Premiership quality rivals Super Rugby
March 30, 2011
Bath's Butch James tackles Leicester's Ben Youngs during their fierce Premiership clash at The Rec last weekend © Getty Images
The Super Rugby fixture at Twickenham may have stolen the headlines at the weekend but the latest Aviva Premiership games more than held their own.
The media got a little over-excited about the rugby produced by the Crusaders and the Sharks but ESPN viewers were treated to two equally entertaining games on Saturday, with Harlequins sweeping Gloucester aside before Leicester battled past Bath. Both games were brimming with pace and power while the skill levels on show were just as impressive as those displayed by the likes of Dan Carter and Sonny Bill Williams.
The Tigers' victory over Bath was particularly noteworthy as no-one saw that kind of result coming, especially after the way the hosts began that game. They punched a lot of holes in the Leicester defence, which will be a big concern for Matt O'Connor, but the Tigers weathered that storm before taking their chances in attack - something Bath crucially failed to do.
Bath made some bizarre calls in not opting to go for the posts when it seemed sensible, opting instead for the corner and a lineout during a frenetic opeing period. If you are able to chip away at a team's lead it can have a significant psychological impact and if there is one team in the Premiership that practices defending driving lineouts it is Leicester.
Anthony Allen's try was probably the pick of the bunch at the Rec although I don't think the Bath coaching team will see it that way as there was some pretty lacklustre defending. Let's not take too much away from a superb individual score, though.
Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs was exceptional throughout and his return to form not only underlines his status as quality player but illustrates what a fantastic attitude he has. He was the first hold his hand up and say he didn't play well for England against Ireland in their Grand Slam loss, which is a credit to him. Some players, particularly younger ones, will struggle if they have their confidence knocked out of them, like Mathew Tait or Ollie Smith have done in the past. That is why it is great to see Youngs shrugging off that setback and putting in a very assured performance.
Thomas Waldrom had a quiet game by his standards but I don't think that will do his international chances with England any harm. He has certainly been the best No.8 in the Premiership this year despite some pretty hot competition in the form of Saracens' Ernst Joubert and Quins' Nick Easter.
The fact that he leads the stats for metres gained is incredible, especially when you consider the rest of the guys on that list are fullbacks who see so much of the ball and have so much ground between them and the defenders to exploit. He may get a bit of stick for his physique but his work rate is superb and he has a good brain, so I certainly think there is room for him in Martin Johnson's squad.
I attracted a bit of attention for calling Bath fly-half Butch James an idiot during our coverage of the game, but I assure you it was not vitriolic and my judgement was not based on that one match. He often appears to be trying to take the guy's head off when going for a tackle and I think if we was a No.8 or a forward he would have been sent off by now. It's a shame because when he slips into that type of game it detracts from what a good player he is, and how influential he can be for Bath.
The announcement that Bath head coach Steve Meehan will be moving on at the end of the season is no great surprise. I think the writing may have been on the wall when Ian McGeechan's role was redefined as director of rugby but the result at the weekend may have sped up the announcement. Unless you are exceptionally gifted as a coach, like Sir Alex Ferguson, it is very difficult to continually have an impact across a long period of time. Players get used to your methods and relationships can go stale, so perhaps a move will be good for him and the club.
Harlequins were sensational against Gloucester and the challenge for them now is to back that performance up. If they can play like that against Leicester this weekend there is no reason they shouldn't win that game. If they do, they are suddenly marching back up the table. It was last-chance saloon for them against Gloucester and with games running out it will be the same again when the Tigers visit the Stoop. Gloucester looked a little hungover - not in the literal sense in - but in their general play. They appeared lethargic, with players reacting slowly and walking back into the defensive line. With Quins in the mood to play they were always going to come off second best.
Quins fullback Mike Brown was in fantastic form again and England will have to start looking at him again if he continues to produce. He hasn't been part of the international set-up since being involved in the off-the-field problems that marred the 2008 tour to New Zealand, but he appears to have matured and deserves another shot. If Waldrom was my pick for the best No.8 of the season, then Brown would get my vote at fullback.
Northampton are another side on the up and will be delighted to have dug themselves out of a hole with a big win against Wasps. There had been a lot of noises around the team about the cost of losing their international stars during the Six Nations but I don't actually think that was the problem. It was an easy excuse when they started losing.
They were struggling for confidence and some of the players who were stand-out performers at the beginning of the year, like Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga'uiha, were no longer having the impact they had. Some people were questioning their fitness while others suggested they had done too much training. Either way they are now back and very much in the running.
I don't think the same can be said for London Irish, despite their morale-boosting win against Exeter. They aren't as mentally strong as they were a couple of seasons ago and while I am loath to write them off, I don't think a home win against the Chiefs is going to be the kick-start they need.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN's coverage of the Aviva Premiership
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