Saracens claimed a seventh win in seven games to stay top of the Premiership with a 26-16 victory over Wasps as England skipper Chris Robshaw returned to Twickenham for the first time since his World Cup nightmare.
Despite Wasps keeping pace with the leaders at 9-9 at the Ricoh Arena, it was Saracens who put their foot on the gas with two tries in three minutes from Duncan Taylor and Owen Farrell.
England fly-half Farrell converted both tries and kicked four penalties as Saracens reclaimed top spot after temporarily relinquishing it to Exeter on Saturday.
Wasps could only manage a late try from Frank Halai, converted by Jimmy Gopperth, who kicked two penalties. Elliot Daly added another.
Robshaw returned to Twickenham for the first time since England’s World Cup exit at the hands of Australia in October as his Harlequins side fought out an epic 39-39 draw against Gloucester in front of a 70,718 crowd.
What a try from Rob Cook. Hit a line and swerved through static Quins defence like a Giant Slalom skier round the gates.
— Owain Jones (@OwainJTJones) December 27, 2015
Quins, the 2012 Premiership champions, had a late chance to win with a drop-goal, but Danny Care’s pass to Nick Evans was poor and the former New Zealand fly-half’s kick drifted wide.
It was a near touchline conversion from Evans that had drawn Quins level in the 77th minute after the Kiwi playmaker had set up a vital try for Ross Chisholm.
Of the 10 tries scored, the best belonged to Gloucester full-back Rob Cook who beat four defenders and carried three more over the line after returning Mike Brown’s clearance.
Gloucester winger Jonny May limped off in the 42nd minute with a left hamstring problem which could sideline him for the Six Nations.
Bath won for just the third time in the league this season by edging out Worcester 21-14. First-half tries by centre Ollie Devoto and wing Horacio Agulla set Bath on their way
London Irish’s hopes of breaking their Aviva Premiership points duck on Sunday could flounder against a Northampton team eager to rediscover its try-scoring prowess.
Although Saints currently hold a top-five Premiership place and are challenging for a European Champions Cup quarter-finals spot, the tries have dried up. They have claimed just one touchdown across their last four games in all competitions – a Luther Burrell try against Bath three weeks ago – but they will arrive at the Madejski Stadium to face a side reeling from six successive Premiership defeats and currently propping up the table.
“We are working on scoring tries, and we need to improve in that area,” Northampton rugby director Jim Mallinder said. “We need the foundations in place, and we are working on that, especially with the youngsters in the front-row. We need to improve, and I think we will do that as we go through the season.”
— London Irish (@LiRFC) December 24, 2015
While Irish posted successive recent home wins in the European Challenge Cup, they have lost six games on the bounce against Northampton in all competitions, which suggests another tough afternoon could lie ahead.
Sale Sharks have drawn something of a festive season short straw, facing a 470-mile round-trip to Exeter, where they will face a Chiefs team beaten just once at home since September last year. It is also Exeter’s first Sandy Park fixture since their memorable Champions Cup victory over Clermont Auvergne a fortnight ago.
In-form Leicester Tigers, who are currently unbeaten from four starts in their Champions Cup group, face a Newcastle side that showed some impressive signs against Challenge Cup rivals Connacht last weekend.
— Northampton Saints (@SaintsRugby) December 24, 2015
Dean Richards’ side are 11th in the table and only have two points so far this season, but the Newcastle rugby director believes they have been steadily improving ahead of their trip to Welford Road.
“I think we are getting better every week, and the fact we are now creating and finishing opportunities speaks volumes for the style of play,” Richards said. “We just have to do it more consistently.”
Sunday’s Premiership action sees unbeaten league leaders Saracens tackle Wasps in a mouthwatering Ricoh Arena clash. Bath, meanwhile, square off against Worcester at the Recreation Ground and Harlequins travel to Twickenham for their annual Big Game, with Gloucester as the visitors.
Sport360 reporters Andrew Binner and Matt Jones take in five lessons from the week in rugby, including England’s hooker debate, Chris Ashton’s red hot form, bilingual referees and the latest UAE action.
Press reports that Dylan Hartley is hot favourite to become Eddie Jones’ first England captain (and preferred hooker) cannot have made easy reading for Tom Youngs this week.
However, being written off clearly put some much-needed fire in the belly of the Leicester Tigers number two, whose magnificent performance against Munster will have given Jones food for thought.
— Telegraph Rugby (@TelegraphRugby) November 29, 2015
Never one to miss an opportunity to sing his players’ praises, Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill announced after the game that Youngs should be the “first name on the England team sheet”.
True, Youngs is England’s most dynamic hooker and has improved the weakest area of his game in his lineout throwing.
But with Jones’ former Saracens colleague Jamie George improving with every game, competition for the role with England has never been better.
Chris Ashton knocking on Jones’ door
Saracens have returned to their rampant best this season and no area has their improvement been more pronounced than in the performances of Ashton.
England’s forgotten winger scored a hat-trick of tries in Sarries’ one-sided win over Oyonnax in a fine run of form that has reminded rugby fans that he is still one of the best finishers in the northern hemisphere.
— OptaJonny (@OptaJonny) December 21, 2015
While Jack Nowell must have one of the two wing berths sown up ahead of February’s Six Nations, Anthony Watson’s recent lull should see Ashton recalled to England’s Elite Player Squad.
While it is important that teams discover their own identity, England must try and shift towards New Zealand’s high intensity, high scoring style under Jones, and this fits Ashton down to a tee.
The 28-year-old won the last of his 39 caps 18 months ago, but if he can maintain his current hot streak of form then the Wigan-born flyer should be confident of adding to his 19 Test tries at the start of next year.
Clermont hand English clubs a reality check
English clubs have made an unusually strong start to the European season, but any hint of complacency was firmly extinguished as Clermont cooly dispatched Exeter Chiefs.
The ruthless 42-10 beating at Stade Marcel-Michelin served not only as retribution for the French team (who were beating at Sandy Park the week before), but also as a further reminder to the RFU on what they are missing out on.
— BT Sport Rugby (@btsportrugby) December 20, 2015
David Strettle was once again imperious on the wing and at 32 years of age, showed the much younger James Short a clean pair heels en route to an impressive try.
Despite losing outside-half Camille Lopez to the first of the game’s four yellow cards, Les Jaunards turned on the style to run in five tries and are now firmly back in the race for a quarter-final spot.
Time for referees to become bilingual
In many areas of professional life it is considered an advantage, and in many cases imperative, that an individual can communicate in more than one language in order to optimize their efficiency.
In order to referee top flight European rugby, fluent English and at least a working proficiency in French must now become a mandatory requirement.
— ASM Rugby (@ASMOfficiel) December 14, 2015
Italy’s Marius Mitrea was the man in charge of Clermont’s game against Exeter at the weekend and the official’s perfect command of both rugby dialects was imperious, making for a much better spectacle.
So often in recent memory have we seen French players left scratching their heads after a decision, and then proceeding to repeat their infringement in the next play.
In a sport that commands increasingly complicated rules that are often open to interpretation, communication is key to providing a fair contest and a new standard must now be set.
Dubai Exiles eye UAE Premiership title with secret weapon
JP Goosen is not a name many opposition players would have been too familiar with before the start of this season, but that’s certainly changed now.
The 22-year-old is a formidable looking specimen and he’s already been a destructive force in the Exiles’ front row as they have powered their way to six victories out of seven in the UAE Premiership.
— Gulf Rugby Paper (@GulfRugbyPaper) November 8, 2015
After a disappointing debut season in which they ambled into the Gulf Conference after finishing fifth in the 2014-15 Premiership, Exiles have been an entirely different team following the arrival of the club’s new director of rugby, Jacques Benade.
“I play prop but I really want to play back row,” said Goosen. “They don’t want to change me at the moment so I’ll stay there.”
With Exiles improving with every game, the metaphorical bookmaker would be advised to slash those odds on Goosen’s men now.
Firstly, an apology to Exeter Chiefs fans for this week’s extra-time clip.
After Saracens, the English west country side have been the form attacking team in Europe, which made their thrashing at the hands of Clermont all the more impressive last weekend.
Take a look at the finishing skills of David Strettle and his clear hunger to take players on with outrageous pace.
Can anyone really suggest that England can do any better? Tweet us using #360Rugby.