss to London Irish, Northampton leapfrogged them into fourth place, at least temporarily, as Saints finally looked like they were coming into form. While two consecutive losses against the top two teams isn’t cause for great alarm, Saints head coach Jim Mallinder would have been demanding a positive result this week. He was rewarded with an impressive display as the attacking threat of Exeter was nullified and Northampton’s England internationals served a timely reminder to Stuart Lancaster before he announces the Elite Playing Squad (EPS) this Wednesday. Captain Dylan Hartley missed the autumn internationals through injury, but a yellow card aside, he was in inspired form, with astute decision making, a solid set-piece and good work in the loose. He was joined by lock Courtney Lawes, who looked to be at his rampaging best with strong tackling and deft offloads. Perhaps best of all was the return to form of full-back Ben Foden. He has taken his time easing himself back into top-level rugby but his run to set up Northampton’s first try suggests he is back to his best.
In the first Aviva Premiership match of 2013, Leicester secured a controversial victory over Worcester with a last minute penalty try. The 19-14 scoreline was harsh on Worcester as they squandered a 14-point lead and it meant Leicester reached the summit of the table for the first time this season. Referee JP Doyle took centre stage as he awarded the Tigers two penalty tries, bringing Leicester’s total to six in the last five games, which signifies the power of their pack. While the victory was extremely important, both Leicester and English rugby fans in general would have been delighted to see the return of flanker Tom Croft. Croft has been side-lined for the past nine months with a neck injury, and although his return may be too late for the Six Nations, his return only emphasises the depth England have in the back row. While the English back row looks settled with the Tom Wood/Chris Robshaw/Ben Morgan axis, Croft offers something different as an extra line-out option and a turn of pace that most backs would envy. He will be carefully managed and monitored in the coming weeks but if he returns to top form he has a great opportunity to make a late claim for the Lions tour this summer.
London Irish ended their miserable run of six straight defeats with a surprising 18-12 over Gloucester at Kingsholm. It was second row George Skivington who was the hero with two tries as Irish put some distance between themselves and bottom-placed Sale. It was only their second league win away from home in 15 months and boss Brian Smith will be hoping this victory is a catalyst to a more favourable run of results. Irish have been fairly unlucky in recent weeks, a disappointing loss to Leicester aside, they have remained competitive and been unfortunate not to secure better results. With the futures of influential players such as Joseph and Alex Corbisiero uncertain, the win was desperately needed to give the fans something much-needed respite. For Gloucester, it was a disappointing start to 2013 but they still remain in contention for a top-four place and with a backline containing the exciting talents of Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees and James Simpson-Daniel, they should be able to bounce back quickly.
Both Harlequins and Saracens ensured the opening weekend of 2013 was business as usual. Harlequins visited London Welsh and secured a much-anticipated victory for the defending champions. However, despite racing into a 21-3 lead, they had to hold on to win 31-26 after a late rally by Welsh. Quins’ director of rugby Conor O’Shea would have been disappointed with the manner of victory but Welsh secured a valuable losing bonus point, which puts further distance between them and Sale. For Sale their miserable 2012 shows no signs of getting better in 2013. They were comprehensively outplayed by Saracens and never looked like troubling the second-place side. Owen Farrell was preferred at fly-half for Sarries as they bid to help him secure the England No10 shirt for the Six Nations and he delivered an assured kicking display. However, it was the introduction of Charlie Hodgson against his former side that enabled Saracens to assert their dominance on the score board as he set up one try and scored another himself. Sale remain rooted to the bottom and after Irish’s unexpected victory, the future looks increasingly bleak for the Manchester-based side.