The best and worst of our great game was showcased this weekend, with courage and dignity sitting alongside violence and selfishness - but there was plenty of great Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 action to enjoy too.
It is six months since Owen Williams suffered a serious spinal injury while playing for Cardiff Blues in a tens tournament in Singapore and the former Wales centre has given an inspiring and courageous interview to BBC Wales’s Ross Harries, in which his positive mental attitude shines through.
Williams has regained some movement in both arms, but has yet to do the same in his legs. Hard work in the gym and pool means he is making progress and, although he admits to having emotional ups and downs, he is determinedly looking to the future, not the past.
“I don’t just want to lie there and waste away,” he told Harries. “You have to accept it and get on with it and try and make something of your life… you could just lie there and stay in bed, but that’s not the way I want to go.”
He puts the injury down to bad luck, saying “I’ve been tackled like that 100 times before” and insists his fate has not watered down his love for rugby.
You can watch the full interview via the BBC iPlayer, by looking up Scrum V (21 December) in their listings.
As a Coventry City supporter, Andy Goode was probably more excited than anyone about Wasps’ move to the Ricoh Arena – also the home of the football club – and he celebrated his first match in his home city by scoring an Aviva Premiership record 33 points.
Wasps made it a house-warming party to remember with their 48-16 win over London Irish but Goode’s try, eight penalties and two conversions left him chortling in disbelief. “What a Christmas present!” he said, before promising to drink some of the profits from the game at the club’s Christmas party.
Setting the bench-Mark
He will celebrate his 35th birthday on Boxing Day but Mark Cueto proved there’s life in the old dog yet as he raised his all-time Premiership try-scorer record by another notch with his first score of the season.
Tom Varndell has been sneaking up on him, grabbing five tries this term while Cueto had only had one start for Sale Sharks since September before this weekend. But wearing the No 11 jersey on Friday evening, Cueto took a tricky pass, pirouetted and drove through a couple of defenders to score his 87th Premiership try during Sale’s 18-11 win over Exeter Chiefs. Varndell is his closest rival on 80 and astonishingly there is no other current player within 30 tries of Cueto’s total.
Northampton pulled off a stunning, extraordinary 23-19 win over Leicester Tigers having played with 14 men for three-quarters of the game after Dylan Hartley was sent off. The Saints took Tom Stephenson off to allow replacement hooker Mike Haywood to step into the front row and from that point Luther Burrell did the work of two centres in attack and defence, putting in a truly outstanding performance which earned him the Man of the Match award.
Alex Waller, Ben Foden and Jamie Elliott scored the Northampton tries, but Burrell was the leading light in a magnificent team performance.
For all his undoubtedly magnificent talent, George Ford had a tendency to just occasionally let himself down with an off-day from the kicking tee, but he looks like he might be eradicating that fault now.
The latest example of his improved reliability with the boot came in Bath’s 39-16 win over Gloucester at Kingsholm – a record for the club in the Premiership at that venue. Ford kicked 24 points for Bath, punishing every Gloucester error.
Plaudits for the victory should be shared across the whole Bath team as their defence kept Gloucester at bay through a long period of pressure in each half of the game. For more than 20 phases, the Cherry and Whites knocked on the door, but Bath would not let them through.
It’s the time of year when gifts are on everyone’s mind and the Guinness Pro12 team that gave its supporters the best pre-Christmas present is the Ospreys, who sit on top of the table thanks to their bonus-point win over Ulster.
Rhys Webb was Man of the Match, not for the first time, as he popped up in the right place at the right time to score two tries in the 31-20 triumph and kept his team on the front foot throughout.
Talking of gifted, it’s hard to believe Jonny Gray is still only 20 years old. The Glasgow Warriors lock was the outstanding player in his team’s 21-18 win over Munster at Scotstoun, a victory which means the Scots are just one point behind the Ospreys in the table.
If Nigel Owens wasn’t already my favourite referee – and he probably was – he went up even higher in my estimation this weekend by taking charge of an under-12s match between Dowlais and Bedwas on Sunday. He could have sat at home with his feet up, but he headed out to referee two teams of delighted youngsters instead and Tweeted: “Was a pleasure to ref Dowlais v Bedwas U12s today. Grass roots rugby at its best. Kids well behaved. Credit to rugby.” Top job Nigel.
Is that what you want?
Harry Enfield used to play a comedy character whose catchphrase was: “Is that what you want? Cos that’s what’ll happen.” Saracens chief executive Edward Griffiths might wish to ponder that advice this week after his side annihilated London Welsh 78-7 in the Aviva Premiership. Welsh are clearly the poor relations of this league and if Griffiths gets his wish – expressed in a strong club statement last week – and has the Premiership salary cap scrapped, then more clubs will end up being outclassed week after week as a handful of richer clubs spend their way to an entirely different level.
Yes, there might only be four or five clubs capable of winning the Premiership title even now, but 11 of the 12 can beat anyone on their day and that is one of the things which makes the league exciting and worth paying to watch.
It’s true, the English clubs are not on a level playing field with the French in the European competitions, as the French can assemble stronger squads, but it is the Premiership which occupies the rugby players and fans of England for 24 weeks of the season and it would be turned into a farcical, two-tier competition if the salary cap was scrapped.
The fact that clubs can employ one – soon to be two – marquee players outside the salary cap means English clubs can already offer Dan Carter and co as much money as they like, but they cannot sign a whole squad on unsustainable wages.
The Saracens’ statement started with the extraordinary claim that the club is “creating a consensus among Premiership clubs to remove the salary cap”, yet their hashtag #scrapthecap was barely a blip on Twitter at the weekend. They said six other clubs already supported their stance, but club coaches from Leicester, Northampton, Harlequins, Bath and Gloucester all spoke in favour of the cap this weekend.
Griffiths has done a huge amount to make rugby a better game in this country and beyond, but the idea of scrapping the salary cap would benefit the few at the expense of the many and should be resisted.
Dylan Hartley blotted his copybook once more this weekend when he was sent off for elbowing Leicester centre Matt Smith in the mouth during the East Midlands derby. Yes, Smith was pulling at him from behind and the Tiger might have made a meal of the contact, which didn’t actually draw blood, but if you elbow someone in the face you have to expect to be sent off.
Hartley wasn’t the only player to leave his team in the lurch with a bit of silly indiscipline this weekend. Treviso replacement Romulo Acosto was shown a straight red for punching Edinburgh’s Fraser McKenzie. He landed repeated blows when McKenzie was already on the ground.
Six of the worst
The Gloucester v Bath derby is usually a match to look forward to – a pulsating, tense thriller with a lot of pride at stake for both sides. Sadly, Saturday’s clash was reduced to a boring farce for much of the time by the two front rows who were unable to stay on their feet in the scrummage.
Time after time after time the scrums collapsed before the ball was even put in, with both teams at fault at different times, as the six front rowers attempted to stay too low and lost their footing.
It took until the 73rd minute before a scrum was actually completed. Ridiculous.
I don’t often agree with Austin Healey but I had to applaud when the BT Sport pundit said he wanted to take the two front rows aside and say: “It’s not all about you – you are spoiling this game.” Hear, hear.