Race for semi-final places hots up
January 31, 2010
Scarlets' Andy Fenby is tackled by Wasps' Tom Varndell during their clash at Adams Park © Getty Images
Bath Rugby Cardiff Blues Dragons England Gloucester Rugby Harlequins Leicester Tigers London Irish Newcastle Falcons Northampton Saints Ospreys Sale Sharks Saracens Scarlets Wales Wasps Worcester Warriors Yorkshire Carnegie
The battle for a place in this season's Anglo-Welsh Cup semi-finals is set to go all the way after latest round of pool matches.
Sale, Leicester and Saracens are all in the mix in Pool 1 while Scarlets and Gloucester will fight it out for the Pool 2 title. Pool 3 is still wide open with Harlequins, Wasps, Cardiff Blues and Worcester all still in the running while Pool 4 will go to either Northampton or the Dragons. With only the pool winners progressing to the final four, next weekend is set to provide all the answers.
Teenage winger Sam Smith made it two tries from two senior starts as Harlequins ended their six-match losing run with a 16-13 victory over London Irish at the Madejski Stadium. Fly-half Nick Evans also kicked 11 points as Quins put themselves in the mix for a semi-final spot. Smith, the 19-year-old academy player who marked his debut with a try against Newcastle in an Anglo-Welsh Cup win earlier this season, intercepted a pass and raced 80 metres for the crucial touchdown late in the first half.
The Exiles, now without a win from their last four matches, had more possession and territory than the visitors but lacked the clinical finishing to make it pay. To add to their problems, fly-half Ryan Lamb had a miserable day with the boot, landing only one of three penalty shots and missing both conversions after centre Jonathan Joseph scored two second-half tries.
Elsewhere on Sunday, Cardiff Blues ran in six tries to hand a Newcastle Falcons a 45-24 defeat at the Cardiff City Stadium. The home side ran in tries through Sam Norton Knight (2), Ma'ama Molitika, Richard Mustoe, Ceri Sweeney and Ben White as they moved to the top of Pool Three.
Hooker Alex Walker grabbed a hat-trick of touchdowns for the visitors with replacement Rob Vickers adding a fourth to give the Falcons a bonus point. Both sides attempted to play an expansive game, with the Falcons spurning kicks for goal as Steve Bates gave his youngsters some experience of rugby at the top level. But the Blues, whose starting line-up showed 15 changes from the side which won at Harlequins in the Heineken Cup last weekend, proved too strong and romped to a comfortable victory.
But this clash gave few clues as to who will come out on top when the teams meet again at Kingston Park in April in the quarter-finals of the European Challenge Cup, when their regular stars will be back.
Scarlets maintained their push for glory with a narrow 18-13 victory over London Wasps at Adams Park on Saturday night. Fly-half Rhys Priestland was the star of the show for the Magners League side with six penalties to extend his side's unbeaten run in this season's competition. Priestland's opposite number Dave Walder missed four of his five attempts at goal meaning that despite two fine tries by Tom Varndell, Wasps' hopes of progressing in this tournament were dealt a blow.
The Scarlets can guarantee a semi-final place with a bonus-point victory over Cardiff Blues next weekend while there was some good news for Wasps with flanker Joe Worsley making his first appearance since suffering a knee ligament injury on England duty in November. Scarlets hooker Matthew Rees also returned to action to prove his fitness ahead of Wales' Six Nations opener against England at Twickenham next weekend.
Northampton put one foot in the last four with a clinical 20-14 victory over Sale at Edgeley Park on Friday. The Saints are four points clear at the summit of Pool 4 but had to survive a strong fightback from the home side after taking a commanding lead. Chris Mayor's try gave Northampton their desired start, with fly-half Stephen Myler landing a conversion and penalty for a 10-0 lead.
Myler's second penalty was accompanied by a try to Paul Diggin as the Saints looked to pull clear, but Charlie Hodgson and Sisa Koyamaibole both scored tries for the hosts as they launched an encouraging, if unrewarded, late charge.
Centre Billy Twelvetrees celebrated his return to the Leicester side by scoring two tries in their 27-11 victory over Bath at Welford Road. In a game of little quality Bath started the brighter against a Tigers side missing a number of players to international duty. Ryan Davies slotted the opening points with a penalty but the home side were able to finish the half well after a penalty from Sam Vesty and Twelvetrees' first.
The Tigers pack secured a penalty try from a scrum close to the Bath line as they took control of the game. Twelvetrees and Alesana Tuilagi scored late tries to put a gloss on the scoreline, with Tuilagi's last-gasp interception cancelling out Jonny Faamatuainu's consolation from Bath as well as earning the bonus point.
Justin Marshall came back to haunt his former club Leeds as Saracens coasted to a bonus-point 28-5 victory to keep alive their hopes of reaching the semi-finals of the Anglo-Welsh Cup. Brendan Venter's men worked up a 14-0 lead early on after excellent tries from No.8 Ernst Joubert and their brilliant former Springbok hooker Schalk Brits. By the half-hour mark Sarries had another score to confirm their dominance, centre Adam Powell finishing a well worked move. The killer blow came from replacement Marshall, who rounded off a superb team try and sealed the bonus point against the club that he briefly served in 2005-06.
Jason Tovey showed his class after being given a shot at fly-half in the Dragons' 40-19 victory over the Ospreys at Rodney Parade. Tovey shifted from fullback and collected a 25-point haul from seven penalties and two conversions, while Adam Jones and Ashley Smith scored early tries to put the home side in control. Despite their flying start they were unable to register a bonus-point, with Aled Brew's third try coming too late in the day.
The visitors welcomed wing Shane Williams and prop Adam Jones back from Wales duty as they strive for game time, with youngsters Kristian Phillips and Tom Prydie also getting some action. Prydie added two conversions after coming off the bench in a disappointing outing for the Ospreys, Gareth Owen and Barry Davies scoring tries and the referee awarding a penalty try.
On Saturday, Gloucester continued their resurgence with a comfortable 17-5 win over a disappointing Worcester at Kingsholm. A try in each half from fullback Freddie Burns and flanker Akapusi Qera, plus seven points from the boot of fly-half Nicky Robinson, saw the Cherry and Whites to victory, with wing Chris Pennell grabbing a late consolation for the visitors who also lost flanker to a yellow card in the second half.
The game was a low-key affair and lacked the intensity of the Guinness Premiership battle between the sides earlier this month when the clubs had drawn 13-13. This was mirrored by the attendance of a crowd of only 7,192, as opposed to the sell-out for the league encounter. "Despite the win the players are disappointed with their performance," commented Gloucester head coach Bryan Redpath. "However, three months ago we would have lost a game like this so not to play well and win is satisfying."
Proposals to remove promotion and relegation from the Aviva Premiership would be for the good of the game overall, argues John Taylor
Ireland have the world sitting up and taking notice - and rugby's structure in Europe will aid their Rugby World Cup bid, writes John Mitchell
Where does Italy's win over Scotland rank among their successes in the Six Nations? Scrum Sevens investigates
The tone was set early on in Dublin as a more clinical Ireland made England pay. All is not lost, however, argues Phil Vickery