This weekend may have been the calm before the RBS 6 Nations storm, but the Ireland Wolfhounds' clash with England Saxons, and the latest round of LV= Cup matches, provided their share of highs and lows
Facing an Ireland Wolfhounds team with just under 300 Test caps between them, and not to mention a smattering of Lions players, the England Saxons had their work cut out on Friday evening – even more so as they were playing away from home, in Cork.
However, the young England side battled their way to an 18-9 win and two of their number – Bath prop Henry Thomas and Exeter Chiefs stand-off Henry Slade – impressed enough to earn call-ups to train with the senior England side this week.
Other outstanding performances came from Man of the Match Chris Pennell, who made 74 metres in attack (more than any other player) and Gloucester openside Matt Kvesic, who grabbed several turnovers, tackled hard and made a real nuisance of himself at the breakdown.
Standing room only
The LV= Cup took centre stage this weekend, which means most clubs rest their frontline players (or lose them to the Test teams) so the team-sheets are full of lesser known names.
The lack of star turns did not stop rugby fans in England and Wales from turning out in astonishing numbers to cheers on their teams, hoping no doubt that they were witnessing the emergence of a new generation of heroes.
Six of the eight LV= Cup pool matches attracted crowds of more than 5,000. Three games – Harlequins v Bath, Gloucester v Ospreys and Leicester v Northampton – drew in more than 10,000, with the East Midlands derby topping the bill with 24,000.
On a cold, wintery day, that is an outstanding tribute to the loyalty of the fans, their appetite for the game and the success of the clubs’ marketing strategies.
Miles makes the Blues smile
Cardiff Blues came back from 42-17 down at Wasps to beat them 45-42 in a scintillating LV= Cup clash, and lock Miles Normandale was the hero of the hour for the Welsh visitors as his stoppage-time try took Cardiff from 42-38 down to victory.
Normandale had already scored one try earlier in the comeback and in the 81st minute he received the ball around eight metres from the line, powered through an attempted tackle from full-back Alex Lozowski and was driven over the line by replacement Ben Roach.
Rhys Patchell, who had already kicked five conversions and a penalty, slotted the extras to seal the win and take Cardiff to the top of their pool table with one match to play.
This will be controversial, because social media was alight with people pleading for referee Neil Hennessy to put his whistle away and let the game flow during the Ireland Wolfhounds v England Saxons match on Friday evening, but one area where Hennessy did help the game was the scrummage.
He penalised Lee Dickson for a crooked feed at the very first scrum of the game, which meant the Saxons captain put the ball in straight at the second scrum, Rob Webber was unable to hook and the Wolfhounds won it against the head.
Once or twice Hennessy failed to penalise wonky feeds, unfortunately, but he did a better job of policing it that any other ref I have seen this season and most of the scrums were fierce contests as the ball sat in the tunnel waiting for one side or the other to get the upper hand. Not a single scrum collapsed until the second half, making this a rare occasion on which the scrum was a fair battle and a means to re-start the game.
Irish Wolfhounds lock Mike McCarthy saw the chance to finish the first half of the match against the Saxons with a big hit on Dave Ewers and went for it – but ended up injuring himself so badly he could take no further part in the game.
McCarthy appeared to clatter into Ewers with his chest and head, leaving the Englishman with a nosebleed but McCarthy himself spread-eagled on the floor, unable to play on. He suffered a suspected concussion.
See the collision for yourself here.
Elliot Daly wasted a gilt-edged try-scoring opportunity for England Saxons after creating the chance with a wonderful individual break. As he cut through the Ireland Wolfhounds’ defence, his old pal from schooldays, Marland Yarde, was racing up the left outside him and had even tracked inside the man marking him, so he was in a perfect place to take a pass and sprint in for a score. However, Daly kicked instead of passing and the ball raced too far ahead for even the fleet-footed Yarde to swoop on it and score the try.
Yarde gesticulated to Daly to point out the error of the centre’s ways and Daly will have to do better next time.
For all those people who would like to see London Welsh finally get their first win of the season, Saracens scrum-half Ben Spencer is the villain of the piece this week as he kicked two penalties inside the last eight minutes of their LV= Cup match to take Saracens from 15-14 down to a 20-15 win.
London Welsh replacement Alex Davies missed a penalty which would have put the Exiles 18-14 up, then Spencer showed him how it’s done with two difficult penalties – the second from inside his own half – to break Welsh hearts again. Oh Ben, you meanie!