The return of the good old Guinness Premiership has been trumpeted after England's autumn disappointments and two Heineken Cup weekends compromised by mismatches and misgivings about the commitment of some French teams. But while yesterday's full domestic programme provided plenty of interesting rugby, a few lingering concerns remained.
For example, a number of England players, just back after five weeks away, were missing, presumed rested or rotated. Such was the situation at Welford Road, where Leicester beat Newcastle 20-3, begging the question of when, rather than if, supporters are going to realise they are being just a tad short-changed by rugby's chaotic calendar.
The Premiership continuing through a month of autumn internationals is one thing, but now that's over the average Joe Schmo in the Crumbie Stand – and there is one so named at Leicester's relatively-palatial-but-due-for-a-rebuild home – might expect that parting with a portion of his hard-earned would persuade the clubs to pony up the proper talent. Particularly "in these straitened times", as the popular saying goes. Nope.
Tom Croft, Jordan Crane and Danny Hipkiss were missing for Leicester, who were also without Harry Ellis, thanks to his manhandling of some rather expensive merchandise – Dan Carter to you and me – in Perpignan last week. The first three were rested by Heyneke Meyer. Might Steve Bates thus have seen a chance at a place where Newcastle haven't won since 1997, the season they won the title? Not really – there was no Jamie Noon, the England outside-centre who was, yes, rested. This one, one sensed, might have been seen as a write-off.
So Leicester won, with Toby Flood, a former Falcon and an England player who was actually playing, kicking 10 points and setting up Geordan Murphy for the game's first try after Lewis Moody, continuing his welcome return, had come close. Aaron Mauger scored the second Tigers try in the second half; Steve Jones kicked a penalty for the Falcons. A virus in the Newcastle squad didn't help, but they are still stuck at the wrong end of the table.
Leicester are in contention at the right end despite health problems of their own. "I don't want to make excuses," said Meyer – using one of those phrases that is always followed by a "but" – "but a lot of the guys are sick. A lot of them have been coming off and coughing up sick so it has been a really difficult day for the guys. At the end of the day we got four points out of the game so it is job well done."
If the Falcons felt sick before kick-off yesterday they will have felt queasier still when they got out of the Welford Road showers to find that Bristol were 17-10 up towards the end of their match at Sixways. That result would have put the Falcons bottom. That reckoned without Chris Latham, however, the Wallaby full-back who was making a comeback for Worcester. His try, with nine minutes to go, turned the score round to 20-17. A last-minute Ed Barnes penalty made it 20-20 but the west country side are still bottom.
Luckless, cashless and apparently friendless, given noises from the other clubs about using the economic crisis to cut the Premiership to 10 clubs – watch out Newcastle too – Richard Hill's team must be wondering what the hell else they have to do to pick up another win. Dan Ward-Smith and Lee Robinson scored their tries, Barnes kicking 10 points; Eoghan Hickey matched that for Worcester, who were also awarded a penalty try.
Harlequins – also voluntarily without a key England player, the scrum-half Danny Care – came down to earth after their double over Stade Français, losing 23-13 to Northampton at Franklin's Gardens. Ugo Monye scored a try and Nick Evans kicked eight points but tries from Jon Clarke and James Downey and 13 points from Stephen Myler outdid all that.
Quins lost Andy Gomarsall – Care's replacement – and Tani Fuga to the sin-bin in the second half, during which time Downey scored the winning try.
In the Magners League the titular residents of the Parc y Scarlets won there for the first time, beating the Cardiff Blues 27-13. That, against a side going well in Europe, might seem something of a red-letter result for a team who had not won since October. Not so: the Blues were without Martyn Williams, Gethin Jenkins, Tom Shanklin, Andy Powell, Ben Blair and Paul Tito. All those heavyweights were, of course, rested.
In France, Carter made his domestic debut for Perpignan, who beat Castres 16-9. The New Zealand fly-half – his ears still ringing, perhaps, from Ellis's attentions – missed four penalties and gave up the kicking duties, which made the game something of a rarity if nothing else.Reuse content