Exiles – double winners last season after collecting the Dubai Sevens and UAE Premiership titles – arguably had the most difficult start to the new 2018/19 campaign last Friday as they welcomed Mike Phillips’ men to The Sevens Stadium.
They went down to a 20-14 defeat, but director of rugby Benade bemoaned the fact poor decision-making led to his side giving up an eight point lead in the second half.
“Of course I’m always disappointed in losing the game but there were also a lot of positives,” said the South African.
“Two very even teams and on the day they just took their chances and we didn’t.”
Victory provided former Wales and British & Irish Lions scrum-half Phillips with a debut win in his first competitive fixture since taking over at Dragons following Henry Paul’s departure to be assistant coach of the Canada national team.
Dragons won the Premiership last term – overcoming Bahrain on the final match day to rip the title away from Abu Dhabi Harlequins. And after a summer recruitment drive which has included the acquisition of Phillips as coach, they are the early favourites to retain their title.
They displayed their credentials as they fought back at Exiles, a penalty try and a fine counter-attacking score seeing an eight point deficit quickly turned into a three point lead.
“Going up 11-3 in the second half I thought we were in control but with an unnecessary penalty try and a bad clearance kick we suddenly found ourselves behind 17-14,” added Benade, who led Exiles back to prominence last season after a woeful 2016/17.
“Our set-piece was fine and we looked strong for the first 55 minutes, earning a scrum penalty and also stealing two or three of their lineouts. But it eventually cost us the game as we struggled in the last 25 minutes, losing key lineouts at good attacking positions and also put under severe pressure in the scrums which led to the penalty in our 22.
“At 20-14 and we had to chase the game. Again we were creating opportunities but our decision-making let us down.”
And, ultimately, Benade and his players will come out of the game knowing the positives outweigh the negatives.
“As I said, I’m happy in that we are creating opportunities, we just now need to finish them off,” added the former Emerging Springboks fly-half.
“It’s a long season. I’m happy with our performance on our first run out. We will build on this and we will get better during the season.”
In the weekend’s other games, Bahrain won 24-14 in Abu Dhabi as they overcame hosts Harlequins, while Dubai Hurricanes beat Dubai Eagles 20-13 in a repeat of last term’s West Asia Trophy final.
Farrell was superb on Sunday as the champions claimed a fourth successive bonus-point win to secure first place and he will now join Eddie Jones’ training squad for a three-day camp in Bristol.
Jones made possibly the most contentious decision of his reign as England head coach by omitting Danny Cipriani from the 36-man party on the basis of form, even though he has been superb for Gloucester.
It was a different story at Allianz Park, however, as Cipriani was reduced to a peripheral figure, playing behind a pack that had been bullied into submission.
“Owen was incredibly influential. It wasn’t just his skill set, it was the physical tone he set. Physically he was incredible,” Saracens director of rugby McCall said.
“If you listen to the ref mic, vocally he was off the charts. He’s just an incredible player who adds in every way.
“Not just in his kicking and passing, but emotionally and physically as well. He threw himself into contact.”
Massive congrats to @rwiggy9 for breaking the premiership appearance record. An incredible achievement at the highest level. Also to @J_George2 for reaching 200 @Saracens caps. Two great blokes who have done so much for the club #wolfpack— Alex Goode (@Alex_goode0) 23 September 2018
Jones insisted Cipriani’s conviction for common assault and resisting arrest during Gloucester’s pre-season tour to Jersey had not played a part in his decision, instead declaring Farrell and George Ford to be his preferred fly-halves.
Cherry and Whites head coach Johan Ackermann admitted it is up to Cipriani to prove Jones wrong on the pitch.
“Danny has had setbacks in his life, otherwise he would have constantly been in the England squad,” he said.
“He’s taken it on the chin and the only way for him to reply is on the field. You have to consistently perform.
“The good thing about Danny is that he’s an experienced player and he’s had disappointments in the past.
“It’s a bit like a referee’s decision – you can’t change it once it’s been made. If England want two 10s and an extra centre, that’s the way you divide the cake. It’s not all about Danny.”
Maro Itoje scored two tries to lead the bonus-point assault on a team that arrived in north London with the belief they could make an impression on the title race.
“Maro has probably been the one shining light through our season so far,” McCall said.
“He’s in a hurry to be better and he sets an incredible example in training. He was great. It doesn’t matter if he plays lock or flanker.
“We were disappointed with ourselves over the first three weeks, we just felt there was more in us.”
Manu Tuilagi has suffered a fresh injury blow and withdrawn from England’s training squad for their three-day camp in Bristol.
The Leicester centre, who has recovered from a career-threatening groin problem and successive knee surgeries among a series of other injuries, had been hoping to make a first England appearance for two years, and potentially his first start in four years, this autumn.
However, the Rugby Football Union announced on Sunday the 27-year-old would not be involved in training this week.
Tuilagi played in the 44-37 defeat to Worcester in the Gallagher Premiership earlier in the day, alongside Ben Youngs – who has also withdrawn.
A Leicester spokesman said: “Ben and Manu went off in the second half of Sunday’s game with niggles which are expected to keep them out of training for the next few days. They will be assessed by the club in the next few days.”
Harlequins prop Joe Marler, who has won 59 caps and acts as England’s second-choice loosehead behind Mako Vunipola, also misses out.
Marler was due to link up with the 36-man party on Sunday but has pulled out for personal reasons. His place will now be taken by Exeter’s Ben Moon.
Worcester’s Nick Schonert is another injury withdrawal, while Leicester’s Jordan Olowofela – who reached the World Rugby U20 Championship final with England this summer – has been called into the party.
England will name their squad for the November internationals on October 18 before they fly to Portugal ahead of matches against South Africa, New Zealand, Japan and Australia at Twickenham.